The Grass is Singing

The Grass is Singing Chapter 7 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It is June, Mary’s favorite time of year. In the early mornings, Mary walks out onto the soil in front of the house, which is still cool from the night. In the coolness of winter, Mary is almost restored to her previous vitality. Dick is more gentle with her, fearing that she will run away again. Mary usually refuses to go down to the lands with him, but on one occasion accepts, and is delighted by the sight of frost.
Mary’s preference for the cold and hatred of the heat emphasizes how this country—the only country she’s ever lived in—still feels entirely foreign to her. Furthermore, as a settler clinging to ideals of a distant European “civilization,” part of her doesn’t even want to feel at home in Africa.
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Just as it seems that the dynamic of their marriage is transforming into something new and better, Dick becomes ill. At first he insists on still going to work, but within a few hours he develops a burning fever and rushes home to bed. Mary reluctantly writes to Mrs. Slatter and later that day Charlie brings a doctor to the Turners’ farm. After examining Dick, the doctor informs Mary that the house is dangerous, that it must be wired for mosquitoes, and that Mary herself is anemic and should go on a three-month holiday to the coast.
Like Charlie, the doctor is another authority figure who treats Dick and Mary in a rather demeaning manner. In different ways, both Charlie and the doctor represent the norms of society and the disciplinary processes by which these norms are upheld. Charlie symbolizes the norms that emerge from capitalism, including strict adherence to the racial hierarchy that governs South Rhodesia. The doctor, on the other hand, might be presumed to be a more benevolent and helpful figure, but he is judgmental and rather insulting to Mary, suggesting that she and Dick are responsible for their own misfortune by failing to play by the rules.
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Mary stands on the veranda watching the doctor leave, her mind filled with enraged resentment. Mrs. Slatter drops off a bag of citrus, for which Mary writes a “dry little note” of thanks. Seeing Dick in his state of incapacitation, Mary thinks: “Just like a nigger!”, as she has only seen black people lying ill like that. Mary reluctantly goes out to deal with the farm laborers, stopping to take the sambok (whip), which gives her more confidence. She lets the dogs out and walks down to the field, where the workers’ huts lie, some newly built and some falling down. She walks past thin black children, women, and a handful of men. She finds the “headboy” and tells him in kitchen kaffir to get the men out to work in ten minutes, and that she will deduct the pay of anyone who is late. Some of the women laugh, and Mary thinks: “Filthy savages!”
Although not unusual for a white woman living in a highly racist society, Mary’s treatment of native people is unusually severe. Furthermore, she is especially prone to directing her anger at those people who are in a state of weakness, such as women, children, and even Dick himself, who in his illness Mary associates with a black person. Mary constructs an identity for herself based on an absolute denial of this weakness. By taking the sambok to the fields and issuing needlessly strict demands, Mary presents herself in a brutal, dictatorial manner.
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Mary waits in the car. After half an hour, a few men gather, and by the end of an hour only half of the farm workers have appeared. Mary takes the names of the men who are missing and spends the rest of the morning silently watching them work. At lunchtime she goes back to tell Dick what has happened, and then returns to the land, where she begins to walk through the field, watching over the men as they work. If someone pauses for more than a minute, she yells at him to get back to work. She is unaware that Dick lets the men rest for five minutes every hour. Over the course of the day, Mary grows increasingly “exhilarated,” swinging the sambok from her wrist. Dick is concerned about Mary taking on this role, which is not meant for a woman, but is relieved that work is continuing. Mary, meanwhile, is thrilled by her new position of authority.
Once again, the novel forces us to ask whether Mary’s sadistic behavior is a rejection of the norms of white femininity or a fulfillment of them. On one hand, it is clear that Mary enjoys rebelling against the expectation that she be gentle, passive, and nurturing. Mary seems to associate these qualities with weakness, and even expresses repulsion at seeing native women embodying maternal characteristics in front of her. At the same time, her cruelty toward native people fits in a perverse tradition of white colonial femininity: through abusing black people, Mary emphasizes her own difference from and “superiority” over them.
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When Mary gives out the men’s wages, she deducts money from those who did not arrive on time, which causes discontent. The headboy explains that the men want the full amount they are owed, but Mary refuses. Some of the men tell the headboy that they want to leave, and some simply walk off. This worries Mary, as she knows that Dick is constantly concerned about losing laborers, but she remains steadfast. She tells the remaining men that those who are contracted may not leave. Being “contracted” involves being rounded up by white men, often by force, and sold to farmers for one-year “contracts.” She addresses them directly, lecturing righteously about the importance of work. Mary had heard her father give the same speech countless times. As she walks away, she can hear them shouting, and she burns with hatred for all of them, even the little child laborers who are no more than eight years old.
