The novel “Disgrace” is a story set in South Africa that revolves around the life of a Communications and Romantic Poetry professor named David Lurie (Penguin Random House, 2019). Written by J.M. Coetzee, the novel explores the downfall of a man (Penguin Random House, 2019) and follows the journey to his path to redemption. Lurie, once content with his life soon gives way to a chain of events that completely change his life and as a result, he is forced to inevitably change it completely. The novel was first published in 1999 and won the Booker Prize for Fiction. Unsurprisingly, the book stirred a lot of controversy and gained a lot of fame for exploring the concepts of racial hierarchy, sexuality, violence and other such issues.
The protagonist of the story, David Lurie, is a 52 year old professor who is an intelligent man discontent with his life and proceedings (LitCharts, 2019). His life takes a drastic turn when he starts an affair with student Melanie Isaacs, sexually molests her and is subsequently made to resign from the college. Leaving his old life behind, Lurie decides to move to his daughter Lucy’s house that happens to be in a rural area of South Africa. Situations worsen as three men attack the father and daughter and both of them deal with that traumatic incident in their own way. Relationships worsen, people get hurt and ultimately, David is forced into bringing some changes in his life and lifestyle.
One of the bigger changes that are witnessed by David Lurie is moving from an urban area (where he stayed) to a rural area (with his daughter who owned a farm). This change in geographic location, as a result of the situations the professor had found himself in, had an impact not only on his lifestyle but also his personality and behavior. David, in the start of the novel, is described as “has affairs with the wives of colleagues, he picked up tourists in bars on the waterfront or at the club Italia; he slept with whores.” (Coetzee: 7) A critical analysis of Lurie’s character shows that one of his greatest flaws was his inability to control his sexual drive (UK Essays, 2018). The underlying theme of disgrace is witnessed in the novel where various actions performed by the protagonist are disgraceful and can sort-of disgust the audiences. The underling traces of arrogance and dominance are also witnessed in Lurie’s character (UK Essays, 2018). This is clear from the fact that in spite of sexually molesting Melanie Isaacs, the professor refuses to own up to any of his mistakes or apologize to anybody. He is seen saying at one point “I plead guilty. That is as far as I am prepared to go.” Clearly not understanding the intensity of the actions he had committed. The kind of thinking that the professor held was also visible when he suggests who needs a wife, home or marriage when “ninety minutes a week with a woman’s company are enough to make him happy?” (Coetzee: 10)
While staying alone in the urban setting, David is visible self-destructive. As the reader proceeds with the novel, they witness his life slowly declining and can’t help but feel sorry for the guy (Shmoop, 2019). His life is not inspiring or exciting (Shmoop, 2019) and the reader might find it difficult to relate with the feelings and intentions as expressed by David. David is a character who is always under the impression that he has his life under his control (Andersson, 2007).While dating Melanie, David’s desire to be young and desirable becomes more evident, and so does his addiction to sexual activities. Melanie brings out certain aspects of David like his vulnerability and insecurities.
Soon after Lurie’s shift to his daughter Lucy’s farm, the readers can witness no apparent change in his behaviour or actions apart from his worrying about getting older. He still continues to fantasize about his various sexual encounters. The country side is also where his thoughts start to wonder why is he in this particular region surrounded by low-levelled individuals who are poorly dressed (Shmoop, 2019). A deeper analysis of David’s character in the country side can show how his thinking was framed as a white African individual. David’s situations take a yet another drastic change when his daughter is raped by three men. David is forced to face the reality of rape and his own actions that resembled the atrocious action. David is also forced to question his competency as a father and wonders if he had done a good job as a father (Shmoop, 2019). For the first time in the novel, David shows signs of sympathy and empathy.
In some ways David’s personal journey reflects life in contemporary South Africa. The cultural collide and blend present in South Africa is clearly visible in the novel. Also visible in the novel is the gulf in between the white minority and black majority (Britannica, 2020) that reflects the real life situations in Africa where difference in the economic standards exists in between the two. David, a while African, has certain reservations against the country-side crowd. He visibly considers them inferior to himself and is often seeing passing judgments about their choices in professions or clothes. Even with Melanie, who happened to be a black African, David had an air of superiority and unapologetically ravishes her body (Mushtaq, 2018). David is very oblivious to his evidently racial behavior, something that can be concluded about all white Africans in contemporary South Africa. Even though their power has reduced significantly, they still seem to have an air of superiority around themselves. David deliberately seems to be ignorant of the political and historical reality of the blacks and the whites.
