Queen of Denial — The Mentally Ill Matriarch in Lessing’s “The Grass is Singing”

The corrupted monarch is nearly a trope in the literary sphere, from biblical examples such as the reign of King Ahab, to fictionalized historical accounts such as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare’s MacBeth. In all these examples, kings are raised to and deposed from the throne through familial manipulation, betrayal and even murder. Corrupted queenship is often portrayed secondarily, though corruption is as much a characteristic of Queen Jezebel, Oedipus’ mother and wife Jocasta, and the Lady MacBeth, as it is in their respective husbands. Subversion of traditional gender roles, and established systems of secrecy encourage the corruption of these royal females, who capitalize on their husband’s weaknesses and engage in emotional and psychological manipulation, while these patriarchs adopt a passive or subservient role in order to appease their wives. This gender-subversive dynamic is portrayed in Doris Lessing’s post-colonial trauma novel The Grass is Singing in the case of Mary Turner, whose repressed childhood sexual trauma leads her to undermine her husband’s masculinity and rule of his failing plantation, resulting in devastating consequences as their marriage deteriorates into chaos, mental illness, adultery, and ultimately murder.

Denial of trauma is a foundational theme in Lessing’s novel. Mary’s life unfolds through an agonizingly slow and foreboding series of flashbacks, beginning when she is found murdered. T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland,” as the novella’s epigraph, reflects not only the “shattered and scattered images” and “fragmented state of the urbanized soul” of Lessing’s post-colonial Rhodesia, but also of the “desacralized environment” of Mary’s body and mind as she lays battered and broken on her doorstep (Berry par. 1). Eliot’s imagery of “tumbled graves,” lifeless “dry bones,” and an abandoned chapel foreshadow the mute interment of matters of great psychological consequence to Lessing’s troubled protagonist. Even before the reader is introduced to her whole back story, it is obvious that personally and geographically, Mary’s life has been one of isolation and abjection drawn along economic, gender and racial lines. White neighbors lived “at great distances from each other” and while supposedly “usually grateful for something to talk about,” her death is labeled “a very bad business” that is best “forgotten as soon as possible.” The community approaches her story, like those of natives who “steal, murder or attack women” (Lessing 7), as “the business of white people” to be “cleared up cleanly and quickly” (8).

Events of Mary’s impoverished childhood lay the foundation for post-traumatic stress disorder in adulthood, as she is conditioned to minimize and repress traumatic events for the sake of everyday survival. She assumes a surrogate caretaker role for her parents, a common coping strategy for children growing up in families characterized by addiction and abuse. Her first encounters with industry are those of “always running across to bring some dried fruit or some tinned fish” from the neighborhood shop for her mother, the same shop that she would later see as “the place her father bought his drink” (Lessing 15). Such patterns affirm a blurring of roles with those of her parents, which escalate as her mother fails to protect Mary from her sexually abusive father, whose abuses are revealed in Mary’s nightmares of forced oral copulation:

Again she was playing. This time her father caught her head and held it

against the top of his legs with his small hairy hands to cover her eyes,

laughing and joking about her mother hiding. She could smell the unwashed

maleness that he father always smelt of. (Lessing, 47)

