The Grass Is Singing, first published in 1950, was an international success. The story focuses on Mary Turner, the wife of a farmer, who is found murdered on the porch of her home. After her body is found, we are taken back to her younger days and slowly discover what happened to her. The background, location of this story is set in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in South Africa which has been drawn from Doris Lessing’s own childhood spent there. Her first hand knowledge of living on a farm in South Africa shines through in this book.
The land, the characters, the farming are all vividly described. Both of her parents were British: her father, who had been crippled in World War I, was a clerk in the Imperial Bank of Persia; her mother had been a nurse. In 1925, lured by the promise of getting rich through maize farming, the family moved to the British colony in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
Doris’s mother adapted to the rough life in the settlement, energetically trying to reproduce what was, in her view, a civilized, Edwardian life among savages; but her father did not, and the thousand-odd acres of bush he had bought failed to yield the promised wealth. Similar sequences are presented in the book. Doris Lessing was born Doris May Tayler in Persia (now Iran) on October 22, 1919.
She is a great female British writer and in October 2007, became the eleventh woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in its 106-year history, and its oldest recipient ever.
Lessing has written many novels, short stories and tales, drama, poetry and comics of which novels like The Grass Is Singing, The Golden Notebook are the most popular and her works continue to be reprinted. Lessing realized that she had quite an amazing life but didn’t know how to attack it when she started writing a book. She read a newspaper cutting about a white mistress murdered by her black cook, none knows why and he is waiting to be hanged. However, Doris knew perfectly well why he had committed this crime because of her upbringing. For example, there was a lady gossiped about in her neighborhood that she allowed her cook-boy to button up the back of her dress and brush her hair. It is appalling and awful, she says. It was a violation of the white behavior.
But she didn’t behave like a white mistress. She had treated him like a friend and then started treating him like a servant. They were treated abominably. It was said that the white mistresses didn’t know how to treat their servants and obviously it was a sex thing. In African culture, for women to tell a man what to do was impossible. Yet, all these houses had men-servants and the white mistresses spoke to them in high, harassed, angry voice. They couldn’t talk to them like people. The author chooses to start this novel by the end. It begins with a brief newspaper clipping, suggesting the murder of Mary Turner under the headline ‘Murder Mystery’. However, it certainly is not a murder mystery as we are told the suspect has confessed the crime and there is no serious effort to unravel the crime. It is not who but why behind the murder. Lessing’s purpose is quite different. She wants to establish an end point in order to examine the extremely flawed society in which it occurs.
The author has given the reader a place, an event and a social problem all before her narrative begins. Lessing wrote two books, one of them at long-hand after returning home to the farm. The other one, in which she made fun of the white culture, was mannered. This helped her to write about the white culture in Southern Rhodesia in ‘The Grass Is Singing’. According to Ruth Whittaker, one of the readers of Lessing’s works, this novel is “an extraordinary first novel in its assured treatment of its unusual subject matter… Doris Lessing questions the entire values of the Rhodesian white colonial society.” The novel reflects its author’s disapproval of sexual and political prejudices and colonialism in the Southern African setting through the life of Mary Turner and a fatal relationship with their black servant.
On the surface, it seems a psychological and personal portrayal of a female protagonist from childhood to death but seen as a whole, it is the political exposure of the futility and fragility of the patriarchal and colonial society upon which the masculinity of imperialism has sustained itself. The whole novel can be seen as Mary’s struggle towards individuation to preserve her authenticity and sense of self but it fails because of the psychological and the political forces which furnish her little insight and threaten to crush her. I attempt to show how Lessing portrays Mary’s subjectivity as shaped and entangles within the ideological triangle of class, gender and race; and how the same sexual and ideological factors, rooted in family and culture, causes failure in Mary’s achieving her own sense of self and dooms her to death.
Mary is fragmented between two contradictory statuses: on one hand she longs to be a subject of her life, to live in a way she desires, and on the other hand she unconsciously performs a role as an object of the white oppressive structure of a colonial society which extracts meaning of her personal self and imposes its values forcing, the individual to yield to the good of the collective. Mary’s subjectivity and behavioral pattern are shaped by the cross-hatched intersection of class, gender and race through the operation of sexual and political colonialism in the context of imperialism.
The early sketch of Mary’s characterization entails a subjectivity negotiating between gender and class positions. Mary’s early childhood is shaped under the influence of an oppressive father who wastes his money on drinks while his family lives in misery and poverty. Her mother, “a tall scrawny woman” who “made a confidante of Mary early…and used to cry over her sewing and Mary comforted her miserably”, is her first model of gender role: a passive and helpless woman, dominated by the overwhelming masculine patterns, nonetheless the complying of victim of poverty.
