The Grass is Singing

The Grass is Singing Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Dick and Mary rarely visit the local train station, which is 7 miles away, instead sending a native worker to pick up their post and groceries twice a week. Once a month, they go by car in order to get heavier goods such as bags of flour. During one such trip, Mary sees a man (who she doesn’t know) call Dick “Jonah” and note that his farms have flooded. When Mary asks who the man is, Dick irritably explains that he borrowed £200 from the man before they married, and that he has paid it all back except the last £50.
There have been many examples thus far of the way in which Mary struggles with societal expectations about femininity. This passage shows that Dick is also under pressure to conform to norms of masculinity, and that his failure to do so becomes a burdensome point of conflict. The debt Dick owes to the stranger they meet at the station is clearly a source of humiliation, and something that Dick wanted to keep secret from Mary.
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They go about the rest of their tasks at the station awkwardly; when Dick accidentally bangs his leg against a bicycle, he begins to curse in a surprisingly violent manner. At the store, Mary picks up a pamphlet about beekeeping, although it is written for the English climate and is thus not very useful in Southern Rhodesia. She fans herself with it, and scrutinizes her memory of the man’s tone during his brief exchange with Dick. She has begun to notice things about Dick that she hadn’t previously, signs of “weakness,” such as the tremor of his hands.
Witnessing the exchange between the two men leads Mary to notice other signs of “weakness” in Dick. Although she resents and defies gender norms herself, Mary still wants Dick to live up to a traditional image of masculinity.
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Back at home, Mary finds Dick intensely absorbed in the pamphlet. After supper, he begins to make calculations, and eventually asks her with boyish happiness what she thinks about the prospect of getting bees. He resolves to go see Charlie about the matter the next morning. When Dick returns, he is whistling in a false pretence of happiness. He explains that Charlie shut down the beekeeping idea because his brother-in-law failed at it, but adds that this doesn’t mean they will fail. Dick then goes out to his tree plantation; while Charlie disproves of it, this is Dick’s favorite part of his farm. He stands here for hours, thinking about bees, before realizing that he is neglecting his work and reluctantly going to join the laborers. At lunchtime, he tells Mary that the bees could make them £200 a year; this surprises her, but she does not argue with him.
While Charlie may play an overly-authoritative and patronizing role in Dick’s life, it is also clear that Dick is unwise to ignore Charlie’s advice. Charlie runs a prosperous, highly profitable farm, while Dick is steeped in debt and still makes decisions in an emotional rather than practical manner. In this sense, Dick is again presented as being more feminine than masculine. He defies the advice of the successful, hyper-masculine figure of Charlie, instead daydreaming about bees and keeping his grove of trees simply because he has an emotional attachment to it.
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Dick spends the next month in a reverie of devotion to the beekeeping project. He builds 20 hives himself and plants special grass, but he is not able to draw the bees over to the hives, and gets badly stung. Mary is relieved when Dick forgets about the whole thing, until six months later when he goes through the same process with pigs. This time, Mary warns him about “castles in the air,” but to no avail. Dick builds the pigsties in the rocks behind the house and shows them to Mary, who notes that the structure is unbearably hot. Dick is defensive of his tactic, and Mary doesn’t push it.
It is clear from the beginning of Dick’s experiments that they are not going to succeed; however, Dick is happier during this time of experimentation than at any other point in the novel. This suggests that happiness is not always linked to profit, success, or even stability. Dick’s joy comes from his independent pursuit of a project that he fantasizes will make his and Mary’s lives better.
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Before the pigs arrive, Dick reads that curdled milk produces better bacon than fresh, so he leaves milk out, where it soon begins to gather flies and make the house smell. Then the pigs die almost immediately after arriving. Dick says they must have been diseased, but Mary responds that they simply “disliked being roasted before their time.” Dick is grateful for the chance to laugh at this joke.
Dick seems less motivated by the reality of financial gains than he does the fantasy that the farming experiments represent. As long as Dick pursues these projects, he is conducting his life on his own terms, rather than under the authoritative influence of Charlie, Mary, or anyone else.
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Mary, on the other hand, is far from amused. She has realized that two options lie before her: drive herself crazy with anger at Dick, or repress this anger and silently “grow bitter.” Mary chooses the latter option, although she at times struggles to control her emotions. A few months after the pigs, Mary sees Dick standing on the veranda with the same look of boyish enthusiasm on his face. She tries to reassure herself that the season has been good so far, but her heart sinks when Dick begins talking about buying turkeys.
Although they are married and share the same isolated existence together, Dick and Mary live in two separate psychological realities. Dick is too caught up in the fantasy of his various farming experiments to see the obvious truth that they are misguided and doomed to fail. Mary, on the other hand, feels completely trapped in the marriage.
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During Dick’s “turkey obsession,” he hardly goes to the fields at all, instead staying near the house building brick enclosures for the birds and arranging the purchase of the expensive equipment needed to raise them. However, just after buying the turkeys he changes his mind and decides to use the enclosures for rabbits, even though people in South Africa do not eat rabbit meat. At this point, Mary loses her temper and exhausts herself in a fit of rage, to which Dick sarcastically responds, “Ok, boss.”
