The Grass is Singing

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Themes and Colors
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
Hierarchy and Authority Theme Icon
Brutality vs. Civilization Theme Icon
Independence, Isolation, and Exile Theme Icon
Femininity, Sexuality, and Maternity Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Grass is Singing, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Hierarchy and Authority Theme Icon

The Grass is Singing takes place in Zimbabwe (formerly known as Southern Rhodesia) during the time of British colonial rule, and one of the most important themes of the novel is the way in which society is organized according to hierarchies. During the time the novel is set, the British socioeconomic class system remains extremely rigid, making it impossible for most people living in the United Kingdom to move up the social ladder. However, in Rhodesia and other colonies, even the poorest whites are still further up this ladder than the entire black population. (The narrator also notes that English-speaking white Rhodesians are placed above poor Dutch-descended Afrikaners: “‘Poor whites’ were Afrikaners, never British.”)

Living in the colonies also gave white Brits the chance to make money through exploiting natural resources and the labor of the oppressed indigenous population. Every white person in the novel is to some extent fixated on the desire to increase their standing in the socioeconomic hierarchy. When this plan fails for Dick and he and Mary end up living in poverty, he is left miserable, ashamed, and crippled by illness.

The overarching racial and socioeconomic hierarchy is not a simple system, but rather one made up of an intricate web of smaller hierarchies that determine how much authority each person is accorded and how they are supposed to behave in relation to one another. As a woman, Mary is subservient to her husband, yet as a white person, she has authority over the black workers employed on her land (and indeed over all black people). While Mary enthusiastically wields and abuses the power she has over the black population, she often fails to honor her inferior position to Dick.

Indeed, while every character in the novel is inescapably aware of the hierarchies that organize society and of their place within these hierarchies, the characters also violate these hierarchies. This happens when Mary attempts to run away from Dick in order to regain her independence, and also when Moses continues to drink water after Mary orders him to go back to work. However, arguably the most important violation of any hierarchy of power comes when Moses kills Mary. In taking the life of a white woman, Moses commits the worst possible act in the eyes of white colonizers. At the same time, when Mary’s murder is discussed at the beginning of the book, the narrator notes that white people are not surprised by Moses’s act. Within the white colonial mindset, black people are placed at the bottom of the social hierarchy and are expected to behave in a “savage,” immoral manner. Regardless of how black people actually behave, white people will treat them as if they are brutal and violent. This fact in itself invites violence against white oppressors, and is thus one of the central (and tragic) paradoxes of colonial society.

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Hierarchy and Authority ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Hierarchy and Authority appears in each Chapter of The Grass is Singing. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Hierarchy and Authority Quotes in The Grass is Singing

Below you will find the important quotes in The Grass is Singing related to the theme of Hierarchy and Authority.
Chapter 1 Quotes

It was a farming district, where those isolated white families met only very occasionally, hungry for contact with their own kind, to talk and discuss and pull to pieces, all speaking at once, making the most of an hour or so's companionship before returning to their farms where they saw only their own faces and the faces of their black servants for weeks on end.

Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

The novel has opened with the news of Mary Turner’s murder, which has been published in a newspaper under the headline “Murder Mystery.” The narrator has noted that white settlers expect native people to commit crimes, and that the people who know the Turners do not discuss the murder. In this passage, the narrator explains that the white families in the Turners’ farming district rarely see each other, and when they do, they are very eager to have contact with other white people.

As the narrator indicates, these white settlers suffer from loneliness, yet this loneliness is not intense enough for them to breach the racial barrier dividing them from the black people they live among. Indeed, the narrator’s words suggest that white settlers do not think of black people as socially relevant, and perhaps not even as really human. The isolation and loneliness of settler life is simply the price that white people pay in order to gain the financial rewards of colonialism and to maintain the colonial racial hierarchy.

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Most of these young men were brought up with vague ideas about equality. They were shocked, for the first week or so, by the way natives were treated… They had been prepared to treat them as human beings. But they could not stand out against the society they were joining. It did not take them long to change. It was hard, of course, becoming as bad oneself. But it was not very long that they thought of it as "bad." And anyway, what had one's ideas amounted to? Abstract ideas about decency and goodwill, that was all: merely abstract ideas. When it came to the point, one never had contact with natives, except in the master-servant relationship. One never knew them in their own lives, as human beings.

