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The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

The Grass is Singing
The incident on p.41 (Chapter 2) is of great interest to a reader. Mary overhears the other women talking and she is upset for sure; but it is far more than that: she is destroyed, literally, because the image she had lived to up until then was no longer of use to her: “Mary’s idea of herself was destroyed and she was not fitted to recreate herself.” (43) Her marriage to Dick is the only way she knows to  limit the damage, to conform to something, anything, rather than feeling utterly dissolved.

Compare this to Erica and Tessa in the other texts. How do the other two women look when put beside Mary?

Dick has a deep, ingrained hatred for urbanity: on p. 45 we see how “he wanted to murder” when he imagined the lives of suburbanites.

This is similar, though not identical, to the third world sensibility we learn about in Mohsin. He has unusual impulses and instincts, hating the cinema and finding the pretty actresses he saw there boring (45). In Mohsin Changez finds Erica’s nakedness something of a revelation. Changez, a bit like Mary Turner, doesn’t really know himself. He doesn’t know how to respond to seeing uncovered breasts; Mary “knew so little about herself that she was thrown completely off her balance [by gossip].” (44) Also, like Changez, Mary doesn’t know what she wants: “it was impossible to fit together what she wanted for herself, and what she was offered.” She is scared of men, loathes them even, and yet she goes out with them to the movies more and more often. It was a feeling of superiority over men that was driving her; Dick allowed to feel superior.

This is very different to Justin and Tessa: Tessa may not approve of every facet of Justin’s profession but they agree to keep their work and their love separate. Mary and Dick cannot do his, mostly because Dick’s work is his love, or rather the land is: “the feeling was the strongest he knew.” (45) Dick “worked as only a man possessed by a vision can work, from six in the morning till seven at night, taking his meals on the lands, his whole being concentrated on the farm.” (46) It was all so that a woman would want to have his children. Tessa loves Justin despite his work; Dick hopes that Mary can love him because of his.

In terms of its themes, TGS is about self- knowledge and might be about personal journey if there were a journey undertaken. Neither Dick nor Mary develop as characters in any meaningful way: Mary has so little awareness of herself that placing herself psychologically in any sensible context is virtually impossible. We shouldn’t underestimate the amount of torment she suffers. The terrain itself is against her. The unbearable heat and the absence of a ceiling is hellish: “When is it going to rain?” (70) Even having a wash causes an argument: “Here was she, living here uncomplainingly, suffering these hardships; and then she could not use a couple of gallons of water.” (71) This is one of many ways her living conditions conspire against her: the bath is obscene: “It was filthy, filthy!” (72) There is more evidence on p. 80.
When compared with Tessa, Mary is superficial and hasn’t any of the Third World sensibility that we see in Tessa and Changez. She is ashamed of her appearance as she sees a car approach: “She could not possibly be seen in such a rag!” (75)
It turns out to be Charlie Slatter and his wife Mrs Slatter. The latter has adapted to the South African wilderness and the farming life. She feels sorry for Mary for having married Dick who she sees as useless; she is a potential friend to Mary but the latter never develops it because of her own gnawing insecurity regarding her situation and how she imagines Mrs Slatter judges her. (75-76) What demonstrates the Slatters’ comfort other than their prosperity is their is the way they detest the natives and can so easily perpetuate the esprit de corps: “Whenever two or three farmers are gathered together, it is decreed that they should discuss nothing but the shortcomings and deficiencies of their natives… to the point of neurosis.” (76) Tessa and Changez are very much at odds with the Slatters. Tessa, if anything, identifies more with the Africans than with Westerners; Changez’ experience in Manila is indicative of something similar in him, though he resists it while Tessa accepts it, embraces it.
Dick chastises Mary in front of a native, (78) telling him that Mary is still unused to the way things work: Mary is enraged; we imagine that Charlie Slatter would be too, even if Mary were wrong. This is the behaviour of poor whites- we can imagine Pellegrin having a similar view of Justin in The Constant Gardener.

Dick and his beloved trees (81) the unprofitable, useless trees show in Dick a sentimentality, a dreaminess that doesn’t serve to increase his wealth or engender neighbourliness. He and Mary refuse invitations from the Slatters; Charlie sees the connection between the refusal of the invitation and the trees: “Turner is in for trouble. He is so up in the air that he doesn’t even burn fire guards! And he is planting trees. Trees! He is wasting money planting trees while he is in debt.” (81)
This offence is similar to Tessa’s letter to Pellegrin and Changez’s beard. All three behaviours are unorthodox but potentially destructive too; moreover, the characters put themselves at odds with the esprit de corps.