Mary’s trauma grows increasingly somatic as she enters her teenage years, subverting her ability to engage with male peers as she remembers other occasions when her father “touched her with desire” (Lessing 47). These experiences of subversion of her feminine agency are symptomized through detachment from female peers, and she is unable even in friendship to breach the barriers to intimacy erected by her father’s sexual violation. She views other women’s dating and sexual experiences “with interest and amazement,” marveling “that she had no such problems,” and seems “not to care for men” (16). This embodiment of “low sexual interest and few close relationships” (Yuan et al., par. 8) is a common response to child sexual abuse as “a violent act on the individual’s well-being” (par. 5), as is subconsciously seeking sexual insulation through superficial androgyny or nondescript clothing so as not to be noticed. Mary adopts this coping strategy, changing “her hairstyle and wearing suits to work,” further subverting her own femininity in order to fit professionally and interpersonally into the Euro-colonial “world of men and women living with gender stereotypes” that she is poorly equipped to navigate (Samuel par. 9). She flees in terror from her only boyfriend when sexual potentials emerge and he kisses her, leaving her “disgusted to have him so close” (17). She capitulates to assumptions from others that she “should marry someone much older than herself,” even “someone old enough to be her father,” and she marries Dick, a hermitic farmer and father figure of similarly repressive sexual tendencies toward women (17). It is obvious to readers that Mary is unsuited to Dick, who is burdened with a great deal of debt and while liking Mary, “hates cinemas” and is “uncomfortable with women wearing trousers” (19). After her marriage, none of Mary’s acquaintances from town visit, and love is never mentioned between her and her passive husband. Mary’s precipitous self-exile from an otherwise satisfying single life, along with the reality of the farm’s failure and her own isolation, represent a cataclysmic amplification of her childhood trauma, and she is distressed over her distance from anyone familiar or related to her former life. In such isolation, Mary’s symptoms of borderline personality disorder become magnified, and her “enduring patterns of instability in relationships, goals, values, and mood” and other “maladaptive and inflexible personality traits” interfere with her ability to function as mistress of Dick’s farm (Yuan et. al par. 10). She projects blame upon him for her decision to give up her former life, and engages in passive-aggressive actions to enact revenge. In one instance she purchases a book on beekeeping and sets it before him, then resents his pursuit and failure in the husbandry operation:

He took some of the workers away from their usual jobs and sent them

looking for bees every evening. When they were unable to find any,

though, he began to lose interest, and Mary was amazed and angry to

think of all the time and money that had been wasted. (Lessing 29)

In response to his failure at an enterprise she’d presented in the first place, Mary retreats further into isolation in the farmhouse, a crumbling symbolic castle which becomes a monument to her growing unhappiness. Even the new shop Dick opens, rather than representing a hope for reversal of the couple’s fortunes, reminds her “of the unhappiness of village life as a child” and she sabotages its success rather than suffer the affront of “selling things to dirty natives” (Lessing 30). She channels her growing resentment for what she perceives as his manifold failures into nagging him to exchange his sentimental love of the land for her financial motives, deepening her subversion of his masculine role as husband and master of the farm. She also scapegoats the kaffirs, black servants she “had been forbidden to speak to” and taught to “fear…from a very early age” (22). This culturally ingrained ethos, along with her misery over Dick’s sentimentalism and failures in business, reinforce Mary’s feelings of powerlessness over men, even those subordinate to her. Her hostility and fear reach a fevered pitch and her mistreatment of servants escalates into “the ultimate act of violence” in her role as farm mistress (Samuel par. 18), and she whips the field servant, Moses. This usurpation of Dick’s master role render him an emasculated king, sealing a tacit, MacBethian marriage pact in which Derek Cohen states the “sensitive ‘femaleness’” in her husband’s nature is “visibly belied by her brutality,” and Lessing’s readers are “left in gender limbo” as to who is masculine and who is not (Samuel par. 17). Subsequent bouts of malaria leave Dick not just physically but also emotionally weakened, and as he stays away from the house for longer periods to escape Mary’s increasingly problematic behavior, and it becomes obvious that his kingly troth is to his land and not to his queen. Like Lady MacBeth, it appears at first that Mary has become “stronger than her husband,” but due to her pervasive sense of isolation and having “no way to release the intense feelings” within her, “her defenses begin to fail” and her behavior grows increasingly erratic (Timberman par. 7). Her alienation from Dick, her growing sexual attraction to her house servant Moses, and her racist ideology lead her to use Moses as an instrument of vengeance against all she perceives as wrong with her white, patriarchal urban society. By virtue of her awareness of the colonial “fear of powerful women” that keeps Dick from the house (Samuel par. 20), and her disdain for the native laborers, Mary coopts Moses as a sexual surrogate. She adopts a Jezebel persona, dressing for company in “a red cotton dress and brightly colored earrings of the kind the natives liked so much” and speaking in a “girlish manner” (Lessing 50) which irritates but does not galvanize her weak Ahab, Dick. As failed monarchs, both she and Dick suffer from a degree of cognitive dissonance revealed in their surroundings through torn curtains, broken and dirty dishes, and pitiful food stores that expose the disheveled state of their marriage and home. On rare occasions when visitors come, they find Mary “a little mad” and “crazy” (Lessing 50), and are only marginally sympathetic toward Dick, whose wife has unwittingly upheld the European male’s belief that “women are a dangerous presence” in white colonial society (Samuels par. 20).

