The Grass is Singing

The Grass is Singing Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The chapter opens with a short newspaper article entitled “Murder Mystery,” which describes the murder of Mary Turner, who is the wife of Dick Turner, a farmer. The article notes that a “houseboy” has confessed to the murder, and that it is thought he wanted to steal valuables. The narrator then explains that white people are never surprised by news of natives committing crimes. Meanwhile, the murder is not discussed among those who know the Turners personally, despite the fact that theirs is a sparse farming community in which people are usually hungry for gossip. An outsider might have assumed that Charlie Slatter told everyone not to say anything, but it was actually achieved by a kind of silent consensus. The community resented the Turners for keeping to themselves, and for living in a shabby house that was no better than the houses of some native people.
The article that opens the book contains a paradox. If Mary Turner’s murderer has been captured and has confessed to the crime, then why is it described as a “murder mystery”? More intrigue emerges when the narrator (who is not a named character, but often adds commentary and explanation) says that the murder is not discussed among the local white farming community at all. The silent consensus of the community suggests an almost sinister sense of camaraderie. The fact that the Turners were disliked among their neighbors suggests that the murder may be more complex than the simple, tidy narrative that appears at the beginning of the chapter.
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While gossiping about the Turners one of their neighbors refers to them as “poor whites,” which causes trouble as that phrase is always used to describe Afrikaners (Dutch-descended colonists), not British people. The most important principle among white settlers in southern Africa, the narrator says, is “esprit de corps,” meaning pride in one’s group, although the Turners themselves failed to live up to this maxim. In the wake of the murder, people begin to sympathize with Dick and demonize Mary as “something unpleasant and unclean.” They wonder who wrote the newspaper article, reasoning that it could have been Charlie Slatter. People have suspicions about why Mary was murdered by a native, but they do not allow themselves to voice these out loud. There is agreement that the case has been handled in a strange manner.
A strict sense of propriety governs life among the white settlers in Southern Rhodesia. The most important principle is “esprit de corps,” and it is the Turners’ failure to subscribe to this principle that seems to be the key reason behind their marginalization. This passage also reveals the way in which sexism turns people against Mary. The idea that she is “unclean” suggests that people’s prejudice against her is related to her failure to live up to the ideal of “pure” white femininity, perhaps by some sort of sexual violation.
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Charlie Slatter lives 5 miles away from the Turners, and the farm workers go straight to him after they find Mary’s body. Slatter then sends a letter to Sergeant Denham, who immediately sends six native policemen to the Turners’ farm. Soon after the policemen arrive, Moses turns himself in, saying something like: “Here I am.” After Moses is arrested, Dick comes up through the bush, muttering to himself crazily. The policemen leave him be, because “black men, even when policemen, do not lay hands on white flesh.”
This passage further illuminates the rules of propriety that govern life in Southern Rhodesia, and points out how absurd they are. While the native policemen are given an official position of authority, the authority of white men is seen as being so inherent and absolute that the native policemen cannot even lend a hand to support Dick in his grief. This in turn highlights the extreme bias of the criminal justice system in the country; if black policemen have no authority over white people, then white people are free to commit crimes against black people with impunity.
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The local settlers are curious about why Moses turned himself in, until the District Native Commissioner explains that in the Matabele culture that preexisted this wave of colonization, it was customary for wrongdoers to “submit fatalistically to punishment.” The Commissioner adds that there is something “rather fine” about this custom, and the narrator explains that it is becoming increasingly acceptable to make such positive comments about native people as long as these comments describe the past, when native people were less “depraved” than they are now. In reality, Moses might not even be Matabele.
The Commissioner’s comments highlight the moral hypocrisy of colonial society. The Commissioner assumes that Moses’ reasons for turning himself in are culturally inspired, but isn’t even certain to which culture Moses belongs. Furthermore, the prevailing narrative regarding the native people (that they are now more “depraved” than before) is clearly fabricated, and also seems to contradict the supposed moral aspect of colonialism—the duty to spread “civilization.”
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Slatter drives to the Turners’ farm in his “fat American car.” He had been a grocer’s assistant in London, and likes his telling children that if not for his “energy and enterprise” he would still be living in a slum. He is a “proper cockney” who is “brutal” and “ruthless,” yet also kind in a way, and very talented at making money. He was cruel to his wife and children before becoming rich. He is fond of using the sambok (heavy leather whip) and once killed a native person, for which he was fined £30. Slatter looks like a “convict,” with beady eyes he keeps permanently narrowed against the sun. Slatter wonders why Tony Marston, his assistant, did not come to him about the murder. He resents Marston for being “soft” and a gentleman. Slatter feels that Marston could (and should) have prevented the murder somehow.
