The Grass is Singing
...being the book that exposed the poverty of white rule in Africa
THOU SHALT NOT let your fellow whites sink lower than a certain point: because if you do, the nigger will see he is as good as you are.
This, ‘the first law of white South Africa’, is Doris Lessing’s political benchmark in her agonising story of a poor white farming couple. At its simplest The Grass is Singing is the story of Dick Turner, a hapless white farmer, and Mary, his pathetic wife, who fail in their struggle to make a life and a living from the merciless land of black Africa. Beaten by the unforgiving soil, sullen native labourers, the fellow whites who despise them and finally by their own desperate incompetence, they are each driven slowly mad.
The Grass is Singing, like all Ms. Lessing’s early novels, is deeply evocative of life among southern Africa’s white settlers. Her own childhood was spent in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She left school at 14 and by the age of 31, when she moved to London, had been twice married and divorced, borne three children and written and destroyed six novels. Her own politics were acutely shaped during World War II by the communist group formed in Rhodesia amongst British servicemen and other exiles:’
The political force of Ms. Lessing’s novel lies in its uncliched exploration of the ideology of white supremacy, whose chief principle is that whites must always close ranks when threatened.
But the novel’s drama explodes from the smouldering confusion of Mary’s repressed emotions. Her mother was wretched, her father drunken, brutal, lecherous. Their deaths free her for the empty gaiety of life in town: a secretary in the day, the sanctuary of a girls’ hostel at night, with endless parties, tennis matches and dances filling her free time. Only when she overhears ‘friends’ ridiculing her ageing girlishness does she decide to find a husband. She meets Dick, the struggling, clumsy, lonely farmer on one of his rare trips into town, and is secretly glad that they cannot afford a honeymoon. She wants only to escape.
In the stifling heat of their tiny brick and tin house, hemmed in by the endlessly encroaching vegetation and remorselessly crushed by their inescapable poverty, Mary goes slowly mad. And here we discover the subtley of the threat to white supremacy. For her terror, and her desire, are focused obsessively on Moses, the last of her ‘houseboys’. Moses is big, powerful and intelligent. But, above all, he is black.
Mary loathes the blacks — hating their insolence, their quiet resentment, their broad muscular bodies, she loses her temper and uses her whip on one of them, ‘magnificently built, with nothing but an old sack tied around his waist’.
This is Moses, as Mary discovers when he is chosen as the new houseboy. By this time Mary’s spirit is already broken. Bitter, lingering pride makes her reject all offers of help, until she sleeps all day, never venturing from the dust-fringed house. She cannot break free of her terror and because of this she is forced, for the first time, into a human relationship with a black. Moses cares for her: his first touch on her shoulder filling her with nausea, but leaving her unable to resist. Ms. Lessing does not explore this passionate black force and all we glimpse of their growing relationship is Moses dressing Mary and brushing her hair. It remains Mary’s secret; part real, part fantasy.
But Mary has looked straight into the eyes of a black and seen a human being.
The Grass is Singing, published very soon after Ms. Lessing’s arrival in London in 1950, attracted immediate literary acclaim — being reprinted seven times within the first five months. But it also offered timely insight into the ‘colour problem’, as black nationalist movements gathered strength across the continent.
Some see this book as a parable of this irresistible black force and the coming overthrow of white oppression. But that is asking too much of it and ignores the taut thread of sexual repression that weaves through the story of racial oppression. It also makes little sense of the ending.
A young farm-manager, brought in temporarily so that Mary and Dick can take a holiday, sees the mind-numbing obsession in which Mary is trapped, however willingly, and dismisses Moses.
In the middle of the night before the couple must leave, with the tin roof cracking as it cools over their head (‘it seemed that a vast black body, like a human spider, was crawling over the roof, trying to get inside’), Mary rises and waits outside on the verandah. She is waiting to die. And Moses comes out of the darkness, a long curving knife lifted above his head, and murders her.
The Grass is Singing
by Doris Lessing (1950)
Granada (pbk) UK: £1.95
Aus: $7.50 / NZ: $7.95