Dick thinks that tobacco is an inhuman crop even though it is considered profitable and certainly more profitable than trees. This sensibility of his is comparable to views held by Changez and Tessa as well as Justin: Changez feels guilt and pangs of conscience because of his work while Justin grows more and more cynical about his work. The cynicism is not fashionable just as Dick’s love of trees is neither fashionable nor profitable. We see therefore that our key characters put themselves at odds with the prevailing culture we witness in the texts. The difference between Tessa and Justin on the one hand and Dick and Mary on the other is that there is a network of support for the first two while none exists to help legitimise the dysfunction of he second pair. Tessa has NGOs and Ghita, Bluhm and Justin to some extent; Justin has Ham and others, especially when he picks up where Tessa left off; Dick and Mary have no-one, in large part due to their own dysfunction. It is a unforgiving world in each case for those with no support, something Donohue warns Justin about.
There is a failure to have children in both TGS and TCG; the difference is that Dick foolishly thinks children will help his marriage (82) while Tessa’s tragic loss of her child only serves to push her further towards her doom.

In terms of personality Mary is quite different to either Tessa or Changez; her natural state is one of “dim mindlessness”: the other two are naturally conscientious and aware; they are natural activists. Consider Tessa’s vocation and Changez’s growing political awareness and rage directed toward America and compare them to the way Mary, because of the unique way she is damaged, lives her life like flotsam. But Dick is worse at times: he wants to rear bees but consults a text about doing so on England; even Mary knows that South Africa is not England.

Dick builds a store (93) and asks Mary to work in it where she has to serve blacks. What’s more, the store represents for her certain painful and bleak things from her childhood.

The theme of personal journey is again relevant since both Tessa and Changez seem to be moving toward something greater than themselves even if that involves their death while Mary regresses.

Mary lives in a world where psychological distress is taboo: “I have been ill for years,” she said tartly. “Inside, somewhere. Inside. Not ill, understand. Everything wrong, somewhere.” The world is an unkind place, full of injustice: “they were not real. It was monstrous that they should have been imposed upon her.” (97) It is monstrous because she has no outlet for her self-expression; the closest she comes is Mrs Slatter but that falls apart. At the end of Chapter 6, Mary makes a break for it and returns to the town and tries to get her old job back: the whole enterprise is an abject failure. In Chapter 7, upon her return, Dick gets sick and she has to take over the farm, something that gives her a sense of purpose and for which she shows some aptitude. But, it brings out the worst in her too insofar as it brings her into closer and more frequent contact with the natives whom she detests. (115)

All three worlds in all three texts feature this clash between races, between ethnicities, and in all three cases it is this clash that ensures that we can appreciate the cultural context better than we might otherwise. The clash allows highlights a great cruelty and disregard for human dignity.

With regard to literary genre, the style of each text is a consideration. Imagery plays an important role. In TCG  we have an immediate and familiar kind of imagery that is delivered directly to us by Meirelles. There is the devastated, lashed and desiccated landscape near the end, as if Justin inhabits an alien planet, one that no longer has any place for him; we see this severity in TGS too; on p.74 we see “black expanses of desolation” and a “charred landscape.” In TRF location plays a major role in how the story is told: New York before and after 9/11; Lahore; Manila; Valparaiso and so on.

There are other forms of imagery too. The novels are replete with examples. Dick (102) is described thus: “his sleeves flapped over spare burnt arms…”

The narrator asks questions of the reader in TG, something that doesn’t happen in the other texts.

Psychological distress is a theme in all texts: Mary’s dreams (49) feature quick sand and stairs which she cannot conquer. She little knows the connection between her emotions and her experiences- a dissociative state; Changez and Tessa are very conscious and self-aware and articulate too, though they too suffer distress.

The theme of identity: We don’t know Mary’s name before she is married so she is more familiar to us as Mary Turner. This is similar to Tessa who is Tessa Quayle. Changez is simply that.

Mary is South African but considers herself British because she is white – white means British; to be African is tantamount to being black. Justin is of course British, from a line of foreign service men but breaks the mould when Tessa is murdered and steps off the plantation as it were. Changez tries to be American, or at least tries to live like an American, with American sensibilities, but never can make the adjustment. In the end he doesn’t want to; he rejects that option. Going native is utterly inconceivable to Mary and Dick, at least in a conscious sense, though Dick has a Third World sensibility insofar as he loves the land too much to dispassionately exploit it. This disgusts Charlie Slatter in a similar way to how Justin troubles Sandy and Pellegrin. An affection for the natives which is not patronising or motivated by pity is deemed taboo.

Changez, Dick and Justin are all very much identified by their professions: they each attempt to succeed at their chosen careers but their inner selves prevent this. It could be said that they suffer from a work/ life imbalance.