Chaos and Order from the Mind of Nadine Gordimer
Intro | Page Two | Page Three | Page Four | Page Five | Page Six | Works Cited
      Novel as Warning
The cult of chaos allows us to move from understanding the implications of a microscopic word to a telescopic focus on the overall mission of Gordimer's novel.  Rowland Smith views the tale as admonishment: "In its very daring ­ to create the almost unimaginable crumbling of white mastery ­- July's People could be seen as primarily prophetic and admonitory, its warning incorporated at every stage in the depiction of the alien roles thrust on its white protagonists..." (94). In 1981, Gordimer played visionary, anticipating "heat-guided missiles" attacking airplanes and Red Cross appeals for additional blood supplies (JP 9). But with the arrogance of our historical advantage, we know her scenario proved only fiction. Nelson Mandela won the presidency in the first free election of 1994. Certainly violence served as foreplay but white conciliation prevented full force revolution. I wonder, did Gordimer simply predict incorrectly? Or did her hypothetical nightmare alter the flow of history? 
Consider the scientific paradigm of sensitivity to initial conditions. To use a classic example from meteorology, a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can theoretically lead to a hurricane in North Dakota by causing molecular fluctuations in weather patterns. Miniscule variations in input radically impact outcomes. So perhaps the publication of July's People, the secretive passing of bedtime reading from one conservative white hand to another, caused a quiet murmuring about alternate futures. Perhaps one Pretoria bureaucrat after another read of Maureen's plight, became incrementally less supportive of apartheid, and thus ­- through exponential ramifications -­ changed the future. 
      Disequilibrium of Time and Place
In order to change the attitudes of the ruling party, Gordimer must first shatter the illusions of her characters. Smith asserts: "To relegate to the past all the trappings of white invulnerability, to imagine them irretrievably destroyed, could be seen as the central intention of the novel" (94). Gordimer pries the Smales out from what Eugene Goodheart describes as "a fortress mentality" in "an enclave outside the howling distress of a black majority" (114-115). From the opening scene, we observe July's polite service of "pink glass cups of tea" delivered to a "mud hut roofed with thatch" as stark contrast to the romanticized image of dark servants in full livery approaching the master bedroom with "hands smelling of Lifebuoy soap" (JP 1-2). Our disorientation as readers shadows Maureen's journey "far beyond the norm" (JP 3). Gordimer shoves her characters from privileged lives into filth and insects and dung floors, a drastic measure justified by the stupor of white liberalism. 
Disequilibrium first shatters the Smales sense of time. Upon arriving in their squalid refuge, Bam and Maureen attempt discussing how long their food rations will last and how long the children can be protected from infected water suplies. But the couple soon realize that "there lay between them and all such questions the unanswerable: they were lucky to be alive" (14). Appointment books, the alphabetical roladex, the weekly delivery of bottled water, and all the secure regularity of privileged existence mean nothing in the black village. How quickly Maureen loses her internal clock. Without man-made chimes to keep her synchronized, Maureen stands in July's hut "not knowing where she was, in time, in the order of a day as she had always known it" (JP 17). In a provocative parallel, Gordimer describes losing her sense of time as she draws fragments of experience together to compose a story: "Time means nothing in that part of the mind where this takes place; something that happened ten years ago on the other side of the world coexists with something observed yesterday"  (Ross 38). Although Gordimer welcomes the chronological disruption for the sake of creativity, she deliberately and brutally strips her characters' lives bare until only survival matters. While the ability to track time by minutes and hours disintegrates, the one remaining graspable fact ­- we are alive  -­ offers the semblance of order. Life becomes the guiding force, the organizing principle, and each breath reinforces an internal, systematic order of the body. Maureen boils the water and scours her anus in a zinc bath because the only order she can maintain is the integrity of the human corpus. 
Just as chaos disrupts the sense of time, so too it overwhelms sense of place. After July first disappears in the precious bakkie, Maureen stares into the wild expanse of the bush, "her scale pathetic, a cat at a mouse-hole, before that immensity" (JP 43). Away from the architecture designed by men like Bam to elevate the human frame into godlike dimension, the Smales lose all rank and power against the darkness of the landscape. When Maureen stands alone at night outside her borrowed hut, even "the moon and stars had been stifled" and the dense bush "that hid everything was itself hidden" (JP 47). And yet the dark void also holds the prospects for a new order. 
Author: Elizabeth Howell Brunner
Main Web Site: