The Grass is Singing

The Grass is Singing Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Using her savings, Mary purchases fabrics and other items to make the house look nicer. After a month, she has settled into a routine that makes her feel like a new person. In the morning she drinks tea with Dick. She leaves the cooking to Samson, although she no longer allows him to take a portion of food for himself. She spends all day sewing and sleeps well at night. She enjoys pleasing Dick with her work on the house, although Dick still treats her somewhat “like a brother.” After she has embroidered everything around her, she rigorously washes and paints the walls of the house. Following this project, she spends time reading, and one day Dick picks up a copy of The Fair Lady that Mary had left lying around. He reads a passage about the Dutch-descended trekkers in South Africa, and while he is reading Mary asks him if they can have ceilings. Dick is hesitant about the cost, saying they can have them if they “do well” next year.
Mary’s happiness in this early stage of marriage emerges from the fact that she has an obvious and necessary role in the house. She gains a sense of authority through overseeing Samson’s housework, and is able to independently take charge of redecorating the house. At the same time, she cannot escape the reality of being financially dependent on Dick. This not only means that she has to live within the means of Dick’s very small income, but that she cannot make any financial decisions herself, such as whether to invest in ceilings.
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Soon after, Mary puts the books away and returns to learning kitchen kaffir, which she practices by scolding Samson. Samson is deeply unhappy, and one day Dick finds Mary crying and claiming that Samson had stolen raisins she’d been saving for pudding. Dick comments that this is not so serious, and that Samson is “a good old swine on the whole.” However, Mary furiously insists that she will take it out of Samson’s wages—two shillings out of the one pound he earns per month. After learning this, Samson gives his notice, which upsets Dick, even though he figures he should have changed servants anyway when Mary arrived. Mary is horrified by Dick’s affectionate farewell to Samson. In the days that follow, she struggles with the burden of taking care of the house herself, although she also enjoys it.
This passage emphasizes the question of why Mary and Dick have such different relationships to Samson, and the etiquette surrounding white interactions with native people in general. Dick seems to understand the need to have an element of fairness in his treatment of native workers, and does not take Samson’s behavior too seriously (yet he still dehumanizes him by calling him a “swine” even in his supposed compliments). Mary, meanwhile, tends to overreact to the actions of native people. Her cruel treatment of Samson is seemingly a way of securing the authority that she is denied as a woman, yet simultaneously permitted as a white woman interacting with black people.
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Mary begins to find the heat “intolerable.” She wanders around the house, looking for something to do. At that moment, a young native man arrives at the house, asking for work. He asks for 17 shillings a month, and Mary barters down to 15. He is nervous and cannot understand her, even though Mary is now “fluent” in kitchen kaffir. Mary shows him around, already irritated by his presence, and at dinner she yells at him. This causes an argument between her and Dick, who insists that she will drive herself crazy by keeping her standards so high. Dick angrily leaves to smoke a cigarette outside. The next day, the new servant drops a plate out of nervousness, and Mary fires him immediately. Afterward she cleans furiously, “as if she were scrubbing the skin off a black face.” The next servant has years of experience working for white women and behaves in a blank, robotic manner. This irritates Mary, but she decides to have him stay.
Dick’s fears about disappointing Mary due to his poverty do not emerge from the shabbiness of the house or the lack of money for luxury expenses, as Dick originally thought. Rather, Mary’s disappointment and resentment takes the form of her perennial dissatisfaction with—and cruel treatment of—native workers. While Mary is apparently satisfied living in a simple, run-down house, she has unreasonably high expectations for the behavior of servants. The severity of Mary’s racism is somewhat mysterious. However, it seems clear that she channels a range of unrelated repressed feelings and desires through the “legitimate” channel of racist cruelty.
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Disturbed by the way Mary treats native people, Dick asks her to come to the land with him so he can show her how he works. Mary agrees reluctantly, and spends the whole time thinking about the new servant at home, imagining that he is going through her belongings and stealing. When Dick asks if she’d like to come again the next day, she refuses, saying it’s too hot. Mary becomes more and more obsessed with the heat, and asks Dick when it will rain. Dick is surprised that she does not know this herself, seeing as she has lived in South Rhodesia her entire life.
Mary’s extreme aversion to the heat and lack of knowledge about the seasons in South Rhodesia again points to a sense of artifice in her relationship to the country in which she lives. The fact that Mary finds the heat so unbearable emphasizes the fact that she does not belong in this part of the world.
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One day, Dick remarks that they have been running out of water very quickly, and he accuses Mary of wasting it. Mary responds that she uses it to cool herself, to which Dick replies that she is throwing money away. Mary is infuriated, even though Dick quickly apologizes. She goes into the bathroom and stares at the bathtub, which is covered in grease and dirt and scratches. She orders the servant to scrub it until it shines.
It is at this point, still at the beginning stages of Dick and Mary’s marriage, that Dick first begins to see Mary as a liability—a superfluous addition to his life that only adds to his burden. In the same way that Mary does not belong in South Rhodesia, she also does not really belong in Dick’s life, which is oriented around independence, isolation, and the struggle of survival.