In a sense, David’s daughter Lucy’s life is also greatly impacted by the racial divide in South Africa. Lucy is raped by three black African people, an event that leaves her feeling unsafe and vulnerable inside her own house. This event implies the reversal of racial power play in the contemporary South African perspective (Koul, 2016). Lucy’s choice to not report the incident to the authorities and remain silent is also a representation of the powerlessness of white Africans in South Africa (Koul, 2016). Unlike her father, Lucy does not have a sense of superiority around her. She represents the cornered White Africans in South Africa surrounded by the black majority and thus feeling unsafe. The presence of violence and rebellion makes her feel unsafe and alone in her own locality. Contemporary White Africans have had to face a lot of backlash and opposition in contemporary South Africa due to the oppression that the blacks have faced.
Regardless of the race factor in the novel, in the end, I do believe that the journey he goes through over the course of this novel helps him redeem his character. David’s words to his daughter “I rest my case on the rights of desire” (Coetzee: 268) is an indication of the same. David’s character is seen undergoing redemption after the occurrence of the personal tragic encounter along with his volunteer work at an animal clinic (Kossew, 2003). Over the course of the novel, it is visible that David comes to understand the severity of his actions and behavior. When his daughter is forced to go through an experience he made someone go through, David comes face to face with the reality. Though he’s not directly apologetic about his actions with Melanie and does not consider his actions as abuse (Chandler, 2016), he does acknowledge that his actions sunk him into disgrace and he is being punished for what happened.
He does long to renew his dalliance with Melanie but doesn’t do anything about it, suggesting that he was facing difficulties leaving his old lifestyle. In the end, David gives up a dog that he had grown attached, symbolic of him giving away Lucy to Petrus and her own fate. He is also seen demanding genuine forgiveness when he abandoned Bev’s dog and realized that it will die un-mourned (Chandler, 2016). Though these aren’t massive changes in personality or thinking, they do amount for something. Here, it is important to remember that change is a slow process and David is a middle-aged man who will only go through a change in thinking and personality slowly and gradually. At the end of the book, he does show the desire to change, and that amounts to something according to me. Even if not completely redeemed at the end of the novel, David seems to be at the path of redemption.
Andersson, T. 2007. Protagonist Analysis of David Lurie in Disgrace. Available at https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:15414/FULLTEXT01.pdf [Accessed on 22/08/2020]
Britannica. 2020. South Africa - Cultural life. Available at https://www.britannica.com/place/South-Africa/Cultural-life [Accessed on 22/08/2020]
Chandler, V. 2016. Redemption in Disgrace? Available at https://africannovel2016.wordpress.com/2016/03/22/redemption-in-disgrace/ [Accessed on 22/08/2020]
Coetzee, J. M. 2019. Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee - Reading Guide: 9780140296402. Available at https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/297589/disgrace-by-j-m-coetzee/9780140296402/readers-guide/ [Accessed on 22/08/2020]
Koel, I. 2016. Racial Complexity: A Dilemma in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. International Journal of English Literature, Language and Humanities, vol. 4 no. 5, pp. 178–184.
Kossew, S. 2003. The Politics of Shame and Redemption in J. M. Coetzee’sDisgrace. Research in African Literatures, vol. 34 no. 2, pp. 155–162.
LitCharts. 2019. David Lurie Character Analysis in Disgrace. Available at https://www.litcharts.com/lit/disgrace/characters/david-lurie [Accessed on 22/08/2020]
Mushtaq, S. 2018. Disgrace and Double-Blind of Racism. Available at http://www.kashmirink.in/news/artliterature/disgrace-and-double-blind-of-racism/761.html [Accessed on 22/08/2020]
Shmoop. 2019. David Lurie in Disgrace | Shmoop. Available at https://www.shmoop.com/study-guides/literature/disgrace-coetzee/david-lurie [Accessed on 22/08/2020]
UKEssays. 2018. An Analysis of J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace. Available at https://www.ukessays.com/essays/english-literature/analysis-jm-coetzees-disgrace-8821.php?vref=1 [Accessed on 22/08/2020]
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