Disgrace | Study Guide

J.M. Coetzee

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Disgrace | Chapter 1 | Summary



Disgrace takes place in urban Cape Town and the rural Eastern Cape region of South Africa, shortly after the end of apartheid.

David Lurie is a divorced 52-year-old scholar specializing in Romantic poetry. He is unhappily employed as a professor of communications at a Cape Town university, and he fails to connect with his students in the classroom. David considers himself to be a disciple of the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, and he nurses an unrealized desire to write an opera about the life of the Romantic poet Lord Byron. David believes that his temperament is fixed and that he cannot and should not change. His problem is that he is a womanizer who has lost his touch with women: "Without warning his powers fled ... Overnight he became a ghost."

To deal with the problem of his sex drive, for the past year David has been visiting a prostitute named Soraya on a weekly basis. He has grown affectionate toward her and has confided in her, while she has revealed nothing of herself. The relationship serves David's needs. Then one day, he happens to see Soraya in town with her two sons. Following that, she drops David as a client, and he is left frustrated. After an unsatisfying and brief affair with his secretary, Dawn, David considers castrating himself but instead tracks down Soraya and calls her home. She claims she doesn't know who he is and orders him not to call again.


The novel is narrated in the present tense using free, indirect discourse, which reveals the interior monologue of protagonist David Lurie. The opening sentence focuses on David's approach to "the problem of sex," signaling that sexuality will be an important theme in the novel. In this first chapter, David's solution to this problem falls apart when he crosses a boundary with Soraya and begins to have fantasies about her. David's pushing of these boundaries beyond the professional escort-client relationship leads Soraya to retreat from him. The more she retreats, the more desperately David clings to her, and eventually she ends the relationship. His attempts are completely self-centered and do not take into account what Soraya wants or the agreed-upon terms of the escort-client relationship.

This self-centered pursuit of sexuality, which verges on the predatory, is an important aspect of David's personality. Another important aspect is his stubborn insistence on both the improbability and uselessness of change in middle age. Both these parts of his personality will be tested as the novel progresses.

David is also presented as a scruffy anachronism, out of step with the era and those who surround him. His connections with people are largely in his head, such as the invented connection with Soraya. He fails to reach his students, despite being passionate about literature. The numerous literary and cultural allusions in this chapter are windows into David's inner world. His point of view is dated, and the motivation for his actions is a mystery to those around him.

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