The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
The Infectious Oppression in Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing
Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing illustrates the highly complex and sometimes confusing master/slave relationship in South Africa. According to Marion Vlastos, Lessing shies away from the mental effect that slavery has on the Black Africans and hones in on the mindset of the “domineering and disturbed encrusted white minds” (245). In doing so, she suggest that the Whites in South Africa are mentally disturbed in their actions towards Blacks. When one is oppressed for an extended length of time, one sometimes takes on the behaviors and attitudes of one’s oppressors. Doris Lessing illustrates this in The Grass is Singing through Mary’s character. She illustrates this female adaptation of cruelty and oppression in order to further her feminist agenda, and she also uses this venue to illustrate the cruel and absurd nature of racism. Feminism is focused on equality and the end of patriarchal rule in society. In essence, Mary is a victim of racism and feminist’s oppression and is adopting the behavior of other oppressive human beings because she is in a societal defined subjugated position.
Marriage and Patriarchal Oppression
Lessing does not illustrate Mary as a victim of patriarchal oppression until she gets married; however, she does portray Mary as a victim of societal pressure to confirm to the constructs of patriarchal rule. The societal pressure places her in a position where she must immediately conform to society’s expectations as an unmarried woman. As a matter of interest, Mary admits that women experience patriarchal oppression, but she also asserts that she has not been a victim of such oppression earlier in the text. Mary observes that her mother was indeed the victim of such oppression via the way her father treated her; however, Mary does not know such oppression until after she marries. Observe:
It had never occurred to her to think, for instance, that she, the daughter of a petty railway official and a woman whose life had been so unhappy because of economic pressure that she had literally pined to death, was living much the same way as the daughters of the wealthiest in South Africa, could do as she pleased-could marry, if she wished, anyone she wanted…Till she was twenty-five, nothing happened to break the smooth and comfortable life she led. Then her father died. That removed the last link that bound her to a childhood she hated to remember…There was nothing left to connect her with…the strife between her parents. Nothing at all! She was free. (Lessing 32-33)
This text exemplifies the freedom that Mary feels when she is not bound to the patriarchal societal rule that her community dictates. When she marries Dick, this patriarchal societal rule reenters her life, and she pays the ultimate price for it. Even though she feels a free existence before marrying, she knows that in Rhodesian society her very existence, as a women, is measured by others’ perspectives in her ability to walk behind a man so to speak. On the other hand, men may marry at various ages in Rhodesian society without the stigma or judgment attached to waiting to marry later in life.
Furthermore Lessing criticizes the traditional gender expectations in Rhodesian society. Males and females have certain expectations to meet in their society, and failure to meet those expectations on either of their parts is met with scrutiny. For example, males are expected to secure the economic position of the household, and females are expected to take care of the home, children, and man in the house. This is apparent in the reasons the narrator expresses for Dick wanting to wed Mary:
He knew perfectly well what he wanted: a pleasant companion, a mother for his children and someone to run his house for him. He found Mary good company, and she was kind to children. Nothing, really, could have been more suitable: since apparently she had to get married, this was the kind of marriage to suit her best (Lessing 40).
This illustrates that their marriage was convenient for the both of them; however, Mary does not seem to take into account the sexual aspect of the relationship. When Dick attempts to make love to her, she responds negatively. She is not attracted to the older man; however, in a patriarchal driven, oppressive society, this is not something that is taken into account for women. As a woman, she must be willing to please the male regardless. However, Lessing does give Dick’s character a sense of humanity in his response to the sexual strife between him and Mary. He says to himself, “He had no right to marry, no right, no right. He said it under his breath, torturing himself with the repetition” (Lessing 56). This illustrates Dick’s thoughts before entering the bed with Mary and having intercourse for the first time. Dick is not exactly pleased with the fact that he is going to have sex with a woman who is not exactly willing even though he is married to her. Marriage is what gives him the right to perform such a relation. Mary takes wisdom from the experience in now knowing that she may leave her body and have sex with him whenever she needed,
It was not so bad, she thought, when it was all over: not as bad as that. It meant nothing to her, nothing at all. Expecting outrage and imposition, she was relieved to find she felt nothing. She was able maternally to bestow the gift of herself on this humble stranger, and remain untouched. Women have an extraordinary ability to withdraw from the sexual relationship, to immunize themselves against it in such a way that their men can be left feeling let down and insulted without having anything tangible to complain of (Lessing 56)
Here Lessing illustrates Mary’s lie to herself. Mary lies to herself to survive; she attempts to convince herself that unwilling submission to sex and marriage does not hold such a terrible existence. However, her repressed feelings do emerge to the surface in other modes of behavior. For instance, she will in essence require Moses to tend to her sexually, an act he must perform willingly or not. Regardless, this is yet another example of how she adopts the attitudes and mores of the oppressive society in which she lives.
