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A reader's guide to The Grass Is Singing

Updated Tuesday 1st April 2008

Doris Lessing's debut novel drew deep on her experiences in 1950s Rhodesia.

Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, and this month on the forum we are celebrating her achievements.

Lessing was raised on her father’s farm in Southern Rhodesia. The evocative setting was to inspire her first novel, 1950's The Grass is Singing.

This title is from What the Thunder Said in The Waste Land by TS Eliot.

A white farmer, Dick Turner, is passionate about his land; however, his wife Mary is utterly fatigued and frustrated by the relentless heat and grinding poverty.

Her thoughts often drift to her previous existence in town, where she enjoyed a career and an active social life.

Doris Lessing Creative commons image Icon Elke Wetzig under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
Doris Lessing [Image: Elke Wetzig under CC-BY-SA licence]

Mary becomes increasingly discontented, particularly when she realizes that Dick is, fundamentally, incompetent. Much of her aggression is taken out on a succession of black servants, who find it impossible to satisfy her demands.

Eventually she develops an obsession with a houseboy called Moses, and the reader witnesses a tragedy unfolding.

Lessing’s novel succeeds on many levels. Her writing conveys the harsh landscape and the oppressive climate.

She produces penetrating portraits of the central characters, enabling us to comprehend the reasons underlying their behaviour.

The complacency and cruelty of white colonial society are laid bare, as issues of racism, injustice and sexuality are explored with insight and sensitivity.

My copy of the book contains a list of Lessing’s works. These include an impressive array of novels, short stories, poetry, drama, non-fiction, autobiography and operas. She is a worthy Nobel winner!


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