The Grass is Singing

The Grass is Singing Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7-8


Chapter 7

After bringing Mary back from the town, Dick becomes more affectionate towards her, in a kind of groveling appreciation of her not leaving him. For a time then, he goes to do his farm work and leaves Mary to the house, since she is repelled by the thought of having anything to do with the rough and dirty work; in this state, the two share a brief period of what seems to be harmony.

However, Dick soon comes down with a case of malaria that leaves him bedridden for a time, despite his stubborn efforts to continue going to work while sick. Without any other option, Mary is forced to take over the supervision of the native workers on the farm. In this capacity, she heads out to the makeshift huts where they reside to call them; she instinctively brings the sjambok, feeling reassured by its power. When the workers are slow to assemble, she threatens to deduct from the pay of anyone who arrives late; she ends up earning the ill will of all of them by following through on this threat.

Most of the natives passively follow her instructions, however much they may resent them, but Moses, one of the strongest men, earns Mary's particular ire by speaking in English, which is generally forbidden for natives. Mary reprimands him but then observes his bemused, even mocking indifference to her order; this drives her into a rage, and she hits him savagely on the face with the sjambok. Instantly, she fears retribution from Moses, but Moses does nothing.

Now accustomed to the farm, Mary begins to exert influence over Dick, even after he recovers. She pressures him into growing tobacco crop.

Chapter 8

After convincing Dick to plant tobacco, Mary withdraws from farm work in hopes that her husband will be able to take care of the farm successfully, mostly on his own. She pours her hopes into the crop and urges Dick to invest as much as possible into a single try to make money and recoup his losses of the past year. Dick, however, is unwilling to do this because of his typical small farmer's wariness of taking on debt. In the end, a severe drought ruins the tobacco, and though the Turners do not sustain a crippling loss, the failure throws Mary into a despondency; it seems that life on the farm will consist solely of such disappointments.

At the same time, Mary languishes at home without anything to do. After the failure of the tobacco crop, Mary finds herself anxious and unable to sleep. She suggests to Dick that they have a child together. Although this is something that Dick greatly desires, he makes it clear to her that, in their current poverty, they would be entirely incapable of raising a child. Mary is forced to give up the idea. She settles into a calm, detached pity for her inept husband.

Dick picks Moses, the exceptionally strong and intelligent worker whom Mary whipped in the face, to serve as their houseboy, without knowledge of the previous incident. Mary initially tries to simply not be around the black man, whose presence unsettles her, but eventually, driven to tears, she pleads with Dick to find a new houseboy. Dick refuses.


After her initial, futile, naïve attempts to acclimate herself to farm-life and her equally vain attempt at escaping it, Mary resigns herself to the poverty and disappointment of living with Dick. There is a brief period when it seems that the couple, each in his or her resignation to their shared circumstances, may be able to get along, if only in the sense of being used to each other. We hear of Dick:

"He even asked her again to come down on the farm with him; he felt a need to be near her, for he was secretly afraid she might vanish again one day when he was away. For although their marriage was all wrong, and there was no real understanding between them, he had become accustomed to the double solitude that any marriage, even a bad one, becomes. He could not imagine returning, to a house where there was no Mary" (110).

Mary certainly does not feel the same attachment to Dick or his farm, but she too fears the solitude of no longer having a place in the town, the only place she had a life before; so, staying with Dick, at once pitying him and hoping for his success, appears to be her only option. Trapped together in "the double solitude" of marriage, the two seem for a moment to reach an equilibrium.

However, triggered by Dick's coming down with malaria, Mary's troubled relationship with the native workers and Dick's horrible fortune and business drive them ever closer to catastrophe. Lessing has already developed so many contradictions and problems within Mary's psychological life and in the racist society of Southern Rhodesia that the tragic momentum of the narrative tends inexorably towards the dissolution of both Mary and Dick.

Mary's experience of playing white master over the black workers and her subsequent contact with Moses as a houseboy draw out the traumatic potential within her past that we first glimpsed in Chapter 2. She feels a strange affinity with the cruel sjambok and enjoys, for reasons that she is not entirely cognizant of, barking orders: "And, really, she liked it. The sensation of being boss over perhaps eighty black workers gave her new confidence; it was a good feeling, keeping them under her will, making them do as she wanted" (118).

With Mary's childhood past and her experiences of frustration and humiliation on Dick's farm in mind, it becomes more difficult to condemn her morally for her attraction to the position of domination. She is a woman taking up a masculine role in a world in which there is no other clear way of establishing self-worth and respect. Quite similar to the famous master/slave dialectic proposed by the German philosopher G.F.W. Hegel in his book The Phenomenology of Spirit, Lessing sets a situation in which Mary, the master, does not stand on her own but rather depends upon the subservient recognition that her workers give her as a confirmation of her own power and identity.

It is specifically within this context that Moses enters as a subversive character and catalyst to the collapse of the white supremacist ideological system that Mary embodies. With his education and powerfully built body, he is both intellectually and physically a threat—and, simultaneously, a fascination—to Mary. Lessing assumes the voice of an authoritative narrator to explain the deeper psychological and ideological workings of the drama between Mary and Moses:

"What had happened was that the formal pattern of black-and-white, mistress-and-servant, had been broken by the personal relation; and when a white man in Africa by accident looks into the eyes of a native and sees the human being (which it is his chief preoccupation to avoid), his sense of guilt, which he denies, fumes up in resentment and he brings down the whip" (152).