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Virtue Rewarded – The Development of Moral Behaviour in J.M. Coetzee’s 'Disgrace' and Henry Mackenzie’s 'The Man of Feeling'

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2007 28 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur



1 Introduction

2 Education
2.1 The Man of learned Feeling
2.2 The Man of Education

3 The Fine Arts
3.1 Music and Lyrics
3.2 The Beauty of Virtue

4 Women
4.1 Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
4.2 Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

5 Character Developments
5.1 Clean-Living
5.2 Call No Man Happy Until He Is Dead

6 Society
6.1 Disgrace
6.2 The Society of the Blessed

7 Conclusion


1 Introduction

J.M. Coetzee, postcolonial writer in South-Africa, titled his 1999 Booker-Prize winning novel Disgrace, hinting at nothing but the word itself: disgrace, public discredit. Henry Mackenzie, sentimental writer of the late 18th century, called his novel The Man of Feeling, referring to the internal, private constitution of the individual. Despite of those opposing titles, the two novels have one topic in common: Morality – even though Mackenzie would call it virtue and Coetzee does not refer to it explicitly. Their relatedness becomes more obvious when another term is added to the range of subjects playing a role in the two texts: Consciousness. This is closely linked to empathy and its opposite: self-contentedness.

Even though the heroes of the novels written in different epochs and belonging to different genres inevitably have to show different features in character and behaviour, the both of them have to deal with those three terms in different situations. And since both Coetzee and Mackenzie are, above all, moralising writers, one can draw conclusion on the way moral ideas are exercised in the novels and in how far they are of importance.

In this paper, a conclusion about the protagonists’ attitude towards morality as well on general statements on this subject are drawn by examining their dealing with education, the fine arts, women and the society they live in as well as the development of their characters.

2 Education

Education plays an important role not only in the history of literature, but also in the life of the individual human being. In the former, it has been a highly discussed subject, especially in the 18th century. Education then was considered to be essential for the development of character and personality. Late 18th century writing emphasised the importance of a secular, scientific and technological education. On the other hand, sentimental writing at the same time stressed the relevance of education of the heart, focussing on psychological cultivation and an instructive promotion of the virtues. In the 20th century, especially in post-modern and post-colonial writing, education belongs to the subjects which are rendered above all from a critical perspective. Literature, for example, is no longer considered a means to solve social problems and educate the mind. It rather is perceived as another complex of contradictions and controversies, among them the use of language as a possible instrument of the suppressor. In this ongoing discussion, education is seen as a means to develop moral standards.

Education, at its minimum, is what one learns at school. Furthermore, one can be educated by personal tutors as well as any person who has a particular influence on one’s life and the formation of one’s character; somebody chosen to model oneself on. The development of a person’s attitudes and moral viewpoints highly depends on his or her education.

Hence, whether considered a subject of personal or common interest, education forms a significant part in developing attitude and moral standards. This makes it an interesting starting point for the investigation of the two protagonists, both Mackenzie’s Henry and Coetzee’s David Lurie.

2.1 The Man of learned Feeling

You waste at school years in improving talents, without having ever spent an hour in discovering them (Mackenzie 2001:31).

In fact, this statement by a misanthropist encountered by Harley in one of the episodes does not hold true for Harley himself. Being an orphan, his education was put into the hands of several guardians, who only seldom were able to agree upon a decision concerning the future of their ward.

His education therefore had been but differently attended to, and after being taken from a country school, at which he had been boarded, the young gentleman was suffered to be his own master in the subsequent branches of literature, with some assistance from the parson of the parish in languages and philosophy (Mackenzie 2001:10).

Hence, Harley is presented as an autodidact with only the fewest possible amount of state education. Instead, he was left to improve his mind by use of literature.

In another episode, Harley meets the young prostitute Emily Atkins. She, too, relied on literature to educate herself. In the course of her narration, though, we learn that this might have played a considerable role in bringing her into this lower level of society:

‘My mother’s books were left behind at the different quarters we removed to, and my reading was principally confined to plays, novels, and those poetic descriptions of the beauty of virtue and honour, which the circulating libraries easily afforded […] besides, that the course of reading to which I had been accustomed, did not lead me to conclude, that his expressions could be too warm to be sincere […]. If it is dangerous to be convinced, it is dangerous to listen, for our reason is so much of a machine, that it will not always be able to resist, when the ear is perpetually assailed’ (Mackenzie 2001:42-44).

