The Grass is Singing

The Grass is Singing Summary and Analysis of Chapters 5-6


Chapter 5

Contrary to Dick's expectations, Mary seems to settle very quickly into married life on a remote farm. She uses her own money to buy curtains and fabric, and she sets about repairing and decorating the farmhouse. Soon, the farmhouse loses the oppressive sense of poverty it had before, to which Dick was accustomed; Dick praises Mary for her work, and she feels fulfilled by his attention. While he works the fields, she spends her day sewing and embroidering, working until she is exhausted. Living in this way, day to day, Mary does not feel lonely.

However, Marty's efficiency and eagerness to work lead to unfortunate consequences. Mary becomes high-strung from the need to fill with vigorous work an emptiness that would otherwise consume her; Dick, constantly frustrated in his farm work, is unconsciously tormented by the fact that his wife has the work ethic that he lacks.

When Mary runs out of things to embroider, she tries various other activities, such as reading the novels she brought with her; these, however, seem to no longer make any impression on her, so that she is left listless. She asks Dick if they can buy ceilings for their house to help cope with the relentless heat, but he tells her that they do not have the money for it.

Meanwhile, Mary has tried to take meticulous control of the household, making Samson feel oppressed to the point that he quits, saying that he needs to return to his kraal. Dick tries to tell her that she needs to loosen her standards in dealing with a houseboy, but she refuses to change her ways. The next houseboy is quickly dismissed for dropping a plate; when the third threatens to quit, Dick asks him to have patience with Mary, who is not yet accustomed to their ways. Overhearing this, Mary flies into a rage at Dick, who, for the first time, addresses her with harsh words.

Mary has even less luck with Charlie Slatter and his wife, who come to visit them at the house one day. Imagining that Mrs. Slatter is patronizing her, Mary acts coldly towards her.

Chapter 6

On a trip to the station, Mary hears another farmer, to whom Dick is in debt, making thinly-veiled fun of her husband's lack of success with farming; this makes her to start question much she has taken for granted about her life with Dick, especially about how well he runs the farm. She also brings back with her a pamphlet on bee-keeping with which Dick becomes obsessed; he spends a month putting together and trying to get honey from beehives, only to be stung and not make any money.

This idea to make money and improve the farm's fortune is followed by the idea of buying pigs to raise from Charlie Slatter; these pigs meet a similarly unproductive fate, dying of heat. Mary realizes that she is unable to stop Dick, who continues with turkeys and rabbits; eventually, she bursts out in a rage at him for his incompetence. The final straw is Dick's idea of building and running a store for the many laborers they employ; Mary is tasked with running the place, but she feels disgusted at having to deal with the native customers. The store fails, and Mary begins contemplating a vacation from the farm, a thought that turns into the desperate idea of an escape.

While Dick is out working the farm, she packs a suitcase and runs away; near the Slatter's, she encounters Charlie in his car. He gives her a ride to the town, but when she arrives there, she is unable to find housing at the boardinghouse she stayed at before, nor can she get back her old job as a secretary. Alerted by Slatter, Dick comes to town and brings a numbed and hopeless Mary back home to the farm.


Chapters 5 and 6 develop the tensions in the Turner household from the previous two chapters into deepening conflicts between husband and wife, especially in terms of Mary's frustration with Dick's incompetence and narrow-mindedness as a farmer, culminating in the paroxysm of Mary's escape from the farm at the end of Chapter 6. Lessing uses a combination of Mary's actions, Mary's own (increasing capacity for) introspection, and the narrator's revealing things about Mary that Mary herself is not aware of to chart the course of a mind coming up against its own limits and the restrictions of the socioeconomic situation in which it is placed.

Mary seems to quickly come into conflict with nearly everything in her new married life, but nothing disturbs her more than her husband. At first, she finds it easier to adopt a mute and indifferent attitude mirroring his:

"She was used to this absorption of his: he would sometimes sit through a meal without speaking, not noticing what he ate, sometimes laying down his knife and fork before the plate was empty, thinking about some farm problem, his brow heavy with worry. She had learned not to trouble him at these times. She took refuge in her own thoughts; or, rather, she lapsed into her familiar state, which was a dim mindlessness. Sometimes they hardly spoke for days at a time" (89).

Although Dick seems capable of continuing in this state, Mary only accumulates more frustration as time passes. Her inner bitterness and her outbursts do not endear her to readers, but her sensitivity to the deprivations and frustrations of her life earn their sympathy; in contrast, Dick's unwillingness to acknowledge difficulties and to change himself robs his character of much depth.

Characterization aside, Lessing clearly intends to have the reader favor Mary over Dick in this battle of the sexes because of the lengthy exposition of Mary's life in Chapter 2. We hear not only about how Mary comes of age mostly on her own, but also about the haunting image of her mother as a woman trapped and suffering—an image that Lessing herself has indicated comes from her perception of her own mother as a woman whose opportunities were frustrated by marital life. Mary has no interest in keeping present the thought of her mother, but that is the only thing that allows her to make sense of out of the confusion generated by conflicts with Dick:

"Mary, with the memory of her own mother recurring more and more frequently, like an older, sardonic double of herself walking beside her, followed the course her upbringing made inevitable. To rage at Dick seemed to her a failure in pride; her formerly pleasant but formless face was setting into lines of endurance; but it was as if she wore two masks, one contradicting the other; her lips were becoming thin and tight, but they could tremble with irritation; her brows drew together, but between them there was a vulnerable sensitive patch of skin that would flame a sullen red when she was in conflict with her servants." (94)

Unable to choose between explosion and implosion, Mary wavers in a volatile, intermediary state. Significant in the passage above is the fact that her only channel of expression is anger at the native servants—she has already given up on expressing anger towards Dick. It is because this emotional channel is open in this particular direction that she becomes so angry at, and then so vulnerable towards, Moses.