Sexual-Political Colonialism and Failure of Individuation in Doris Lessing's the Grass Is Singing

Article excerpt


This article presents and interprets Doris Lessing's first novel, The Grass is Singing (1950), as both a personal and psychological portrayal of its female protagonist, Mary Turner, from her childhood to death, and as a political exposure of the futility and fragility of the patriarchal and colonial society. This novel is Mary's failure of individuation in the confrontation of her psychological and cultural parts, shaped by colonial experience. Lessing, by depicting her protagonist in a particular British colonial setting, artistically reveals that her identity is negotiated and constructed by the social and behavioral expectations, developed through her racial role as a white woman colonizer and her gender role as a woman colonized in a patriarchal narrative of the same setting. In this article, I will discuss how the cross-hatched intersection of gender, class, and race through their relationship to each other operates in Mary's failure of her female individuation. Mary's attempt in achieving her own sense of self in this process of individuation fails and dooms her to death because of the same sexual and ideological factors, rooted in her family and culture.

Keywords: feminism, female individuation, sexual politics, colonialism, Doris Lessing, Grass is Singing


The Grass is Singing (1950) is Doris Lessing's first novel which carries over some of the experiences and memories based on her upbringing, childhood and youth as a white settler in the Rhodesian (today Zimbabwe) veld. According to Ruth Whittaker, one of the readers of Lessing's works, this novel is "an extraordinary first novel in its assured treatment of its unusual subject matter ... Doris Lessing questions the entire values of Rhodesian white colonial society." (28) The novel reflects its author's disapproval of sexual and political prejudices and colonialism in the Southern African setting through the life of Mary Turner, a white landowner's wife, and her fatal relationship with their black servant. On the surface, it seems a personal and psychological portrayal of a female protagonist from childhood to death but seen as a whole, it is the political exposure of the futility and fragility of the patriarchal and colonial society upon which the masculinity of imperialism has sustained itself. The whole novel can be seen as Mary's struggle towards individuation to preserve her authenticity and sense of self but it fails because of the psychological and political forces which furnish her little insight into her condition and threaten to crush her. This article discusses in full length that how Lessing portrays Mary's subjectivity as shaped and entangled within the ideological triangle of class, gender and race; and how the same sexual and ideological factors, rooted in family and culture, causes failure in Mary's achieving her own sense of self and dooms her to death. Mary is fragmented between two contradictory status: on the one hand she longs to be a subject of her life, to live in a way she desires, and on the other hand she unconsciously performs a role as an object of the white oppressive structure of a colonial society which extracts meaning of her personal self and imposes its values, forcing the individual to yield to the good of the collective. Mary's subjectivity and her behavioral patterns are shaped by the cross-hatched intersection of gender, class, and race through the operation of the sexual and political colonialism in the context of imperialism.

Subjectivity within Ideological Triangle: Gender, Class, Race

Gender & Class

The early sketch of Mary's characterization entails a subjectivity negotiating between gender and class positions. Mary's early childhood is shaped under the influence of an oppressive father who wastes his money on drink while his family is living in misery and poverty. Her mother, "a tall scrawny woman with angry unhealthy brilliant eyes" who "made a confidante of Mary early. …


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