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At lunchtime, Dick is surprised to find Mary cooking, and asks where the servant is. Mary says that he is cleaning the bath. After going to the bathroom Dick informs her that it is natural for zinc to look like that, and the bath is not actually dirty. Dick doesn’t want to be around Mary, and leaves without eating. Mary doesn’t eat either, and after clearing lunch away spends two hours listening to the servant clean the bath. After this time, the servant returns and says that he is going to his hut for food, and that he will return to the bath later. Mary feels guilty for a moment, but then tells herself: “It’s his fault for not keeping it properly clean in the first place.” The week before a fire had swept through the farmland, leaving the landscape barren and charred. Suddenly, Mary sees a car approaching, and she runs inside to tell the servant to make tea; however, he is still gone on his break.
This passage further confirms Mary’s incompatibility with her surroundings. She forces the servant to scrub the bath even though its “dirty” appearance is simply a result of the fact that it is made from zinc. This confirms that Mary cannot accept the natural facts around her as reality, but is constantly trying to change the world around her to suit how she wants it to be. This drives her to an extreme lack of compassion, exhibited when she feels no guilt about forcing the servant to work through his lunch break. The people around Mary do not feel real to her; rather, they are simply factors she wants to control.
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Mary begins to panic; there is nothing to eat and she is not dressed for visitors. However, it is too late to do anything about this. The car stops and Charlie and Mrs. Slatter get out. Mary is relieved to see Dick’s car following closely behind. The four of them sit inside, and Mrs. Slatter expresses sympathy for Mary, recalling the time when she also suffered through poverty. However, despite Mrs. Slatter’s friendliness, Mary is “stiff with resentment.” Mary mistakes Mrs. Slatter’s genuine kindness for patronizing judgment, and struggles to think of a topic of conversation.
At this point in her life, Mary no longer seems able to engage with other people on normal terms. Her resistance to Mrs. Slatter’s friendliness and sympathy indicate that she has become profoundly disconnected from other people and even frightened of social interaction in general.
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Meanwhile Charlie and Dick are in the midst of an intense discussion about farming and the burden of dealing with native people. Mrs. Slatter is hurt by Mary’s lack of engagement, and when the Slatters leave, Dick is sad but Mary is relieved. Dick says that Mary must be lonely, and Mary responds that she isn’t, simply because she doesn’t crave other people’s company. Dick nonetheless suggests that Mary go to visit Mrs. Slatter, a proposal that Mary flatly rejects.
The conversation about dealing with native people highlights a connection between Mary’s social alienation and the broader social alienation experienced by white settlers living in colonized countries. Through their perverse and brutal relationship with the indigenous majority of the country, the white characters in the novel lose their sense of what normal socialization looks like, and become alienated from each other as well as from the black people they live among.
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At this moment, the servant comes out to the veranda and hands Dick and Mary his notice, explaining that he is needed in his kraal (his village). Mary is furious, and Dick breaks an unwritten rule by explaining to the servant that Mary is still learning how to run a household and that he will not be forced to work so hard in the future. Dick and Mary have a fierce argument, during which Mary feels a desire to hurt Dick. She begins to yell at him in a voice “taken directly from her mother,” the voice of a “suffering female.” Dick in turn speaks to her in a newly harsh way, saying that they will keep the servant and that she will have to learn to treat him correctly. Mary makes supper herself and Dick goes to bed early, leaving her alone. Mary goes outside and paces up and down the path, thinking about her old life in town. She cries for hours, and only goes to bed when she cannot walk anymore.
This passage emphasizes the way in which preexisting social scripts dictate the characters’ lives, even as they try to resist them. For example, Dick rebels against the script of how white employers are supposed to communicate with native people when he speaks in an apologetic manner to the servant. However, the norms of white cruelty and miscommunication with native people are so powerful that Dick’s explanation does not actually improve the situation. Mary then finds herself speaking in the same voice of female complaint that her mother used. Mary has resisted becoming like her mother for her whole life, but it seems that this fate is inescapable.
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A few days later, Mrs. Slatter invites them to an evening party, which Dick reluctantly agrees to attend for Mary’s sake; however, Mary does not want to go, and sends a formal note declining the invite. This offends Mrs. Slatter, and causes Charlie to remark that the Turners need to be brought to their senses. Soon after, Charlie goes to visit Dick and advises him to stop planting crops that aren’t tobacco; however, Dick is resistant to this idea. Charlie asks Dick what he will do when he has children, and warns him not to ask for money when that time comes. Dick responds that he has never asked Charlie for anything, and the men feel both hatred and respect for one another.
Mr. and Mrs. Slatter embody the model of normal and appropriate behavior for white farmers in South Rhodesia. Charlie is rich, Mrs. Slatter is generous and sociable, and both of them have a strong sense of social propriety. This makes them foils (contrasting characters) to Dick and Mary, who both fail to live up to the ideal of white settler identity. Mary, especially, is strange, haughty, and stiff; she treats the one offer of friendship she receives with haughty disdain, highlighting her failure to embody feminine ideals of kindness and compassion.
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After Charlie leaves, Dick is overcome by anxiety. He tells Mary that they may have to wait to have children, and Mary greets this news with relief. Meanwhile, Mary continues to have trouble dealing with native people, and isn’t able to keep a servant for more than a month. Dick wonders if this is his fault, thinking that Mary simply needs a way to keep busy.
Dick’s poverty and difficulty farming may be the result of bad luck, yet they also emerge from his own decisions such as his resistance to planting tobacco, the country’s most profitable crop.
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