A Not Insignificant Death: The Grass is Singing.

Author:Normey, Rob
Position:Critical essay

Doris Lessing left Africa--Southern Rhodesia to be precise, to journey by ship to England with the most meagre of personal possessions--a suitcase, a small sum of money and a manuscript. It was the manuscript which would transform the life of this fearless colonial from the margins of the fast-changing British Empire. In 1950, this deeply personal manuscript would be transformed into the novel The Grass Is Singing. Lessing's debut was an astonishing novel which must have been received by a number of British readers as an assault on their belief systems. The Grass is Singing opens in dramatic, albeit understated, fashion with a small news report indicating that Mary Turner, wife of the white British-Rhodesian farmer Dick Turner, had been found murdered on her front verandah. Her house boy, Moses, had confessed to the killing.

While the unsuspecting reader might believe that the novelist will probe the mystery inherent in the stark reality of a murder of a poor white woman by her black servant and at the very least the deeper motivations for the brutal act, Lessing defies conventional expectations. This tale of murder is far less an investigation into Moses' role than an investigation into why another white farmer and a neighbor of the Turners, Charlie Slatter, displays such open contempt for the dead woman. As an important representative of the white community in the region, Charlie's views reflect a widespread and overwhelming desire to cover up the most important facts of Mary's last days.

In the opening chapter, Charlie quickly condemns both Mary and Dick for their unconventional dealings with the black workers on their farm. Charlie attributes the violent attack to the failure of "the man" of the house, Dick, to take a firm hand with Moses and the other black servants. He asserts this as a principle which passes in this confined world as conventional wisdom. In the hypocritical world of these British colonials, it is vital to ensure that no thoughts of free and easy discourse by mere servants are able to emerge. There is no doubt that Charlie deals with his black servants and farm hands with an iron hand. The narrator makes this clear when informing us of the time Charlie actually became enraged by one of his native workers, striking and killing him. For this, he was fined 30 pounds! We might ponder the difference in treatment that the justice system provides to Charlie and to Moses, who will be hanged for his offence. The racial divide...

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