The Grass is Singing

Mary Turner Character Analysis

The novel begins with Mary Turner’s death, and the plot largely revolves around her character. The daughter of white South African-born parents, Mary’s childhood is blighted by her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s endless misery. (There is also a strong suggestion that Mary’s father sexually abused her, although this is never stated explicitly; however, it is made clear that events from her childhood leave her repulsed by sex.) Once Mary’s parents die, she embarks on a joyful and fulfilling life in an unnamed town, working as a secretary, living in a club for single women, and attending social events every night. Mary marries Dick Turner as a result of social pressure, and it is clear almost immediately that she is ill-suited to Dick’s rural life. She is a strong-willed, independent, and remarkably feminist woman who resents having to live on someone else’s terms. However, the biggest source of conflict in Mary’s life comes from her treatment of native people. For reasons that are never made entirely clear, Mary’s racism is unusually intense and sadistic, even for a white South African. At the same time, she harbors a perverse fascination with native people, and particularly Moses, a farm worker she strikes with a sambok and with whom, two years later, she develops an intimate, possibly sexual relationship. Mary suffers several nervous breakdowns over the course of the novel and by the final chapter is severely mentally incapacitated. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, she accurately predicts the fact that Moses will murder her.

Mary Turner Quotes in The Grass is Singing

The The Grass is Singing quotes below are all either spoken by Mary Turner or refer to Mary Turner . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Harper Perennial edition of The Grass is Singing published in 2008.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Long before the murder marked them out, people spoke of the Turners in the hard, careless voices reserved for misfits, outlaws and the self-exiled. The Turners were disliked, though few of their neighbors had ever met them, or even seen them in the distance. Yet what was there to dislike? They simply "kept themselves to themselves"; that was all.

Related Characters: Mary Turner , Dick Turner
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

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If you must blame somebody, then blame Mrs. Turner. You can't have it both ways. Either the white people are responsible for their behavior, or they are not. It takes two to make a murder––a murder of this kind. Though, one can't really blame her either. She can't help being what she is.

Related Characters: Mary Turner , Tony Marston
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 2 Quotes

"Class" is not a South African word; and its equivalent, "race," meant to her the office boy in the firm where she worked, other women's servants, and the amorphous mass of natives in the streets, whom she hardly noticed. She knew (the phrase was in the air) that the natives were getting "cheeky." But she had nothing to do with them really. They were outside her orbit.

Related Characters: Mary Turner
Page Number: 32-33
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 3 Quotes

It meant nothing to her, nothing at all. Expecting outrage and imposition, she was relieved to find she felt nothing. She was able maternally to bestow the gift of herself on this humble stranger, and remain untouched. Women have an

extraordinary ability to withdraw from the sexual relationship, to immunize themselves against it, in such a way that their men can be left feeling let down and insulted without having anything tangible to complain of.

Related Characters: Mary Turner , Dick Turner
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 5 Quotes

"Of course he's lying," said Dick irritably. "Of course. That is not the point. You can't keep him against his will."
"Why should I accept a lie!" said Mary. "Why should I? Why can't he say straight out that he doesn't like working for me, instead of lying about his kraal?"
Dick shrugged, looking at her with impatience; he could not understand her unreasonable insistence: he knew how to get on with natives; dealing with them was a sometimes amusing, sometimes annoying game in which both sides followed certain unwritten rules.

Related Characters: Mary Turner , Dick Turner
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

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“If you must do these things, then you must take the consequences,” said Dick wearily. “He’s a human being, isn't he? He's got to eat. Why must that bath be done all at once? It can be done over several days, if it means all that to you.”
“It’s my house,” said Mary. “He's my boy, not yours. Don't interfere.”
“Listen to me,” said Dick curtly, “I work hard enough, don't I? All day I am down on the lands with these lazy black savages, fighting them to get some work out of them. You know that. I won't come back home to this damned fight, fight, fight in the house. Do you understand? I will not have it. And you should learn sense. If you want to get work out of them you have to know how to manage them. You shouldn't expect too much. They are nothing but savages after all.” Thus Dick, who had never stopped to reflect that these same savages had cooked for him better than his wife did, had run his house, had given him a comfortable existence, as far as his pinched life could be comfortable, for years.

Related Characters: Mary Turner (speaker), Dick Turner (speaker), The Servant
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 6 Quotes

If she disliked native men, she loathed the women. She hated the exposed fleshiness of them, their soft brown bodies and soft bashful faces that were also insolent and inquisitive, and their chattering voices that held a brazen fleshy undertone. She could not bear to see them sitting there on the grass, their legs tucked under them in that traditional timeless pose, as peaceful and uncaring as if it did not matter whether the store was opened, or whether it remained shut all day and they would have to return tomorrow. Above all, she hated the way they suckled their babies, with their breasts hanging down for everyone to see; there was something in their calm satisfied maternity that made her blood boil. "Their babies hanging on to them like leeches," she said to herself shuddering, for she thought with horror of suckling a child. The idea of a child’s lips on her breasts made her feel quite sick; at the thought of it she would involuntarily clasp her hands over her breasts, as if protecting them from a violation. And since so many white women are like her, turning with relief to the bottle, she was in good company, and did not think of herself, but rather of these black women, as strange; they were alien and primitive creatures with ugly desires she could not bear to think about.