Mary is not only psychologically and emotionally alienated from the people around her, but internally is disconnected from her own humanity and from nature itself. Her cumulative trauma and lack of resolution recall Eliot’s Wasteland, as her mind and body become the site of “a form of incarceration” in which urbanization “works to alienate its populace from the non-human world” so that the individual is “locked inside the body as if this were a form of punishment” (Berry par. 1). This urbanization takes the form of repeated, escalated invasions of Mary’s thoughts by her traumatic past, so that her present becomes indiscernible from it and violations of her own and others’ bodies become more destructive. Similarly to Timberman’s description of the murderous Lady MacBeth, Mary’s “agitation, tendency to aggression, desire for death and feeling as if there was no road back” lead to psychic and moral collapse and she commits adultery with Moses even as Dick manages the farm’s affairs nearby (par. 7). When confronted by Tony for the double offense of her sexual indiscretion with a black man, Mary betrays both the servant and the remaining shreds of her matriarchal authority by portraying Moses as her violator, and he leaves the house with “a long, slow, look of hatred” while Mary blames Tony for catching her in secret sin:

‘You sent him away!’ she screamed at Tony. ‘He’ll never come back!

He’s gone! He’s gone! Everything was all right until you came!’ And

she fell to the floor in tears. (Lessing 54)

Mary’s thoughts later that night reveal the ultimate inadequacy of “persistent avoidance of all things associated with the trauma, numbing and lack of responsiveness, and increased alertness to perceived threats” in healing the trauma of child sexual abuse. Upon waking in the middle of the night, her reply to her husband’s concern of “Go to sleep, Dick” reveals the finality of her rejection of Dick as both a marital and sexual partner. What is left of her tenuous grip on reality recedes into the blackness of the night’s storm, and all thoughts of Dick are swallowed in the “colorless and huge sky” of her now borderless psyche. She flees the house in anticipatory terror into “the night that she knew would finish her” at the hands of the objectified servant she only calls “him” (Lessing 55). Her thoughts still manage to become more tortured, and more obsessive as visions of Moses waiting to kill her evoke hysterical laughter and whispers of “He’s there!” (Lessing 56), the “Out, damned spot!” of the final, hand-wringing moments of Lessing’s Lady MacBeth (Shakespeare Act 5, Scene 1). Febrile visions of a spider creeping across her coffin prefigure her death, and the blow of Moses’ weapon against her skull is like Eliot’s “flash of lightning” severing her life from her broken body (The Wasteland, Line 393). In death as in life, Mary Turner embodies the “dry bones” of serialized trauma that like colonialism, are silent before the accusing finger of blame for generational individual and cultural violation.

Works cited:

Berry, Geoffrey. “An Ecomythic Reading of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”” The Trumpeter 31.1

(2015): n. pag. Academia. Web.11 Nov. 2015.

Eliot, Thomas Stearns. The Waste Land. New York: Horace Liveright, 1922; Bartleby.com,

2011. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.

Lessing, Doris. “The Grass Is Singing.” (1950): 7-58. Andre’s Teaching Files. Penguin. Web. 28

Oct. 2015.

Samuel, Deborah. “MacBeth and Issues of Gender.” Yale National Initiative. Yale University,

1 July 2003. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Shakespeare, William. “Act 5, Scene 1.” The Tragedy of MacBeth. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. The

Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.

Timberman, Heather. “I Dream of Oedipus: Freud’s Interpretation of Macbeth.” 2006.

Cedarcrest College Academic English. Cedarcrest College, n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.

P., Yuan N., Mary P. Koss, and Mirto Stone. “The Psychological Consequences of Sexual

Trauma.” National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women, Mar. 2006.

Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

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