By way of introduction, it should be first noted that the passage under study is an extract from The Grass is Singing, a book written by Doris Lessing in 1950. The novelist sets her story in southern Rhodesia, a British colony since 1923. European immigrants and natives had opposite and unequal social standings; the whitesettlers – who often also owned the land – took advantage of their ascendancy on the black natives to exploit them. Apartheid and segregation ruled the country until independence was finally snatched from the whites in the 80s. The author’s work was deeply influenced by her own experience since she was herself raised in southern Rhodesia when white colonial domination among black natives wasn’tquestioned yet. This is how she became aware of the screaming inequalities that were eating away at the country, and tried to depict them throughout her novel.
In The Grass is Singing, she depicts Mary Turner, a white farmer’s wife, torn between the racist ideology she’s been accustomed to believe in, and what she actually discovers on her own by her daily contact with black people. The extractpresents her first encounter with Moses, one of her husband’s employees in the fields, one day when she replaces him at work. Refusing to submit himself to Mary’s incoherent orders, Moses disturbs her “normal” environment. The scene then turns into a violent confrontation that symbolizes the clash of opposite cultures.
Our commentary will therefore fall into three parts. First, I will analyze therelationship between Mary and the natives – Moses in particular – keeping in mind it mirrors southern Rhodesian society at the time the story is set. Then, I will concentrate on Mary’s contradictory feelings, lost in unfamiliar surroundings. Finally, I will focus on the character of Moses as a symbol of hope for a change in black people’s lives, in other words, Doris Lessing’s spokesman.
I –Apartheid is shown through the relationship between the characters
1. Black workers are considered as white people’s servants
By the description of a typical day of work in the fields (« a bush […] nearby » l.13; « where they stood on the mealie-dump » l.23), Doris Lessing describes how white people dominate black workers. Mary is replacing her husband Dick for one day and is supervising theblack natives. The rules she imposes makes it clear she believes blacks are servants to the whites; for instance, when Moses stops working more than the “allowed one-minute pause” (l.9), Mary stands there “in growing indignation” (l.7) that he’s cheek enough to break her law. She can’t even imagine he could be tired of working or have natural needs. Further down in the passage, when he asks her tostop for a drink, she takes away his right to express himself by successively forbidding him to speak his native language and then English. Moreover, their assembly line work is mindless and alienating. The natives were treated as if they weren’t intelligent enough to accomplish any kind of job other than menial labour. Racist ideology considers them as an inferior race, closer to animals than tohumans.
2. Natives considered as animals
Furthermore, Mary’s attitude towards Moses suggests she has no respect towards black people. As we said before, she doesn’t allow him to speak either his language, nor her’s. She denies him the right to speak, a basic human quality. It’s refusing his existence. As a matter of fact, the natives are seen as a “conveyor-belt” l.60 and don’t deserve anindividuality. Moses, the second most important character of the book, is still nameless in the extract.
Precisely, the black boy breaks away from his co-workers by « fall[ing] out of line » l.2-3 ; he imposes his freedom as a human being. He decides to stop working and to ignore Mary’s orders; he refuses to be a robot or an animal and gives precedence to his natural needs (drinking water) rather...