Although she tries to repress her feelings of anger toward Dick, Mary cannot help but fall into the same pattern of vicious resentment that her mother felt for her father. Dick and Mary have theoretically overcome the periods of loneliness that characterized the earlier part of their lives, but in reality they are now more alone than ever.
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Mary sells the turkeys and buys chickens for the enclosures, telling Dick she will use whatever chicken money she can get to buy herself some new clothes. Dick ignores this statement, and soon flatly tells her that he plans to open a “kaffir store” on the farm. He argues that kaffir stores are “gold mines of profit.” Mary quietly points out that there is a kaffir store nearby—how will Dick attract customers?—but Dick is defiant. He acquires a trading license and builds the store, the sight of which Mary resents, viewing it as a bad omen.
The climax of Dick’s failed experiments comes in the form of the store. As has been previously established, Mary resents rural stores due to their association with her unhappy childhood and her father’s drinking. For Mary, the “kaffir store” is even worse, as it caters specifically to the black people for whom she harbors intense feelings of racial hatred.
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Mary sinks into a depression, thinking about the fact that the bee, turkey, rabbit, and store money could have bought them more rooms for the house, ceilings, and furniture. Once the store is finished, Dick is so happy that he buys 20 bicycles to sell, a risky move, as rubber rots easily. Dick then begins discussing hiring a shopkeeper for £30 a month. When Mary protests, Dick notes that he had assumed she would run the store, but Mary replies that she would rather die. Dick thinks this is because she does not want to interact with black people, but in fact it is because the store brings back too many miserable memories from her childhood.
Dick is too steeped in delusional thinking to properly consider that Mary’s extreme repulsion to stores along with her hysterical racial prejudice make her a rather inauspicious candidate for the shop keeping role. There is a symbolic connection between the rot-prone bike rubber and the pigs that died from the heat; both represent failure, toxicity, and decay, and in that sense are diametrically opposed to the image of a healthy, fertile, and prosperous farm.
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Eventually Mary agrees to work in the store. In the morning, groups of native women and their children sit calmly outside the store, and Mary watches them with rage and disgust. Mary serves them irritably, shouting at them to hurry up as they look through the store’s goods. The final straw comes when the bicycles do not sell and all rot, costing them another £50. Overall, the store does not bring in much money. In the afternoons, Mary sleeps for hours, dreaming about her life before she was “forced” to get married. In this midst of this period, she begins thinking of running away. Although she worries about hurting Dick, she comes to disregard this, believing that if she only gets on the train and returns to town her life will be restored to its previous state. One day, reading the newspaper, she notices that her old firm has placed an ad for a shorthand typist. The next day she packs a suitcase and leaves Dick a note saying she has gone back to her old job.
In the midst of Dick’s farming fantasies, Mary gets caught up in a fantasy of her own. She feels so hopeless about life on the farm that her only hope of finding happiness in the future is to return to the past. Just as Dick lives in a state of denial about the failures of his farming experiments, Mary denies the reality of her life on the farm by sleeping during the day and dreaming about her previous life in town. The suddenness and seeming ease with which Mary packs up and leaves shows that she has no real attachment to Dick or to the farm. Whether consciously or unconsciously, she has spent the entirety of her married life dreaming of her past and of the possibility of escape.
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Related Quotes
Mary carries her suitcase to the Slatters’ farm and asks Charlie to drive her to the station, explaining that Dick can’t do it because he is working. Charlie is suspicious, but agrees. Back in town, Mary is thrilled to be back in “her world.” She returns to the girls’ club, where she is reminded that they do not house married women. She then goes to a hotel before returning to her office, which has new furniture and a new crop of women working there. There she is told that the typist position has already been filled. Seeing her appearance, one of the office workers asks if she has been ill, to which she replies: “No.”
During this era, it is still conventionally assumed that marriage fundamentally changes a woman in a irreversible way; even women who get divorced or widowed can never return to the same status they had before they married. Furthermore, there are strict rules that delineate appropriate behavior for married women. Mary is not allowed to live at the girls’ club, and—although her old office claims that the position is filled—it’s possible that she doesn’t get her old job back because it’s not considered appropriate for a married woman to perform this kind of work.
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Back at the hotel, Mary tips out the coins in her purse and realizes that she does not have enough money to pay the bill. Soon after, Dick knocks on the door. He takes her hands and says: “Mary, don’t leave me.” They eat at a restaurant and return home, where Mary slips miserably back into her old routine, without even the dream of escape to comfort her. If Dick had not gotten ill a few months after this point, the narrator says, perhaps Mary herself would have died, unable to go on.
As Mary soon realizes, it is impossible to turn back time. Her life in town no longer exists, and in the eyes of the people there she has become a different person. She is well and fully trapped, and depends entirely on Dick now without even the pleasure of fantasizing about freedom.
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