Besides sharing the pains of poverty and living in “a little house that was like a small wooden box on slits” and the twelve month quarrel of her parents over money, Mary has been the witness of their sexuality and her mother’s body in the hands of a man who was simply not present for her. All her life, Mary tries to forget these memories but in fact she has just suppressed them with the fear of sexuality which comes up later nightmarishingly in her dreams. By seeing her mother as a feminine victim of a miserable marriage, she internalizes a negative image of feminity in the form of sexual repression, inheriting her mother’s arid feminism.
The narrator exposes that the Turners’ failure at farming and their poverty and reclusiveness have made them disliked in the district. The Turners’ primitive condition of life is irritating for other white settlers because they do not like the natives to see themselves live in the same manner as the whites, which would destroy that spirit de corps “which is the first rule of South African society”. This anxiety is more political than economic based on the opposition of white/black. ln this way, another complex clash of value system, besides gender and class, is added to the narrative structure of the novel and that is the matter of race. Colonialism is based on the white men’s spirit of venture for missionary and farm life through their settlement in the third world countries and harvesting their resources by establishing the imperial authority over the native people. The white men, by enslaving the native men on the lands they have in fact stolen from them and feminizing some others in their house chores, preserve their own position as masters in the center and the natives as “Others” in the margin.
They use race and gender, two inseparable qualifiers, to access their privilege of power in the imperial hierarchy and legitimize their actions. Gender and race are components of this hierarchy by which the white settlers attempt to establish their own rules and security in the alien land. The binary of white/black reminds us of race difference which itself is linked and dependent on other differences, more importantly gender. White women are objectified as unattainable property of white men through stereotyping the native men as violent, savage and sexually threatening. These double strategies both take the individuality from white women and colonize them as sexual objects always in danger and in need of the heroic protection of their white men and help the white men overcome their fear and jealousy for the superior sexual potency of the black men.
The dominant White culture projects “all of those qualities and characteristics which it most fears and hates within itself” on the natives which creates for the subordinate group “a wholly negative cultural identity”. Similarly Jan Mohamed notes that: “the native is cast as no more than a recipient of the negative elements of the self that the European projects onto him”. The patriarchal myth of white woman as white man‘s property and symbol of his power and the “forbidden fruit” for black man expels women from subjective roles by imposing on them the view that they are unable to handle the black laborers. Therefore the white women are convinced that they cannot share power with the white men especially in the farm life which is the current context of masculinity, tough work, action: challenge beyond domesticity.
So they are confined in the domestic sphere and considered shiftless. Charlie Slatter, the most successful and powerful farmer of the district in this novel, makes a joke of it: “Needs a man to deal with niggers. Niggers don‘t understand women giving them orders. They keep their own women in their right places”. In such colonial discourse, the black natives, employed whether as domestic servants in feminine sphere or as impoverished agricultural workers, are represented as wild, violent, potential rapists, and threatening the white women who need the white men‘s protection against the natives. In this way, white patriarchy makes a heroic scenario for itself. During the first scene in which Moses touches Mary, she is alarmed at the sensation and feels certain that it is a prelude to rape. Instead, he pushes her gently on the bed, and covers her feet with her nightgown. Even in the later scene in which Moses is caught by the Englishman in a moment of scandalously inappropriate contact with Mary, he is caught pulling a dress over her head with “indulgent uxoriousness”.
The insinuations of tenderness, indeed romance between Moses and Mary appear in this moment to offer a radical alternative to the prototypical script of rape applied to all relationships between white women and black men during the apartheid era. Any doubt as to Moses’s fundamentally violent nature is also eradicated in the final scenes in which he returns to batter Mary to death. In the sexual politics of the colonial myth, white women are victims as the native subjects are in the racial politics. A woman who is privileged racially can simultaneously experience gender limitations and class difference within her own category, like in the case of Mary Turner. Mary fails to preserve her individuality because she is not able to resist the strong master narratives of the false colonial and patriarchal myth of superiority of her culture through the discourse of gender and race which place her firmly in a predetermined position.
Lessing has described the feelings of the characters, especially of Mary profoundly. The description of Mary, her wishes and her behavior, is done in a rather psychological way proving Mary Turner’s life tragic. She is effectively forced into marriage by the weight of social expectations and traditions. She never loves her husband, but she is, at least initially, glad to have one, as it makes her “normal”. From the moment she marries, she is engaged in a losing battle to hold on to her own identity and survive this marriage. We can distinguish Mary as a victim of marginalization. This is mainly because her needs for development are not considered by her husband and she plays no role in influencing decisions for their house. Since she is bewildered by Dick’s house which consists of a corrugated iron roof, zinc bath, skins of animals on red brick floor – all old and badly maintained, with her own saved money Mary brings flowered materials and cushions to make curtains, a little linen, crockery and some dress lengths (61). Further she asks Dick for ceilings over corrugated iron roof but he refuses saying that it would cost too much and they may have it done next year if they do well (63).
