The Grass is Singing, by Doris Lessing

The Grass is Singing

The Grass is Singing is a novel from 1950 set in what’s mostly referred to in the book as South Africa, but I gather is actually over the border in the southern portion of Rhodesia (so “South Africa” is being used to mean the southern part of the continent of Africa, not the country of South Africa). It is mostly about the poisonous race relations and the oppression and extremely limited life prospects of the black Africans, though in its way it has plenty to say about the stunted development of (white) women in that kind of society as well.

According to how South Africa/Rhodesia is presented in the book, the native Africans primarily function as common laborers and farmhands. They are not de jure slaves, but de facto their status is not much above that. They mostly hire themselves out for very low wages, though some are indentured servants of a sort closer to actual slavery.

Everything about the social/political/legal system is slanted to favor the white bosses over the black laborers. For example, although the law limits how much physical brutality employers may inflict on their workers, it is understood that it is all but impossible for a claim of such brutality to be sustained in the legal system. (As happens routinely in other contexts, such as in the contemporary United States, this dichotomy between the written law and reality gives rise to whining from the people on top about how their hands are tied compared to the good old days, along with the more justified complaints of those on the bottom of ill treatment.)

Mary, the protagonist of the book, in some respects apparently overlaps with author Doris Lessing. This allows Lessing to tell her story from the inside so to speak, but it doesn’t result in Mary being an appealing character. If Mary really does represent the author to any significant degree, I guess we have to admire Lessing’s honesty in not sugarcoating her protagonist, as Mary is really quite repellent. At most the fact that she is presented in detail in the context of how people are warped by the evils of social reality makes it easier to excuse her behavior to some degree, and makes her as much a sympathetic victim as a victimizer, but she is certainly an unlikable, highly flawed woman.

In a sense the opening of The Grass is Singing gives away the ending. The first paragraph of the book is from a newspaper article stating that Mary was murdered by her house servant. The servant’s name is Moses, and the book then goes back to trace the story of what brought Mary and Moses together, and how it came to be that he killed her.

Mary came from a fairly poor background (relative to the country’s whites anyway) out in the sticks. Hers was a dysfunctional family of drunks, abusers, and kind of trashy folks in general, which left her with lifelong scars, including an immature, unhealthy, somewhat fearful attitude about men and sex.

She moves to a city, and is able as a single woman to establish a tolerable life for herself. It’s frankly not much of a life, but she’s not aware that much else is possible, and so in her ignorance she’s more or less satisfied with it. She has a steady job doing generic clerical tasks in some generic office, she has a rudimentary social life going out with women who are superficially her friends and men she doesn’t have sex with, and she lives in a kind of rooming house for single young women where as she ages she takes on more the role of a sort of spinster den mother, which seems to suit her fine. Again, it’s not an enviable or particularly happy life, but she doesn’t have the depth or life experience to question it. To her it’s just life.

Then she overhears some of her acquaintances gossiping and laughing about her and about how she’s not the sort to be able to get herself a man and attain the kind of normal life women like them aspire to. She has never had any burning desire for a husband and children—if anything she seems to prefer the company of women, though she’s probably more asexual than budding lesbian—but since she has no particularly strong values or self-image, like many people she simply adopts the morals and attitudes of her peers. So once she becomes aware that they think less of her because she seems the type of old maid office drone destined to die alone, she starts to think less of herself as well.

Though her heart isn’t in it, and she’s really just doing it because of the opinions of others, she commences taking her dating a little more seriously and looking for an opportunity to turn one of her superficial relationships into a marriage.

This happens soon enough with a new suitor named Dick, who is a mostly unsuccessful farmer who has, conveniently enough, reached the stage in his life where he feels it’s time to take a wife.

It’s not exactly a love match. He’s somewhat smitten with her at first, while she seems to have little in the way of feelings for him. He’s kind of awkward and uncertain about how all the dating, courtship, marriage, etc. stuff is supposed to go, and she’s vastly less worldly about such things even than he is.

Apparently the marital sex is rare, as she finds it distasteful at best. She doesn’t want children at first, as she associates having children with being more intimately and permanently connected with him, and worse yet with sex, though at times later in the book as her life, her sanity, and her marriage descend into greater and greater chaos she gets the panicky idea that maybe having children will save her. Dick definitely wants a family, but he keeps putting it off for financial reasons, and perhaps eventually over concern that she’s a nut and not exactly a promising mother for one’s children.

