Disgrace | Study Guide

J.M. Coetzee

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Disgrace | Chapter 4 | Summary



David Lurie has sex with Melanie Isaacs in his daughter Lucy's old bed. Afterward she asks him if he frequently sleeps with students and suggests that he is "collecting" her as a sexual prize.

Melanie's boyfriend comes to David's office at the university. He violently confronts David over his sexual liaisons with Melanie and threatens him. That night David's car is vandalized while parked in front of his house.

The next time Melanie comes to David's class, her boyfriend is with her. David lectures about the scandalous life of the poet Lord Byron and begins to read from a Byron poem, Lara, which he says is about Lucifer. Melanie's boyfriend is the only one who engages with David as he questions the class about the poem. The Lucifer of the poem has a "mad heart" and "doesn't act on principle but on impulse, and the source of his impulses is dark to him."

After class, David takes Melanie to his office and tells her she has to improve her attendance and make up the exam she missed. She is shocked but silent. "You have cut me off from everyone," she seems to be thinking. "You have made me bear your secret," she says. David tells her not to complicate things and that he has responsibilities he must keep. That evening he sees Melanie riding on the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle.


A clear link has been established between Melanie Isaacs and David's daughter, Lucy. David is aware of this link, finding himself slipping into a parental attitude with Melanie and having sex with her in Lucy's old bed.

The violent attitude of Melanie's boyfriend suggests that David may not be the only abusive male in her life. Melanie's practiced passivity indicates that she may have been violated before, whether emotionally or physically. The formerly private matter between David and Melanie is now rapidly becoming public. David is headed for a judgment of his actions with Melanie.

The poetry David shares in his class has strong symbolic aspects. Previously David was clearly describing his feelings for Melanie when he lectured on Wordsworth's image of Mont Blanc. In this chapter the Lucifer character in the Byron poem is clearly a symbol for David, who notes in his lecture that readers of Lara "are not asked to condemn this being with the mad heart ... On the contrary, [they] are invited to understand and sympathize. But there is a limit to sympathy." David's treatment of Byron's Lucifer offers the reader an interpretive lens through which David himself can be understood. Like Byron's Lucifer, "It will not be possible to love [David], not in the deeper, more human sense of the word. He will be condemned to solitude."
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