David Lurie is a stubborn and proud man. He rapes his student, Melanie Isaacs. After his actions are brought to light, he confesses to having slept with her but does not apologize or show remorse. His refusal to acquiesce to the demands of his colleagues who want him to make a public apology leads to the loss of his job and his relocation to his daughter's rural home. David's experience of being locked in a bathroom and set on fire—which he puts out—during his daughter's rape and his volunteer position at a local animal clinic begin to change him. He is humbled and acquires the ability to give love, even if only in a small way, to the dogs that are about to be euthanized.
Lucy Lurie is more mature, practical, and responsible than her father. She bears her rape and subsequent pregnancy with grace, understanding it as a way to further a postapartheid reconciliation by paying some of the price for history's wrongs. Lucy follows her inner moral compass and does not allow her father's hysteria to control her actions. She is set on being a good person and a good mother to her unborn child.
As a middle-aged black man belonging to the Xhosa people, Petrus is taking advantage of the end of apartheid to establish his family in a position of power as landowners. He begins as Lucy Lurie's helper but soon acquires part of her land and builds his own house. Lucy's rape turns out to be connected to Petrus's ambitions to own all of Lucy's land. When he offers to marry her in exchange for his protection (and her land) after the rape, Lucy accepts.