Monday, November 26, 2007

Peer pressure kills

The Grass Is Singing
Doris Lessing

The Grass is Singing was my second jaunt into the world of Lessing; this, her first novel, is set against the backdrop of white-ruled South Africa. This short novel (practically a novella, really) is a study in psychology, portraying the suffocating nature of both the landscape and the society that inhabits it.

For awhile, I was so stifled by the setting that, despite the cool weather, I could feel the South African heat almost as if it were literally upon me. How on earth do people live in such conditions? The sun, the heat, the humidity — give me my foggy, dreary climes any day of the week. I prefer a jaunt upon the moors before a walk on the beach any day.

But a walk on the beach is most certainly what is this book is NOT, not matter how similar the weather may be. The novel begins as a black man is arrested for the murder of a white woman, arrested, interestingly enough, hours after the murder and yet still at the scene of the crime. The murderer, knowing his fate is sealed, makes no attempt to flee. Meanwhile, the victim’s husband wanders the nearby fields, having suffered a mental breakdown. What could have brought these three individuals to this state? We will soon learn that all three are victims, and Lessing will examine the myriad causes and effects that have laid these people so low.

Soon after describing this final scene, Lessing takes us back in time, to a moment when the deceased, Mary, is alive and well. In fact, she flourishes. One immediately wonders how such a happy person can meet such a fate, and we realize how much can change in an instant. Mary is what is deemed by others to be an odd sort of woman, although she herself is oblivious to their judgment – she is a single woman living independently and happily, and though she nears thirty, she has not married. In fact, she has no plans to – she enjoys her life as it is, free and complete.

Unfortunately, one day Mary overhears some friends discussing her odd lifestyle, and finds shame in their condemnation and curiosity. At once questioning her lifestyle, she decides it might be best if she married after all.

Wait, WHAT???


And so, Mary enters into what is, not surprisingly, an unhappy and unfulfilling marriage with a man completely incapable of satisfying any of her needs. Poor Dick Turner. It’s not his fault; he didn’t know how poor his taste in a wife would turn out to be.

Dick is a farmer ... well, sorta. Dick has as much luck growing crops as I have at changing a tire. Dick slaves away, day after day, year after year, and only just manages to avoid total bankruptcy. While he tills the fields, Mary is left alone, sweltering in their tin can of a hut, alone with a rotating cast of servants, all black men she quickly alienates.

The South African society is partially to blame. As a white woman, Mary is forced by social codes to behave in a certain way. She is to be cold, aloof, demanding – even though she is by nature none of those things. And, although not originally a racist, Mary’s forced behavior modifies her way of thinking. Lessing is quite adept at portraying the subtle changes that occur in the attitudes of the whites who arrive in the area: all arrive hopeful, vowing to be different from the others, vowing to be open-minded and friendly. All soon succumb to racism.

Like the rest, Mary quickly changes from the open-minded woman of days past to a demanding, prejudiced housewife who takes out all of her frustrations on her servant. Because of her irrational standards, servant after servant leaves their employ.

Until, that is, Moses arrives. Moses and Mary begin to share an odd bond. Although he is her servant, Moses behaves more like her equal. Mary finds in Moses a comfort she cannot find anywhere else.

Why, then, would Moses kill Mary? Is he murderer or savior? Lessing leaves the reader to ponder these possibilities. If anyone is to blame, it is not Moses, but instead the stifling society into which all are thrown and from which none of them can escape.

In a nutshell: DON’T GET MARRIED JUST BECAUSE YOUR FRIENDS SAY YOU’RE WEIRD FOR BEING SINGLE. If you do, don’t be surprised when your life turns to shit. Duh.

Bibliolatry Scale: 5 out of 6 stars


Erin said...

Your writing style with these reviews is great. The book sounds like a real thought-churner.

Sam Houston said...

Great review...I enjoyed smiling a lot in the middle of reading your review of a very serious novel. Cool.

Lesley said...

Good life lesson, there.

I just got a copy of The Golden Notebook for my birthday. Was that your first DL book? If so, I'm assuming it was good enough to continue on. Good to know.

Laura_x said...

This is great so far, it gave me a hint to what I am desperately asking before I go nuts from a book about someone going nuts.

What harm was he doin her??? She was being nice for a change! Did she ask him to do it?

Okay, so I got 5chaps in and skipped to the end to try and get the answer, and I'm assuming I've missed something vital in the middle? Any chance someone can explain it to me like I'm 5 because that's how I'm feeling right now.
(Other than that your blog was pretty helpful. Thanks =])

Laura_x said...

Thanks. Your blog has hinted at something I need an answer to desperately before I go nuts from a book about a woman going nuts.

She wasn't doing him any harm? She was being nice for a change! It doesn't seem like simple prejudice. Did she ASK him to do it????

Me. Lost.
Okay, I got about 5chaps in and skipped to the end to see why he did it. Did I miss something vital there thatll explain it??
Anyone willing to explain?

Bibliolatrist said...

Laura, it's been awhile since I read it, but I *might* have taken it as Lessing's comment on how such a severe environment (her) and racism (him) drives people insane? Or maybe he pitied her situation and it was a mercy killing? Those were my two theories for what they are worth...I'm probably way off :D