Fiction accomplishes many things. It gives an understanding of the world. It engages with problems that everyone has to face. It entertains by telling a story and through the story we understand something of ourselves. Writers go through a lot to write these tales. Whether it’s getting up at dawn finishing at noon to get drunk at three, writers will put themselves through a lot to write these stories. What exactly are they engaging with? As John Marx says, “Novels are expected to generate accounts of the world that readers can recognize, but to change the particulars in ways that allow readers to think about the world differently” (Marx, 3) in some small part it’s ideas. They’re engaging with systems of ideas and beliefs and how they interact with the world. These systems of beliefs for the sake of this essay are going to be called ideologies. One part of how fiction engages with the world is to encounter these ideologies and how they affect people. In the novel The Grass is Singing we see how our main protagonist Mary is indoctrinated into a cultural ideology, giving an account of the world. What Dorris Lessing accomplishes though is to expose this ideology as a sort of slave mentality that encourages a type of bondage rather than a type of liberation.
We see ideology working in literature all the time. In the famous Fyodor Dostoevsky novel Brother’s Karamazov, we see an intellectual Russian atheism working in the character of Ivan and a type of Russian Monastic Christianity in Ivan’s brother Alexi. These two characters embody two vastly different ideologies both working against each other to bring a sort of concrete example of how these beliefs affect behavior. Ivan the angry self-contained young man distances himself from his family and found father figures in leading Russian intellectuals. Alexi finds solace not in his father, but his spiritual mentor and director of the monastery. These two both find themselves in the same predicament concerning their family and how to relate to their estranged father. We see in Ivan an anger that refuses to see in anything in his father that is good and therefore dismisses him as a buffoon. In Alexi his spiritual director helps him to find a way to make peace with the memory of his father. Here we see two different ideologies working to form an answer to a very difficult and emotional circumstance. They both come up with different answers to approach this problem that is the point that Dostoevsky is trying to make about how this type of atheism is a type of alienation, while the Christianity presented attempts to solve and reconcile the problem leading to a peace. In Dostoevsky’s orchestration of these types of ideologies, it’s Christianity that leads to peace, while atheism leads to alienation.
In the novel The Grass is Singing novelist Doris Lessing is bringing up a different kind of problem. The problem that Lessing is bringing up is the one surrounding marriage in apartheid South Africa. We see this in the character of Mary.
South Africa is a wonderful place for the unmarried white woman. But she was not playing her part, for she did not get married. The years went past; her friends got married; she had been bridesmaid a dozen times; other people’s children were growing up; but she went on as companionable, as adaptable, as aloof and as heart-whole as ever, working as hard enjoying herself as she ever did in office, and never for one moment alone, except when she was asleep. (Lessing, 35)
Here we see Mary at a happy stage in her life. South Africa is a “wonderful place for the unmarried white woman.” Here she is happy not being married. There is something though that wanes on her as the “years went past”. She was a “bridesmaid a dozen times”. She saw “other people’s children were growing up”. She worked “hard enjoying herself as she ever did in office”. What’s stopping her from enjoying herself is seeing all her friends get married and have children, thinking that maybe she needs to get married that she is obligated in some way to do so. This here is the ideology that arises from this given culture. A cultural ideology of marriage, which begins to be indoctrinated on Mary and it starts with a curiosity and feeling of obligation.
She starts to feel the pressure to adhere to the group once she listens:
to other people’s complaints and miseries she offered none of her own. Sometimes her friends felt a little put off, and let down. It was hardly fair, they felt obscurely, to listen, to advise, to act as a sort of universal shoulder for the world to weep on, and give back nothing of her own. (Lessing, 36)
Her friends were worried that she would miss “the best things of life” (Lessing, 36). Her freedom was putting people off as if she didn’t have a care in the world and yet though. She “felt sentimental at weddings” (Lessing, 37), but had a “profound distaste for sex” (Lessing, 37). She wasn’t found of the opposite sex and yet she felt a curiosity for weddings and at the pressure of her friends felt like she was missing something.
She certainly did feel, at times, a restlessness, a vague dissatisfaction that took the pleasure out of her activities for a while. She would be going to bed, for instance, contentedly, after the pictures, when the thought would strike her, “another day gone!”
And at the age of thirty, Mary is thrown off because “some gossiping Women had said she ought to get married.” (Lessing, 43). Doris Lessing’s point of this failure of the ideology of marriage comes in the bitter and tense marriage between Mary and Dick Turner.
Their marriage was a hasty one the he was surprised of “her desire to get married as quickly as possible.” (Lessing, 50) This may be her undoing as her work on the farm that he bought a “strained state of the last few months with a dulled acquiescence, a numbness, to live peacefully for a change; she had not realized how exhausted she was” (Lessing, 51). That she married a man “to restore her feeling of superiority to men”. (Lessing, 43) But ends up bottoming out and living in an impoverished dream that she can’t wake up from.
Ideology works in all manner of ways in fiction. The writer is attempting to tell a story of ideologies and systems of belief in action. Characters are merely the players of the unfolding of these ideologies. They are play things to the belief systems around them that shape their world and culture. In the novel The Grass is Singing Mary is pressured by her friends to marry because of a cultural ideology of marriage that surrounds her. The result is the failure of that ideology to comfort to please her in the way that she though that it would. The problem that Lessing sees is that this cultural ideology is entrapping people in bad marriages. With her own history of failed marriages in mind I understand why she would think of such a thing happening within South Africa.
Lessing, Doris. The Grass Is Singing. London: Harper Perennial, 2007. Print.
Marx, John. Geopolitics and the Anglophone Novel, 1890-2011. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. Print.