Disgrace | Study Guide

J.M. Coetzee

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Disgrace | Chapter 3 | Summary



The following Sunday, against his better judgment, David Lurie calls Melanie Isaacs using information he copied from her student enrollment card. He pressures her into going to lunch with him. She is clearly uneasy at the restaurant, and he assures her that he "won't let it go too far" between them. She is "passive" when they have sex back at his house. Afterward, "he tumbles into blank oblivion" while still on top of her. She leaves quickly.

The following day, Monday, Melanie doesn't come to class. David is in a state of elation and sends her flowers. On Tuesday he encounters her and insists on giving her a ride home. He realizes she is "no more than a child" but is intensely attracted to her body. She rejects his efforts to make plans to see her again.

On Wednesday, Melanie is in class as David lectures to a silent room on Wordsworth's epic poem The Prelude and the poet's view of the mountain called Mont Blanc. In the passage they are reading, the poet expresses his grief on encountering the long-sought mountain because a "soulless image" has replaced "a living thought." David finally grabs his students' attention when he claims that the poet's seeing the mountain is like the act of seeing a beloved woman. He and Melanie exchange eye contact, and David believes she knows he is speaking "covert intimacies" to her.

David goes to watch a rehearsal of a student play called Sunset at the Globe Salon about the New South Africa, which makes fun of the "coarse old prejudices." Melanie plays a young woman applying for a job but messes up her performance by tangling her prop, a broom, in an electric cord. David feels ashamed for "spying" or "letching" on her and leaves.

David surprises Melanie by showing up uninvited at her apartment. He pushes his way in and has sex with her, despite her insistence that she does not want to. Physically she is unresisting. Afterward she tells him to go. Out in his car, David imagines she is bathing and wants a bath himself. He is depressed, and he tells himself he has just made a "huge mistake." He thinks it was "not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless ... to the core."

Melanie misses class and the midterm the next day, but he marks her present and records a grade of 70. She is gone for a week. Then, Sunday at midnight, she shows up at David's house and spends the night. In the morning she breaks down crying and asks if she can stay with him for a time. He is hesitant and wonders, "What game is she playing?" but lust prompts him to agree. When he returns from teaching morning classes, he becomes irritated that she is on her way out the door. He is resentful, thinking she is exploiting him, but he also remembers that he has been exploiting her.


In this chapter the coercive persuasion that characterized David's first attempt to seduce Melanie becomes outright force. While David may be unclear about whether or not he has raped Melanie, her clear and repeated verbal withholding of consent signifies to the reader that he has. David holds a deeply misogynistic attitude and views himself as a subject and women as purely objects. Critics are divided on whether or not David's seduction of Melanie in this scene should be called a rape. As scholar Lianne Barnard points out, the scene illustrates the sometimes problematic nature of determining the border between rape and consensual sex. Barnard says, "Although some readers find that Melanie was willingly seduced, others consider that she was raped." Ultimately, readers must draw their own conclusion. This guide will refer to David's sexual violation of Melanie as rape, as her unwillingness clearly indicates a border that was crossed.

This chapter evokes the racialized context of the postapartheid New South Africa. David further objectifies Melanie by reflecting on her dark skin, and it becomes clear that racial difference is one of the many power differences between Melanie and David. David is as unaware of his racism as he is of his predatory sexuality. Watching Melanie perform in a play about racial conflict, David's response is dismissive based on his evaluation that the play lacks artistic merit. He cannot see or understand that the play reflects both society and his own internalized racism.

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