Life for white colonizers is defined by a certain kind of independence, isolation, and self-imposed exile. The area in which Dick and Mary live is described as “a farming district, where those isolated white families met only very occasionally, hungry for contact with their own kind.” Even within this sparse community, the Turners are discussed “in the hard, careless voices reserved for misfits, outlaws and the self-exiled.” The narrator explains that the reason for this prejudice is simply that the Turners “kept to themselves.” The farming district in which the Turners live is already isolated in the sense that the families living there are spread far apart from one another; it is also isolated from the nearby town and, in a broader sense, from the Turners’ homeland of England. It is thus remarkable that in this position, the Turners choose to further isolate themselves by declining to interact with their neighbors. Furthermore, not only do they not socialize with other white people, but—like all colonizers—they eschew the native population, treating their employees and other local black people with cruel disdain.
There is no doubt about the fact that, at least to some degree, both Dick and Mary enjoy their isolation. Dick’s antisocial tendencies mean that he hates going to the cinema, where the proximity to other audiences members makes him “uneasy.” Mary has a more ambivalent relationship to isolation. At times it seems that she enjoys socializing with others and misses interactions with other white people after marrying Dick, but she also harbors an antisocial attitude that at times rivals her husband’s. While Dick is on friendly terms with several of the black farm workers, Mary behaves with extreme, senseless cruelty to all black people, making it almost impossible to form a connection to most people around her. Her increasing resentment of Dick makes her wish she had never married, and she even goes so far as deciding to leave him in order to return to her state of premarital independence. Somewhat paradoxically, it was in this state of independence that Mary had a far more fulfilling social life. As a married woman, she is cut off from her previous friendships and forbidden from returning to her old job. For both Dick and Mary, marriage is lonely, and exacerbates their existing isolation as white colonizers in Southern Rhodesia.
The exile that Dick and Mary experience in relation to their white neighbors is a microcosm of the broader experience of exile that is inherent within the colonizer’s experience. The theme of exiling yourself from your homeland is explored through the narrator’s reflections on Mary’s sense of home: “For Mary, the word “Home,” spoken nostalgically, meant England, although both her parents were South Africans and had never been to England.” While some characters, such as Tony, move from England to Southern Rhodesia in their adult lives, other characters like Mary are descendents of multiple generations of colonizers whose connection to their “home” country is solely emotional, abstract, and symbolic. Mary has never even been to England, and thus the country cannot really be “home” to her; at the same time, the narrator notes elsewhere that “she had never become used to the bush, never felt at home in it.” In order to maintain their superior position within the racial hierarchy of colonial society, white people such as Mary must continue to insist on their disconnection from the country in which they live and cling to the fantasy of attachment to the distant “home” of England. Yet in actuality this does nothing but increase Mary and other white characters’ feeling of isolation, as they are left with a sense of having no home at all.
Independence, Isolation, and Exile ThemeTracker
Independence, Isolation, and Exile Quotes in The Grass is Singing
It was a farming district, where those isolated white families met only very occasionally, hungry for contact with their own kind, to talk and discuss and pull to pieces, all speaking at once, making the most of an hour or so's companionship before returning to their farms where they saw only their own faces and the faces of their black servants for weeks on end.
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.
Most of these young men were brought up with vague ideas about equality. They were shocked, for the first week or so, by the way natives were treated… They had been prepared to treat them as human beings. But they could not stand out against the society they were joining. It did not take them long to change. It was hard, of course, becoming as bad oneself. But it was not very long that they thought of it as "bad." And anyway, what had one's ideas amounted to? Abstract ideas about decency and goodwill, that was all: merely abstract ideas. When it came to the point, one never had contact with natives, except in the master-servant relationship. One never knew them in their own lives, as human beings.
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.
"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.
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 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.
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.
When the dark returned he took his hand from the wall, and walked slowly off through the rain towards the bush. Though what thoughts of regret, or pity, or perhaps even wounded human affection were compounded with the satisfaction of his completed revenge, it is impossible to say. For, when he had gone perhaps a couple of hundred yards through the soaking bush he stopped, turned aside, and leaned against a tree on an ant heap. And there he would remain, until his pursuers, in their turn, came to find him.