The Grass is Singing

The Grass is Singing Chapter 10 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Dick and Mary would be shocked to learn that they have been the subject of gossip in the “district” for many years. This is all the fault of the Slatters, the narrator says. Mrs. Slatter was stung by having been snubbed by Mary so many times and the strangely formal manner in which Mary refused her invitations. Charlie, meanwhile, told his wife about the time Mary ran away from Dick, when he drove her to the train station. The story of Mary’s escape has then become much more dramatic through having been circulated as gossip.
As the narrator zooms out from the Turners’ constrictive world, we see just how isolated they really are even within the isolated communities of the other white settlers. It’s clear that part of the Slatters disapproval comes from a sense of moral judgment—the fact that the Turners have such an unhappy marriage, and especially a publically unhappy marriage, makes the other settlers scorn and distance themselves from them.
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Charlie remains fixated on the Turners because he hopes to acquire Dick’s farm for himself. Before the First World War, Charlie had been poor, but—like many maize farmers—the war made him rich almost overnight. Charlie’s farm remains profitable, but he needs to expand in order to keep getting richer. For years Charlie has been expecting Dick to go bankrupt, and one day he asks aloud how the Turners manage to stay afloat. Mrs. Slatter replies: “Because they live like pigs and never buy anything.”
This passage then makes clear the connection between social propriety and capitalism within white settler culture in Southern Rhodesia. Dick and Mary are excluded in part due to their unfriendliness and desire to “keep to themselves,” but as Mrs. Slatter’s final comment makes clear, their main offence is their poverty, which their neighbors likely believe lowers the status of the white race as a whole. Furthermore, Mrs. Slatter’s words suggest that Dick and Mary’s greatest crime may not even be their poverty itself, but their lack of desire to both make and spend money. By living “like pigs” with little interest in consumption, Dick and Mary defy the capitalist logic of the colonial world.
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Two years pass when Charlie does not see the Turners, and when Charlie realizes this he goes to their farm immediately. He feels guilty, as he had always considered himself a “mentor” to Dick. Driving up, Charlie notes that the farm is in a bad state. He approaches Dick, who is very thin and clearly ill. Dick explains that he gets a fever twice a year, and that although Mary is not ill herself she is “nervy” and “run down.” They get into Charlie’s car, and Dick notes that he sold his own car. They discuss one of Dick’s failed farming experiments, and then Charlie asks again about Mary. Dick says that he doesn’t know what’s wrong, but that she doesn’t care about anything anymore, just “sits and does nothing,” and that she no longer even nags Moses as she used to. Charlie gently suggests that Dick and Mary sell the farm to him and leave, but Dick refuses.
Charlie’s mixed attributes highlight the way in which people are rarely either straightforwardly good or bad. At certain points in the novel, Charlie is a threatening, antagonistic presence who actively works against the interests of Dick while pretending to be his friend. At other times, Charlie is generous and kind, and seems to want to truly help Dick. Yet even at these moments, is Charlie supporting Dick out of compassion, or because he does not want to demean and humiliate the white race as he sees it? As with all of the characters in the novel, Charlie defies easy moral categorization.
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At the house they greet Mary, who has changed dresses and is putting on a false show of cheerful hospitality. Charlie agrees to stay for dinner, and Mary goes to find Moses. The dinner is unappetizing, and afterward Mary asks Moses to fetch some oranges for dessert with the same “flirtatiousness and coyness” with which she speaks to Charlie. Moses replies that the oranges are gone, his tone surprisingly informal. Charlie is speechless; he looks at Dick, who cannot meet his eyes, and then at Mary, who seems to realize that Charlie has “noticed something.”
Some characters in the novel (including Mary herself) treat the notion of a white woman feeling sexual desire for a black man as an impossibility. However, after observing just one brief exchange between Mary and Moses, Charlie immediately assumes that they have a sexual relationship. This is never confirmed or denied within the narrative, but to some extent the reality matters less than the social consequences of other white people assuming it is the case.
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Charlie then asks about Moses and suggests that they fire him, but Dick replies: “Mary likes him.” Hearing this, Charlie insists that he and Dick speak outside, alone. Charlie tells Dick that he “must” take Mary away, and even offers to let Dick stay on as manager of the farm. The narrator says that Charlie’s insistence emerges from the social demand that white South Africans don’t let other whites “sink below a certain point” in order to maintain the racial hierarchy. Dick understands this, yet fights with Charlie for four hours before agreeing to give up the farm.
The urgency with which Charlie pleads with Dick to leave the farm illustrates the extent to which a sexual relationship between Mary and Moses would be seen as an unforgiveable, irredeemable transgression. Furthermore, it wouldn’t just shame Dick and Mary, but in Charlie’s eyes it would threaten the entire racial hierarchy of their society—white people as a whole are always supposed to be “superior” to native people.