Understanding Charlie Slatter and Tony Marston’s relationship requires an understanding of the rigidity of the English class system during this era, and the unique way in which boundaries of class were subverted in the colonies. As Slatter boasts, as a working-class cockney man in London he would certainly have remained poor and could easily have ended up in a slum. Tony, on the other hand, would be guaranteed a comfortable life due to his upper-class background. Yet in Southern Rhodesia, none of this applies, and this creates tension between the characters.
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When Slatter arrives at the house, he sees Moses standing in handcuffs. The policemen salute Slatter, yet he feels uncomfortable around them, as he cannot “bear the half-civilized native.” Slatter puts Dick in the back of his car. Inside the house, Tony explains how he found Mary’s body on the veranda. He says that the dogs were licking her, so he lifted her into the house and onto the bed. Slatter asks him what he knows about the murder, and Tony replies that he doesn’t know much, and that “it is all so difficult.”
Slatter’s discomfort around what he perceives as the “half-civilized native” (essentially, native people conforming to the colonists’ rules, traditions, and hierarchies) undercuts the supposed goal of European imperialism and colonialism—bringing “civilization” to “savage” peoples. Slatter’s perception betrays the truth—that colonialism is really about power and exploitation.
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Tony is one of the many young, privately-educated Englishmen who come to Southern Rhodesia to learn farming. These young men are sensitive and very adaptable. At first they are shocked by the way native people are treated, but eventually they adopt the same cruel behavior themselves. Slatter asks Tony what he means by “difficult,” and Tony knows that he is being warned, yet he is confused about what. He does not know why Slatter has assumed a role of authority in the murder case when he is seemingly just a random neighbor.
The description of Tony as both sensitive and adaptable is significant. When Tony first arrives in Southern Rhodesia, his sensitivity and adaptability are in conflict with one another. His sensitivity means he is upset by the brutally racist treatment of native people, but his adaptability means he wishes to conform to the norms of white society. The narrator suggests that other young men like Toby eventually given in to their desire to adapt, which overpowers their horror at racist injustice. This could be seen as a failure of sensitivity, but it also demonstrates the success of a selective form of sensitivity. Tony remains sensitive to the feelings and customs of white people, but becomes insensitive to black people’s suffering.
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Slatter asks Tony if he knows why Moses murdered Mary, but when Tony replies he has “a sort of idea,” Slatter rudely replies that they ought to wait for Sergeant Denham to figure it out. Denham arrives and feels vengeful anger toward the murderer and sympathy for the Turners. He feels the same anger he would toward “any social irregularity.”
Slatter and Denham’s attitude toward Tony—and the murder case in general—is contradictory and strange. Denham has a strong emotional reaction to viewing the body, but the narrator adds that this is the same feeling he would have about “any social irregularity.” This is odd, as the murder of a woman is surely a worse crime than an ordinary social violation—but it also highlights how Mary’s murder is seen as a challenge to the status quo, rather than simply an individual crime.
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Denham and Slatter stand “like two judges,” and Denham asks Tony some questions. Tony explains that he has been staying in a hut nearby for three weeks, and that he was planning on running the Turners’ farm for six months while they went away, after which he would go onto a tobacco farm. He tells Denham that he found Mary’s body, and begins to feel defensive and angry. Tony says that he had meals with the Turners but did not socialize with them outside of this, and that Dick seemed reluctant to leave his work on the farm. Denham expresses sympathy for Dick, and Tony puzzles at the way both Denham and Slatter seem to feel personally implicated in the murder.
Both Denham and Slatter seem to be simultaneously interested and uninterested in Tony’s testimony and theory about the murder, and there is lots of tension present in their interview. They seem to care more about Tony’s relationship with the Turners before Mary’s death than the details of what he knows about the murder. Denham and Slatter seem to feel that preserving the status quo and prevailing narrative of racial hierarchy is more important than the individual facts of this particular case.
