All the characters in The Grass is Singing maintain complex and ambivalent relationships to one another. These relationships are invariably defined by feelings of both intimacy and hatred, which—rather than cancelling each other out—are shown to exist side by side, creating intense conflict and turmoil. The most significant example of this can be found in the relationship between Mary and Moses. Mary has a severely racist, cruel attitude toward all black people, and treats the black farm employees in a sadistic manner. She is especially antagonistic toward Moses, constantly insulting him and forcing him to perform an endless series of pointless tasks. At the same time, Mary is also fascinated by Moses, a fascination that she will not allow herself to openly acknowledge. Toward the end of the novel, it is revealed that she has been forcing Moses to help her with intimate tasks such as getting dressed, leading Tony and Charlie to believe that Mary and Moses are sleeping together. While Moses’s feelings toward Mary are not stated explicitly, his hatred is made obvious by his resentful and defiant attitude toward her. At the same time, he cannot escape the intimacy of the master/servant relationship that inevitably binds him to her. Eventually, the coexistence of both this intense intimacy and hatred reaches an explosive climax in which Moses kills Mary. This suggests that while the dynamic of intimacy and hatred is inevitable in a colonial society, such a dynamic is unsustainable and will eventually erupt into violence.
The relationship between Mary and Moses is far from the only one defined by intimacy and hatred. Mary’s relationship to her husband, Dick, is similarly ambivalent, and both mirrors and contrasts with her relationship with Moses. Like Moses, Dick is deferential to Mary, obeying her wishes even when they conflict with his own desires. Mary feels more affection and respect for Dick than she does for Moses, but is repulsed by him sexually and comes to regret marrying him. The early intimacy in Mary and Dick’s relationship turns to hatred as Mary becomes increasingly harsh and stubborn, while Dick is weakened due to poverty and illness. Although Dick survives his illness, Mary has a dream in which he is dead, suggesting that part of her may wish this were true, and that in some sense their relationship—like Mary’s relationship with Moses—is too emotionally turbulent to survive. The combination of intimacy and hatred is again shown to lead to death—first on a symbolic level, and then on a literal one.
It is not only intimacy with Dick that fills Mary with disgust. She seems to hate the idea of any physical intimacy, and the narrator points out that, up until the point at which Moses pushes her, Mary has never touched a native African. (Of course, after this point Mary does allow Moses to touch her, such as when he helps her to get dressed. Mary’s willingness to consent to touching Moses in these moments is part of the mystery of their relationship.) Mary’s extreme resistance to physical intimacy is partially explained by moments at which she dreams of being sexually abused by her father. When Mary dreams that Dick has died, the figure of Moses comforting her transforms into Mary’s father, “menacing and horrible, who touched her with desire.” This moment suggests that, due to being abused as a child, Mary cannot differentiate between affection and violation. She thus comes to hate anyone who comes into intimate contact with her, and even hates witnessing moments of intimacy between other people, such as the black mothers and babies.
In a broader sense, the colonial landscape of Southern Rhodesia is also defined by currents of intimacy and hatred that exist between the white colonizer and black indigenous populations. Although built on a strict racial hierarchy, colonial societies nonetheless depend on intimate interactions between the colonizers and the colonized. Examples of these moments of intimacy include indigenous people serving as white people’s house servants, nannies, and prostitutes, as well as the high levels of sexual violence perpetrated by the settler population (a phenomenon that is briefly alluded to in the novel). All of the white characters express racist hatred to some degree; even Tony, who is the least prejudiced of the white characters, is forced to assimilate into the racist mindset that governs the lives of white Rhodesians. After coming to suspect that Mary is having an affair with Moses, Charlie insists that Dick take Mary away in order to separate her from Moses. Although Mary is not Charlie’s wife, he feels it is his personal responsibility to prevent intimacy between the races, and in doing so protect the colonial racial order.
Intimacy vs. Hatred ThemeTracker
Intimacy vs. Hatred 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.
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.
"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.
"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.
“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.
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.