Friday, August 29, 2014

Reading group: The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

This 1950 novel, Doris Lessing's first, opens with a newspaper article entitled 'Murder Mystery' starkly reporting the murder of Rhodesian farmer's wife Mary Turner by her houseboy who has confessed to the crime. The first chapter then goes on to filter through the puzzled viewpoint of a putative outsider the hush-hush reaction of the local community to the event, before moving back to the hours in which the death was discovered and dealt with by the local Sergeant and, more directly, by the somewhat bullying neighbouring farmer, Charlie Slatter. Here the narration takes a more clearly - or apparently - omniscient stance, entering the mind of the Turners' young managerial farming assistant, Tony Marston, only recently employed and arrived from England, but, while authorially knowing in tone, continues to withhold from the reader the precise workings of the minds of the other two men. Thus we share Marston's puzzlement at the reaction of the other two men to Mary's corpse. He clearly knows that the murder has resulted from some unusual relation between Mary and her houseboy Moses (though the narrative also withholds precisely what he knows), but feels silenced about it and frustrated that they appear to insist on a more mundane explanation. Most of all he is shocked that they clearly regard Mary with hatred and distaste - '[an] almost hysterical look of hate and fear' - all their sympathies being for her husband, Dick. Finally, however, as the first chapter comes to a close, the narration spells out what we are told Marsden will come to understand after some time in Rhodesia, before he succumbs to the denial necessary for surviving as an accepted member of white South African society:
Mary Turner ... had let the side down. But even she, since she was dead, was no longer a problem. The one fact that remained still to be dealt with was the necessity for preserving appearances ... it was 'white civilization' fighting to defend itself that had been implicit in the attitude of Charlie Slatter and the Sergeant, 'white civilization' which will never, never admit that a white person, and most particularly, a white woman, can have a human relationship, whether for good or evil, with a black person. For once it admits that, it crashes, and nothing can save it. So, above all, it cannot afford failures, such as the Turners' failure.
Even before the murder, the Turners are failing the 'white civilization'. This is spelled out early on in the chapter as the Turners are introduced to us. We will learn later that Dick is a failing farmer, and we are told at the outset that the Turners, in their crumbling shanty-like house, are too much like 'poor whites' for comfort:
'Why, some natives (though not many, thank heavens) had houses as good; and it would give them a bad impression to see white people living in such a way ... [The Turners] apparently did not recognise the need for esprit de corps; that, really, was why they were hated.'
The first chapter ends with an account of Marston's subsequent career, a low-key descent to the office work he left England to escape, its ending having the form and minor key of a completed sad story. The sadness is associated with Marston, and it appears at this point that the murder has been displaced and wiped away narratorially in just the way that the white Rhodesian community has done. Earlier, however, as Marston struggles with the manner and approach of the Sergeant and Slatter, he thinks: '...the important thing, the thing that really mattered ... was to understand the background, the circumstances, the characters of Dick and Mary, the pattern of their lives', and the second chapter begins what constitutes the bulk of the book: a retracing of Mary's trajectory from infanthood to her murder.

It's a tale of a childhood of hardship - a drunken railway-official father, the loss to dysentery of siblings, an embittered and grieving mother - replaced and indeed wiped away by the enjoyable and freeing experience of boarding school and then life as a working single woman in a small town. But although Mary with her ordered life and wide social circle now thinks of herself as happy, she is clearly damaged: she can't make close relationships, is repelled by sex and shows other signs of immaturity. By the age of thirty she is still wearing 'little-girl' style clothes and prolonging the experience of boarding school by living in the Girl's Club. In other words, she is a misfit, which (in the name of esprit de corps) she cannot be allowed to be, and indeed is afraid of being. Succumbing therefore to the inevitable pressures of her social circle, she hastily and unwisely marries Dick Turner, who takes her back to the rural isolation and hardship she once escaped. We then follow - for the greater bulk of the book - her descent into depression as her relationship with Dick proves arid and the farm fails and the couple sink further and further into poverty.

Ann, who had suggested the book, said that the main word that summed up her impression of it was 'relentless', and everyone murmured agreement. Mary's hardship on the farm, and her emotional deprivation and alienation, are of course relentless, and her sense of the relentlessness of the climate, the hot sun beating down on the uninsulated roof of the house, is vividly created. However, there was a sense too that everyone in the group had found the book itself - and the experience of reading it - relentless. People had also been left uncomfortable about its politics: although it is clearly meant as a criticism of apartheid, people felt that there were blind spots, perhaps inevitable since, as Ann said, Lessing was after all a product of the regime she was trying to critique. Jenny said she had wondered if the fact that Moses ends up murdering Mary was, in spite of the author's intentions to critique, a capitulation to the stereotype of the native espoused by the South African white community (ie natives just murder, rape and steal), and others had uncomfortably wondered this too.