Dick is now instead investing in other things like setting up a grocery store, growing maize, harvesting beehives, pigs, turkeys, etc. that he thinks would help them grow rich less realizing his wife felt sick with the heat when she stayed in the house under the iron roof. Unfortunately, Dick keeps failing at every attempt of his to improve their condition. Mary is, all the time, counting money wasted on Dick’s various attempts at different jobs which could have improved the condition of their house. Here, Dick has never taken into account Mary’s guidance and excluded her from making or influencing his decisions before going on with these jobs. We can, hence, distinguish Mary as a victim of marginalization, the marginalized.
Perhaps Mary’s tragedy is all the deeper on account of the fact that she never realizes that the native Africans who must work the farms of the white settlers are just as much tragic victims as she is. The natives are deprived of their own land and looked down with contempt. The black native men are made to serve the white colonies. Much of the discourse around the British colonies in postmodernism is centered on the exploitation of the resources and the people from the colonies, leading to a feeling of racial superiority on the part of the colonizer. This deep-seated racism is clearly evident in Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing as none of the white colonials are sympathetic or even see the Zimbabweans as fully human.
Mary too treats all her house boys dreadfully; she despises their carelessness, their laziness, and their failure to pander adequately to her. At one moment, when she replaces her sick husband in the fields, she is thoroughly brutal with the black farm hands. However, I feel that Lessing’s novel is less concerned about showing the misery felt by the Zimbabweans for the hand they were dealt by the colonial Empire and more about showing the toll colonialism has on those who do not belong there. What Lessing is really showing is how damaging the colonial psyche can be when one is not equipped for it. One is left with a sense that when prejudice and false ideas generated by self-interest become institutionalized, they cloud the perception of people so thoroughly that even the victims are capable of victimizing others.
In spite of its formulaic narrative, The Grass Is Singing has nonetheless been read as a progressive critique of “injustice, racism, and sexual hypocrisy,” in part because of its open investigation of gender and sexuality. It is through Mary’s predicaments as a woman and in particular as a member of the working class that The Grass Is Singing opens up potentially radical grounds for sympathy. At first glance, Mary’s stereotypical obsession with domesticity combined with scorn for all her black servants recalls Ronald Hyam’s caricature of white women in the colonies as “[m]oping and sickly, narrowly intolerant, vindictive to the locals, despotic and abusive to their servants”. For some, however, Mary’s plight is a more realistic and “tragic example of how hardship and isolation can destroy even the most independent of women” (Fishburn 2).
Indeed, her intolerance for her black servants becomes more complex when read as a displaced resistance against the patriarchal norms of her society. Mary’s belligerence is a clear projection of her anger against an unsatisfactory marriage and the oppressive, gendered social norms that led to its existence. Dick’s attitude towards her is never hostile or abusive, but she persistently resents him for things that she knows he is not able to help, such as his string of financial failures, the unbearable poverty, and the virtual absence of any company or entertainment at the farm. Even among other white people, such as the nearby Slatter family, Mary feels too much pride and humiliation to express the full depths of her loneliness and despair. It is only in the presence of her black servants that she feels able to release the full-blown rage and intolerance that have clearly erupted from elsewhere.
Various critics have expressed confusion over why the dialectic must necessarily be resolved by Moses’s murder of Mary. A reviewer in The Doris Lessing Newsletter asked, “Why does Moses murder Mary?” The TLS queried, “Why does he feel he has to kill her?” and The Listener demanded, “Is this the only possible outcome?” (11) Lessing leaves Moses’s inner states shrouded in mystery: after his act of murder, “what thoughts of regret, or pity, or perhaps even wounded human affection were compounded with the satisfaction of his completed revenge, it is impossible to say” (206). Equally cryptic is the fact that Mary herself becomes complicit in her own murder, to the extent that she runs toward Moses, sure of the fact that he should kill her. This desire to die is prefaced by an unbearable, tragicomic sense of her South African history.
