Agnieszka Piotrowska Forbidden Desire in Doris Lessing’s classic The Grass is Singing

Forbidden Desire in Doris Lessing’s classic The Grass is Singing (1950) and Michael Raeburn’s 1982’s film adaption of it

Doris Lessing’s devastating novel depicts life in the rural countryside of the then Rhodesia. The novel’s main character, Mary Turner, is enslaved by the system she lives in as well as her own prejudice and inability to withstand pressures of narrow-minded white community she finds herself in. Isolated through her unthought-through marriage, precipitated by social convention and demands it put on her, Mary ends up with an unsuccessful if honest farmer, her agency and life itself slowly stripped away from her. In terms of Lacanian ‘don’t give up on your desire’, this is a tragic example of what can happen to a person when they do not follow that desire through.

What happens between Mary and her black house boy, Moses, is unclear, perhaps ‘un-representable’: although there is a suggestion that Mary’s slow descend into insanity is somehow accompanied by a relationship with Moses. Moses’s voice is not heard – apart from a few short exchanges. Instead, when the issue of his inability to articulate his despair becomes acute, he descends into violence, exactly as theorised by Khanna. It is that absence of that male African voice is significant.

Michael Raeburn’s adaptation of the film (1982) is interesting because of the decisions he makes, making his film clearer attempting to ‘write’ Moses. I suggest that his attempt to give black character Moses a voice, which he does not have in the original, makes the film less successful than the original. Why the work is still relevant contemporary Zimbabwe and elsewhere is that it depicts the brutality of gender relations and race relations in colonial society – some of them are still being fought against in the world outside Southern Africa.


Dr Agnieszka Piotrowska is an award winning documentary filmmaker and a theorist, Her latest film THE ENGAGEMENT PARTY IN HARARE (2013) has been nominated for the Best Documentary in an international film festival in Zimbabwe in 2012 as the only non African filmmaker granted the distinction. Her monograph entitled Psychoanalysis and Ethics in Documentary Film was published by Routledge in September 2013 to enthusiastic reviews. Piotrowska is a Reader in Film Practice and Theory at the Department of Media Arts, the University of Bedfordshire