Related Characters: Mary Turner
Related Symbols: The Store
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 7 Quotes

For although their marriage was all wrong, and there was no real understanding between them, he had become accustomed to the double solitude that any marriage, even a bad one, becomes.

Related Characters: Mary Turner , Dick Turner
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 8 Quotes

A white person may look at a native, who is no better than a dog. Therefore she was annoyed when he stopped and stood upright, waiting for her to go, his body expressing his resentment of her presence there. She was furious that perhaps he believed she was there on purpose; this thought, of course, was not conscious; it would be too much presumption, such unspeakable cheek for him to imagine such a thing, that she would not allow it to enter her mind; but the attitude of his still body as he watched her across the bushes between them, the expression on his face, filled her with anger.

Related Characters: Mary Turner , Moses
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

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What had happened was that the formal pattern of black-and-white, mistress-and-servant, had been broken by the personal relation; and when a white man in Africa by accident looks into the eyes of a native and sees the human being (which it is his chief preoccupation to avoid), his sense of guilt, which he denies, fumes up in resentment and he brings down the whip. She felt that she must do something, and at once, to restore her poise. Her eyes happened to fall on a candlebox under the table, where the scrubbing brushes and soap were kept, and she said to the boy: “Scrub this floor.” She was shocked when she heard her own voice, for she had not known she was going to speak. As one feels when in an ordinary social conversation, kept tranquil by banalities, some person makes a remark that strikes below the surface, perhaps in error letting slip what he really thinks of you, and the shock sweeps one off one's balance, causing a nervous giggle or some stupid sentence that makes everyone present uncomfortable, so she felt: she had lost her balance; she had no control over her actions.

Related Characters: Mary Turner , Moses
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 9 Quotes

Then he carefully took the glass from her, put it on the table, and, seeing that she stood there dazed, not knowing what to do, said: “Madame lie down on the bed.” She did not move. He put out his hand reluctantly, loathe to touch her, the sacrosanct white woman, and pushed her by the shoulder; she felt herself gently propelled across the room towards the bedroom. It was like a nightmare where one is powerless against horror: the touch of this black man's hand on her shoulder filled her with nausea; she had never, not once in her whole life, touched the flesh of a native. As they approached the bed, the soft touch still on her shoulder, she felt her head beginning to swim and her bones going soft. “Madame lie down,” he said again, and his voice was gentle this time, almost fatherly.

Related Characters: Moses (speaker), Mary Turner
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

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He approached slowly, obscene and powerful, and it was not only he, but her father who was threatening her. They advanced together, one person, and she could smell, not the native smell, but the unwashed smell of her father. It filled the room, must, like animals; and her knees went liquid as her nostrils distended to find clean air and her head became giddy. Half-conscious, she leaned back against the wall for support, and nearly fell through the open window. He came near and put his hand on her arm. It was the voice of the African she heard. He was comforting her because of Dick's death, consoling her protectively; but at the same time it was her father menacing and horrible, who touched her in desire.

Related Characters: Mary Turner , Dick Turner, Moses, Mary’s Father
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

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He said easily, familiarly, "Why is Madame afraid of me?"
She said half-hysterically, in a high-pitched voice, laughing nervously: "Don't be ridiculous. I am not afraid of you."
She spoke as she might have done to a white man, with whom she was flirting a little. As she heard the words come from her mouth, and saw the expression on the man's face, she nearly fainted. She saw him give her a long, slow, imponderable look: then turn, and walk out of the room.

Related Characters: Mary Turner (speaker), Moses (speaker)
Page Number: 189-190
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 10 Quotes

He had been in the country long enough to be shocked; at the same time his "progressiveness" was deliciously flattered by this evidence of white ruling-class hypocrisy. For in a country where colored children appear plentifully among the natives wherever a lonely white man is stationed, hypocrisy, as Tony defined it, was the first thing that had struck him on his arrival. But then, he had read enough about psychology to understand the sexual aspect of the color bar, one of whose foundations is the jealousy of the white man for the superior sexual potency of the native; and he was surprised at one of the guarded, a white woman, so easily evading this barrier. Yet he had met a doctor on the boat coming out, with years of experience in a country district, who had told him he would be surprised to know the number of white women who had relations with black men. Tony felt at the time that he would be surprised; he felt it would be rather like having a relation with an animal, in spite of his "progressiveness."

