Disgrace | Study Guide

J.M. Coetzee

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Disgrace | Plot Summary

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Summary

The Scandal

David Lurie is a middle-aged, cynical, white scholar specializing in Romantic poetry but unhappily employed as a professor of communications at a university in Cape Town, South Africa. He has been twice divorced and has a grown daughter, Lucy Lurie, who lives on a homestead in the Eastern Cape. David considers himself a disciple of Romantic poet William Wordsworth and is toying with the idea of writing an operetta based on the life of another Romantic poet, Lord Byron. David's trouble begins when the prostitute he has been sleeping with for a year drops him as a client. David is faced with the problem of satisfying his immense sexual appetite at an age when he is no longer particularly attractive to women. As a result, he coerces one of his young students, Melanie Isaacs, into a brief sexual affair that includes raping her. In addition, David falsifies Melanie's grades and attendance record in her favor.

Melanie drops out of David's class and files a sexual harassment complaint. A committee of David's colleagues is convened to hear both sides of the story and make a recommendation to the university rector as to how to deal with David in light of the charge. David immediately pleads guilty without having read Melanie's charge against him. The committee wants David to confess the story of his liaison and make a sincere show of contrition for wrongdoing in order to save his job. David refuses to compromise by doing this or by endorsing a prepared statement. He quits the job and leaves Cape Town to go stay with his daughter, Lucy, on her homestead in the Eastern Cape near Grahamstown.

The Move to Grahamstown

Lucy makes a living kenneling dogs and selling produce at the farmers market. She is as practical, down-to-earth, and responsible as David is not. Her black Xhosa neighbor, Petrus, has become her coproprietor. A government grant has enabled Petrus to purchase part of Lucy's land and begin building a house of his own. Despite his insistence that he doesn't want to do anything that might make him into a better person, David reluctantly begins assisting Lucy's friend Bev Shaw at the volunteer clinic, where she treats sick animals and euthanizes those who are beyond treatment.

One day three locals—two men and a teenager—come to Lucy's house. Petrus is nowhere to be found. They lock David in the bathroom and set him on fire, which he quickly puts out. While he is locked away, they rape Lucy. They then rob the house and take off in David's car. David is in shock; however, Lucy is calm and takes charge, getting David medical help. She reports the robbery to the police, but not the rape. David cannot understand why she does not report the rape. However, she tells David that the rape is a private matter and that it is possibly understandable as a form of taking back what is due from the legacy of colonialism.

David will not stop pestering Lucy about the incident, insisting she must leave and start a new life elsewhere. He is very suspicious of Petrus's absence during the attack and Petrus's cool, evasive attitude about the incident once he returns. Later Petrus throws a party celebrating his new status as a landowner. David encounters the adolescent who raped Lucy there and confronts the boy, starting a scene. The boy claims ignorance, and Petrus intervenes and defends the boy.

As distance grows between David and Lucy, David begins assisting Bev in euthanizing dogs at the clinic, an activity that moves David deeply in ways he does not understand. Despite the fact that he finds Bev unattractive, he begins an affair with her.

The detectives call with news they've found David's car, but it turns out to be the wrong one. He and Lucy have a heated discussion about what she should do. She is firm that she will not leave her home and that he doesn't understand what happened to her. David says he does understand that she was raped and terrified and he did not help her. He writes her a letter begging her to leave for her own safety, and she writes back saying his guidance is not helpful to her. David leaves the farm to return to Cape Town.

The Return to Cape Town

On his way back, David stops to talk to Melanie Isaacs's father and ends up going to the family home for dinner. David apologizes to the family. Mr. Isaacs tells David that he must consider what God wants him to do besides be sorry.

David returns home to find that his house has been robbed while he was away. He feels useless, hopeless, and unwanted as well as guilty for abandoning the dogs at the clinic. He begins writing his Byron opera using a toy banjo that was Lucy's when she was a child. He becomes consumed by the work and begins to understand what art is.

When he meets his ex-wife Rosalind for coffee, she criticizes him for ruining his life for Melanie Isaacs. David begins to long for Melanie again and goes to watch a play she is acting in. Melanie's boyfriend runs David out of the theater and tells him Melanie hates him. On the way home, David, who is shaken, stops and has sex with an intoxicated young prostitute. He is surprised at the ease with which this brings him back to a state of calm.

The Pregnancy

Suspicious that something has changed with Lucy, David makes an excuse to return to her farm. She reveals she is pregnant from the rape and will keep the child. David finds this preposterous and becomes outraged that his legacy will be thus tainted. He learns that the boy who raped Lucy, Pollux, is part of Petrus's family. When David confronts Petrus, Petrus says he will marry Lucy to protect her, since Pollux is too young to do so. While acknowledging that Petrus is after her land, Lucy accepts Petrus's deal, though on her own terms. She will turn her land over to him as a dowry, but the house will remain hers, and her child must be accepted by Petrus as part of his family.

Later, David attacks Pollux when he finds him spying on Lucy. Lucy makes it clear that David's outbursts have destroyed her peace. He leaves the farm and takes up residence behind the animal clinic to wait for the birth of Lucy's child. He continues to help Bev while he works on the opera.

One day David goes to the farm uninvited, and Lucy asks him in like a visitor. She tells him she wants to be a good person and that he should try to do the same. David thinks that might be worthwhile and turns his thoughts to being a grandfather. At the clinic, David has become particularly attached to one crippled dog. The novel closes with David bringing the dog in to be euthanized.

Disgrace Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Soraya drops David as a client.

Rising Action

2 David rapes Melanie.

3 Melanie files a complaint.

4 David refuses to confess at his inquiry.

5 David quits his job and goes to visit Lucy.

6 David begins assisting Bev Shaw at the animal clinic.

7 Lucy is raped, and David is burned.

8 David makes a scene with Pollux at Petrus's party.

9 David begins helping Bev euthanize animals.

10 Lucy tells David he can't guide her, and he leaves.

Climax

11 David goes to Isaacs's home and apologies.

Falling Action

12 David becomes consumed by his banjo opera.

13 Lucy, pregnant, accepts Petrus's marriage offer.

14 David attacks Pollux.

Resolution

15 David euthanizes his favorite dog.

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