The Grass Is Singing
The Grass Is Singing is the first novel, published in 1950
1950 in literature
The year 1950 in literature involved some significant events and new books.-Events:*Kazuo Shimada wins the "Mystery Writer Of Japan" award for his book Shakai-bu Kisha .*Jack Kerouac has his first novel published....

, by British
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing
Doris May Lessing CH is a British writer. Her novels include The Grass is Singing, The Golden Notebook, and five novels collectively known as Canopus in Argos....

. It takes place in Rhodesia
Rhodesia , officially the Republic of Rhodesia from 1970, was an unrecognised state located in southern Africa that existed between 1965 and 1979 following its Unilateral Declaration of Independence from the United Kingdom on 11 November 1965...

 (now Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe is a landlocked country located in the southern part of the African continent, between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers. It is bordered by South Africa to the south, Botswana to the southwest, Zambia and a tip of Namibia to the northwest and Mozambique to the east. Zimbabwe has three...

), in southern Africa, during the 1940s and deals with the racial politics between whites and blacks in that country (which was then a British Colony). The novel created a sensation when it was first published and became an instant success in Europe and the United States.


The novel starts with a cutting from newspaper article about the death of Mary Turner. It says that Mary Turner, a white woman is killed by her black servant Moses for money. The author of the article is unknown. The news actually acts like an omen for other white people living in that African setting. After looking at the article, people behave as if the murder was very much expected. The plot of the novel shifts to flashback of Mary Turner's past life till her murder
at the hand of Moses in the next chapter.

Mary has a happy and satisfied life as a single white Rhodesian (we assume, though the novel refers to both Rhodesia and the Union of South Africa
Union of South Africa
The Union of South Africa is the historic predecessor to the present-day Republic of South Africa. It came into being on 31 May 1910 with the unification of the previously separate colonies of the Cape, Natal, Transvaal and the Orange Free State...

 simply as South Africa, while making clear the farm is in Southern Rhodesia
Southern Rhodesia
Southern Rhodesia was the name of the British colony situated north of the Limpopo River and the Union of South Africa. From its independence in 1965 until its extinction in 1980, it was known as Rhodesia...

) woman. She has a nice job, numerous friends, and values her independence. Nevertheless, after overhearing an insulting remark at a party about her spinster
A spinster, or old maid, is an older, childless woman who has never been married.For a woman to be identified as a spinster, age is critical...

hood, she resolves to marry.

The man she marries, after a brief courtship, Dick Turner, is a white farmer struggling to make his farm profitable. She moves with him to his farm and supports the house, while Dick manages the labor of the farm. Dick and Mary are somewhat cold and distant from each other, but are committed to their marriage. Dick and Mary live together an apolitical life mired in poverty. When Dick gets sick Mary takes over the management of the farm and rages at the incompetence of her husband's farm practice. To Mary, the farm exists only to make money, while Dick goes about farming in a more idealistic way.

Mary and Dick live a solitary life together. Because of their poverty Dick refuses to give Mary a child. They do not attend social events, yet are a great topic of interest among their neighbors. Mary feels an intimate connection with the nature around her, though being in general rather unexplorative in nature.

Mary, like most Rhodesian women, is overtly racist, believing that whites should be masters over the native blacks. Dick and Mary both often complain about the lack of work ethic among the natives that work on their farm. While Dick is rarely cruel to the workers that work for them, Mary is quite cruel
The sjambok or litupa is the official heavy leather whip of South Africa, sometimes seen as synonymous with apartheid but actually much older and still used outside the official judiciary....

. She treats herself as their master and superior. She shows contempt for the natives, and finds them disgusting and animal-like. Mary is cross, queenly, and overtly hostile to the many house servants she has over the years. When Mary oversees the farm labor she is much more repressive than Dick had ever been. She works them harder, reduces their break time, and arbitrarily takes money from their pay. Her hatred of natives results in her whipping the face of a worker because he speaks to her in English, telling her he stopped work for a drink of water.

This worker, named Moses, comes to be a very important person in Mary's life, when he is taken to be a servant for the house. Mary does not feel fear of her servant Moses but rather a great deal of disgust, repugnance, and avoidance. Often Mary does all she can to avoid having any social proximity with him.

After many years living on the farm together, Dick and Mary are seen to be in a condition of deterioration. Mary often goes through spells of depression, during which she is exhausted of energy and motivation. In her frailty, Mary ends up relying more and more on Moses. As Mary becomes weaker, she finds herself feeling endearment toward Moses.

