Disgrace | Study Guide

J.M. Coetzee

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Disgrace | Chapter 21 | Summary



Over coffee, David Lurie's ex-wife Rosalind criticizes him for making a bad impression at his inquiry. David claims he was acting in service of the principle of "freedom of speech. Freedom to remain silent." Rosalind chastises him for ruining his life for Melanie Isaacs. When he protests that he has not ruined his life, she describes the various manifestations of his social disgrace. She prophecies that he will "end up as one of those sad old men who poke around in rubbish bins."

David thinks longingly of Melanie. He feels regret as he reflects that the trial was meant to "punish" him "for his way of life." In being an old man who slept with a young woman, he committed "unnatural acts" that threaten the reproduction that ensures the continuance of the human race.

David goes to watch Melanie's performance in the play Sunset at the Globe Salon. As he is watching her with a sense of proud possessiveness, he is taken by a vision of all the women he has ever slept with. He affirms he has indeed been enriched for having known them, and "his heart floods with thankfulness." David wonders at the unknown source of these visions.

However, his reverie is broken by Melanie's boyfriend, who draws David outside by throwing spitballs at him. "Find yourself another life," he tells David, "with your own kind." He claims Melanie would "spit in your eye." Shaken, David leaves. He stops and picks up an intoxicated young prostitute with whom he has sex. Afterward David notes, "She is younger than she had seemed under the streetlights, younger even than Melanie." The sex calms him. Realizing that he is mediocre, he wonders if that will be his "final verdict."


Rosalind's criticism affects David deeply because she knows and exploits his greatest fears: being old, useless, and unloved. The emotional fallout from speaking to her leads David back into his delusional literary thinking. Working up a feeling of having been persecuted by the university community, David falls right back into stalking Melanie.

Just when it seems that David's transformation was only an illusion, he experiences a vision that has the transcendent emotional quality of a spiritual experience. He seems saved. Then, soon after, he buys sex from an intoxicated young prostitute whose extreme youth and state of intoxication again muddy the waters between consensual and nonconsensual sex. The reader is invited to contrast this prostitute with his previous interactions with Soraya. His reaction to these two divergent experiences shows that while his character has not changed radically, he has gained self-knowledge and a humility that approaches spiritual faith. His resolute atheism has been replaced by a sense of curiosity about God. His arrogance and delusions about himself are replaced by an understanding that he is flawed, complacent, and unexceptional.

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