Related Characters: Tony Marston
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

Slatter has arrived at the Turners’ house following the murder of Mary, and Tony Marston has explained how he found Mary’s body and added that he doesn’t know anything about the murder. Tony is a well-educated young man who has recently arrived in Southern Rhodesia from England. Like other men of the same background, he shares the comparatively progressive ideas when it comes to matters of race relations. However, this attitude does not last long in Southern Rhodesia, where brutal racism is commonplace and where black people are not considered to be fully valuable or three-dimensional beings. In the face of this new status quo, most of these “progressive” young men give up their ideals and soon start acting just as the other white settlers do.

The irony of this lies in the fact that white people in Southern Rhodesia have far more contact with black people (and contact of a far more intimate nature) than most white Englishmen. White people are the minority in Southern Rhodesia, and settlers depend on native people for doing everything from working their fields to cooking their meals. Yet as this passage indicates, this intimacy does not breed affection or even tolerance. Rather, it encourages white settlers to embrace their status as natural “masters” over black people, and to see black people in a negative, stereotypical light.

To live with the color bar in all its nuances and implications means closing one's mind to many things, if one intends to remain an accepted member of society. But, in the interval, there would be a few brief moments when he would see the thing clearly, and understand that it was “white civilization” fighting to defend itself that had been implicit in the attitude of Charlie Slatter and the Sergeant, “white civilization” which will never, never admit that a white person, and most particularly, a white woman, can have a human relationship, whether for good or for evil, with a black person. For once it admits that, it crashes, and nothing can save it.

Related Characters: Charlie Slatter, Tony Marston, Sergeant Denham
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

Tony has attempted to tell Slatter and Sergeant Denham about his theory of why Mary was murdered, but the two men have resisted listening to him. As the men prepare to depart for the police station, Tony begins to realize why Slatter and the Sergeant did not want to hear his story. The idea that Mary had a relationship with Moses violates the “color bar”—the racial hierarchy governing Southern Rhodesian society—in such an extreme way that it must be kept quiet at all costs. One of the most important ideas within racist logic is that white women need to be protected from the supposedly brutal lust of black men. If the men admit that Mary willingly had a relationship with Moses, they would be undermining one of the key principles behind the colonial order, and that order could then have the fragile, racist lie at its heart exposed and thus come “crashing” down.

Chapter 2 Quotes

"Class" is not a South African word; and its equivalent, "race," meant to her the office boy in the firm where she worked, other women's servants, and the amorphous mass of natives in the streets, whom she hardly noticed. She knew (the phrase was in the air) that the natives were getting "cheeky." But she had nothing to do with them really. They were outside her orbit.

Related Characters: Mary Turner
Page Number: 32-33
Explanation and Analysis:

Mary has been living a remarkably free and independent existence in town, and she has no idea how lucky she truly is in comparison to most women in the world. In particular, she has no idea how unlikely it is that she, the daughter of “a petty railway official,” should now find herself living a comfortable, leisure-filled, and financially independent life. As this passage explains, Mary’s ignorance on this front is the result of the fact that she has spent all of her life in southern Africa. Back in England, society is strictly delineated and determined according to class boundaries. In southern Africa, however, all white people (and especially those of English descent) occupy a position of blanket privilege above the indigenous black population.

As this passage indicates, Mary is almost as ignorant of the black population as she is of matters of class. Although there are black people all around her, it is as if they are invisible to her. The racial hierarchy is so rigid that Mary can go about her life as if black people do not exist—despite living in an African country with a majority black population.

Chapter 5 Quotes

"Of course he's lying," said Dick irritably. "Of course. That is not the point. You can't keep him against his will."
"Why should I accept a lie!" said Mary. "Why should I? Why can't he say straight out that he doesn't like working for me, instead of lying about his kraal?"
Dick shrugged, looking at her with impatience; he could not understand her unreasonable insistence: he knew how to get on with natives; dealing with them was a sometimes amusing, sometimes annoying game in which both sides followed certain unwritten rules.

