Disgrace | Study Guide

J.M. Coetzee

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Disgrace | Themes



The word disgrace is best understood through its opposite, grace, of which there are various kinds. Spiritual or religious grace is a state of being in God's favor. An aesthetic or experiential form of grace is a state characterized by beauty and ease. Lastly, there is the social form of grace, where disgrace signifies being condemned or ousted from the group.

David Lurie's disgrace exists in opposition to all these states. His self-imposed exile causes him to undergo a profound transformation of lifestyle and a gentle shifting of temperament. From being a cynical, bristly, city-dwelling, academic womanizer with poetic delusions, David becomes a nearly homeless, banjo-picking, loving gatekeeper to the underworld for the infirm dogs of the Eastern Cape.

David's ex-wife is the first to apply the term to him when she calls the situation with Melanie Isaacs "disgraceful." This comment appears right before David reads the article in the Argus about his harassment charge and thinks of himself in the third person as a "disgraced disciple of William Wordsworth."

Wordsworth often dealt with the topic of grace in his writing. For Wordsworth, grace signified a state of blessedness with both artistic and spiritual aspects, something David doesn't have. Instead David feels he has even disappointed the poet he considers his master.

In Chapter 13, a singsong chant plays in David's head: "Oh dear, what can the matter be? Lucy's secret; his disgrace." David's academic disgrace was not enough to demoralize him. However, Lucy's rape puts him into a state of shock that is worsened by his inability to aid Lucy during the attack. Although his disgrace (raping Melanie) and Lucy's secret (her rape) are closely related, David does not seem to realize that his rape of Melanie is similar to Lucy's ordeal.

Shortly thereafter, David interprets Lucy's apathy about going to the farmers market as evidence that "she would rather hide her face ... Because of the disgrace. Because of the shame." However, Lucy never once expresses shame. She does not seem to feel disgraced by the rape. In fact, she handles it and the resulting pregnancy and transfer of her land to Petrus with what can only be called grace. Disgrace belongs to those who violate, not those who are violated.

David confesses his disgrace to Bev Shaw in the middle of an exchange about euthanizing dogs. After telling her, David questions whether she would want to employ him now that she knows of his disgrace. He now knows his actions were wrong.

David's journey back to grace comes through his work with the dogs undergoing euthanasia at the clinic. Their loss of power in death is a disgrace, David thinks. But humans suffer the same loss of power in death. By honoring the dignity of these dogs, David is atoning for the actions that put him into a state of disgrace.

The Problem of Sex

The novel opens by declaring that David Lurie has "to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well." It turns out that he has not actually solved the problem, because sex is so complicated. By its very nature, it involves the crossing of boundaries and the blurring of bodies, and the complications related to sex can both create and destroy lives. The plot of the novel is driven by David's attempts to find relief for his sexual desire, which his daughter Lucy agrees with him is "a burden we could well do without."

David's initial solution to the problem of sex is to buy it. The first chapter describes the satisfaction he derives from his relationship with the prostitute Soraya. However, after a year of sleeping with her weekly, a boundary is crossed when by chance he sees her in town with her sons. Soraya's professionalism and her desire to protect her family means there can be no overlap between the two, so she cuts David off as a client. This leaves David with the problem of his unfulfilled sexual desire.

Since he can no longer use money to buy sex, David's second attempt involves using his power and authority to simply "take" sex from a woman weaker than him. David's power over Melanie Isaacs has several aspects. He is white man, while she is a woman and a person of color. He is middle-aged and experienced; she is basically an adolescent and unsure of herself. He is the professor, and she is his student. He is bigger and stronger; she is slight of stature. David uses all these advantages to engineer his affair with Melanie. It's not hard for David to rationalize taking what he wants, but he fails to anticipate the consequences. Melanie becomes emotionally traumatized and drops out of school. David loses his job and his reputation. Later, David tells Melanie's father, "I am sunk into a state of disgrace from which it will not be easy to lift myself."

Still, the problem of sex remains, and David struggles to figure out a solution that does not involve castration or death. He comes to believe his persistent desire is a problem—one related to the reproductive drive that persists even after a man (or woman, in Bev Shaw's case) ceases to be desirable. He decides Lucy's rapists were not motivated by pleasure or even vengeance, but by the "testicles, sacs bulging with seed aching to perfect itself."

