While most of the novel’s major themes relate to issues of race and class in the colonial environment, gender and sexuality also play an important role. Lessing’s exploration of gender mostly centers around Mary, and the way in which (white) femininity becomes a source of conflict in the world of the novel. Before marrying Dick, Mary epitomizes a modern, cosmopolitan form of femininity; she is independent, sociable, and pretty, and is described by the narrator as “one of the girls.” Indeed, in this stage of her life Mary is shown to be girlish and even rather infantile; the narrator notes that “she still wore her hair little-girl fashion on her shoulders, and wore little-girl frocks in pastel colors.” Her childishness is also shown by the fact that she is resistant to marriage, a disposition that only changes when she overhears friends gossiping in a disapproving manner about the fact that she is not married. This event highlights the way in which femininity is policed in society. While in her youth Mary lives a relatively free and independent existence, it is not considered appropriate for this state of freedom to last, and eventually she is coerced into getting married despite the fact that her impression of marriage is “poisoned” by her parents’ unhappy marriage, Mary’s father’s alcoholism, and his sexual abuse of Mary when she was a child.
Mary’s marriage to Dick turns to disaster for a number of reasons. She feels disgusted by having sex with him, while he is resistant to having a child on account of their poverty. However, arguably the biggest issue lies in the fact that Mary does not wish to conform to the obedient, subservient role of a wife that was expected in this era. She is more authoritative and stubborn than Dick, who feels emasculated by the financial failures of the farm and by his series of illnesses. Moreover, while overseeing the black farm workers Mary is far more severe and sadistic than Dick. Mary’s cruelty might emerge from the fact that she fails to live up to feminine ideals of gentleness and nurture—but on the other hand, her cruelty could also be seen as coherent with the ideal of white femininity, and white colonial femininity in particular. White women occupy a perverse position of power and powerlessness within racist society. While they are oppressed on account of their gender, they are oppressors within the racial order (and particularly because racist thought puts such an emphasis on protecting white femininity from “brutal” black masculinity). The narrator makes it clear that Mary takes out her feelings of powerlessness and frustration on the black workers around her, especially Moses. In this sense, white femininity can become even more vicious than white masculinity within the context of colonial society.
The novel also portrays sexuality and maternity not as natural, pleasurable aspects of life, but as fraught experiences that create anxiety and conflict within the lives of the characters. As stated above, Dick is resistant to having a child, and views the prospect of becoming a parent as an additional economic burden that he cannot afford to bear. Meanwhile, Mary’s desire to have a baby takes on a strange form. She hopes that having a child will give her a sense of purpose and fill the void of uselessness and meaninglessness that characterizes her life on the farm. However, she is disgusted by the lived reality of maternity, particularly when she witnesses the maternal attachment between black mothers and their children. The sight of black women nursing their babies makes her “blood boil,” and she compares these babies to “leeches.” Mary’s extreme sense of disgust at breastfeeding is closely related to her racist detachment from the native people living around her. This in turn suggests that the experience of being a colonizer is so unnatural and toxic that it distorts people’s relationship to their own humanity.
Repulsed by sexuality, maternity, and socialization in general, Mary becomes increasingly mentally unstable. The nightmares in which she experiences both desire for Moses and the terrifying memory of her father’s sexual abuse point to the way in which she has been forced to suppress her feelings in order to conform to the ideal of white femininity. This repression ultimately cannot hold, and causes Mary both to treat people around her with extreme cruelty and to lose her grip on reality. In this sense, white femininity is presented as being a potentially poisonous and dangerous ideal.
Femininity, Sexuality, and Maternity ThemeTracker
Femininity, Sexuality, and Maternity Quotes in The Grass is Singing
To live with the color bar in all its nuances and implications means closing one's mind to many things, if one intends to remain an accepted member of society. But, in the interval, there would be a few brief moments when he would see the thing clearly, and understand that it was “white civilization” fighting to defend itself that had been implicit in the attitude of Charlie Slatter and the Sergeant, “white civilization” which will never, never admit that a white person, and most particularly, a white woman, can have a human relationship, whether for good or for evil, with a black person. For once it admits that, it crashes, and nothing can save it.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
"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.