BOOK REPORT: The Grass is Singing | Doris Lessing

Published in 1950, The Grass is Singing is the first novel Persian-born British author Doris Lessing. The book focuses on the tragic fate of the protagonist—Mary, a white Rhodesian woman and the wife of a famer. Taking place in southern Africa during the late 1940s, the story deals with racism, sexism and materialism and depicts the whole picture of African society at that time.

The Grass is Singing opens with the death of Mary Turner, who is found murdered on the porch of her home. However, compared to the crime, people’s reaction is odder. The whole community chooses to keep silent and persons involved turns to guard it as a secret. The way people work this case out suggests that everyone knows everything although nothing has been talked straightforward. We have to see the whole thing from the very beginning, back to our victim’s early life before her disastrous marriage. Mary’s childhood is everything but happiness. Living in poor family of a drunken father and bitter mother, she doesn’t find a relief until parents died and began her single life with a satisfying job. Happy days don’t last long before she is in her thirties and decides to get married after overhearing friends’ insulting talk about her singlehood. That’s when Dick Turner appears and takes her to his farm which he struggles to make profitable after marrying her.

There has been a while when life is peaceful except their marriage turns out to be a relationship without love and understanding. The leave of their first old black house servant become a turning point. Dick finds that Mary, like most Rhodesian woman, is racist and cruel to the native blacks. Mary finds that Dick has a weak personality and shows incompetence in farm practice. They begin to constantly change their house servants. They often quarrel about Mary’s overly hostile treatment to their native black workers and Dick’s decision on farm work. Mary even once escaped to city and back to life that she lived before. They live a solitary life with no social activities except some rare visits from their neighbor Slaters. Poverty keeps them away from the white community and even farther since Mary refuses Mrs. Slater’s invitations because of pride. Dick is badly ill after Mary’s escape, which pushes Mary to go to the farm and oversees the farm labor. She is repressive and shows contempt for the natives. Once, she even whips on the face of a worker who talks to her in English. Farm work doesn’t get any better with Dick getting well and running a series of failing experiments. Dick bring a new house servant whose name is Moses, the native who Mary had whipped.

Mary finds herself feel fear and contempt with a complicated relying on this man. As time goes by, Mary depends more and more on Moses. Their intimate relationship is found by Slater during his visit. He used it to successfully convince Dick to sell his farm to Slater and take Mary away. During those days they prepare to leave, Mary has seen with Moses by Tony, the assistant hired by Slater. In their confrontation, Mary chooses the side toward Moses, which irritates him. The day before they leave, Moses kills Mary and waits for police nearby giving up his planned escape.

This is a great work both in story-telling and theme-revealing. It presents directly the cruel reality of African social situation and people’s destined tragic life living in this society. Mary is murdered by Moses but she is the victim of the society. Mary grows up in a typical white family in Africa which suffers from poverty while keeps feeling superior to the natives. Memories of childhood have a great influence on Mary in many ways, especially in her values of marriage. However, she marries a man that she doesn’t really love in order to fulfill her friends’ and this society’s expectation. The marriage is not an end but a beginning. As a well-educated woman, Mary has her own way of life which is contradicted to her position as a wife in wedlock. She gets ability that nowhere to put to use since husband is the decider of a family as the rule of this society. She has been good at her working and got a well wage, but after her marriage, although Dick asks her opinions of farm but never takes it seriously. She trusts her friends with all her heart only to find that they have spoken ill of her behind her back. When she lives a solitary life with her husband, they again are criticized and despised by the whole community for disregarding the white integrity. As the society forces deeply in her mind, she believes that the natives disgusting and animal-like and treats them bitterly. When she feels the sincerely caring from Moses and begins to learn to see him through heart, she finds some consolation in this harsh society.

Nevertheless, she isn’t strong enough to fight against social force of racism and choose the opposite side against Moses and her true feeling. Her compromise to the society is at the cost of her life.
Moses, the murder, is also nothing but a victim of the society. Different from most of the natives, he gets some education when he works for church. Knowledge gives him fresh eyes to see the cruel world but does not point out a way to change it. He thinks about human nature and unequally social situation but never gets an answer. Having a pure heart, he decides to stay when he understands the misery Mary suffers even she treat him harshly. He takes care of her and tries to bring her life some happiness, but a harmonious relationship between white and black is taboo of the society. When he is betrayed by Mary, anger makes him hold the knife and kills Mary. In the end, he gives up escaping as he planned and waits for punishment. Maybe he knows at that moment, there is nowhere to escape from this kind of destined tragedy, death is a relief.

The Grass is singing is a great success when it is first published. It not only covers varies aspects of African social reality but also portrays the beauty of African lands. Rich meaning underlies in interesting story. It is penetrating and thought-provoking. In a word, it is a book that you don’t want to miss.

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