Related Characters: Mary Turner , Dick Turner
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

Mary has docked Samson’s pay due to the fact that he stole some raisins, and shortly after this Samson hands in his notice, claiming that he is needed in his kraal. Mary protests to Dick that this is a lie, but in this passage Dick responds that it doesn’t matter. As the narrator explains, Dick views his interactions with native people as a “game” with “certain unwritten rules.” One of these rules is that white people do not require absolute honesty from black workers, and thus Dick does not mind that Samson lies about being needed on his kraal.

In fact, Samson’s lie is preferable to him admitting the truth, which is that being employed by Mary is too unbearable for him to continue. Within the racist society in which the novel is set, black people must constantly navigate a maze of what is considered appropriate behavior by whites. Samson’s lie is therefore an act of courtesy, an acknowledgment of the fact that telling the truth would be considered rude. Mary, however, does not understand this. She has not interacted with black people enough to know about this complex web of “unwritten rules.” Furthermore, her demand for honesty conveys her thirst for power and a sense of absolute authority.

“If you must do these things, then you must take the consequences,” said Dick wearily. “He’s a human being, isn't he? He's got to eat. Why must that bath be done all at once? It can be done over several days, if it means all that to you.”
“It’s my house,” said Mary. “He's my boy, not yours. Don't interfere.”
“Listen to me,” said Dick curtly, “I work hard enough, don't I? All day I am down on the lands with these lazy black savages, fighting them to get some work out of them. You know that. I won't come back home to this damned fight, fight, fight in the house. Do you understand? I will not have it. And you should learn sense. If you want to get work out of them you have to know how to manage them. You shouldn't expect too much. They are nothing but savages after all.” Thus Dick, who had never stopped to reflect that these same savages had cooked for him better than his wife did, had run his house, had given him a comfortable existence, as far as his pinched life could be comfortable, for years.

Related Characters: Mary Turner (speaker), Dick Turner (speaker), The Servant
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

Mary has forced her unnamed servant to spend hours cleaning the bathtub without food, and the servant has handed in his notice. Dick has told the servant that if he keeps working for them, Mary will treat him better; this then causes an explosive argument between Dick and Mary. Their argument brings up many of the key sources of conflict not only within their relationship, but within the novel as a whole. Firstly, there is the question of racial injustice. Dick urges Mary not to treat their workers with such sadistic cruelty—yet it is clear that both Dick and Mary harbor extremely racist viewpoints, conveyed by the fact that Dick calls black people “savages” and stereotypes them as lazy and difficult to work with.

While Dick’s view of the “savage” indigenous population of Southern Rhodesia is a more paternalistic one, leading him to urge Mary not to be so harsh on them, it is clear he does not think of black people as full human beings. Many would argue that this kind of paternalism is thus no better than Mary’s more brutal attitude, because both cases reduce people to a less-than-human status, which paves the way for exploitation and abuse. The narrator also points out the irony of Dick’s insistence that black people are “lazy savages,” given that black workers have been the only factor providing him with a modicum of comfort in life. The final sentence of this passage also emphasizes the intensely intimate contact between white settlers and black people—contact that does little to mitigate the settlers’ racist attitudes.

Chapter 6 Quotes

If she disliked native men, she loathed the women. She hated the exposed fleshiness of them, their soft brown bodies and soft bashful faces that were also insolent and inquisitive, and their chattering voices that held a brazen fleshy undertone. She could not bear to see them sitting there on the grass, their legs tucked under them in that traditional timeless pose, as peaceful and uncaring as if it did not matter whether the store was opened, or whether it remained shut all day and they would have to return tomorrow. Above all, she hated the way they suckled their babies, with their breasts hanging down for everyone to see; there was something in their calm satisfied maternity that made her blood boil. "Their babies hanging on to them like leeches," she said to herself shuddering, for she thought with horror of suckling a child. The idea of a child’s lips on her breasts made her feel quite sick; at the thought of it she would involuntarily clasp her hands over her breasts, as if protecting them from a violation. And since so many white women are like her, turning with relief to the bottle, she was in good company, and did not think of herself, but rather of these black women, as strange; they were alien and primitive creatures with ugly desires she could not bear to think about.

