The Grass is Singing

The Grass is Singing Summary and Analysis of Chapters 3-4


Chapter 3

Dick has to drive himself and Mary over a hundred miles to get from the town back to his farm. By the time they arrive, it is late at night; Mary comes out of the car and looks at the farmhouse with vague and abstract expectations of a life in which she can "get close to nature," but the nocturnal cries of birds frighten her with the utter strangeness. Dick, in the meanwhile, looks at his new wife from the town and anxiously observes her reactions.

Dick shows Mary around his house. In the kitchen, she notices photos of an African woman and a child before Dick can conceal them from her. These pinned-up photos give her a sense of the loneliness he must have felt and the sort of animal need he had for her; she feels distant from this psychology but tries to figure out, in a distantly maternal way, how she might take care of it. Mary is troubled by many things but tries to put them out of her mind; above all is the feeling that she has somehow fallen into the trapped position of the housewife that she observed in her mother.

That night, on the bed that Dick bought specifically for their marriage, Dick and Mary make love. Mary withdraws herself mentally from the sex, such that she feels indifferent at the end and Dick feels guilty. Before and after the lovemaking, Dick says to himself that he has no right to marry.

Chapter 4

The night after consummating their marriage, Mary wakes up early in the morning to Dick coming in from outside. Dick introduces Samson, the native houseboy to her, before having tea and then going out to do farm work. Samson shows Mary the pantry and explains the various supplies and kitchenware the household possesses; when Dick is with him, he speaks in Kitchen Kaffir, a native dialect that Mary cannot understand. Although Dick is very condescending towards Samson, the two of them share a certain understanding.

Mary tries somewhat vainly to make something from a cookbook and then goes back to the bedroom to try to learn Kitchen Kaffir from a handbook so that she can manage the houseboy.


Chapter 3, in which Dick Turner brings Mary back with him to his isolated farm in the veld and Mary seeks peace and happiness in a new environment, does not waste time in frustrating the hopes of each spouse: though she tries to think optimistically about the proximity to nature inherent to farm-life and the frightening intimacies of marital life, Mary soon realizes that she is simply incompatible with too many things; Dick, for his part, realizes that he cannot satisfy his wife and that she may not be able to fully assuage the loneliness and sense of personal failure that made him seek out a woman in the first place. Without so much overt drama (the traumatic sex scene at the end of the chapter notwithstanding), Lessing conjures up an atmosphere of anxiety, oppressiveness, and hopelessness in the middle of the South Rhodesian veld.

Many of the details depicted in this chapter also prove to be important motifs for the rest of the novel. Mary's attitude towards nature, highly indicative of her hitherto sheltered lifestyle, comprises an idealistic conception that she uses to shield herself from a terrifying reality; as the narrator tells us, "'Getting close to nature', which was sanctioned, after all, by the pleasant sentimentality of the sort of books she read, was a reassuring abstraction" (53). The idea of entertainment writing as a source of comfort and way of killing time is in itself not particularly original, but Lessing makes a very nuanced argument by setting up a contrast between the relationship with nature that takes place in scare quotes, and the unbending reality of nature that falls uncomfortably outside of those bounds. Natural life aside, Mary's economic status is another inconvenient reality she is almost never able to fully confront: "She had no idea of the life she had to lead. Poverty, which Dick had warned her of with a scrupulous humility, was another abstraction" (54).

Of course, Mary does not realize the irony that what she considers fictions are actually real and that what she considers sincere are actually empty, received ideas. Lessing's narrator immediately unveils these misconceptions for what they are but maintains them in a state of tension so that they may be developed dramatically in the following chapters.

Mary's determination at the end of Chapter 4 to learn Kitchen Kaffir so that she may order around the houseboy (which extends to a will to dominate and ameliorate Dick's poorly kept bachelor household) represents her futile effort to create a space and identity for herself in a world that is otherwise almost completely alien. This distance is represented at first and fundamentally by the racial and linguistic difference between her and the African servants whom she and Dick employ.

This desperately forward-thinking characteristic of Mary's personality drives her in constant change, eventually to her undoing in her traumatic encounter with Moses, the successor, several iterations removed, of the houseboy encountered in Chapter 4. Dick, on the other hand, remains consistent in his rather pitiable and petty ways, his inability to break out of his stubborn small farmer's mindset eventually leading to his own going insane. As we read in Chapter 4, even after a great many failures and problems on the farm, "He [Dick] was back in it, over his head in it, with the familiar irritations and the usual sense of helplessness against cheerful incompetence. Mary said nothing: this was all too strange to her" (62).