John commented on the narrative mode of the book, which is very much 'tell not show'. He felt it was more of an essay than a novel: Mary's situation and psychology are explained to us, with little dramatisation, ie without dialogue and action. (He pointed to one rare moment of dramatisation in the impersonal and objective account of Mary's progress and downfall, when Mary has vented her fury against Dick for his farming failure and has ended up weeping, and Dick 'looked at her for a long time as she sat there, sobbing; and then said sardonically, "OK boss." ' The author goes on to comment: 'Mary did not like it at all; for his sarcastic remark said more about their marriage than she had ever allowed herself to think', and John suggested that that final comment - that the remark said more - could be almost a half-conscious realisation on the part of Lessing of the need for dramatisation that in general the novel failed to achieve.) The psychologies of Dick, Charlie Slatter and Tony Marston are also made plain via explicit narrative statement, and the attitudes of all of them are authorially commented on in relation to their social and political significance. Yet although the narrative in this respect has an air of omniscience, it does not enter the mind of Moses: he remains as alien and 'other' to the reader as he does to Mary - more so, since Mary becomes emotionally entangled with Moses in a way that is left unclear to the reader. Certainly our group were unclear about it. Mary's first encounter with Moses occurs when she takes charge of the farm while Dick is suffering a bout of malaria (a consequence, in Charlie's eyes, of his bad farming). Moses, at that time one of the farm workers, is challenging towards Mary, and, imbued with conventional hatred towards the natives, her response is fury and vengeance: she whips him across the face with a sjambok, leaving a permanent scar. Later he becomes the houseboy, and finding her broken down and weeping, he brings her a drink of water. However, we didn't agree with the blurb on the back of Jenny's paperback edition that 'lonely and frightened, Mary turns to Moses, the black cook, for kindness and understanding'. Moses' apparent kindness here is fraught with irony: the initial incident that had resulted in her whipping him had concerned his request for a drink of water which Mary had refused, and although we can infer that Mary is now touched by his attention, there is something of pressure in the way he makes her drink, and of a conscious demonstration of a shifting of power, which leaves her fearful and resentful. Mary's attitude to Moses continues to be ambivalent, and Moses' towards her seems contradictory, both solicitous and resentful. Finally, the day before the murder, Tony Marston discovers them in a situation of physical intimacy - Moses is dressing Mary and Mary's gestures are those of a woman either flattered or sexually satisfied (even this remains unclear; we see it only through Marston's shocked and wondering perspective) - and Mary, trying in the corrective presence of the white man 'to get back the command she had lost', uses Marston to expel Moses (now standing with a 'malevolent stare') from the house. It is presumably this betrayal that prompts Moses to murder Mary in the early hours of the next day, in revenge. However, Ann said that she still didn't grasp, on a psychological level, why (apart from racist stereotyping) Moses should actually murder her, or why, in the following hours, Mary knows he will come back to do so, and waits, frightened but eventually passively resigned, for her fate. Everyone in the group felt the same. I said that although the murder might not seem to work on a psychological level - and might appear to our present-day eyes to reinforce racial stereotypes - it was intended as symbolic: both Mary and Moses disrupt and threaten the status quo by their misfit status and their behaviour - as John pointed out, Moses, as a missionary boy, educated and prepared to challenge, steps outside the bounds allowed him - and, according to the dictates of that status quo, both must be destroyed for its preservation. They are both symbolic, too, of the fact that the status quo is in fact destructive to both sides. Everyone felt that this was right. We felt it an irony, however, that, in spite of the fundamental explanatory mode of the novel, we were left with a sense of not knowing the precise nature of the relationship between the two.

I commented that I had read an article suggesting that there was another racist stereotyping in the way that Moses appears to be identified, indeed conflated, with the bush and with nature red in tooth and claw. The narrative places him as a threatening presence in the bush while he waits in the night to kill Mary (and sends him back there afterwards), a bush which to Mary is unknown, unknowable and frightening, and with which the darkness merges him. As he strikes her with his knife, 'the bush avenged itself: that was her last thought. The trees advanced in a rush, like beasts, and the thunder was the noise of their coming.' I had also read a critique of the book that found racism in the narrative comment perjoratively opposing Charlie Slatter's slash-and-burn farming methods to Dick's nature-respecting (though unsuccessful) mode, since in passing it equates Slatter's method with that of the natives (which, as the group commented, is small-scale and therefore not destructive in the way Slatter's factory-type farming is). Finally, Doug and I both said we had been deeply unsettled by the final narrative comment on Moses as he walks off into the bush to wait for his capture, which is also part of the closing narrative comment of the book:
...what thoughts of regret, or pity, or perhaps even wounded human affection were compounded with the satisfaction of his completed revenge, it is impossible to say.
It is as if the narration, and the author, are colluding with the white settlers' view of a native's mind as impenetrable, and indeed, of no significance or interest. Yet it is quite clear that the book is intended as a condemnation of the attitudes and structures of apartheid, and our general conclusion on the evening of the discussion was a reiteration of the notion that the book was of its time.

