2017 Reading Challenge, Book 24


A book you read based on its cover, The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

Set in South Africa, this novel artfully serves as a blunt, unrestrained examination of racial relations between the native Black majority and the White ruling class. Lessing pulls no punches as she unflinchingly peels back the polite veneer of racism to portray the seething, awful thought process that pervades this society and substantiates its racial inequities. Lessing exposes readers to the insidiousness of racist ideology and aids us in gaining a better understanding of how such systemic inequality not only takes root but also flourishes, even in a nation where the oppressed group is the majority. Using an omniscient narrator, Lessing adeptly reveals the hateful, ugly thoughts of the White farmers and their inherently biased views of Black laborers. We are privy to the breakdown in language as well as culture that serves to exacerbate the issue and fuel the elitist ideology that represses the laboring class.

Lessing also uses this novel as an opportunity to comment upon rampant sexism against women. Mary, our heroine, for lack of a better term, is a bright, industrious, happy young woman. She is completely self-reliant and happy to be on her own until one day, she overhears her “friends” making comments about how ‘ridiculous’ she looks, how others laugh at her for being her age and unmarried, and how they wonder what is wrong with her and why she doesn’t see how hilarious she is by dressing and acting younger than she is. These comments devastate Mary and turn her into a needy, self-conscious shell of her former self (thanks a lot, male gaze!). She decides to marry because “other people want her to,” not because of any real desire to do so or love for another person. She marries an unsuccessful farmer named Dick, and this is where her story takes a tragic turn. She moves to the farm and has nothing to occupy her days. Her husband expects her to be a “spoiled wife” satisfied with running a household. Like countless independent women before her, Mary is so bored and lacking direction that she begins to hate everyone and everything. She takes out her anger on Dick and the Black servants/farm hands. We watch her self-destruct and mentally unravel throughout the course of the novel until her untimely end. While I would argue the novel’s focus is foremost on the racial relationships in South Africa, it also contains within it the shadow narrative of how the male gaze and sexist institutions destroy women.

The novel opens with the murder of a white woman—Mary—and the crime presumably committed by one of the native ranch workers. However, circumstances are more than a little suspicious; when the Black police arrive, the worker comes out from behind a bush and simply says, “I am here,” which is taken as an admission of guilt. But is it really? When the White police arrive, they are disgusted to find Mary and don’t bother to hide their feelings. They blame the victim for getting murdered—it was her own fault for having a sexual relationship with someone outside of her caste. It’s unclear whether this is a fact or a rumor but nevertheless, the police don’t take the murder seriously. Mary’s husband is driven mad by the series of events and is taken away by the police. The story then circles back to the beginning and we see Mary’s life and  the subsequent events that lead up to her murder. As we watch Mary’s descent into madness and the actions that lead to her death, Lessing artfully highlights the racist and sexist paradigms that lead people to such horrific outcomes, making a poignant statement through this tragic tale. This novel is definitely a must-read.


About alycemsustko

Reader, writer, catmom extraordinaire
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