The Grass is Singing is a powerful psychological study of an unhappy woman and her marriage. Symbolism is one of the major literary devices by which Doris Lessing draws a picture of Rhodesian society; how badly white people treated black people during that period and tells the story of a white woman and her unhappy marriage to Dick, a poor white farmer; her obsessive in love with her black houseboy and her madness and murder.
The cottage where the unhappy married couple, Dick and Mary, lives can be viewed as a symbolic representative of colonialism, which allows for a bodily interpretation: the abandoned house in the middle of the African desert is the corpse of the coloniser defeated by nature and the enormous infinity of the surrounding African landscape. Lessing uses symbolic images of rooms to illustrate the limitations that individuals, particularly women, experience because of the patriarchal collective. Rooms represent female entrapment and limitation rather than psychic growth, freedom. The closed-up suffocating place becomes unbearable, and consequently, Mary slowly goes paranoiac.
Mary's dreams, her fear about her sexuality, the problems she has with accepting her past and so learning to live in the future, all occur in her house. It therefore comes to symbolise the disintegration of Mary's conscious self which leads to her death, and to represent Mary's literal, emotional and psychological entrapment. Tony, the fresh young Englishman whom Slatter employs as manager for the Turner farm, comes to understand Mary's plight. Analysing her degeneration into a thin, sick, mad woman, he thinks "[f]or her, …there was only this house, and what was in it.”
Lessing continues to show the importance of her idea of the problems of ruling race through symbols. The sjambok, or whip, is seen several times throughout the novel and is a representation of authority. While ruthless farmers like Charlie Slatter have been known to kill a black man with it, most just carry it as a display of authority. When Dick was ill, Mary liked to carry the whip around one wrist. It gave her a feeling of authority, and braced her against the waves of hatred that she could feel coming from the natives. The sjambok helped Mary to assert her authority, but she abused its power and “involuntarily” struck an insolent native with it. This resulted in an increased fear of natives, on top of her already bad management over them.
Mary Turner’s body symbolises the presentation of the African space: she is dry and frigid. Mary’s “aching bones” are reminiscent of Eliot’s “dry bones.” Lessing here uses symbols of the mirror that reflect Mary’s failures. Her pure repulsion towards African women is in fact a mixture of fascination and disgust stemming from her own sub-conscious desires. What she sees in the mirror (herself) is in sharp contrast to what she sees in reality (black women). Over the years Mary becomes more and more feeble and sickly until the moment when this affects her mental health as well. Her only link with the rest of the world is her servant, Moses whose body somehow stays immaculate. “The powerful, broad-built body fascinated her.” Moses is a substitute for Mary for everything that she has missed and is missing from her experience of Africa.
Moses' polished black skin symbolises the threat he poses to Mary, the power which he exerts over her when he forced her treat him as a human being. He also symbolises her own sexuality, which she fears, loathes and views as evil. When Mary becomes hysterical after Moses asks to leave, he guides her to her bed. The touch of this black man's hand on her shoulder filled her with nausea; as she had never touched the flesh of a native. Her world disintegrates partly because of her inability to live the life of a white "missus." Without her adherence to the strict cultural and racial protocols of her society, she has nothing stable upon which to base her existence. She cannot think outside of the ideologies taught to her as a child expressed through the symbolism of the store-house.
Thus symbolism plays a great role in this novel in bringing home the issues of racism and the oppression of women by a patriarchal society.