Dick, though a very hard worker, is a failure as a farmer, always scraping to get by at best. In part this is because he’s just not a very efficient, pragmatic person, and in part it’s because he’s an idealist about farming—respecting the land, focused on the long term, etc., while those around him destroy their land to squeeze all the profit they can out of it immediately.

Mary has zero experience or interest in farming. She eventually, reluctantly, participates in it to a limited extent, such as when Dick is sick. In certain practical respects she finds she’s actually better than him at it, though for various reasons including her abysmal people skills and her emotional instability I doubt they’d do much better if she were in charge.

All the whites in the book are racists. It is just taken for granted that blacks are inferior and only suited for brute labor. (Actually they’re routinely denigrated for that too. The whites are appalled that the blacks don’t have a better work ethic, which is comical at a certain level, since how much of a sucker would you have to be as a pseudo-slave with no realistic hope of advancement to work harder than the minimum you can get away with?) Interaction between the races is kept to a strict minimum, and where it is necessary—such as in a work context—it is strictly hierarchical. The whites strain every muscle to avoid any acknowledgement that the blacks could be their equal, or really that they’re even human.

I suppose Dick, who overall is a slightly more sympathetic character than Mary, is at the milder end of the racism spectrum. He’s not particularly brutal toward his black workers, and he recognizes that a certain flexibility with them is necessary for the stability of his home and farm, a willingness to bend some rules, look the other way here and there, etc.

Mary had far less experience with blacks before coming to the farm. Her attitudes if anything are even harsher than Dick’s. He treats the blacks more or less like livestock—they certainly aren’t human, but they serve a purpose and there’s generally no reason to hate them or be gratuitously cruel to them. Mary has a greater contempt, distrust, and at times fear of them. There’s even less familiarity, an even greater social distance. She is offended by the very notion of bending the rules in their favor for pragmatic reasons. (In terms of people rather than things, she is even more impractical than Dick.)

Another version of racism is represented by the character Tony. Dick and Mary are being pushed off the land by a corrupt neighbor, supposedly temporarily though everyone knows it’s permanent, and Tony is hired as a sort of assistant to them who will then run the farm once they leave.

Tony is the disapproving European liberal. He’s young, educated, and has just arrived in the country to seek his fortune. He only knows of—and is offended by—the racial situation from books and newspapers and such. He hasn’t yet been broken in, hasn’t learned “how things are done” in this country and why they must be done this way.

Though in the abstract he doesn’t share the racist beliefs of his new countrymen, and doesn’t think of himself as a racist, one of the most striking scenes in the book is when he comes upon evidence of interracial sex and is described as reacting with the instinctive loathing of encountering bestiality, showing that at a gut level even the white liberals can’t help but see blacks as subhuman.

Mary is miserable and a little crazy from early on in the marriage, and gradually gets more miserable and more crazy as time goes on.

In a particularly sad section, she does at one point make a final effort to return to the “happiness” (which frankly wasn’t very happy at all, except compared to her present lot) of her past in the city. She runs away from the farm, leaving Dick, and attempts to reestablish her old life.

Not surprisingly, her old job is not waiting for her, and the company has no interest in finding something else for her. She discovers that her old lodgings for young single women doesn’t accept middle-aged married women. In general nothing works out, and having learned that “you can’t go home again” Mary returns to the farm and her marriage, defeated.

Most of the day while Dick is off in the distant fields Mary is home in the farm house, usually with one house servant. She goes through a number of them, much to Dick’s chagrin, since she always clashes with them for no legitimate reason and ends up insisting they be fired, if they haven’t already quit.

One of the rare days when she takes over for Dick because he’s sick in bed with malaria, she is driven to striking one of the black field hands with a whip across the face. (He had stopped working momentarily to get a drink of water, and when he attempted to explain himself to her, she couldn’t understand his native language and then was infuriated that he would attempt to speak to her in English—which doesn’t leave a lot of options.)

This is Moses. Later he takes his turn as her house servant. He lasts longer than the others, in part because Dick has made it clear that this constant dismissal of servants cannot go on, as it is becoming impossible to get any more workers.

