Disgrace | Study Guide

J.M. Coetzee

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Disgrace | Chapter 6 | Summary



The inquiry to investigate the two charges brought against David Lurie—Melanie Isaacs's harassment complaint and the falsification of her grades—is chaired by religious studies professor Manas Mathabane. The committee consists of several of David's male and female colleagues. It is tasked with hearing both sides of the story and making a recommendation to the rector as to how David should be dealt with.

Accepting Melanie Isaacs's statement without having read it, David immediately pleads guilty to both charges. When asked what exactly he is pleading guilty to, he responds that he is pleading guilty to what he is charged with. Dr. Farodia Rassool suggests he consult a priest or "undergo counseling," and David responds that he is "a grown man ... not receptive to being counseled." Dr. Rassool objects to David's responses, which she characterizes as "evasive" and "mockery," claiming "the wider community is entitled to know" the specifics of what David claims to be guilty of. Questioning his sincerity, she suggests the committee recommend that David be fired immediately.

Committee member Desmond Swarts, the dean of engineering, and Vice-Rector Aram Hakim jump in, expressing that they wish to help David keep his job. In turn David offers a confession. He claims that after meeting Melanie Isaacs one evening, he "became a servant of Eros." Swarts replies that David erred in "mixing power relations with sexual relations." Dr. Rassool objects that David's confession fails to acknowledge that he abused Melanie Isaacs. David makes "no mention of the pain he has caused, no mention of the long history of exploitation of which this is part." Swarts suggests David consider a compromise by making a public statement of wrongdoing that would allow him to keep his job. David responds, "I took advantage of my position ... It was wrong, and I regret it." Dr. Rassool questions David's sincerity again, and he responds that Melanie's request is "preposterous" and "beyond the scope of the law."

As David leaves the inquiry, he is mobbed by a group of student reporters from Women Against Rape. When asked if he is sorry for what he did, David responds, "No ... I was enriched by the experience." In the student paper the next day, there is a sensationalized article and photograph of David.

Mathabane calls David, offering him one last chance to save his job by accepting a prewritten statement. The statement acknowledges "serious abuses of the human rights of the complainant, as well as abuse of the authority" David was given as professor. Mathabane says if David will make the statement, the rector will "accept it in ... a spirit of repentance." David responds, "Repentance belongs to another world, to another universe of discourse." Mathabane tells him, "What goes on in your soul is dark to us ... You are being asked to issue a statement," and that his sincerity is no matter. David refuses the compromise.


The inquiry scene functions as a comment on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC began its proceedings in 1995, shortly after the end of apartheid. The TRC aimed to fashion a unified, reconciled New South Africa by means of the public accounts of the victims and confessions of the perpetrators of crimes committed during apartheid. The perpetrators were offered amnesty from their crimes in accordance with how fully they confessed them, as judged by the commission panel. In other words, criminals were declared innocent of their crimes if they confessed them fully. Some critics have accused the TRC of sacrificing justice in the name of truth. Another criticism of the TRC is that while it granted amnesty to many human rights abusers, it failed on its promises of compensation to victims.

Coetzee seems to be suggesting there is an issue with public confession, especially when that confession functions to erase guilt or liability. As David suggests here, the inquiry seems to be split among disparate "universe[s] of discourse" or paradigms of meaning. David treats the inquiry as if it is a legal matter. The committee insists otherwise. They say their processes are not legal procedures. Instead the committee invokes questions of sincerity, contrition, wrongdoing, and repentance—private and spiritual matters that do not make sense outside those worlds of discourse. A sincere confession may put a wrongdoer's conscience at ease, but it does nothing for the victim. Further, a sincere confession can't be forced as part of a bargain.

David refuses to give the university what it wants: a public confession that at least appears to be made in "a spirit of repentance." This kind of "false" confession would simply be a way of saving face and allowing David to maintain his employment. Through David's response, Coetzee suggests that the university is willing to compromise justice, much like the TRC.

David's stubbornness also has roots in his Romantic values of truth and beauty. David is unwilling to endorse a version of the truth to which he does not subscribe. He is not convinced of the immorality of his actions with Melanie. He has subsumed the experience into the Romantic idea that what he can conceive of as beautiful is true and right. While he thought of the incident as "not quite rape" immediately afterward, by the time of the inquiry David presents the incident as "enriching" and describes himself as "a servant of Eros." Eros, also known as Cupid, is a powerful god in Greek mythology. His arrows, which he shoots blindly, inspire love in those he strikes, rendering helpless those he hits by inflaming them with uncontrollable passion.

David refuses to hear Melanie's version of the story, and Mathabane, in the proceedings, neither reads nor summarizes Melanie's statement. This keeps the reader, like the public and David himself, in the dark about Melanie's perspective. Through this omission, Coetzee seems to be claiming that the erasure of women's perspectives of sexual violence is a feature of society. While Rassool and Winter, as females, are adversarial toward David, his male colleagues ooze sympathy. This bolsters the idea that what David has done is part of a longstanding pattern of abuse of women by men in positions of power.

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