Speech in July's People

W. Glasgow Phillips '92

To understand some of the finer nuances of Nadine Gordimer's July's People, one must direct his or her scrutiny to the matter of the power of speech. To whom is it given, and to what purpose? Language and communication are given considerable attention in the text. The following passage is crucial in establishing Maureen's relationship to July through language:

--The women have their work. They must do it. This is their place, we are always living here and they are doing all things, all things how it must be. You don't need work for them in their place.--

When she didn't understand him it was her practice to give some noncommital sign or sound, counting on avoiding the wrong response by waiting to read back his meaning from the context of what he said next. (Despite his praise of Bam -- was it not given to wound her rather than to exalt Bam? -- Bam did not have this skill and often irritated him by a quick answer that made it clear, out of sheer misunderstanding, the black man's English was too poor to speak his mind.) He might mean "place" in the sense of role, or might be implying that she must remember she had no claim to the earth -- "place as territory -- she scratched over for edible weeds to counter vitamin deficiency and constipation in her children. She didn't wait to find out. She spoke with the sudden changed tone of one who has made a discovery of her own and is about to act on it. --I like to be with the other women sometimes. And there are the children, too. We manage to talk a little bit. I've found out Martha does understand -- a little Afrikaans, not English. It's just that she's shy to try. --

The pleasant smile of her old position; at the same time using his wife's name with the familiarity of women for one another. (p. 97)

One argument that can be plausibly posited is that Gordimer, by depriving July and the the other indigenous people in the book of the power of clear speech, falls prey to subconscious racist tendencies. She is unable to properly imagine the thoughts and feelings of indigenous Africans, and because of that lack in her empathetic or imaginative abilities, or (God forbid!) an improper alignment in her political sensibilities, she glosses over the internal mechanisms of those characters through most of the text. They are presented (with a few exceptions) to the reader through the perspectives of Bam and Maureen, the white couple in the novel. One African novelist, Nurredin Farrah (Brown's visiting writer-in-residence for the fall of '91), holds that a novelist owes his or her characters equal attention, just as a parent owes each of his or her children equal attention. Mr. Farrah exhibits such a commitment in his own fiction. By his standards, Gordimer fails to fulfill her obligations to her characters in July's People, because she grants the Smales internal lives, and does not grant internal lives to her black characters.

The opposing argument states that a novelist has no obligation to give his or her characters equal internal lives on the page. This argument makes much more sense in literary terms, though it might seem to violate the currently held notion that giving a white character a stronger voice than a black character indicates racist tendencies, even in the most "liberal" of writers. First of all, a novel is (I'm going out on a limb here . . . ) first a literary or artistic endeavor, and then a political endeavor. A novelist has no obligation to anyone. Second, more palatable, and certainly more relevant here, is the fact that July's People is a perfect example of how point of view, as a literary device, can be artfully employed. By creating the Smales, liberal whites in a post-revolutionary South Africa, as her principal characters, Gordimer introduces the reader to forms of white hypocrisy that she could not illustrate through a black character's point of view. Passages such as the one above show how whites, through their power over the medium of communication between themselves and blacks, oppress.

Gordimer OV July's People