Disgrace | Study Guide

J.M. Coetzee

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Disgrace | Symbols


David's Opera

For the entire novel, David Lurie is either thinking about, talking about, or actually working on an opera about the love affair between the Romantic poet Lord Byron and Teresa Guiccioli. Teresa was a younger, married woman whom Byron privately judged as lacking in intelligence and whose life apart from Byron was unremarkable. The opera symbolizes David. His changing conception of the project reflects his feelings, desires, and circumstances throughout the plot. When he is having his affair with Melanie Isaacs, David is so consumed with erotic that he rapes her. During this time, he has yet to start work on the piece. However, he conceives of it as focusing on the sensuality and erotic longing between Byron and Teresa as they conduct their affair clandestinely in the house of Teresa's husband during the Italian summer.

After the home invasion in which his daughter is raped and he is burned, David is in shock. His taste for life leaves him. All he can see before him is a period before death where he lives like a ghost, without hope and without ambition. During this time, he refocuses the story on Teresa, who tries to resurrect Byron's ghost by singing to him of their love. David is like this Byron—flat, ghostly, ambitionless.

After apologizing to Melanie's family for his actions, David briefly arrives in a relative state of grace. He has a transcendent experience while composing the music for his opera. He becomes the comic toy banjo that revolves around Teresa's soulful wailing for Byron to return to her. This version of Teresa is a symbol for the way David lives his life. He has attempted without success to call into the present a romantic ideal that may or may not have ever existed. In the end, the opera is nothing more than the sustained howling of Teresa for a Byron who does not exist and so will never answer her call.

Nonetheless, David finds the piece compelling. His attitude to it is like his attitude toward his own life. David's rapt absorption in the piece and in his own romantic adventures are personal. When David realizes this, his urgency is relieved, and he is able to focus on developing himself in ways that have real spiritual significance.


Animals symbolize the human tendency to subjugate—by dominating, abusing, exploiting, and objectifying—those who have a quality of "otherness." Throughout the text, David's interactions with animals reflect both his self-awareness and his state of grace.

David initially considers animals as "other." Although animals may appear to have complex qualities, David feels humans are "of a different order of creation from the animals. Not higher, necessarily, just different." He tells his daughter Lucy that the founders of Catholicism laid down the dogma that animals, unlike humans, lack souls, and that animal rights people give him the urge to be violent to animals. Noting an intelligent look in a dog's face, David tells himself that it is surely not actual intelligence. When Bev Shaw tells David to be intentional about his thoughts while at the clinic because animals "can smell what you are thinking," David's unvoiced response is that this is nonsense.

David evokes the concept of violation through animal metaphors of predator and prey. When he reflects upon his rape of Melanie Isaacs, he thinks that she endured the experience by dying "within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck." Later, David imagines his colleague Farodia Rassool's characterization of his sex with Melanie in similar terms. She describes it as "abuse of a young woman," and he wonders if she sees him as "a shark among the helpless little fishies." Animals are also invoked in David's self-pitying contemplation of castration: "They do it to animals every day, and animals survive well enough."

However, when David is living at his daughter's, he begins to draw close to a particular animal, Katy the bulldog, who is abandoned at Lucy's kennel. He speaks to the dog of her abandonment, something David shares. He has been abandoned by women, who no longer find him magnetic; by the university where he made his career; and by the changes in his culture. Inside Katy's kennel, David is calm enough to fall asleep on the ground next to the dog. This symbolic comfort signifies a shift in David. The gap between himself, the intellectual scholar and disciple of Wordsworth, and the animal "other," which he thought lacked a soul and intelligence, is closing. Lying on the ground with an abandoned female dog, David is beginning to humble himself and open his mind to new ways of thinking and being in the world.

At Petrus's place, David is bothered by the bleats of two young, black-faced sheep that Petrus is keeping tied up on barren ground. The sheep will be slaughtered and served to guests at the party Petrus gives to celebrate his new status as a landowner. David's irritation at the noise changes to concern for their well-being. He even considers purchasing them to save their lives, even though, as he tells Lucy, he still doesn't "believe that animals have properly individual lives." In his concern for them, David moves toward the sheep, and they react with obvious unease. This prompts David to wonder if he must change. He asks himself if he has to "become like Bev Shaw," with her ability to connect with and comfort animals.

The final pages of the book describe how David has learned to give animals love for the last few moments of their lives before they are euthanized. David has bonded with one dog in particular, yet the final scene shows David carrying the dog into the euthanasia room. He is "giving him up" out of empathy. Earlier, David expressed more than once how he would rather be shot than live a life where he could not follow his true nature, whether due to illness, old age, or other unfortunate circumstances. David's fledgling sense of empathy involves bringing this same consideration to the dogs at the clinic. Out of attachment to this particular dog, David would selfishly keep him alive, despite the dog's crippled body. However, in giving him a loving, painless death, David is valuing the dog's dignity, even his soul, over his own desires. David is giving something of himself up, too. He is giving up the part of himself that had a problem with sex. He is giving up the man who sought higher meaning through literature, the man who perhaps identified with the dog whose natural instinct was punished to the point that he was shamed by it.

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