Disgrace follows the downfall and disgrace of David Lurie, a lecturer in Communications at Cape Town University. He is 52 and twice divorced. His job at the university has recently been redefined, prefiguring some of the significant changes in South African society that form the backdrop to and context of this novel. Lurie has a brief affair with one of his students. The descriptions of the sex between them are carefully constructed to make it clear that this is an abusive relationship. They are shown from Lurie’s perspective, but even he, delusional about his attractiveness though he is, can still understand that what he does with Melanie, his student, is wrong. He sees her as “A child! No more than a child” (20). All the descriptions of Melanie emphasise her youth and immaturity, and her passivity towards a man old enough to be her grandfather. The descriptions of their sex, even though filtered through Lurie’s distorted perspective, makes it utterly unambiguous that her consent is either not given, or given under pressure and protest:
“She is too surprised to resist the intruder who thrusts himself upon her… “No, not now!, she says, struggling” (20/21).
Lurie may fool himself that he is being a sexual adventure – “I’m going to invite you to do something reckless” (16) but the reader is left in no doubt that this is a sexual assault:
“She does not resist. All she does is avert herself; avert her lips, avert her eyes. She lets him lay her out on the bed and undress her… little shivers of cold run through her. Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core. As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself”. (Interesting use of the phrase “lay her out” as opposed to “lay her” for example, with the suggestion of her being like a corpse, laid out by an undertaker.
As soon as the ‘relationship’ is exposed, an unrepentant Lurie is sacked. He goes to live in the South African countryside with his daughter, Lucy, who runs a small holding a dog kennel with the assistance of Petrus, a worker on her property. Petrus’s status changes during the course of the novel. South African was still in transition at this point, moving slowly away from being the country of apartheid where white people held all the positions of responsibility and own much of the land. This transition is embodied by the changes in the relationship between Lucy and Petrus. He starts the novel as her employee (“I am the gardener and the dog-man” (65) but by the end he is a landowner and has proposed a form of arranged marriage with Lucy, which she seems minded to accept, as a form of protection.
The dark centre of the novel is a disturbing and distressing attack on the Lurie family, where Lucy is raped by 3 black men during a home invasion. Her father is shamed by his inability to protect his daughter, and puzzled by her passive acceptance of what has happened to her. She refuses to report the rape, and appears to accept as inevitable that it will happen again, and that there is nothing she can do about it. Her father urges her to leave the smallholding, but she refuses. Coetzee doesn’t offer any simple explanations for this puzzling refusal. Lurie speculates that her response is an example of ‘white guilt’, where the sins of the apartheid era are expiated by the subsequent suffering of the white community: ‘
“But why did they hate me so? I had never set eyes on them.’
‘It was history speaking through them…A history of wrong. Think of it that way, if it helps. It may have seemed personal, but it wasn’t”.
The reader is invited to draw parallels between Lurie’s behaviour towards his students and the mixed race prostitutes he frequents at the start of the novel, and the subsequent rape of his daughter.
I get that. The parallels are pretty unavoidable and frankly heavy-handed. White people in apartheid South Africa (and of course elsewhere) abused black people, and the response of the black men who rape Ellen, while not excused, have to be seen in that historical context. That, anyway, has been the typical reading of the novel in most reviews and analysis. (For example, the London Review of Books review summarises this question thus:’ Lucy decides not to press charges, believing that this rape, in the South African context, is not ‘a public matter’. In the face of irresistible historical change – the collapse of a corrupt order – the claims of the individual are necessarily of secondary importance, even irrelevant. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v21/n20/elizabeth-lowry/like-a-dog)
But I am not buying that, not for one minute. Rape is rape, irrespective of race, and in creating a female character who appears to accept that being raped is the price she has to pay for retaining her home, Coetzee comes perilously close to suggesting that some forms of sexual assault can be understood if not condoned. There is no place for white people in South Africa unless they can come to terms with the retribution that is coming their way, Coetzee seems to imply when he puts these words into Lucy’s mouth:
“What if rape is ‘the price one has to pay for staying on? Perhaps that is how they look at it; perhaps that is how I should look at it too. They see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves.
This is not a didactic novel, far from it, but I have not found in any reviews any other explanation of Lucy’s response. But she is not a cardboard cut-out, allegorically representing white rule in South Africa; she is a strongly realised character, whose response to her attack is upsettingly realistic in all other respects.
There are two other important themes running through the novel which I ought to mention. Firstly, there is the question of human attitudes towards animals. Lurie volunteers in an animal shelter, in which his main role is in helping euthanize the unwanted dogs and cats brought into the refuge, and then disposing of their bodies. Coetzee suggests that a value of a society can be judged by the way it treats its pets; Lurie redeems himself by treating the dogs kindly, including respecting their bodies when they come to be incinerated. This echoes an earlier comment by Lucy when she foresees herself stripped of any status and value in South African society, “like a dog”. By this point in the novel we have come to treat sceptically anything Lurie says, so when he argues that “as for animals, by all means let us be kind to them. But let us not lose perspective. We are of a different order of creation from animals. Not higher necessarily, just different. So if we are going to be kind, let it be out of simple generosity, not because we feel guilty or fear retribution” (74).
This is not just an argument about how people treat animals, of course – the phrase “different order of creation” was used by those who sought to justify slavery and apartheid. In a final, deeply pessimistic scene, Lurie sacrifices a dog who he had formed an attachment to through an apparent shared enjoyment of music. It is not by accident that the cover illustration of most editions of this novel feature a picture of a dog.
The other less successful theme is Lurie’s plan to write about Byron, more specifically a light opera about Byron’s sexual adventures in Italy. He plans to orchestrate this using the banjo, which is obviously intended as a way of illustrating the absurd gap between his view of the world and reality. It sets up some uncomfortable contrasts between Lurie’s meditations of 19th century romantic womanising, and his own delusional view of himself.
I can admire the skill involved in constructing ‘Disgrace’. The carefully ambiguous title probably merits a separate blog entry all of its own, given the multiple things that are considered or treated as disgraces in this novel. But the central characters are unlikeable – Lurie in particular is something of a narcissistic monster (his reaction when told his daughter is pregnant is to consider the impact this will have on his sex life: “What pretty girl can he expect to be wooed into bed with a grandfather”) (217) or under-developed. Lucy is real enough, but trapped inside Lurie’s perspective we never get close to understanding what makes her tick. There’s one ultimate test I always apply when evaluating a novel – would I read something else by this author? And my response here would be as of now, no, although I reserve the right to change my mind!