Related Characters: Mary Turner
Related Symbols: The Store
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

Against Mary’s will, Dick has opened a “kaffir store” on the farm, which Mary has agreed to run with great reluctance. Every day, a group of native women come to sit outside the store with their children, and this passage details Mary’s perverse sense of disgust and hatred at the sight of these women. Clearly, Mary’s views emerge not only from racist ideology, but also from internalized misogyny. She finds the women’s naked bodies, including natural bodily functions such as breastfeeding, repulsive. The moment when Mary clasps her hands over her own breasts shows that she does not wish to feel personally implicated in the vision of womanhood that these women represent.

Mary’s misogynistic and racist feelings about the women are thus deeply intertwined; she wishes to distance herself from the aspects of womanhood that she (and society at large) finds “disgusting,” and does so by insisting on the essential difference between herself, a “civilized” white woman, and the “primitive” black women before her. Of course, in reality this distinction is meaningless. Mary’s body is no less female than the bodies of the native women, and there is nothing disgusting about femininity, sexuality, or maternity. Mary has simply been conditioned—both by society at large and events in her personal life—to feel repulsed by her own body and desires. It is for this reason that she finds the “peaceful” naturalness and comfort of the native women in their own skin so offensive—because she has been denied it herself.

Chapter 8 Quotes

A white person may look at a native, who is no better than a dog. Therefore she was annoyed when he stopped and stood upright, waiting for her to go, his body expressing his resentment of her presence there. She was furious that perhaps he believed she was there on purpose; this thought, of course, was not conscious; it would be too much presumption, such unspeakable cheek for him to imagine such a thing, that she would not allow it to enter her mind; but the attitude of his still body as he watched her across the bushes between them, the expression on his face, filled her with anger.

Related Characters: Mary Turner , Moses
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

Unable to find a house servant, Dick has decided to bring Moses from the field to work in the house. Mary has taken to watching Moses as he performs his housework, and one day she notices him washing himself outside. When he sees her, he pauses, waiting for her to go, which offends Mary, who believes she has a right to look at him. This passage details Mary’s thoughts in this moment, which are colored by the extreme racist ideology that has led her to treat native people so badly. Furthermore, her racist mindset has also convinced her that even Moses’ self-respect and modesty are a personal affront to her, because she—as a white woman—has an absolute entitlement to him, even in private moments such as when he washes himself.

Of course, there is also an important subtext to this passage regarding Mary’s fascination with Moses. It is clear from the strained anger within Mary’s thoughts that she wants to be able to look at Moses without him looking back at her. In this sense, she objectifies him, and is affronted when he reasserts his humanity in the face of this objectification. Although Mary will not admit it to herself, she clearly feels a kind of desire for Moses—whether sexual or otherwise. When he looks back at her and waits for her to look away, he forces her to confront the reality of this desire, which makes Mary furious.

What had happened was that the formal pattern of black-and-white, mistress-and-servant, had been broken by the personal relation; and when a white man in Africa by accident looks into the eyes of a native and sees the human being (which it is his chief preoccupation to avoid), his sense of guilt, which he denies, fumes up in resentment and he brings down the whip. She felt that she must do something, and at once, to restore her poise. Her eyes happened to fall on a candlebox under the table, where the scrubbing brushes and soap were kept, and she said to the boy: “Scrub this floor.” She was shocked when she heard her own voice, for she had not known she was going to speak. As one feels when in an ordinary social conversation, kept tranquil by banalities, some person makes a remark that strikes below the surface, perhaps in error letting slip what he really thinks of you, and the shock sweeps one off one's balance, causing a nervous giggle or some stupid sentence that makes everyone present uncomfortable, so she felt: she had lost her balance; she had no control over her actions.

Related Characters: Mary Turner , Moses
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

Moses has caught Mary watching him wash. When he returns to the house, his presence flusters Mary, who is angered and embarrassed by Moses’s knowledge of her interest in him. In this passage, she attempts to restore the previous dynamic of their relationship by ordering him to perform unnecessary tasks in an unduly harsh manner. This is, of course, not the first time that Mary has used this tactic as a way of (re)asserting her authority to the native workers on the farm; in fact, she has done the same thing with different workers throughout the book. However, there is now a distinctly sexual undertone to Mary’s demands. The intimacy of her relationship with Moses, which always existed on some level, has reached an overwhelming intensity that clearly frightens Mary.