On a rare visit from their neighbor, Slatter, Mary is seen being carelessly, thoughtlessly kind to Moses. This enrages Slatter. Slatter demands that Mary not live with that worker as a house servant. Slatter sees himself as defending the values and integrity of the white community.

Slatter uses his charisma and influence to convince Dick to give up ownership of his farm and go on a vacation with his wife. This vacation is to be a sort of convalescence for them. Dick spends his last month on his farm with Tony, who has been hired by Slatter to take over the running of the farm. Tony has good intentions and is very superficially cultured, but he finds himself having to adapt to the racism of the white community. One day Tony sees Moses dressing Mary and is surprised and somewhat amazed by Mary's breaking of the 'colour bar'.

The book closes with Mary's death at the hand of Moses. Mary is expecting his arrival and is aware of her imminent death. Moses does not run from the scene as he originally intends, but waits a short distance away for the arrival of the police.

Title, dedication, and introductory quotations

The title is a phrase from the fifteen lines of T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns "T. S." Eliot OM was a playwright, literary critic, and arguably the most important English-language poet of the 20th century. Although he was born an American he moved to the United Kingdom in 1914 and was naturalised as a British subject in 1927 at age 39.The poem that made his...

's The Waste Land
The Waste Land
The Waste Land[A] is a 434-line[B] modernist poem by T. S. Eliot published in 1922. It has been called "one of the most important poems of the 20th century." Despite the poem's obscurity—its shifts between satire and prophecy, its abrupt and unannounced changes of speaker, location and time, its...

 quoted after the novel's dedication to a Mrs Gladys Maasdorp "of Southern Rhodesia, for whom I feel the greatest affection and admiration." Found on both lines 354 and 386 of Part V: 'What the Thunder Said', it is one of the more jubilant and reviving images used in that section, despite its theme of destruction's power over growth. Lessing also quotes an anonymous author: "It is by the failures and misfits of a civilisation that one can best judge its weaknesses.

Analysis and impact on literature

The Grass Is Singing is a bleak analysis of a failed marriage, the neurosis of white sexuality, and the fear of black power that Lessing saw as underlying the white colonial experience of Africa
Africa is the world's second largest and second most populous continent, after Asia. At about 30.2 million km² including adjacent islands, it covers 6% of the Earth's total surface area and 20.4% of the total land area...

. The novel's treatment of the tragic decline of Mary and Dick Turner's fortunes becomes a metaphor for the whole white presence in Africa. The novel is honest about the fault-lines in the white psyche
Psyche (psychology)
The word psyche has a long history of use in psychology and philosophy, dating back to ancient times, and has been one of the fundamental concepts for understanding human nature from a scientific point of view. The English word soul is sometimes used synonymously, especially in older...



The book was adapted into a movie in 1981
1981 in film
-Events:*January 19 - Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer acquires beleaguered concurrent United Artists. UA was humiliated by the astronomical losses on the $40,000,000 movie Heaven's Gate, a major factor in the decision of owner Transamerica to sell it....

 by a Swedish
Sweden , officially the Kingdom of Sweden , is a Nordic country on the Scandinavian Peninsula in Northern Europe. Sweden borders with Norway and Finland and is connected to Denmark by a bridge-tunnel across the Öresund....

 company. Filmed in Zambia
Zambia , officially the Republic of Zambia, is a landlocked country in Southern Africa. The neighbouring countries are the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the north, Tanzania to the north-east, Malawi to the east, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia to the south, and Angola to the west....

, the film stars John Thaw
John Thaw
John Edward Thaw, CBE was an English actor, who appeared in a range of television, stage and cinema roles, his most popular being police and legal dramas such as Redcap, The Sweeney, Inspector Morse and Kavanagh QC.-Early life:Thaw came from a working class background, having been born in Gorton,...

, Karen Black
Karen Black
Karen Black is an American actress, screenwriter, singer, and songwriter. She is noted for appearing in such films as Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Great Gatsby, Rhinoceros, The Day of the Locust, Nashville, Airport 1975, and Alfred Hitchcock's final film, Family Plot...

 and John Kani
John Kani
Bonsile John Kani is a South African actor, director and playwright.He was born in New Brighton, South Africa.Kani joined The Serpent Players in Port Elizabeth in 1965 and helped to create many plays that went unpublished but were performed to a resounding reception.These...

 in the lead roles. It is also known under the titles Gräset sjunger (Swedish) and Killing Heat.

External links

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