A Not Insignificant Death: The Grass is Singing - LawNow Magazine

A Not Insignificant Death: The Grass is Singing

 Law and Literature ColumnDoris Lessing left Africa – Southern Rhodesia to be precise, to journey by ship to England with the most meagre of personal possessions – a suitcase, a small sum of money and a manuscript. It was the manuscript which would transform the life of this fearless colonial from the margins of the fast-changing British Empire. In 1950, this deeply personal manuscript would be transformed into the novel The Grass Is Singing. Lessing’s debut was an astonishing novel which must have been received by a number of British readers as an assault on their belief systems. The Grass is Singing opens in dramatic, albeit understated, fashion with a small news report indicating that Mary Turner, wife of the white British-Rhodesian farmer Dick Turner, had been found murdered on her front verandah. Her house boy, Moses, had confessed to the killing.

As a courageous truth-teller, Lessing did not hesitate to criticize the growing racism generated by Mugabe and his party, the ZUNAU-PF. While the unsuspecting reader might believe that the novelist will probe the mystery inherent in the stark reality of a murder of a poor white woman by her black servant and at the very least the deeper motivations for the brutal act, Lessing defies conventional expectations. This tale of murder is far less an investigation into Moses’ role than an investigation into why another white farmer and a neighbor of the Turners , Charlie Slatter, displays such open contempt for the dead woman.  As an important representative of the white community in the region, Charlie’s views reflect a widespread and overwhelming desire to cover up the most important facts of Mary’s last days.

In the opening chapter, Charlie quickly condemns both Mary and Dick for their unconventional dealings with the black workers on their farm. Charlie attributes the violent attack to the failure of “the man” of the house, Dick, to take a firm hand with Moses and the other black servants. He asserts this as a principle which passes in this confined world as conventional wisdom. In the hypocritical world of these British colonials, it is vital to ensure that no thoughts of free and easy discourse by mere servants are able to emerge.  There is no doubt that Charlie deals with his black servants and farm hands with an iron hand. The narrator makes this clear when informing us of the time Charlie actually became enraged by one of his native workers, striking and killing him. For this, he was fined 30 pounds! We might ponder the difference in treatment that the justice system provides to Charlie and to Moses, who will be hanged for his offence. The racial divide is illustrated further at various places in the book.

The reader should know that the title of this work is taken from a line of T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land, and in particular the section “What the Thunder Said.” Lessing then introduces the character of Tony Marston, a young public school graduate who has come out to the colony from England. As an assistant on the farm, Tony has had the opportunity to closely observe the relations between the Turners, their black farm workers and household help. Tony is truly bewildered by the lack of interest displayed by both Charlie and the investigating officer in determining what motivated Moses to commit the deed and what Mary did to place her in a dangerous relationship with him. In fact these men, and, one suspects, other key members of the white community of farmers and local officials, want to throw a heavy veil of silence around the entire act and the obvious fact that Mary had an intimate relationship with Moses (which might well have had a sexual component). She has violated an unwritten code and rather than honoring this long-suffering member of their community, all thought of her fate must be banished.  As the narrator explains, it is as if she has breached the esprit de corps or the pride of the farming community. They can only proceed with confidence if the myth of white superiority if maintained and if a rigid colour bar is maintained at all times.

Tony, however, has not reached a point where he might have considered such attitudes normal and necessary to protect the well-being of the community. Since the murder occurred early during his temporary stay in Southern Africa, it is indeed strange and unnatural in his eyes. While Marston initially places his trust in the trial process to get to the bottom of this disturbing act, instead it becomes clear that both the prosecutor and the judge have conspired with others to prevent any probing.  The narrator is left to conduct an inquiry into this event and the significance of Mary’s death on the reader’s behalf.

In The Grass is Singing, Lessing has drawn a haunting portrait of a marriage under extreme pressure. Lessing carefully traces the unique limitations in upbringing of the characters, especially of Mary’s in a society where women are expected to comply as companions to their husband’s social role. However, Lessing also highlights the damaging effects of the racial discrimination and oppression. Dick indeed is viewed by many as something of a fish out of water because he at times develops a free and open relationship with his black farm hands, treating some in comradely fashion.  His neighbors expect him to be vigilant in stamping out all thought of independent action and to strictly discipline his black workers.  In the Turner’s rather unsuccessful and increasingly diminished social circumstances, Mary ends up taking out her frustrations on the Africans working in the home.

Mary actually brandishes a whip and slashes the face of one of the servants. A critical point in the plot develops when Mary grasps that by giving stern orders, failing to allow for natural frailty, and prohibiting the staff to stop for breaks in the intense heat are leading to acts of rebellion. Mary actually brandishes a whip and slashes the face of one of the servants. Rather than realizing that she has developed a hateful domineering approach, she determines that greater use of threats is necessary. She then warns some of the workers that she will seek police assistance to ensure that they abide strictly by a contract they are supposed to have signed. Under the laws of this Southern African state (not named), they can be compelled to return to work based on commitments forced from them because of a complete lack of bargaining power.

The arc of the novel will reverse shortly after this point and Mary will begin to unravel and increasingly become prone to mental instability. The novel will explode in the final chapters which depict her final disintegration in highly symbolic terms. The reader should know that the title of this work is taken from a line of T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land, and in particular the section “What the Thunder Said.” This is a risky strategy for Lessing and it largely works for me, despite her failure to provide sufficient details which would enable us to understand Moses’ motivations better.

While Marston initially places his trust in the trial process to get to the bottom of this disturbing act, instead it becomes clear that both the prosecutor and the judge have conspired with others to prevent any probing.  It is worth placing this novel in the context of the Nobel Prize winner’s later work.  Lessing treats her protagonists with a fair degree of compassion. They are inevitably tangled up in the racist foundations of African society in the years during and just after the Second World War. Yet we glimpse the capacity to respond in a positive manner to new opportunities. Dick in particular shows a true love of the soil and respect for the integrity of those who work the land, granting some dignity to his black farmhands. Mary’s relationship with Moses reveals levels of intimacy which, while disturbing to other whites, nonetheless reveals the potential for a member of the white community to perceive the Africans as something other than second class citizens who are to be treated like beasts of burden.

Lessing goes on to make a case in a later work, African Voices, for the white farmers and their critical role in maintaining a viable economy in post- colonial South Rhodesia, renamed Zimbabwe. Long before many others in the West had given up on Mugabe for his human rights violations, she was an early critic of the dictatorial rule of Robert Mugabe. As a courageous truth-teller, Lessing did not hesitate to criticize the growing racism generated by Mugabe and his party, the ZUNAU-PF. Had the international community heeded her warnings, for example, the violent land seizure program of 2000, affecting thousands of white farmers and their families, might have been averted.

Authors:

Rob Normey
Rob Normey is a lawyer who has practised in Edmonton for many years and is a long-standing member of several human rights organizations.
 


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