Patriarchal Rule and Economics
A further illustration of patriarchal rule in Rhodesian society is apparent in the doling of money in the household. Mary is not allowed to freely use the water because it could become expensive. This may seem to some as just being economically frugal; however, when the reader examines the situation deeper, it does seem oppressive on Dick’s part. Observe the narration: “What are you using it for?” asked Dick. She told him. His face darkened, and he looked at her in incredulous horror, as if she had committed a crime. “What, wasting it like that?” “I am not wasting it,” she said coldly. “I am so hot I can’t stand it. I want to cool myself” (Lessing 75). Dick then goes into a rant about how it cost him money to send someone to gather water, and then her apologizes. Nonetheless, Mary is made to feel like a second class citizen for using water in her own home. Imagine the psychological impact of being scolded like this for using water when one is used to living on one’s own and not being regulated.
Mary Adopts an Oppressive Attitude
The most poignant illustration of Mary’s adoption of an oppressive attitude is apparent in her interaction with Moses and with the servants in general. The outcome of her oppressive behavior is her death. As a victim of oppression, Moses takes his revenge out on Mary. Mary breaks and disgraces Moses as a man. Mary exhibits male pride in her oppressive behavior towards Moses and leaves him feeling empty. This illustrates how males in Rhodesian society would react to the loss of power and control over women. Observe:
And this was his final moment of triumph, a moment so perfect and complete that it took the urgency from thoughts of escape, leaving him indifferent…Though 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. For, when he had gone perhaps a couple of hundred yards through the soaking bush he stopped, turned aside, and leaned against a tree on an ant heap. And there he would remain, until his pursuers, in their turn, came to find him. (Lessing 238)
The irony of this entire situation is that both Moses and Mary feel the vulnerability of their conditions. What leads these two human beings to this point of existence? Again, Mary has adopted an oppressive attitude; however, she is also oppressed by social expectations.
We see the impact oppressive social expectations has on her with her cruel behavior when Tony witnesses Moses coming out of Mary’s room after a sexual encounter. At this point, Mary has abandoned acceptable interaction with Moses both physically and verbally. However, she must have an explanation when Tony inquires regarding her behavior with Moses, and her solution is to make it appear as though Moses is an aggressor who will not go away. Tony tells Moses to leave, and Moses asks Mary if that is what she wants. Mary tells Moses to leave. Here Moses is hurt and placed back into a nonhuman light with Mary’s behavior. Mary’s yo-yo-like behavior is intrinsic in her ongoing interaction with Moses. The reader sees Mary’s inner conflict when she cries out in woe as a reaction to Moses actually leaving.
In the End
At the point of death, Mary feels the helplessness as a woman in Moses’ presence; furthermore, she feels the impact of the loss of control over her very existence come to a final head:
She opened her mouth to speak; and, as she did so, saw his hand, which held a long curving shape, lifted above his head; and she knew it would be too late. All her past slid away, and her mouth, opened in appeal, let out the beginning of a scream, which was stopped by a black wedge of hand inserted between her jaws. But the scream continued, in her stomach, choking her; and she lifted her hands, clawlike, to ward him off. (Lessing 236)
Here the muddled screaming that she knew continued in her stomach is a representation of the screaming that she embarks upon in her life as a woman in Rhodesian society. When she opens her mouth to make a statement in futility, the reader observes the symbolism of what it is like for a woman to speak out in protest in a patriarchal oppressive society.
Mary actually realizes that she has treated Moses unjustly, but this realization comes to fruition in her mindset too late:
She could see his great shoulders, the shape of his head, the glistening of his eyes. And, at the sight of him, her emotions unexpectedly shifted, to create in her an extraordinary feeling of guilt; but towards him, to whom she had been disloyal, and at the bidding of the Englishman [Tony]. She felt she had only to move forward, to explain, to appeal, and the terror would be dissolved. (Lessing 236)
Just as Mary has been subjected to male rule, she has focused her anger in Moses’ direction and subjected him to the same abusive and oppressive rule. She even thinks of attempting to apologize to him, a behavior that many domestic abusers exhibit in a cycle of abuse; however, Moses’ emotions have taken over in the sense of how a fed up victim of abuse would be, and he kills her in a rage. In some cases, a victim who is placed in a hierarchal position will become an abuser. Because of her station in life, Mary does not feel good about or even like herself, and in oppressing others, she gains some buoyancy: “The sensation of being boss over perhaps eighty black workers gave her new confidence; it was a good feeling, keeping them under her well, making them do as she wanted” (Lessing 125). Mary also admits that she obtained her style of rule over the servants from her father. Mary inherited the prime ability to hate, belittle, and disrespect others from her father. This inheritance led to her less that peaceful departure from this life.
The Grass is Singing is a successful illustration of how oppressive behavior acts as a contagious disease in oppressive societies. Persecution of those who appear meek in the eyes of the socially oppressive only leads to destructive ends for all parties involved. Doris Lessing provides a prime example of such a scenario while demonstrating the relationship between Mary and Moses. Mary oppresses and emasculates Moses, and in doing so, she emasculates herself in the same sense because she is infested with male-like oppressive behavior. Some readers assert that Mary deserves such a death because of her actions; however, one who delves deeper into her actions sees that no one triumphs in the end, making patriarchal oppressive societies seem destined to end in Shakespearean-like tragedy.
Lessing, Doris. The Grass is Singing. London: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2000. Print.
Vlastos, Marion. “Doris Lessing and R.D. Laing: Psychopolitics and Prophecy.” PMLA 91. 2 (1976): 245-258. Print.