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Dick returns to the house feeling broken, and finds Mary curled up in a “lump” on the sofa. Mary barely speaks to Dick at this point; she only seems “alive” when Moses is in the room. Charlie immediately starts looking for someone to take over Dick’s farm, and finds a candidate in the form of a well-educated young man freshly arrived from England (Tony). However, when Charlie and Tony go to the farm, Dick is resistant to leave so soon. Charlie offers Dick the chance to come back and run the farm once he’s had a holiday, a proposal that Dick rejects as “charity.” However, what Charlie is offering is not really charity, but rather “self-preservation”—a defense of “white standards” against black people. After a long argument, Dick agrees to leave at the end of the month.
For Charlie, defending the racial order is more important than the needs or preferences of any individual person. He feels that he (and all other white people) are personally implicated in Mary’s inappropriate behavior. At the same time, Mary’s (perceived) transgression is so scandalous that Charlie cannot even explicitly point it out to Dick, and the thought of confronting Mary (or Moses) about it directly is unthinkable. In this sense, the laws of propriety and racial hierarchy act in an invisible—yet nonetheless extraordinarily powerful—manner.
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Tony, meanwhile, is thrilled to have found a job so soon after moving to Southern Rhodesia. He is 20 years old and has a cousin who made a fortune in tobacco farming, which inspired him to move as well. Tony pities Dick but also somewhat romanticizes his struggle. Tony has “progressive” ideas about race, and has brought a large number of books with him—however, the narrator notes that he will never read them.
Tony’s presence in the narrative is significant because of the way he represents the English culture and ideals from which the settler characters have become detached. Tony is depicted as progressive yet naïve, still unaccustomed to the brutal reality of life in Southern Rhodesia.
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Tony eats meals with the Turners, but Dick is so morose that they barely communicate. Tony rarely sees Mary, but when he does he is shocked by the strange bursts of energy that puncture her otherwise flat, defeated behavior. He reasons that Mary is mentally unstable. One day, Tony suggests that Mary should start packing for the holiday, and Dick concurs; however, she does nothing, leaving Dick to do it instead, and Tony concludes that she must have had a “complete nervous breakdown.” Tony thinks that both Dick and Mary ought to see a psychologist.
Tony understands Mary’s mental instability in purely medical terms, rather than something that has come about as a result of the brutal, isolated, and perverse world in which she has been forced to live. Furthermore, Tony assumes that once Mary and Dick go on holiday everything will be resolved; however, given what we know about Mary’s history and relationship to Dick, this does not seem likely.
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Three days before Dick and Mary’s departure, Tony suffers from heatstroke and takes the afternoon off from work. He is lying in his hut when he realizes that he doesn’t have any water. Tony walks into the house quietly, not wanting to disturb Mary from a nap. After he has finished drinking, he spots Moses helping Mary to get dressed, pulling her dress over her head and doing it up from behind. Mary thanks him and tells him he better go because Dick will be back soon. As Moses leaves, he catches Tony’s eye but says nothing. Tony is so shocked that he must sit down. He reflects on the racial order that governs life in Southern Rhodesia, and the way in which this is inflected by sexual anxiety. Although Tony is a supposedly progressive person, he imagines a white woman having sex with a black man as akin to her having sex with an animal.
As for many of the other characters in the novel, Tony finds the notion of a white woman and black man having a sexual relationship practically unthinkable. It is worth noting at this point that the reverse situation—white men having sex with indigenous women—is a central part of the colonial project. Sexual violence is one of the key ways in which colonizers overpower and exploit indigenous populations. However, the idea of Mary desiring Moses is a stark violation of the colonial ideal of white femininity.
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When Tony sees Mary, he asks if Moses always dresses her; she replies that he has little money and needs the work. Mary then begins to speak nonsensically, but Tony tells himself that she is not “mad,” but rather simply living in her own world. Mary becomes increasingly upset and moans about wanting “him” to “go away,” yet it is not clear who she is talking about. Moses arrives in the doorway, and Tony shouts at him to leave. Moses asks Mary if she is going away and if Tony is coming too, and Tony gets increasingly infuriated. He feels ready to kill Moses, and just at that moment Moses leaves. This causes Mary to become hysterical and accuse Tony of ruining everything. Tony comforts her, and resolves to tell Dick to fire Moses. However, Moses does not return.
This is the first time in which Mary expresses her feelings about Moses out loud; however, the nature of their relationship remains just as mysterious as before. Mary’s erratic behavior and nonsensical statements could be taken as an indication of her mental incapacitation. On the other hand, perhaps her contradictory words speak to the inexpressibility of her true feelings. Because Mary’s desire for Moses defies colonial logic to such an extreme degree, she is not able to understand or express these feelings, and is thus reduced to incomprehensible hysteria.
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