Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 350

Using a newspaper article to document the murder of a white farmer's wife by her native servant, Lessing addresses the human tendency to generalize, sensationalize, and confirm their worst assumptions, fears, and beliefs. The article clipping itself is followed by the narrator's exploration of the situation following the murder before...

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Using a newspaper article to document the murder of a white farmer's wife by her native servant, Lessing addresses the human tendency to generalize, sensationalize, and confirm their worst assumptions, fears, and beliefs. The article clipping itself is followed by the narrator's exploration of the situation following the murder before the reader even encounters the characters' points of view. These narrative explorations throughout the remainder of chapter one direct the reader to the primary issues surrounding the murder and the society in which it takes place. In the end, all of the participants implicate themselves in wrongdoing and lack of respect for human dignity.

The rest of the novel provides extended flashbacks up to murder. Chapter two returns to Mary's childhood, and she remains the focus of more chapters than other characters. Most importantly, Lessing shows how successfully Mary lives in the city by herself and returns to it when she temporarily flees her husband.

The distinctive omniscient narrative voice encourages readers to interpret the events from an ever-widening understanding of viewpoints. Sometimes Lessing uses this narrative device to comment on a political situation or people's attitudes and beliefs, for example, in the beginning of chapter ten:

People who live to themselves, whether from necessity or choice, and who do not trouble themselves about their neighbors' affairs, are always disquieted and uneasy if by some chance they come to know that other people discuss them. It is as though a sleeping man should awake and find round his bed a circle of strangers staring at him.

From this point on, readers see Mary's quickening disintegration in her growing dreams and visions of plants overtaking the farm.

Only in the last chapter do readers encounter the key player's actions leading up to the murder. Mary is seen knowingly awaiting her fate, and finally the murderer's last actions and the details of what happened are revealed. The narrator warns, however, that personal emotions are impossible to decipher and so Moses's motives for the murder remain ambiguous. His actions are viewed from the standpoint of someone observing another than from within his mind.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Introducing so many of Lessing's recurring themes, The Grass Is Singing remains a solid selection to explore the issues surrounding them and how they have changed over the last fifty years.

1. Lessing provides two epigraphs to the novel. One is an excerpt from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and the other is from an unknown author: "It is by the failures and misfits of a civilization that one can best judge its weaknesses." How does Lessing's novel reflect the epigraphs that she chooses to precede it?

2. Why is the title fitting in this story?

3. Is this novel still relevant in depicting racial relationships or does it represent a period of history that no longer exists?

4. Is this novel a tragedy? If so, who is the tragic figure?

5. How does the novel support the dictum "the personal is the political"?

Social Concerns

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This first novel by a prolific contemporary writer who has written for more than fifty years offers exploration of a number of recurring themes that appear in her fictional work. By thoroughly exploring various power struggles on the African continent of the early twentieth century, Doris Lessing established herself as a writer known for her politics. Not only does Lessing clearly delineate the typical racial relationship between white farmers and their native workers, she addresses how and why the whites continued to oppress the native workers and allowed few variances in the unequal balance of power. Raised in Southern Rhodesia, the author intimately knew such relationships and recognized the injustices. Her autobiographies, Under My Skin (1995) and Walking in the Shade (1997), have indicated that she particularly drew upon her personal experiences to develop the characters and issues of her early stories.

Lessing further explores power relationships between males and females, particularly courtship and the institution of marriage. Because of the issues she raises about a white, patriarchal society's oppression of such victims as women and the poor, many Marxist and feminist readers have embraced her works. At the time of her earliest publications, including The Grass Is Singing, Lessing was an active supporter of the Communist Party, as were many of the intelligentsia.

The Grass Is Singing explores how Mary Turner's relationships with her husband, the servants, and the neighbors ultimately produce little grief at her murder, other than that provided by the outsider, Tony Marston. The newly arrived assistant on the Turner's farm, Marston responds as much from his horror at the manifestation of murder as for any personal feelings for the woman herself. Whether the Turners ignored or defied the "esprit de corps which is the first rule of South African society," the neighbors despised them for their resistance to the group's code of action. In the first chapter, the narrator directs the reader's focus to include the peripheral characters' points of view:

The more one thinks about it, the more extraordinary the case becomes. Not the murder Itself; but the way people felt about it, the way they pitied Dick Turner with a fine fierce indignation against Mary, as if she were something unpleasant and unclean, and it served her right to get murdered. But they did not ask questions.

Clearly this narrative statement indicates Lessing's interest in how individuals who support the hegemony's point of view perceive the victim of a violent death. Lessing has continued to question such assumptions in both her fiction and non-fiction writing.

Not only has Lessing repeatedly pushed against the boundaries established by the ruling society in her writings, but she has also addressed characters who battle with mental instability as their sense of self and their relationships to others are shattered. Mary Turner is the first of a number of women characters whom Lessing develops fully to explore the issues relating to mental breakdown and its oftentimes life-threatening consequences.

Literary Precedents

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Self-educated after the age of thirteen, Lessing largely read the classics. She has noted that the Russian novelists Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anton Chekhov most influenced her writing. Dostoevsky's books explore the emotional and spiritual mental states of individuals who are plagued by guilt for crimes or moral lassitude. The tension of the deceit, guilt, and retribution of the sexual triangle apparent in The Grass Is Singing appears in The Brothers Karamazov, although the moral codes being broken are between family members.

Both Dostoevsky's and Chekhov's exploration of relations between the sexes and issues of ownership and materialism appear in Lessing's work. Chekhov's The Cherry Tree raises the question of how much one could and should attempt to own. As part of the intelligentsia, Lessing actively embraced Communism until she recognized its shortcomings before World War II. Her political beliefs do appear quite frequently in the narrative voices of her earlier works.

One might also draw parallels from Mary to Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Henrik Johan Ibsen's Anna in A Doll's House, both works featuring protagonists who also find themselves in unhappy marriages. All three of the women break not only the codes but also the laws of their society by leaving their husbands and taking on other relations. Like Emma, Mary's dreams and expectations are not fulfilled when she finds herself living in the country. The tragedy for Mary, however, is that she does not have the strength to resist going back, where the lack of understanding one another's needs will slowly unravel the relationship with her husband.

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