It is important that the narrator compares Mary’s feeling of having “lost her balance” to “an ordinary social conversation.” This comparison reveals the fact that Mary has breached the colonial mandate that white people not think of black people as full human beings with their own social significance. According to racist ideology, Mary should not care what Moses thinks of her. The fact that she cares deeply—so much that she feels entirely out of control of her actions—highlights the scandal of her feelings about him.

Chapter 9 Quotes

Then he carefully took the glass from her, put it on the table, and, seeing that she stood there dazed, not knowing what to do, said: “Madame lie down on the bed.” She did not move. He put out his hand reluctantly, loathe to touch her, the sacrosanct white woman, and pushed her by the shoulder; she felt herself gently propelled across the room towards the bedroom. It was like a nightmare where one is powerless against horror: the touch of this black man's hand on her shoulder filled her with nausea; she had never, not once in her whole life, touched the flesh of a native. As they approached the bed, the soft touch still on her shoulder, she felt her head beginning to swim and her bones going soft. “Madame lie down,” he said again, and his voice was gentle this time, almost fatherly.

Related Characters: Moses (speaker), Mary Turner
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

Moses has told Mary that he wants to leave at the end of the month, and Mary has shocked herself by bursting into tears and begging him not to go. Moses offers her a glass of water and then tells her to go lie down, even gently pushing her toward the bed. In this passage, it is clear that their dynamic has changed in an extraordinary and fundamental manner. Moses knows that he could be killed for touching “the sacrosanct white woman,” but nonetheless does so in a reluctant but fearless manner. Mary, meanwhile, has lost all trace of her brutal authority and simply obeys Moses’s commands.

The fact that the narrator describes Moses speaking in a “fatherly” voice further confirms how unusual their dynamic has now become. Within colonial ideology, the relationship between white women and black men is conceptualized in only two ways: master and servant, and prey and predator. The notion that Moses could take on a kind yet authoritative role within Mary’s life is, within the racist mentality of the time, totally unthinkable.

He approached slowly, obscene and powerful, and it was not only he, but her father who was threatening her. They advanced together, one person, and she could smell, not the native smell, but the unwashed smell of her father. It filled the room, must, like animals; and her knees went liquid as her nostrils distended to find clean air and her head became giddy. Half-conscious, she leaned back against the wall for support, and nearly fell through the open window. He came near and put his hand on her arm. It was the voice of the African she heard. He was comforting her because of Dick's death, consoling her protectively; but at the same time it was her father menacing and horrible, who touched her in desire.

Related Characters: Mary Turner , Dick Turner, Moses, Mary’s Father
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

Dick has contracted malaria, and Moses and Mary have been sharing the task of taking care of him at night. Mary has been reluctant to fall asleep while Moses is there, and when she does she has a series of vivid, terrifying nightmares. This passage describes a moment in one of these nightmares in which Mary sees her father approaching her—and her father then transforms into Moses. Mary’s visceral repulsion at the memory of her father’s smell, along with her fear of him touching her “in desire,” strongly suggests that Mary’s father sexually abused her when she was a child. Although this is not noted explicitly in the rest of the novel, it is possible that Mary herself has suppressed the memory, and thus only experiences it in an unconscious state.

Mary’s dream consciousness also makes clear for the first time that she does harbor fantasies about having a physically intimate relationship with Moses, even if these fantasies are marred by her racist dehumanization of black people, trauma, and repulsion at sexuality. Although Moses and her father are nothing alike, they morph into one figure as a result of their shared gender and authority within Mary’s life. This arguably helps explain why Mary chose the weak, skinny, and passive Dick to be her husband; as a non-dominant and non-threatening man, Dick does not frighten Mary through reminding her of her father.

It’s also worth noting that in the dream, Moses’s “native smell,” a notion often used as a racist stereotype for white people to make black people seem more animal-like, is then replaced by Mary’s (white) father’s smell, which is explicitly described as “must, like animals.” This juxtaposition reinforces the idea that such stereotypes are not based in the reality of individuals, but rather in hierarchies of power and exploitation.