When David at last sleeps with a prostitute again, he marvels at how easily the persistent need is satisfied with that small transaction. It is possible David is back where he started and the whole cycle of desire and suffering will repeat itself. But an alternate view offered by the author is that his life has unfolded in ways that will be more compelling than satisfying his sexual needs. He has his soon-to-be-born grandson, his discovery of a personally satisfying form of art, and his love for the dogs on the brink of death by euthanasia. Perhaps, the novel suggests, these will be enough.

History's Debts and the New South Africa

Disgrace shows that after centuries of racism and violence, achieving healing, unity, and progress is not easy or simple. In fact, it demands sacrifices. Coetzee portrays a dark, pastoral, tragicomic vision of postapartheid South Africa where some aspects of the old power structure have been successfully reversed. However, subjugation, violence, and injustice continue to define lives. As David Lurie notes while contemplating his daughter Lucy's homestead, "The more things change the more they remain the same." For David, Lucy's position signifies "history repeating itself, though in a more modest vein." The question is whether "history has learned a lesson."

The text suggests that history has not yet learned a lesson but may be in the process of doing so. As Farodia Rassool, David's colleague at the university, notes during his hearing, David's response to the committee's questioning about his sexual relationship with Melanie Isaacs makes "no mention of the long history of exploitation of which this is part." While the apartheid laws forbidding interracial sexual relations and marriage have been repealed, the long tradition of white males exploiting females of color continues. David Lurie's rape of Melanie Isaacs is part of this tradition. In the New South Africa, those who were at the very bottom during apartheid—namely, women and animals—remain at the bottom, to be exploited, used, and abused.

In the novel there are clearly debts remaining from the country's history that must be paid. Coetzee's portrayal of the investigation into David Lurie's relationship with Melanie Isaacs functions as a criticism of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, which took place from 1995–2002. During these hearings, those who had committed crimes and abuses of human rights during apartheid were promised amnesty for their crimes in exchange for confessing the truth of what happened.

Similarly, in Disgrace, the university promises David that in exchange for a contrite confession of what passed between him and Melanie, he can keep his job. If he does so, he will avoid any consequences for his actions while making public a story of private pain. David refuses this deal, quits his job, and struggles to resolve his guilt and state of disgrace on his own. As Melanie's father tells David after he apologizes, "The question is not, are we sorry? ... The question is, what are we going to do now that we are sorry?" The consequences David experiences are severe. However, through them, David acquires a sense of morality and the ability to serve others. Coetzee thus suggests that reconciliation demands justice, which in turn requires payment and real change, not merely confession and apology.

Lucy's response to her rape by three black men sheds further light on the idea that justice demands payment. Lucy is personally innocent, but she is aware she is caught in a specific and crucial historical moment. She accepts with grace that history and politics have brought trauma and seismic change into her personal life. When Lucy tells David she was "stunned" by the "personal hatred" with which the unknown men violated her, David responds that "it was history speaking through them ... a history of wrong" that "came down from the ancestors" into her life.

Lucy wants to live in peace with her black neighbors. She accepts that the way forward requires some who are innocent to suffer and yet be willing to forgive. Because of this, Lucy does not report the rape. As she tells David, "In another time, in another place it might be held to be a public matter. But in this place, at this time, it is not." She explains her rationale to her outraged father: "They see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors." She accepts that she is, in part, paying for the wrongs of the past, asking rhetorically, "Why should I be allowed to live here without paying?"

More than any other character in the novel, Lucy is emblematic of the way forward to a South Africa that is truly new. She intends to carry to term the pregnancy that results from the rape. As well, she declares her desire to "to be a good mother and a good person." Those who have been divided from one another in racial hatred must now learn how to live together peacefully. David's spiritual vision of Lucy symbolizes this future. He sees his pregnant daughter among blooming flowers with Petrus's new house in the background. Something beautiful can be born from the pain and violation of the past. This will happen only if the country, particularly the white population, can act with the grace, humility, and adaptability that Lucy displays.

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