Disgrace | Study Guide

J.M. Coetzee

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Disgrace | Chapter 19 | Summary



David Lurie has finally left his daughter's home. On his way back to Cape Town, he goes to the Isaacs's family home seeking Melanie Isaacs's father. He is received by Melanie's schoolgirl sister, Desiree, to whom he is immediately attracted. Desiree does not know who David is. He fantasizes about a threesome with Melanie and Desiree, "an experience fit for a king."

He goes to the middle school where Mr. Isaacs works and says that he wishes to explain "what is on my heart." He then realizes he does not know what that is. David tells Mr. Isaacs that his affair with Melanie began as "one of those sudden little adventures ... that keep me going." Reminding him that people used to worship fire, David tells Mr. Isaacs that Melanie lit a fire within him. Mr. Isaacs stops David's confession, prompting David to inquire about Melanie's welfare. Mr. Isaacs says she has resumed her studies and wonders what David plans to do with himself. "How are the mighty fallen!" Isaacs remarks when David replies he will live with his daughter and write a book. He asks David if he has anything more on his heart. When David says he does not, Mr. Isaacs insists David come to the family home for dinner.

David arrives at the Isaacs's home, "a tight little petit-bourgeois household, frugal, prudent." There is no sign of Mrs. Isaacs. When she finally appears, she is obviously uncomfortable. David tries to leave, but Mr. Isaacs insists he must "be strong." During dinner, as David does his best to keep the conversation going, he has a vision of a surgeon taking out his organs and throwing each one aside disapprovingly.

After dinner, David apologizes to Mr. Isaacs: "I am sorry for what I took your daughter through." Mr. Isaacs asks him what God wants from him besides "being very sorry." David responds he is trying to accept his punishment, which is to be "sunk into a state of disgrace." Mr. Isaacs suggests he must do the really brave thing and apologize to Melanie's mother. David finds Mrs. Isaacs and Desiree. He kneels before them and touches his head to the floor, making both women uncomfortable. At home that night, Mr. Isaacs calls and tells David his family is not going to advocate for his return to teaching. He explains that "it is not for us to interfere" with the path God has ordained for David.


Back in the realm where he became disgraced, David immediately begins to manifest old patterns of thought and speech. Though Desiree is just a child and his rape of Melanie was the first cause of his disgrace, David imagines sleeping with the sisters together and becomes physically aroused. He has to restrain an urge to touch Desiree's lips—the same gesture that ignited his sexual relationship with Bev Shaw. This lecherous attitude, like his pompous speech to Mr. Isaacs, suggests that David still lacks maturity, empathy, and a sense of proper boundaries. As his vision of the surgeon suggests, David's disgrace stems from something fundamental to his character.

When he finally apologizes to Mr. Isaacs, he does so with the sincerity and contrition that the university tried to manipulate him into showing. However, as Mr. Isaacs points out, neither being sorry nor accepting a life of permanent disgrace is what the situation—or God, as Mr. Isaacs says—asks of David. David must learn from his mistake. The actions David takes will be the means and the demonstration of his learning.

Embedded in this scene is Coetzee's criticism of the New South Africa. He seems to be saying that there can be no healing and no moving forward to better times through mere confession and contrition, the core elements of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. The country's disgrace will not disappear on its own. It must be changed through deliberate action.

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