Just as Dick maintained a sense of denial about the failure of his farming experiments, Mary refuses to acknowledge the way in which her cruel treatment of the workers jeopardizes the success of the farm. Dick has already warned her that her incessant mistreatment of their house servants is dangerous, as it could mean that they are left without workers entirely. However, during her exchange with the farm workers Mary is clearly preoccupied by something greater than the success of the farm. She feels an urgent need to prove her own strictness and authority to the workers, even if that means losing their (perhaps irreplaceable) labor.
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Back at the house, Mary complains to Dick about how the natives “stink,” and Dick replies with a laugh that they think white people stink. She doesn’t tell him about what happened, but even so Dick warns her not to be too hard on them. As Mary spends more time overseeing the farm workers, she grows more and more resentful of Dick, who she comes to realize did not suffer from bad luck but rather incompetence. Mary plans to have a conversation with Dick after he gets better, which she predicts will be in only a few days.
Once again Dick proves himself at least somewhat capable of empathizing with the native people he employs (though this doesn’t stop him from participating in the generally racist colonial society). Mary, on the other hand, can only see them as subhuman. Once again she notices Dick’s weakness and hates him for it, just as she hates the native people partly because of their powerlessness in this society.
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Mary goes back down to the land, and while watching the laborers work she notices one of them (Moses) stop and stand still, breathing heavily. She times him on her watch, and after three minutes pass she tells him to get back to work, repeating the instruction when he does nothing. He tells her in his own language that he wants to drink, and Mary scolds him for speaking “gibberish.” Moses says “I… want… water” in English, smiling and making the other workers laugh. Mary tells him not to speak English to her; white settlers consider this disrespectful.
The rules governing communication between native people and white settlers highlight the absurdity of life under a racist colonial regime. It is considered rude for black people to speak to whites in their own native language, yet also rude for black people to use English. The only acceptable mode of communication is “kitchen kaffir,” a language invented in the context—and for the purpose—of the exploitation of black people’s labor by white settlers. Of course, it is highly significant that Moses breaks these rules of communication when he tells Mary he wants water. Unlike the other native characters in the book, Moses seems to be unafraid of Mary. Moreover, he knows how to antagonize her, and does so.
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Without thinking, Mary then raises the sambok and strikes it across Moses’s face. An enormous weal emerges on his skin, and Mary stands still, shocked and frightened. Moses wipes the blood away, and eventually Mary tells the other laborers to get back to work. Mary worries that Moses will complain to the police about her, as white farmers are not allowed to physically harm their workers. She feels angered that this law exists, but knows that she remains in a position of safety and power. Even as she feels angry and frightened, she also experiences a sense of satisfaction at having “won in this battle of the wills.” At night, she feels even more victorious; unlike Dick, she has proven that she knows how to deal with native people. Yet she begins to dread the conversation she has been planning to have with her husband about how the farm is run.
Mary’s sudden and extreme act of violence against Moses is an important turning point in the novel. While prior to this point Mary preserved an idea of her own innocence—particularly during the period before her marriage to Dick, when she clung to the identity of a “little girl”—at this point it is impossible to say she is innocent any longer. Furthermore, striking Moses across the face brings the two of them into a relationship of violent intimacy. This intimacy is drained of any affection or compassion, but it nonetheless creates a radical intensity to their relationship that can never be undone.
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After a few days, when Dick is looking a little better, Mary goes over calculations she has made with him, becoming increasingly harsh and insistent while he listens in silence. Dick knows that much of what Mary is saying is reasonable, but feels she is being unduly hard on him. When she is finished, Dick smiles slightly and asks what they should do. Mary tells him they should focus on growing tobacco, pay off their debts, and then leave the farm as soon as possible. However, when Dick asks what they will do then, she hesitates. She wants to leave behind their impoverished existence and return to “civilization.” Yet the truth is that when Mary imagines a happy future for herself, she is back in town living at the club—Dick is not involved.
Mary’s tyrannical presence on the farmland has given her an increased sense of ruthless authority that she now transposes into her relationship with Dick. From this point onward, Mary begins to exhibit a kind of fearlessness. She no longer seems to really care about making Dick happy or fulfilling the role of a pleasant, passive wife. This in turn dooms her hope of returning to her previous life in “civilization” to inevitable failure. If Mary was ever “civilized,” she is certainly not now; she has internalized the extreme racism of colonial society and exercised it in a hideously brutal manner.
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Mary says that they “can’t go on like this,” which angers Dick. He knows he does not want to leave the farm, and is horrified to realize that Mary imagines herself leaving. He thinks that he will have to make her view the farm as he does, and that once this happens they will be able to have children and be happy. Dick jokes: “Well boss, can I think it over for a few days?”, but this fails to dissolve the tension between them. Three days later he tells her he will build two tobacco barns, and on seeing her look of hope, feels terrified of disappointing her yet again.
At the same time, Mary is correct in her prediction that she and Dick “can’t go on like this.” For multiple reasons, their situation is precarious and untenable and at this point seems destined to end in tragedy. Dick referring to Mary as “boss” again highlights the reversal of authority taking place in their marriage.
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