The Grass Is Singing Summary and Study Guide

Doris Lessing

The Grass Is Singing

  • 42-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 11 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis.
  • Written by a literary scholar with a Master's degree in English Literature
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The Grass Is Singing Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 42-page guide for “The Grass is Singing” by Doris Lessing includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 11 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Farm Life versus City Life and Institutionalized Racism.

Plot Summary

The Grass is Singing, a novel by Nobel Prize-winning British author Doris Lessing, is set in 1940s Rhodesia, a southern African country now called Zimbabwe. It centers around the murder of a white farmer’s wife by her black houseboy, a crime fueled by the institutionalized racism that pervades 1940s Rhodesia. The novel has a unique structure, in which the first chapters detail the murder and local reaction to it, then slips into an extended flashback in order to explain the circumstances behind the crime.

Chapter 1 starts with a newspaper article describing the murder of Mary Turner, wife of Richard, by her black servant, Moses. The local white community is surprised, but not overly concerned. The Turners were reclusive and generally disliked, and Richard has subsequently gone mad. The Turner’s assistant, Tony Marston, describes finding the body and hints that he knows the reason for the murder. But the Turner’s neighbor, Charlie Slatter, and local authority Sargent Denham reject this, thinking that Marston, a recent transplant from England, doesn’t understand life in Africa. The murder rattles Marston, who leaves for England in the months after. The novel then flashes back to Mary Turner’s unhappy early life. Burdened with emotionally absent, combative parents, Mary leaves early for boarding school, then secretarial work. She begins searching for a husband. Then, Dick Turner, a struggling farmer, spots Mary at a movie. The two eventually marry.

The early years of their marriage are awkward. Mary, used to the city, does not feel at home on Dick’s rustic farm. She meets the black house servant, Samson. She resents Dick for his generosity to Samson, which she feels in unwarranted. She takes control of the household, becoming so stingy with Samson that he eventually offers his resignation. Tensions rise between Mary and Dick, as he grows frustrated with her waste of precious water and lack of interest in sex.  She meets but dislikes Charlie Slatter and his wife, finding them patronizing. The Turners cycle through one black house servant after another, as Mary’s iron fist drives them away.

Dick engages in an ill-fated venture to run a bee farm, and Mary begins to suspect that he is not nearly as good of a farmer as he lets on. He then decides to open a kaffir store, a shop for native black Rhodesians. Mary is repulsed by her customers and the store does poorly. Dick has more failed business ventures, trying to raise pigs, turkeys, then rabbits. She learns that Charlie Slatter plans to buy Dick’s farm when he inevitably goes bankrupt, and runs off to the city to try to get her old job back. But after her old boss rejects her and she’s unable to pay her hotel bill, Mary realizes her old life is gone forever. She returns home. Soon after, Dick contracts malaria. Mary is forced to nurse him and supervise the native workers, whom she fears and despises. But as the weeks pass, Mary finds she likes being in charge, but the workers grow resentful of her demands. This conflict comes to a head when one, a man named Moses, refuses to continue working and Mary strikes him. She fears he’ll hit her back, but he goes back to work. After Dick recovers, Mary presents him with her opinions of how to most efficiently run the farm. He feels respect for Mary, but also shame, and above all, grief and anger that her plans for tobacco farming ultimately end in them moving to the city. But he agrees.

Mary leaves Dick to his farming, but a drought ruins their first tobacco crop. Mary becomes depressed, especially after Dick tells her they can’t afford to have a child. After Dick invites Mary to view the farming with him, she realizes they will never succeed due to his incompetence. She sees Moses, the worker she struck in the face, and is torn between guilt over her actions, intrigue at his muscular body, and revulsion over his race. She is particularly critical of Moses, but he accepts her harsh word without complaint. But eventually, Moses announces he will leave at the end of the month. She begs him to stay, and he reluctantly agrees. She begins dreaming of Moses’ body. She begins to avoid Moses, terrified by her own subconscious thoughts.

Gossip begins to go around the local community about Mary and Dick, that both have begun to lose their marbles. Charlie Slatter, who has not seen the couple in two years, pays a visit. Mary is thin and dressed inappropriately, like a young girl. Slatter tells Dick to take Mary on a vacation and sell his farm, promising he can stay on as land manager. Dick agrees, though his pain is evident. Slatter hires Martson to run the farm in Dick’s absence. Marston is shocked by Mary’s mental state, Dick’s physical deterioration, and the decaying farm. He sees Moses helping Mary with her dress, an intimate act considered taboo in a place like Rhodesia. Marston orders Moses to leave, which sends Mary into a fit. The Turners are to leave for vacation the day after next.

Mary awakes the next day and goes about her chores in a kind of trance, feeling that Moses is somewhere on the farm, waiting. She imagines the grass is singing, that the farm will be consumed by the trees and animals when she leaves. She wanders the farm, eventually encountering Marston, whom she imagines to be Dick. She tells him she’s ill in her heart, and always has been. She returns to the house. Dick tells her to pack for the trip, but Mary has a sense of her impending death. She goes to bed alone, but is awakened by thunder outside, and a sense that Moses is near. She goes onto the veranda and sees Moses approaching. She wonders if she’ll be able to explain herself, but Moses stabs her to death before she can say a word. She dies, her last thought being that “the bush has avenged itself.” Moses cleans his weapon. He decides that he will not pretend to be innocent when the body is found. With the ultimate victory must come the ultimate consequence.

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