Shortly before her death, Mary peruses volumes of books celebrating the legacy of Cecil Rhodes, and she laughs long and bitterly, thinking absent-mindedly to herself, “But the young man [Moses] would save her” (199). As she lies down to sleep on the night of the murder, she “turned her face into the darkness of the pillows, but her eyes were alive with light, and against the light she saw a dark, waiting shape. … Propelled by fear, but also by knowledge, she rose out of bed, not making a sound” (203). As Mary makes her way onto the veranda, “the trees stood still and waited” until finally Moses appears, and “at the sight of him, her emotions unexpectedly shifted, to create in her an extraordinary feeling of guilt, but towards him, to whom she had been disloyal, and at the bidding of the Englishman” (204). As she opens her mouth to apologize, Moses clasps one hand over her mouth to silence her and with the other hacks her head with a blunt instrument. “And then the bush avenged itself: that was her last thought”. Mary’s cognizance of the murder as one compounded by her own guilt and by vengeance, rather than unwarranted aggression, shows a strange ability to forgive her own murderer even as he performs the act that she knows he is compelled to do.
Charles Sarvan argues that Mary’s death has religious and apocalyptic overtones in that she decides “to offer herself as a sacrifice which will both atone for past crimes and hasten the coming of the new order”. Well if it came down to forensics it would be clear that the killer was Moses. But Mary Turner was long gone before Moses took a machete to her. This begs the question then of what really killed Mary Turner? In my opinion, I would argue that the real killer was the African outback. Lessing’s protagonist Mary spent her whole life in the African colony, and yet she never seems to fully belong. She spends the first half of her life in the town where she is blissfully and naively happy. Yet, even in the town Mary remains an outsider. Mary belongs to an English community and therefore must conform to English standards for women. She loves England (despite never having been there) so she performs her civic duty and jumps into a marriage with a poor farmer living deep in the African outback. A marriage in town is nothing like a marriage in the country and Mary quickly realizes it.
She is uprooted from the life she immensely enjoyed in town and is planted into a decrepit farm house that is falling apart around her. The misery she feels about her living conditions is no match for the true conditions of Africa she sees for the first time. In the outback, Mary is confronted with the reality of colonialism- the natives- and she can not mentally or physically stand it. When the natives are far away working for Dick, Mary can at least barely tolerate living on the farm. However, when confronted with the natives in her home she unravels. In the African outback this idea of British civilization falls to pieces because as Sarah De Mal says in her article “Doris Lessing, Feminism, and the Representation of Zimbabwe, “the omniscient narrator describes how the main protagonist feels displaced within colonial culture since her desires and dreams are at odds with the prevailing values and rules of this culture” (De Mal 36).
What Mary dreams of is a life in town, away from the natives working as a typist in an ordinary office living with other white colonists. Her reality is far removed from this as she is living with the true colonials whom she resents and despises as being the “other”. And when this “other” characterized by Moses confronts her and invades her space, her mind and her body deteriorates rapidly until she resembles merely a shell of a human being. Moses is a direct confrontation of the fantasy Mary has. She envisions herself as an English rose whose purity must not be tainted by the black man. Yet when Moses physically touches her and confronts her about her attitude towards him, Mary falls apart.
By these two acts, Moses has killed her fantasy by forcing her to see him as a human being. Mary can no longer pretend she has superiority over him as a white woman. It is this realization that kills her for after she submits the Moses’ humanity she loses all sanity. Moses only finished the process by ending her physical life. I believe all in all Moses was the end of Mary. However, it was not his machete that killed her. What killed her was his which is the reality of the colony and the people who lived there. Her fantasy of being a true and righteous English woman could not hold up against the vastness of Africa and this reality broke her spirit and left her as empty as she had envisioned the African outback to be.
Mary Turner is not able to grasp her own identity because her identity is compounded by the overpowering colonial and gender narratives in which she is knit. The colonial ruling power dictates that she as an individual has to behave according to the terms imposed by her imperial identity. Even her disintegration must be silenced because it threatens the whole authority of the dominant category. Mary fails in her journey of self-quest but she is the heroine of this novel because she reverses the social, racial and cultural orders of her society though unconsciously. As in Katherine Fishburn‘s words, she is as an “accidental rebel” who at least dissolves the dichotomous orders and consequently reveals for the reader the fear and falsity of the white civilization whose indictment is the division between privileged white and the dispossessed black. (Fishburn 4) Sima Aghazadeh quotes, “by her death, Mary paves the way for the native (Africa/Moses) to take a subjective action”.
She cannot guarantee her own identity since she does not have any antidote to loneliness, poverty and gender limitations, but she foreshadows a change in Imperial attitudes. The Grass is Singing, through its circular narration from a collective perspective of Mary’s murder to an individual account of her personal life, completes an indictment of its central character’s life in the center of a closed white colonial society in southern Africa in which the linked discourses of class, race, and gender bring her into exclusion, isolation, break down, and finally to death. Mary’s failure of individuation is the failure of patriarchy and colonial culture to satisfy its female member to find fulfillment within this status quo.