Even though the last sentence of this quotation hints on the importance of emotion in making the right decisions, the previous sentences indicate a danger in relying exclusively on sentimental education. Emily Atkins certainly did not profit from it, and, Harley, too, has to face a number of failures and disappointments when trusting in people only due to some obscure feeling of sympathy or similar, less reasonable indicators. For example, the chapters XXV und XXVII deal with his relying on physiognomy to judge people, the letter being titled His skill in physiognomy is doubted (Mackenzie 2001:39).

Harley, therefore, seems to have developed his intuitive talents rather than a solid stock of experience and knowledge; education of the heart is more prominent than that of the mind. Though this, along with the development of virtues, would have been preferred by most sentimental novelists, Mackenzie seems to adopt a more critical viewpoint. Both Harley’s and Miss Atkins’ destinies show that feeling cannot singularly form the basis of decisions which might impose a prominent influence on people’s lives. Now and then, it seems, reason or reasonably traceable facts serve this purpose better.

In fact, Mackenzie appears to plead for a differentiated use of both of them. This is indicated in his critique on the singular reliance on scholar, reasonable education which follows the initial quotation of this paragraph:

You waste at school years in improving talents, without having ever spent an hour in discovering them; one promiscuous line of instruction is followed, without regard to genius, capacity, or probable situation in the commonwealth (Mackenzie 2001:31).

2.2 The Man of Education

He has never been much of a teacher (Coetzee 200:4).

Whereas Harley is in the position of the disciple, still learning about the world and himself, David Lurie is a teacher, at least by profession. This imposes another angle on the subject of education.

David Lurie is professor of communication at the Cape Town Technical University. Before his job was re-defined in the course of the great rationalisation (Coetzee 2000:3), he had been professor of modern languages. “[I]n this transformed and, to his mind, emasculated institution of learning he is more out of place than ever” (Coetzee 2000:4). He seems to share his view on scholar education with the misanthropist quoted in the above paragraph, “[b]ecause he has no respect for the material he teaches” (ibid).

Lurie criticises the fact that the institution of education had been emasculated in the process of great rationalisation. Judging from the terms “emasculated” and “rationalisation” alone, this attitude seems to contain a major contradiction, especially when considering associations from sentimental writing. Critics of this form of literature often linked an emotionally directed behaviour of a male protagonist such as Harley in The Man of Feeling with a progressing feminisation. Since this goes hand-in-hand with the decline of the importance of rational motives, feminisation or emasculation is not associated with a process of rationalisation as it is by Lurie.

Anyway, Lurie, being himself fond of the arts rather than rational education, paradoxically does not criticise the rational side of rationalisation, but its feminising, emotionalising influence. This he might see in the intention behind this process:

To the disadvantaged, rationalization is a long overdue process. It means the redistribution of financial and human resources in order to effect equity. ... Born out of struggle and being part-and-parcel of the cause for the poor, SADTU aligns itself with the ... position - that rationalization must take place to address the imbalances of the past (

To intend equity one has to be aware of problems arising from an unjust distribution of resources; one has to be compassionate. Empathy is often attributed to the female. In this way, the great rationalisation can be seen as a feminising process.

Hence, Lurie criticises changes in the educational system based on emotional qualities such as compassion. In spite of his own affinity towards the arts and aesthetics which shows in the books he has published – “the first on opera (Boito and the Faust Legend: The Genesis of Mefistofele), the second on vision as eros (The Vision of Richard of St Victor), the third on Wordsworth and history (Wordsworth and the Burden of the Past)” (Coetzee 2000:4) – as well as in the opera on Byron he intends to write, Lurie cannot accept education to be based on similar ideas. Contrary to Harley, he does not seem to trust emotion as a reliable source for future decisions.

However, Lurie is not all the time depicted in the position of a teacher. Even at university, he finds himself to be taught humility when facing indifferent pupils: “The irony does not escape him: that the one who comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons, while those who come to learn learn nothing” (Coetzee 2000:5). Likewise, he has to face new situations in the course of the narration that make him learn about himself, his daughter and the people around him. One might even conclude that Lurie, despite his reluctance towards emotionality, experiences education of the heart. But then, this would be too simple a statement for so complex a book. As will be shown in a later paragraph of this paper, Lurie’s relation towards emotionality goes beyond the question of whether he is capable of it as well as beyond its being a matter of principle as it is for Harley.

