Disgrace | Study Guide

J.M. Coetzee

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Disgrace | Context


Historical Context

Disgrace offers a particular point of view that is historically and literarily distinct. Because the novel wrestles deeply with questions of history and justice, a basic familiarity with South African history will open up the story for readers. It is set shortly after the end of apartheid, the period of legally enforced segregation that endured in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. Most of the novel's action takes place in the South African city of Cape Town and in the rural Eastern Cape near Grahamstown.

Early Colonialism in South Africa

Racial diversity, conflict, oppression, and stratification have been features of South African society since the first days of European colonialism in the early 17th century. Because of its strategic location along the sea route from Europe to Asia, the lands of the Cape's indigenous population were occupied by settlers and merchants from the Netherlands and other European countries as well as by slaves from other parts of Africa and Asia.

Colonialism and the Eastern Cape

The character Lucy Lurie's homestead is set in the Eastern Cape region, where colonization began in the late 18th century. The native Xhosa-speaking tribes and the foreign settlers, including the early Dutch settlers known as Afrikaners and the later British settlers, engaged in numerous wars for control of land. The Xhosa lost their lands and their political autonomy but maintained much of their culture through adaptation. The Afrikaners and the British did not intermix and maintained distinct cultures and languages. Both groups also sought to exploit the labor of black Africans while maintaining social separation from them.

The Afrikaners created republics (also called states), called the Boer Republics, as a form of self-governed regions. Britain also began establishing provinces in the region. Although the Xhosa lost land and political autonomy to the colonists, they adapted to the changes by incorporating the new ways into their traditional culture. In the mid-19th century, the British colonial government began programs designed to "civilize" the Xhosas. This included employing Xhosas, many of whom lived as tenants on lands taken from them, as wage laborers.

Diamonds and Development

In 1870 large deposits of diamonds were discovered in South Africa. The development of rigidly segregated industrial and social systems followed. Black Africans endured deadly conditions in the mines for the profits of European-owned companies.

South African Colonialism in the Early 20th Century

At the turn of the 20th century, the British gained complete control of South Africa when they ousted the last Afrikaner governments. The parliamentary governments Britain created in the first decade of the 20th century excluded black Africans from political participation. In 1910 the various republics were united into a single Union of South Africa under British control.

Most black Africans had lost their land. A remaining minority lived in extreme poverty as farmers on communal reserves allotted by the government. White foreign missionaries succeeded in converting a majority of black Africans to Christianity. These missionaries also ran schools that provided the only opportunity for blacks to receive a decent education. Graduates of the missionary schools formed a black middle class of professionals, which banded together to form the African National Congress in 1912. The organization worked to counter white dominance and promote the interests of the subordinated races.

The Apartheid Era

The British retained control of South Africa until 1948, when the Afrikaner National Party came into power. However, although already established as the ruling party, the National Party did not officially declare South Africa an independent republic until 1961. The new government's ideology was of white supremacy, and it strictly controlled every aspect of society. A policy of apartheid ("apartness"), or legally enforced racial separation, was immediately put into place. Four principles guided the various laws that comprised apartheid:

  • South Africans were classified into one of four races: white, colored, African, and Indian.
  • Only whites could have political power.
  • The government worked only for the white race's interests.
  • The population was divided into "nations." The largest was the white nation, which included speakers of both Afrikaans and English. The other races were divided into as many as 10 nations.

In the following decades, as white South Africans experienced rising economic prosperity, black South Africans experienced a steady erosion of their rights and opportunities at the hand of the government. By 1950 laws were passed making it illegal for members of different races to have sexual relations or marry. In light of such legislation, the interracial sexual acts in Disgrace take on additional meaning.

The End of Apartheid

The erosion of apartheid began in the 1980s. With the Constitution of 1984, nonwhites began to be explicitly included in the political process. Throughout the latter part of the 1980s, the systematic oppression of apartheid lessened as some apartheid laws were repealed and authorities ceased enforcing certain others. In a decade characterized by domestic conflict and racial violence, other nations began pressuring South Africa to reform apartheid.

In 1994 a new constitution that did not racialize the political process came into effect. As well, Nelson Mandela (1918–2013), a black member of the African nationalist movement who had been imprisoned for his antiapartheid activism, replaced an Afrikaner white supremacist and became the country's president. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, meant to foster healing and create national unity, began the following year. (The TRC was a committee that investigated violent crimes and human rights abuses committed during apartheid.) At that point South Africa had the legal framework in place to begin anew. However, as Disgrace shows, the pervasive racial stratification, inequality, and crime that characterized the era of apartheid remained.

Literary Context

Disgrace may be classified as postmodern, postcolonial, postapartheid literature by a white author. This complex classification speaks to the novel's techniques, subject matter, and perspective. It's also worth noting that before Disgrace, Coetzee's work was largely allegorical, and this novel represents his first full-fledged attempt at realism. Nevertheless, there is still a symbol system in the novel that has been interpreted as an allegory for the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which was a committee established to investigate human rights violations and violent crimes committed during apartheid.