Moses has at least a rudimentary education, having gone to a missionary school run by liberal whites. (One of the characters remarks that this is a waste at best, and there’s a sense in which that’s true. It’s not like education is a way out of semi-slavery in that society. He can’t educate himself out of his skin color, so missionary schools for blacks are a bit like do-gooders in Saudi Arabia providing driver’s ed classes for women. This is a situation where what’s needed is not so much assistance to individuals to improve themselves so that they can advance—they are largely blocked from doing that—but a wholesale change in society itself.) So though he’s a large, and to Mary intimidating, young man, he’s also noticeably more thoughtful and cultured in certain respects than most of the black characters in the book.

The rapidly deteriorating Mary can’t quite decide what to make of Moses or her feelings toward him. At times Moses shows her the sort of kindness you’d only expect from, you know, a human being, which confuses her all the more.

Eventually their complex relationship becomes, it is implied, sexual. When evidence of this gets out, it’s interesting how the white community reacts.

They’ve never liked her, nor are they that crazy about Dick for that matter, and generally a chance to gossip about someone like her and tear her down would be irresistible. But this turns out to be a taboo subject. Attacking her, or in any way even acknowledging that such a thing as interracial sex can happen, is not allowed. The principle of “we can never admit that any white person could sink that low” turns out to be stronger than the need to feel superior to someone they don’t like and revel in her flaws and scandals.

The ending—which, again, was already revealed at the beginning of the book—is highly obscure. Up until that point the novel is realistic in style, but then it gets all spooky and poetic.

Mary falls into a worse than ever depression and madness at the realization that they’re losing the farm. I’m not clear why. She has wanted to get away from the farm throughout the whole marriage. Maybe leaving as broke failures isn’t her first choice as to how to get away, but at least now there’s a chance she or they can have some kind of life in the city more like what she’s always wanted. Is the implication that she’s somehow in love with Moses or otherwise dependent on him and suffers a breakdown at the realization she’ll be parted from him?

She apparently intuits that Moses is going to kill her, and she accepts it and perhaps welcomes it in a bizarre almost ritualistic way. But exactly what happens, and especially what people’s motivations are, is to me, as I say, obscure.

My take is that Lessing departed from what the style of the novel had been up until then in order to throw herself wholly into symbolism. Maybe she had various metaphorical things she wanted to say about race relations in South Africa, where things were headed and why, etc., and if that meant sacrificing the comprehensibility of the story as a story then so be it.

The whole flashback that constitutes the book had supposedly been in large part to better understand why the murder happened, but that is never answered clearly. I don’t mean in the symbolic sense—that the situation in South Africa is destined to end in violence, that the whites at some level realize this and dread it, etc.—but just in the story itself. Why did Moses kill her?

Part of the problem is—and I would think this stylistic point is intentional on Lessing’s part to show how little understanding the whites have of the blacks—that while we are taken inside the major white characters such as Mary and Dick and told what they are thinking and feeling, with the black characters there’s virtually nothing of that kind revealed. The black characters remain opaque; there’s just their external behavior and words, and perhaps how the white people interpret that.

A rare exception is that there’s one tiny little mention at the very end that with the murder Moses had achieved his “revenge.” This isn’t explained or elaborated on.

Independent of that, if I had to guess I maybe would have said that Moses saw what a miserable and hopeless life she had, how she had no future really, and how perhaps she lacked the courage to commit suicide, and so caring for her he decided to put her out of her misery. Since he then waits passively to be arrested and executed rather than attempting to get away, you could say further that he sees his situation as different in its specifics from hers, but very much the same in its socially-imposed limits and hopelessness, and so really he’s putting them both out of their misery.

Or I suppose it could be the classic Romeo and Juliet thing of being so much in love that they prefer death to being separated, though I don’t get that feeling so much from it.

But if we’re to take that “revenge” mention as the true indication of motive, apparently the idea is that after the blow with the whip in the face, he spent the rest of the book patiently biding his time until he could repay her.

Of course he had ample opportunity to kill her long, long before he did, but maybe the idea is that killing her was only part of the revenge, that he needed to manipulate the situation over months and years in order to insinuate himself into her life and her emotions so that she would first sacrifice herself to him sexually, and perhaps even fall in love with him, and then he could kill her. Which would imply that all the little ways that he was kind to her and made a human connection with her were just part of a long term ruse.

I don’t know. The way the ending is left open invites speculation like that, though again I wonder if that’s just a byproduct of The Grass is Singing turning more metaphorical and less literal toward the end.

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