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The Grass Is Singing is the first novel, published in 1950, by Britishmarker Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing. It takes place in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwemarker), in southern Africa, during the late 1940s and deals with the racial politics between whites and blacks in that country (which was then a British Colony). The novel created a sensation when it was first published and became an instant success in Europe and the United States.


Mary has a happy and satisfied life as a single white Rhodesian (we assume, though the novel refers to both Rhodesia and the Union of South Africa simply as South Africa, while making clear the farm is in Southern Rhodesiamarker) woman. She has a nice job, numerous friends, and values her independence. Nevertheless, after overhearing an insulting remark at a party about her spinsterhood, she resolves to marry.

The man she marries, after a brief courtship, Dick Turner, is a white farmer struggling to make his farm profitable. She moves with him to his farm and supports the house, while Dick manages the labor of the farm. Dick and Mary are somewhat cold and distant from each other, but are committed to their marriage. Dick and Mary live together an apolitical life mired by poverty and lack of money. When Dick gets sick Mary takes over the management of the farm and rages at the incompetence of her husband's farm practice. To Mary, the farm exists only to make money, while Dick goes about farming in a more idealistic way.

Mary and Dick live a solitary life together. Because of their poverty Dick refuses to bear Mary a child. They do not attend social events, yet are a great topic of interest among their neighbors. Mary feels an intimate connection with the nature around her, though being in general rather unexplorative in nature.

Mary, like most Rhodesian women, is overtly racist, believing that whites should be masters over the native blacks. Dick and Mary both often complain about the lack of work ethic among the natives that work on their farm. While Dick is rarely cruel to the workers that work for them, Mary is quite cruel. She treats herself as their master and superior. She shows contempt for the natives, and finds them disgusting and animal-like. Mary is cross, queenly, and overtly hostile to the many house servants she has over the years. When Mary oversees the farm labor she is much more repressive than Dick had ever been. She works them harder, reduces their break time, and arbitrarily takes money from their pay. Her hatred of natives results in her whipping the face of a worker because he speaks to her in English, telling her he stopped work for a drink of water.

This worker, named Moses, comes to be a very important person in Mary's life, when he is taken to be a servant for the house. Mary does not feel fear of her servant Moses but rather a great deal of disgust, repugnance, and avoidance. Often Mary does all she can to avoid having any social proximity with him.

After many years living on the farm together, Dick and Mary are seen to be in a condition of deterioration. Mary often goes through spells of depression, during which she is exhausted of energy and motivation. In her frailty, Mary ends up relying more and more on Moses. As Mary becomes weaker, she finds herself feeling endearment toward Moses.

On a rare visit from their neighbor, Slatter, Mary is seen being carelessly, thoughtlessly kind to Moses. This enrages Slatter. Slatter demands that Mary not live with that worker as a house servant. Slatter sees himself as defending the values and integrity of the white community.

Slatter uses his charisma and influence to convince Dick to give up ownership of his farm and go on a vacation with his wife. This vacation is to be a sort of convalescence for them. Dick spends his last month on his farm with Tony, who has been hired by Slatter to take over the running of the farm. Tony has good intentions and is very superficially cultured, but he finds himself having to adapt to the racism of the white community. One day Tony sees Moses dressing Mary and is surprised and somewhat amazed by Mary's breaking of the 'colour bar'.

The book closes with Mary's death at the hand of Moses. Mary is expecting his arrival and is aware of her imminent death. Moses does not run from the scene as he originally intends, but waits a short distance away for the arrival of the police.

Title, dedication, and introductory quotations

The title is a phrase from the fifteen lines of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land quoted after the novel's dedication to a Mrs Gladys Maasdorp "of Southern Rhodesia, for whom I feel the greatest affection and admiration." Found on both lines 354 and 386 of Part V: 'What the Thunder Said', it is one of the more jubilant and reviving images used in that section, despite its theme of destruction's power over growth. Lessing also quotes an anonymous author: "It is by the failures and misfits of a civilisation that one can best judge its weaknesses.

Analysis and impact on literature

The Grass Is Singing is a bleak analysis of a failed marriage, the neurosis of white sexuality, and the fear of black power that Lessing saw as underlying the white colonial experience of Africa. The novel's treatment of the tragic decline of Mary and Dick Turner's fortunes becomes a metaphor for the whole white presence in Africa. The novel is honest about the fault-lines in the white psyche.


The book was adapted into a movie in 1981 by a Swedishmarker company. Filmed in Zambiamarker, the film stars John Thaw, Karen Black and John Kani in the lead roles. It is also known under the titles Gräset Sjunger (Swedish) and Killing Heat.

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