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Sergeant Denham asks Tony if he saw anything unusual while working for the Turners, and Tony replies that he did. Denham says that after spending a while in the country, Tony will realize that “we don’t like niggers murdering white women.” Denham asks if Tony knows why Mary was murdered, but when Tony replies that he has a theory, Denham responds that he doesn’t want “theories,” but “facts.” He urges Tony to “remember Dick,” which strikes Tony as an absurd and meaningless statement.
The interview is conducted in an unconventional and unprofessional manner, and at times it seems as if Denham and Slatter are deliberately antagonizing Tony. It is also clear how much their bias as racist white colonizers is affecting their understanding of the case. Denham’s statement that “we don’t like niggers murdering white women” confirms the notion that Mary’s death is particularly charged in terms of sexual and racial relations.
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Tony insists that the murder cannot be explained in simple terms, at which point Denham asks if Mary treated “her boys well.” Tony responds that Mary treated the houseboy cruelly, and both Denham and Slatter concur that women do not know how to deal with black people. Tony is then shocked to realize that his interview seems to be over, and begins to say something else before changing his mind. Slatter says that they had better get Mary’s body out before it gets too hot, and Tony notices that this is the only time she has been mentioned directly.
The men often speak about people as if they are property; as a white woman, Mary belongs to them, while her “boys” belong to her. (Although note that Tony’s perception that Mary has not been referred to directly is actually false, as she is discussed directly in the passage above.) The claim that white women especially don’t treat black people well seems to insinuate that Mary could have had some responsibility in her own death, but this point is not then pursued by the men.
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The policemen take Mary’s body to the car, but a problem arises because Moses cannot ride in a car next to a white woman (even a dead one). It is decided that he must walk to the police station. Moses obeys the policemen’s orders without resistance, and shows no sign of regret or fear. Slatter asks about Dick, and the Sergeant replies that Dick “won’t be good for much.” Tony feels conflicted; he wants to conform in this new country, but wonders if staying silent would amount to a “monstrous injustice.” Moses will certainly be hanged no matter what. Even if Tony does insist on telling the truth, he thinks, what difference will it make? He imagines himself saying that Mary is somewhat at fault, but also that it’s impossible to decide who is overall to blame. He suspects Sergeant Denham would say that blame is irrelevant, and what matters is that Moses killed Mary. Tony says nothing, and is left alone at the Turners’ house while everyone else drives away.
At this point in the novel, Tony represents the moral conscience of white society. The dilemma of whether or not to silence himself in order to conform to the expectations of Denham and Slatter is also a dilemma between loyalty to or betrayal of the racist structure of power that shapes the colonial world. As Tony acknowledges, there is likely nothing he can do to change Moses’s fate—he will be hanged regardless. On a broader scale, there is also nothing Tony as an individual can do to change the institutionalized racism and brutality of the colonial world. However, does this mean it is morally acceptable to remain silent?
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Tony cannot stop thinking about the expressions of Slatter and Denham as they looked at Mary’s body; their faces were frozen in “a hysterical look of hate and fear.” Tony drinks a little brandy, looks around the Turners’ house, and puzzles over how they could have tolerated living there. He wonders what Dick and Mary were like before they lived there and if their pasts could help explain why the murder took place. Dizzy from the brandy and heat, Tony walks out to the veranda, where he can still see pink smears of blood, and resolves to “get out of this place.”
In the end, Tony chooses to flee from the moral dilemma facing him through his involvement in Mary’s death. Rather than choosing whether or not to speak up, he simply runs away from the farming community altogether.
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The next day, Tony packs up his things and tells Slatter he is leaving. Soon Slatter’s cows overrun the Turners’ farmland, and the Turners’ house falls down shortly after. Meanwhile, Tony is offered positions on other farms, but turns them down, as farming has now been poisoned for him. The trial takes place, and it is concluded that Moses murdered Mary while drunk, hoping to steal valuables. Tony travels to North Rhodesia to work in copper mining, but is put off by the difficulty of the work and the heavy drinking of his peers. He ends up taking an office job, exactly what he had come to Africa to avoid. People gossip that he did not have “the guts” for farming.
The final claim that Tony did not have the “guts” for farming has a double meaning. On one level, the other farmers seem to be accusing Tony of being too sensitive and blue-blooded for the physical experience of farm work. However, this statement also evokes the fact that Tony is too morally sensitive to handle the social world of rural South Rhodesia. As an office worker, he is able to distance himself from the brutal reality of colonial life. However, he is no less complicit in this brutality working in an office than he was on the farm—and he also didn’t have the “guts” to speak up about Mary’s death.
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