Essay on ‚Disgrace’ by J. M. Coetzee
After reading the book where do your sympathies lie? With one or more of the characters? With certain sections of the community or with nobody? Do you think Coetzee is attempting to arouse understanding for the situation in South Africa or human beings in general?
Answer with close reference to the text.
J. M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace” offers a variety of different characters, which differ referring to their background, their lifestyle as well as their general behaviour. While there is a certain range of figures to choose from, picking out any to sympathise with is rather tough, as they all seem to have certain flaws. The most obvious choice for a character from any book to sympathise with would probably be the main protagonist but Coetzee’s central character seems to fail arousing sympathy or compassion at any time.
David Lurie the main protagonist of “Disgrace” is quite successful in his job at the beginning of the book although he just goes through the motions in order to get along. When he starts to lose everything due to a short affair with one of his students it’s rather hard feeling sorry for him as he seems to get what he deserves and what his despicable actions have led him to. David is self-centered and his affection for his young student Melanie turns out to be quite obsessive as he consistently ignores how wrong his behaviour is. There even comes a point where he realizes that this affair is unbalanced and somehow unwanted by Melanie but still does not put it to an end:
“Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core. As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on it’s neck.”
He seems to see himself as a hunter while Melanie or even women in general are his easy prey. His narcistic nature and his stubborn attitude make David an almost unbearable character for which one can hardly gain any sympathy throughout the book. His ironic statements appear mostly as awkwardly inappropriate and immature, giving the impression that David is incapable of facing the seriousness of his situation. He remains sarcastic even when he has to face the inquiry:
“I am sure the members of the committee have better things to do with their time than rehash a story over which there will be no dispute. I plead guilty to both charges. Pass the sentence, and let us go on with our lives.”
Lurie pleads guilty to the charge of sexual harassment but refuses to apologize and must leave the university in disgrace. While he fails to gain sympathy due to his (intellectual) arrogance his daughter Lucy seems to be in a better position of winning over the reader.
Lucy runs a smallholding in the countryside and grows and sells produce and flowers at a weekly market for a living. David takes refuge at her place after his “disgrace” and finds his child as “[…] no longer a child playing at farming but a solid countrywoman […]”. As a result of depending on nature Lucy is, in mere contradiction to her father, open-minded, respectful and grounded. For a short time, his daughter’s influence and natural rhythms of the farm even seem to harmonise David’s discordant and restless life. But after they’ve become victims of a violent and vicious assault by three black men, David and Lucy are left shaken and further estranged. While her father desperately demands for justice and urges her to sell the farm believing that the attackers might return, Lucy seems to understand what David cannot. She tells him that living where she lives requires tolerating brutalisation and humiliation and simply keep going. Lucy further insists that living with such danger is the price she has to pay for the right to remain on the land as an unmarried and white woman:
“Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at a ground level. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity […] Like a dog.”
Lucy appears as a much stronger personality than David who constantly struggles with his life and while he somehow flees from his disgrace his daughter is not willing to give up and resign that easily:
“But if I leave the farm now I will leave defeated, and I will taste that defeat for the rest of my life.”
Although all this makes Lucy much more admirable than David, some of her actions remain incomprehensible such as the absurd plan of marrying her former assistant Petrus in order to be accepted by her black neighbours and to be permitted to stay on the land. While I find her more congenial than her father, I still feel that she is too submissive at times and that she has somehow lost touch with reality claiming that the terrible crime she has been a victim of is the price she has to pay for the life she chose. The way David’s daughter resignedly accepts situations, sacrificing her beliefs merely to survive and live in subjugation is quite shocking. There’s one particular similarity between David and Lucy here. They’re both beyond stubborn but still the daughter is marked by an integrity that the father cannot claim for himself.
It seems like women occupy the more likeable and respectable parts in Coetzee’s book as we can also see in Bev Shaw. She is a friend of Lucy and runs a local veterinary clinic where David later volunteers to work. Bev’s primary role is to kill unwanted animals with as much love and mercy as she can summon and like Lucy she is full of respect for her work, animals and rural life. While women in “Disgrace” are either respectful like Bev and Lucy or victims to some extend like Melanie and Lucy, men seem to be generally characterized as animal-like creatures. Of course there is David who is reduced to an almost animal existence at times, as he cannot control his desire for Melanie or his lusts for women in general and there are the three black intruders acting rather like dogs than human-beings when they invade Lucy’s farm.
I think what Coetzee tried to create with “Disgrace” was a book that shows how the changing conditions in South Africa directly and indirectly take influence upon the different members of the societs as demonstrated on the various characters. Nevertheless the picture Coetzee paints of post-apartheid South Africa is a cheerless one that will probably comfort nobody, no matter what race, nationality, gender or viewpoint. There’s Professor David Lurie, once a scholar of Romantic poetry, whose university has been remade into a technical college under the new regime, and who now has to teach courses in “communication skills” which he finds dull and pointless. There’s Petrus, once Lucy’s black employee but now, in the “new” South Africa her neighbour, “co-proprietor” and maybe future husband. The white population as represented by David and Lucy soon has to learn that in the post-apartheid era brutal tyranny has been replaced by brutal anarchy, as they remain rather helpless after the three black men have attacked them. Lucy has to learn that she has become an outsider in this new society and that her presence won’t be tolerated for long on the land dominated by black males. She now depends on Petrus’ benevolence and his will to protect her in exchange for her land.
Instead of writing directly about life under apartheid Coetzee develops a fictional story and uses the characters to subliminally portray the consequences the new regime causes. “Disgrace” is about race relations in the contemporary rural context and about the conflict that goes with these relations. This conflict can be seen in Lucy and her relation to Petrus. Although she first describes him as her “assistant” and “co-proprietor”, she later admits that she is unable to “order Petrus about” because “he is his own master”. “Disgrace” consequently creates a tension between blacks and whites and as the novel proceeds, it becomes increasingly apparent that this history of violent conflict is still in progress and that it is somehow continued on Lucy’s smallholding. Lucy is unaware of the fact that she is a part of a power relation and fails to clarify relations on the smallholding. As a result the black farmers demonstrate their “power” in the form of rape. There are numerous suggestions that Petrus may be involved in the rape of Lucy and, at the end of the novel, she is at the point of handing over her title deeds to him in exchange for his protection.
“Disgrace” subtly underlines the changing moods and shifting circumstances in a post-apartheid South Africa, painting a grim and discomforting picture.
 J.M. Coetzee: Disgrace, first published in Great Britain, Berkshire 1999, page 25.
 J.M. Coetzee: Disgrace, first published in Great Britain, Berkshire 1999, page 48.
 J.M. Coetzee: Disgrace, first published in Great Britain, Berkshire 1999, page 60.
 J.M. Coetzee: Disgrace, first published in Great Britain, Berkshire 1999, page 205.
 Page 161.
 Page 62.
 Page 114.