3 The Fine Arts

If David Lurie feels himself drawn to music and lyrics, so is Harley. However, the both of them approach the fine arts and their dealings with beauty in different ways, as can be seen from the following paragraphs.

3.1 Music and Lyrics

‘I lack the lyrical. I manage love too well. Even when I burn I don’t sing’

(Coetzee 2000:171)

Not only does David Lurie adopt contradictive positions towards the conditions of his profession, he also finds his personal interests contradict his job:

Although he devotes hours of each day to his new discipline, he finds its first premise, as enunciated in the Communications 101 handbook, preposterous: ‘Human society has created language in order that we may communicate our thoughts, feelings and intentions to each other.’ His own opinion, which he does not air, is that the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul. […] What he wants to write is music: Byron in Italy, a meditation on love between the sexes in the form of a chamber opera (Coetzee 2000:43).

To Lurie, music serves the purpose of finding fulfilment, at least by using it to fill some obscure emptiness inside him. Indeed, Lurie often confesses his own indifference towards himself: “He is going into this in the wrong spirit. But he does not care” (Coetzee 2000:47), “He ought to chase them out, sweep the premises clean. But he does not care to do so, or does not care enough” (Coetzee 2000:72), “Lucy’s future, his future, the future of the land as a whole – it is all a matter of indifference, he wants to say; let it all go to the dogs, I do not care” (Coetzee 2000:107), “Not a bad man but not good either. Not cold but not hot, even at his hottest […] Lacking in fire” (Coetzee 200:195).

Lurie claims his own indifference towards himself and his future. Can this be called emptiness of the soul? If so, Lurie would not be presented as a man of feeling. If he was so indifferent indeed, he would neither be able to reflect on it nor to show compassion. But his attitude towards emotion will be examined in a later paragraph. Instead, his seeming indifference can be contrasted by his view on beauty, which is often a subject of poetry.

Talking to Melanie, his student for whose seduction he is expelled from university, he quotes Shakespeare’s Sonnet Nr. 1: “’From fairest creatures we desire increase,’ he says, ‘that thereby beauty’s rose might never die’ ” (Coetzee 2000:16). The complete sonnet is as follows:

FROM fairest creatures we desire increase,

That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,

But as the riper should by time decease,

His tender heir might bear his memory;

But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,

Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,

Making a famine where abundance lies,

Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.

Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament

And only herald to the gaudy spring,

Within thine own bud buriest thy content,

And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.

Pitty the world, or else this glutton be,

To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

(Shakespeare 2003: 1363)

One interpretation of this sonnet is that beauty does not own itself. Lurie uses this in order to seduce Melanie: “Smooth words, old as seduction itself. Yet at this moment he believes in them. She does not own herself. Beauty does not own itself” (Coetzee 2000:2). Later on, however, Lurie realises that the poem can be applied to himself, too: “Beauty’s rose: the poem drives straight as an arrow. She does not own herself; perhaps he does not own himself either” (Coetzee 2000:18). This is because the poem does not simply state that beauty does not own itself, but adds that in possessing beauty lies a responsibility towards the world. Of cause, this can be seen as a lover’s argumentation aiming at gaining possession of a beautiful woman. Nonetheless, the statement that being beautiful should not result in being self-centred, feeding “thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel”, bears a meaning that goes beyond the context of courtship. To use a more contemporary formulation: Vanity cannot bring benefit for other people. And indeed, Lurie who renders himself as indifferent finds in himself the trait of “the dangerous vanity of the gambler; vanity and self-righteousness” (Coetzee 2000:47). In equal measure, he does not feel the need to improve himself: “I am not prepared to be reformed. I want to go on being myself” (Coetzee 2000:77).



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Institution / Hochschule
Universität Leipzig – Institut für Anglistik
Virtue Rewarded Development Moral Behaviour Coetzee’s Disgrace Henry Mackenzie’s Feeling



Titel: Virtue Rewarded – The Development of Moral Behaviour in J.M. Coetzee’s 'Disgrace' and Henry Mackenzie’s 'The Man of Feeling'