From the very beginning of the novel, Lessing depicts and sets up the tension within the Southern Rhodesian society regarding race relations, especially surrounding the notion of a sexual relationship between a black man and a white woman; the newspaper article reporting Mary Turner's murder speaks volumes more in what it does not mention (i.e. Mary's relationship with Moses) than in its simple statement of facts. Lessing depicts a word in which truths are not the immediately presented facts but rather the dark secrets that characters are unwilling to see around them or within themselves. Significantly, Mary is the only character that is willing to pursue the sense of taboo to its forbidden source; others turn away instinctively.
Conflict within Marriage
Much of the novel centers on the marital, sexual, and intellectual incompatibility between the well-educated, prudish Mary and the simple-minded Dick. Due to their distance from the town and from neighboring farms, Mary and Dick only have each other for company; they are surrounded by natives, but as non-whites, those natives do not enter into their social world—or at least, they are not supposed to. Mary opens up the tight circle of her white domestic world by assaulting Moses, who later becomes the houseboy; his physical proximity and presence in the house, which is both container and synecdoche for the Turners' married life, gives Mary an illicit way of escape from the suffocation of her life with Dick.
Lessing portrays Southern Rhodesia society as founded upon the injustice of racial discrimination of the British colonialist whites against the native Africans. The farm, one of the backbones of the Southern Rhodesia economy, is also one of the primary sites where whites and blacks come into a strictly regulated contact: the farmer, such as Dick or Charlie, commands his workers and even speaks the Kitchen Kaffir they speak, but his wife is supposed to only have contact with the houseboy. The use of the sjambok in the fields and the separation of house and field enforce the material and ideological difference between the races.
Domination and Subjection
Whereas much of the realist import of the novel concerns the depiction of the farm system and the way the white farmer exploits his African laborers, Lessing also makes use of Mary as a character with a rich and tortuous internal life to portray the inverse: the perverse and guilty desire of the white to be dominated in turn. Both of these relations center on sexuality: either the absence of sexual relations in the clean separation of a white woman from black male workers, or the presence of sexuality in a woman who does not feel at home in her own house and wants to run out into the veld.
Harshness of Agricultural Life
Although she grows up in a kind of suburb and spends her unmarried life in the town, Mary moves out to an isolated rural farm once she marries Dick Turner. This environment, surrounded by the South African veld, is both harsh and frightening in its unknowability. Mary arrives with idealistic, sheltered notions of the charm of nature, but these are quickly dispelled and replaced with a loathing for much of her physical surroundings. The farmhouse especially, with its lack of a proper roof, comes to represent the poverty of her life with Dick.
Two characters strive for liberation in the narrative: Mary and Moses. Unlike Dick, who has no particular aspirations, or Charlie and Tony, both of whom strive to make money, Mary and Moses are both dogged by disturbing pasts and unable to see a future that promises anything other than more unpleasantness. This leads them to act erratically and transgress from socially ordained bounds. Mary tries to run away from Dick at first and then later tries to escape within herself by giving up control to Moses. Although we are not given much access to Moses' interiority, we know that he harbors a strong desire for revenge against Mary, from which he felt liberated once he killed her.
The Failure of Civilization
The European colonialist project in Africa, as elsewhere, was carried out in the name of civilizing "backward" countries, while militarily and economically it was clear that much of the driving force was a desire for wealth and power. This contradiction produced societies that had to strictly regulate certain things—above all, the relationship between white colonialists and African colonized subjects—in order to not fall apart. However, as in the case of Mary, a racist who goes from demeaning and assaulting natives to giving herself up into the power of one, this leads to a self-undoing—not to mention the glaring moral self-contradiction.
The Grass is Singing Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Grass is Singing is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.