He said easily, familiarly, "Why is Madame afraid of me?"
She said half-hysterically, in a high-pitched voice, laughing nervously: "Don't be ridiculous. I am not afraid of you."
She spoke as she might have done to a white man, with whom she was flirting a little. As she heard the words come from her mouth, and saw the expression on the man's face, she nearly fainted. She saw him give her a long, slow, imponderable look: then turn, and walk out of the room.

Related Characters: Mary Turner (speaker), Moses (speaker)
Page Number: 189-190
Explanation and Analysis:

Mary has had a nightmare in which both her father and Moses, morphed into the same figure, are approaching her in a seemingly sexual manner. She wakes up screaming, and finds Moses standing over her with a tray of tea. Moses’s direct question to Mary about why she is afraid of him then provides further evidence of the extent to which their relationship has changed. Moses now completely ignores the rules of propriety governing interactions between white settlers and native workers. Instead, he seems to want to understand Mary as a person. Mary, meanwhile, has also changed the way she interacts with Moses, addressing him in a coquettish way.

However, the shift in their relationship seems to be pushing Mary into a state of madness. Her “half-hysterical” disposition suggests that though she treats Moses in a familiar, flirtatious manner, she remains deeply—indeed, increasingly—afraid of him, and afraid of her own conflicting feelings about him.

Chapter 10 Quotes

He had been in the country long enough to be shocked; at the same time his "progressiveness" was deliciously flattered by this evidence of white ruling-class hypocrisy. For in a country where colored children appear plentifully among the natives wherever a lonely white man is stationed, hypocrisy, as Tony defined it, was the first thing that had struck him on his arrival. But then, he had read enough about psychology to understand the sexual aspect of the color bar, one of whose foundations is the jealousy of the white man for the superior sexual potency of the native; and he was surprised at one of the guarded, a white woman, so easily evading this barrier. Yet he had met a doctor on the boat coming out, with years of experience in a country district, who had told him he would be surprised to know the number of white women who had relations with black men. Tony felt at the time that he would be surprised; he felt it would be rather like having a relation with an animal, in spite of his "progressiveness."

Related Characters: Mary Turner , Moses, Tony Marston
Page Number: 213-214
Explanation and Analysis:

While getting himself water from the house, Tony has witnessed Moses helping Mary to get dressed, and has come to believe that they are having an affair. He sits down, reeling. The Southern Rhodesian/British imperialist in him is shocked that such an affair could take place; however, his more racially progressive side reminds him that it is very common for white men to have sex with black women. This passage outlines the full extent of Tony’s mixed feelings and beliefs about the possibility of Mary and Moses sleeping together. Even though he understands the hypocrisy of the way in which relations between black men and white women are treated, he cannot shake the racist ideology that teaches him to regard black men as sinister, predatory, and animalistic beings from whom white women must be protected at all costs. Indeed, it is this belief that is one of the “foundations” of white supremacist society.

"It’s not customary in this country, is it?" he asked slowly, out of the depths of his complete bewilderment. And he saw, as he spoke, that the phrase "this country," which is like a call to solidarity for most white people, meant nothing to her. For her, there was only the farm; not even that––there was only this house, and what was in it. And he began to understand with a horrified pity, her utter indifference to Dick; she had shut out everything that conflicted with her actions, that would revive the code she had been brought up to follow.

Related Characters: Tony Marston (speaker), Mary Turner , Dick Turner, Moses
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

After witnessing Moses helping Mary to get dressed, Tony has confronted Mary about the matter. He asks her if Moses always dresses and undresses her, and when she replies that he needs the extra work, Tony goes on to note that such an arrangement is not “customary” in this country. In making this remark, Tony is made aware of just how cut off Dick and Mary are from the society around them. Their isolation—both in the sense of their physical distance from their neighbors and their self-imposed social exile—has left them with little understanding of normality. Indeed, this helps to explain the perverse dynamics that exist at the Turners’ farm, including Mary’s highly unusual, intimate relationship with Moses.