Postmodernism and Disgrace

Postmodernism embraces multiple disciplines, including literature. According to some philosophers, this period is characterized by a disconnection from the real. French sociologist Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007) claims that in postmodernity we encounter the real, external world only after it has been filtered through our virtual or mental conceptions. This primacy of internal interpretation over external reality can be seen in Disgrace, where the protagonist's understanding of experience is filtered through the romantic archetypes and literary concepts that he values above all else. This makes him susceptible to delusion, immoral behavior, and arrogance.

Postmodern literature employs a variety of strategies, including "intertextuality," the belief that a work of literature derives meaning in two ways. Meaning is constructed from the relationship words have to each other within the work. Additionally, meaning is constructed through the relationship of the text to other literary works. Disgrace is a strongly intertextual novel. For example, it engages significantly with the works of Romantic poets William Wordsworth (1770–1850) and George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788–1824). An understanding of these authors' works clarifies the meaning and significance of the novel's plot, characterization, and themes.

Postcolonial Fiction by a White Author

Postcolonial fiction examines colonialism's continuing effects on a society after the end of formal colonial rule. The genre takes for granted that colonialism's effects continue to direct and shape individuals and society.

Postcolonial authors are usually concerned with putting forth the long-suppressed point of view of the people who bore the oppression of colonialism. Disgrace is distinct in this respect. J.M. Coetzee is white and, therefore, of the race of the colonizers rather than the colonized. The protagonist and the most developed characters in Disgrace are also white. The novel examines from a white perspective the shifts in the postcolonial (and postapartheid) social order where white dominance is no longer an assumption. Coetzee depicts his white characters, such as David Lurie, Lucy Lurie, and Bev Shaw, as they adjust to this shift. The novel reflects the struggle of postcolonial whites to accept a new social position that may be characterized by being indebted, useless, or even dependent on others.

Apartheid and Postapartheid Literature

Apartheid had specific effects on the literary culture of South Africa. Censorship was rampant. Authors were encouraged to produce works of social realism, a form of realistic literature embedded with a pronational message.

South African literature produced after apartheid's end in 1994 has certain characteristic features as authors reacted to the changes in their culture. The genre tends to examine the position of women and race in postapartheid South Africa. As well, much of the literature focuses on themes of conflict, romance, the perspective of whites, and the relationship between truth, justice, confession, and reconciliation.

Disgrace is heavily concerned with all these issues. Lucy's rape, her silencing of it, and her choice to ally with Petrus and turn her land over to him are all results of the upheaval and changing social order that followed apartheid's end. Lucy is aware she is at a moment in history that demands she be humbled and pay back what her race has taken. She accepts this new situation with dignity. On the other hand, her father, of an older generation, cannot understand what is happening and clings to his old ideas of justice.

Wordsworth and Byron in Disgrace

A significant part of the intertextuality in Disgrace is the text's dialogue with the works, ideas, and lives of two English Romantic poets, William Wordsworth and Lord Byron. The central character, David Lurie, considers himself a disciple of Wordsworth. He takes Wordsworth's philosophy of poetry to heart, adopting it as his framework for living. Wordsworth expressed his beliefs in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1800), an essay preceding a collection he wrote jointly with poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In the Preface Wordsworth stated that poetry should take the raw materials of everyday life and elevate them by throwing "over them a certain coloring of the imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way ... and make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them ... the primary laws of our nature." Throughout his writing career, Wordsworth evoked the concept of grace in his poetry. Wordsworthian grace is a state of blessedness that is moral as well as artistic. In contrast, David Lurie's state of disgrace is seen in sharp relief against the grace so valued by the character's hero.

The second major literary presence in the novel is that of George Gordon, Lord Byron, a contemporary and foil to Wordsworth. David Lurie's character has much in common with the character of Byron as rendered by history. As the novel notes, Byron's personality is conflated with his literary works. Byron placed high value on passion, particularly sexual passion, a value that David shares. In his day, Byron was something of a celebrity, though he was more notorious than honorable. His escape to Greece, like David's exile to the countryside, was a result of his disgrace following a scandal. While Wordsworthian grace is David Lurie's ideal, Byronic scandal and disgrace is his reality. When Lucy Lurie teasingly calls David "mad, bad, and dangerous to know," she is quoting the words used by Byron's lover Caroline Lamb to describe the poet.

Both of Lurie's poetic heroes wrote epics that broke with tradition by placing themselves as the hero rather than using a historical or mythical protagonist. David Lurie sees himself as a misunderstood hero in his own personal epic, out of step with his time because of his noble efforts to resurrect an intellectual, artistic, and passionate way of being. The reader, however, might be encouraged by Coetzee to read Lurie as Byron's Lucifer character, as suggested by the lecture Lurie gives on Byron's poem Lara in chapter 4.
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