Disgrace | Study Guide

J.M. Coetzee

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Disgrace | Chapter 20 | Summary



Returning to Cape Town with visions of himself as a hopeless old man, David Lurie finds his house has been robbed. When he goes to the university to pick up his mail, he finds his former office occupied by a young professor of applied language studies, Dr. Otto, who has replaced him.

David is unsettled by his freedom. He feels he has betrayed the dogs that "will be tossed into the fire unmarked, unmourned" and wonders, "For that betrayal, will he ever be forgiven?" A phone call to Lucy makes it clear that she does not want him back.

David throws out his original idea for his opera. He no longer cares about young Teresa Guiccioli's complaint that she must sneak behind her husband's back to have sex with Lord Byron. He is now compelled to write about Teresa in middle age after she has lost her beauty and her lover. Her affair with Byron was the greatest moment of her life, but Byron ridiculed her as dull to his friends and eventually left her. David realizes that his very being depends on learning to love this middle-aged version of Teresa.

David writes the first scene where Teresa calls out for Byron's ghost. He begins to compose the music using an "odd little seven-stringed banjo" he bought for Lucy when she was a child. The work shifts into the comic mode, and David realizes he is a part of the opera. However, he does not relate to Teresa or Byron but sees himself in the actual banjo music itself. The banjo's voice "strains to soar away from the ludicrous instrument but is continually reined back, like a fish on a line." As he channels the voice of a Teresa driven mad with sexual longing, he realizes that all his sexual relationships have been prompted by the body's urge for a release that would leave him "clear-headed and dry."


David finally comes to understand what art really is. He has always leaned on concepts drawn from art, particularly literature, to put distance between himself and the world around him and to justify his behavior. David exploited art, much in the way that he exploited Melanie Isaacs. In doing so, he not only committed wrongdoing but also cut himself off from the real power of art.

However, David has changed. He has been sincerely humbled by the results of his actions. He has developed a real sense of morality. He has begun to understand that love is service and compassion rather than manipulation or selfish satisfaction. He has made amends through his service to the dogs that are euthanized at Bev Shaw's clinic.

Because of all this, David is finally able to experience what art is and "how it does its work." He "is held in the music," which "he is inventing ... (or the music is inventing him)." His self disappears, and he becomes completely absorbed. At the same time, his art acts as a mirror for his soul, bringing clarity and self-knowledge. It comes to him like a gift, absurd and unexpected, and while "Teresa leads; page after page he follows." It is a signal that David is moving toward a state of grace.

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