However, looking back at it now in order to write this, I feel that Lessing was far more conscious in her method than appeared to us (and some other commentators). Having looked again at the first chapter with its very explicit and ironically critical comments on the white settlers' attitudes, I now find it impossible not to see this final statement as also deeply ironical. In addition, while on the evening of the discussion we considered Lessing's explanatory and largely non-dramatic mode to be simply old-fashioned story-telling with drawbacks of non-engagement for the reader, it seems to me now that Lessing is consciously manipulating omniscience, and subjectivity and objectivity, to make a political statement. As I outlined at the outset, the narrative of the first chapter moves from the total impersonality of a brief newspaper report through the puzzling perspective of an outsider, in towards the perspective of the locals, and finally (partially) into the mind of Tony Marston, all underpinned by an ironically knowing authorial tone that signals deliberate authorial manipulation. This constitutes a formal (ironical) enactment and then subversion of the callous objectification by the white settlers of the natives. While the novel in general adopts the 'tell not show' mode, as it moves towards the crisis and Mary waits to be killed, it closely adopts her tortured interiority, and in fact the conflation of Moses with the bush is Mary's, not the author's. ('...the bush avenged itself; that was her last thought [my italics]). And, as we had observed, in spite of the overall instructive authorial tone, the narration is not in fact omniscient. It seems to me now that the fact that both Moses' interiority and the precise nature of the ultimate relationship between Mary and Moses remain unexplored is a political authorial choice. What threatens the status quo of apartheid, and of any repressive system, is blurring of the lines, any subversion and uncertainty. The precise nature of the relationship is kept deliberately blurred and uncertain by the author as a formal playing out of that subversion: it subverts the otherwise knowing narrative mode.

However, I have to say that none of this was clear to any of us on a first reading of the novel, and I think perhaps that the impersonal, explanatory nature of the bulk of it did make for the lack of engagement that John discussed - a lack of emotional engagement leading to a lack of engagement of our attention - as well as perhaps contributing to our sense of the novel as 'relentless.'

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting discussion of this book. I felt the same about it as your book group. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I would like to have references for where you found your quotes.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Afraid I read the book as a KIndle edition which didn't have page numbers.

Anonymous said...

Hi Elizabeth
I am a student from Italy and I have to read the book and write chapter summaries. Unfortunately, my English isn't as good to read and understand the book. Can you help me? I would be so grateful! Maybe you could add the chapter ("number") on your writing, so I would have an overview.

I know, It is a large request, but I am very desperate!

Best wishes

Anonymous said...

I think your analysis of the book lacked depth. Your group criticized the book just for the sake of having a critique without trying to understand. You think you have the upper hand on the author on racism whereas you appear to come no where close to having the generosity of spirit and intelligence she has that makes it possible to begin to understand human beings.

Anonymous said...

In the 1970s I was glad to find and read The Grass is Singing after reading and embedded in her book, African Stories, because in those stories the author had already revealed her true self (despite Southern Rhodesian upbringing) early pro-African sympathies--rare in white society back then (especially "The Old Chief Mshlanga" and "The Anthill"). Mrs. Lessing's first book The Grass Is Singing" (which I still re-read) appropriately begins with Part 5 of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" and to me the end of Mary Turner's life is now shown, in a psychological wasteland. It was already becoming a wasteland in her unfortunate childhood, and it was the "bush's revenge" (heralded by a thunder roll of the nourishing rain she would never see) that at her self-imposed miserable life was taken.

Then, beginning Chapter I, only impersonal newspaper mention of Mary's death verifies the wasteland theme. As Mrs. Lessing's first endeavor it had straight-forward descriptions, lacking subtlety, and this was faulted by critics. But a wasteland is not subtle, it is fraught with harsh cruelty. Later, with her Martha Quest series and as Mrs. Lessing and as her writing matured, she was more sophisticated, bringing about more of a capacity to express beauty even in the harsh farm landscapes understanding and guiltlessness and compassion that Martha, for one, showed. There is not an iota of compassion in the characters in The Grass is Singing. There is a reason: all of the pity and compassion were felt by Mrs. Lessing herself, though she spares Mary nothing, comes off as too pragmatic, illusory, and of the intriguing Moses who is not your cookie-cutter "native," and demands respect. I do not see Mary and Moses having a true sexual relationship, as Moses was as repulsed by her dry, straw-hard hair and frightened manner. Mary was fighting herself all the way. The ultimate betrayal, in Moses' eyes, had begun when she slashed his face with a sjambok. First he discovered her weakness, and when the opportunity came, as "houseboy" he played her like a fiddle, respectfully calling her Madame, yet having nothing but contempt for her, as she in turn cried, flirted, and berated. When Tony Marston told him to leave and she and Dick were to leave the farm Moses destroyed her, and he and the bush had their revenge. This is of course, only one theory; I have gone back and forth with a half-dozen others, too. I appreciate your spot-on literary criticism.

Only lately I found out the great Doris Lessing has passed on at age 94. She leaves us only in body. We need only open a book and she is not dead to us who enjoy her works.

Anonymous said...

trying to erase this comment

Elizabeth Baines said...

Anonymous, thank you for your detailed appreciation of the book, and for sharing your thoughts.