Related Characters: Mary Turner , Moses, Tony Marston
Page Number: 213-214
Explanation and Analysis:

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"It’s not customary in this country, is it?" he asked slowly, out of the depths of his complete bewilderment. And he saw, as he spoke, that the phrase "this country," which is like a call to solidarity for most white people, meant nothing to her. For her, there was only the farm; not even that––there was only this house, and what was in it. And he began to understand with a horrified pity, her utter indifference to Dick; she had shut out everything that conflicted with her actions, that would revive the code she had been brought up to follow.

Related Characters: Tony Marston (speaker), Mary Turner , Dick Turner, Moses
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

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Mary Turner Character Timeline in The Grass is Singing

The timeline below shows where the character Mary Turner appears in The Grass is Singing. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
Hierarchy and Authority Theme Icon
Brutality vs. Civilization Theme Icon
Independence, Isolation, and Exile Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
Hierarchy and Authority Theme Icon
Brutality vs. Civilization Theme Icon
Independence, Isolation, and Exile Theme Icon
Femininity, Sexuality, and Maternity Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
Hierarchy and Authority Theme Icon
Brutality vs. Civilization Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
Hierarchy and Authority Theme Icon
Brutality vs. Civilization Theme Icon
Femininity, Sexuality, and Maternity Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
Hierarchy and Authority Theme Icon
Independence, Isolation, and Exile Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
Hierarchy and Authority Theme Icon
Brutality vs. Civilization Theme Icon
Independence, Isolation, and Exile Theme Icon
Femininity, Sexuality, and Maternity Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
Hierarchy and Authority Theme Icon
Brutality vs. Civilization Theme Icon
Femininity, Sexuality, and Maternity Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
Hierarchy and Authority Theme Icon
Brutality vs. Civilization Theme Icon
Independence, Isolation, and Exile Theme Icon
Femininity, Sexuality, and Maternity Theme Icon
The policemen take Mary’s body to the car, but a problem arises because Moses cannot ride in a car... (full context)
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
Brutality vs. Civilization Theme Icon
Independence, Isolation, and Exile Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
Hierarchy and Authority Theme Icon
Brutality vs. Civilization Theme Icon
Independence, Isolation, and Exile Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Chapter 2
Hierarchy and Authority Theme Icon
Brutality vs. Civilization Theme Icon
Independence, Isolation, and Exile Theme Icon
This chapter jumps back in time to Mary’s childhood. Mary thinks of England as “home” even though she has never seen it—even her... (full context)
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
Hierarchy and Authority Theme Icon
Brutality vs. Civilization Theme Icon
Independence, Isolation, and Exile Theme Icon
Femininity, Sexuality, and Maternity Theme Icon
The store is also where Mary’s father buys alcohol. Mary’s mother makes a big show of complaining that her husband spends... (full context)
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
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Shortly after Mary leaves home, Mary’s mother dies and Mary’s father is transferred 500 miles away. Mary feels... (full context)
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By 30 little in Mary’s life has changed, and she feels no older than 16. She works as her employer’s... (full context)
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As the years pass, Mary’s friends get married and their children grow older. Mary remains single, healthy, happy, and carefree.... (full context)
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One day Mary is sitting alone on the veranda of her married friend’s home when she overhears two... (full context)
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Mary immediately begins to dress differently and feels newly “unconformable” around men. She begins looking for... (full context)
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Mary is crushed by the way her image of herself has been destroyed, and she feels... (full context)
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At the cinema that night, Dick looks down the row of seats, notices Mary, and asks who she is. After his friend replies simply with “Mary,” Dick forgets about... (full context)
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Dick is wary of thinking about women, but cannot get Mary out of his mind. A month after the cinema trip, he comes back to town... (full context)
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Meanwhile, Mary has been tormented by Dick’s apparent lack of interest in her, thinking it proves that... (full context)
Chapter 3
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Mary and Dick arrive at the farm the night after their wedding. Mary has told herself... (full context)
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Inside the house, Dick refills a lamp with paraffin, and Mary feels sick from the smell. She knows Dick is worried that she’ll be disappointed, so... (full context)
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...can in the room. Dick shyly suggests that they can put up new pictures, and Mary feels protective of him. He tells her that it is her “job now” to pour... (full context)
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Seeing Mary’s look of unhappiness, Dick leaves her to undress, and as he is undressing himself he... (full context)
Chapter 4
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In the morning Mary wakes up alone. Dick comes into the bedroom in his pajamas shortly after, and they... (full context)
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Mary walks past Samson, who is cleaning the living room, and goes out onto the veranda.... (full context)
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...for the language white settlers use to communicate with their black servants. Dick explains to Mary that Samson let the dogs go out into the bush, supposedly because Samson is too... (full context)
Chapter 5
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Using her savings, Mary purchases fabrics and other items to make the house look nicer. After a month, she... (full context)
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Soon after, Mary puts the books away and returns to learning kitchen kaffir, which she practices by scolding... (full context)
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Mary begins to find the heat “intolerable.” She wanders around the house, looking for something to... (full context)
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Disturbed by the way Mary treats native people, Dick asks her to come to the land with him so he... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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.... (full context)
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Mary begins to panic; there is nothing to eat and she is not dressed for visitors.... (full context)
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...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.... (full context)
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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,... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
Chapter 6
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Dick and Mary rarely visit the local train station, which is 7 miles away, instead sending a native... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Back at home, Mary finds Dick intensely absorbed in the pamphlet. After supper, he begins to make calculations, and... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Mary, on the other hand, is far from amused. She has realized that two options lie... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Mary sells the turkeys and buys chickens for the enclosures, telling Dick she will use whatever... (full context)
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Mary sinks into a depression, thinking about the fact that the bee, turkey, rabbit, and store... (full context)
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Eventually Mary agrees to work in the store. In the morning, groups of native women and their... (full context)
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Mary carries her suitcase to the Slatters’ farm and asks Charlie to drive her to the... (full context)
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Back at the hotel, Mary tips out the coins in her purse and realizes that she does not have enough... (full context)
Chapter 7
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It is June, Mary’s favorite time of year. In the early mornings, Mary walks out onto the soil in... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Mary stands on the veranda watching the doctor leave, her mind filled with enraged resentment. Mrs.... (full context)
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Mary waits in the car. After half an hour, a few men gather, and by the... (full context)
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When Mary gives out the men’s wages, she deducts money from those who did not arrive on... (full context)
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Back at the house, Mary complains to Dick about how the natives “stink,” and Dick replies with a laugh that... (full context)
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Mary goes back down to the land, and while watching the laborers work she notices one... (full context)
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Without thinking, Mary then raises the sambok and strikes it across Moses’s face. An enormous weal emerges on... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Mary says that they “can’t go on like this,” which angers Dick. He knows he does... (full context)
Chapter 8
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After making her case about the future of the farm, Mary withdraws, knowing that the more she nags Dick the more she hates him. She needs... (full context)
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...to cover expenses, and Dick applies for a loan in order to avoid declaring bankruptcy. Mary pleads with him to build another 12 barns, arguing that other farms have far larger... (full context)
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It takes time for Mary to realize what this means; they will not be able to leave the farm for... (full context)
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One day, Mary asks Dick when they can have children, but Dick sadly responds that they are too... (full context)
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This period of time is miserable for Mary. She marvels at Dick’s niceness and his utter lack of force, and wonders how he... (full context)
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Mary starts to worry about Dick. He chain-smokes, buying “native cigarettes” because they are cheaper. He... (full context)
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Mary asks Dick if he can bring someone else instead, but Dick insists that Moses is... (full context)
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When Mary sees Moses inside the house again, she is furious, and forces him to scrub the... (full context)
Chapter 9
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Months pass. Mary goes about her work wearily, and when she is not working sits still, thinking about... (full context)
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A week passes, and Moses does not mention leaving again. Eventually, he turns to Mary at a random moment and says: “Madame asked me to stay. I stay to help... (full context)
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A few months later, when Mary refuses lunch, Moses makes it for her anyway, telling her she must eat. There is... (full context)
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Mary has started having nightmares during her long sleeps. She dreams that Moses forces her to... (full context)
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Mary lies tensely on the sofa, listening for sounds from the bedroom. When she eventually falls... (full context)
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Moses is standing sleepily next to Mary, holding a tray of tea. He puts the tray down and assures her that Dick... (full context)
Chapter 10
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Dick and Mary would be shocked to learn that they have been the subject of gossip in the... (full context)
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...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,... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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When Tony sees Mary, he asks if Moses always dresses her; she replies that he has little money and... (full context)
Chapter 11
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Mary wakes up suddenly in the middle of the night. At first she feels comfortable and... (full context)
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Dick gets dressed and urges Mary to do the same. Mary almost calls for Moses, but stops herself. She stacks plates... (full context)
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Suddenly, Mary cannot bear to be in the house any longer. She runs out, hoping she meets... (full context)
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Mary sits down on the veranda and closes her eyes; she opens them to find that... (full context)
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Mary suddenly realizes that she needs to go to the store. When she enters, she finds... (full context)
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Mary goes back into the house, where Dick is sitting at the table and waiting for... (full context)
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Eventually Mary gets into bed. Dick tells her that she is ill and that they must see... (full context)
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Suddenly, Mary sees Moses emerging from the darkness, and she is overwhelmed by a feeling of guilt.... (full context)