LIBRARY NOTES – August 2009


Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

Reviewed by Rima Walker

Change is crucial to the growth of human behavior and of society. Rebellion, revolution, evolution, and war make for social changes and cultural upheavals that lead from inequity, injustice, and violence to their opposites until incremental changes lead to a better world.

In post-apartheid South Africa, we meet David Lurie, a 52-year-old white professor of Romantic poetry. Lurie follows an old pattern in seducing Melanie, a student of his, who turns him in. He goes before the College Board, and they tell him that if he is repentant and expresses remorse he will be allowed to continue his work there with what is basically a slap on the hand. He will not do this and so is fired. He goes to his daughter, Lucy, who lives in a dangerous part of the country where she farms and boards dogs, helped by a black man, Petrus, who is building a house on land he has bought from her.

Here is where things change for both Lurie and Lucy; they are attacked by three Africans, Lurie beaten and Lucy raped. Unlike Melanie, Lucy will not file a complaint, creating one of the greatest ironies in the novel: Lurie had described his relationship with Melanie as “not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core.” Melanie has been raped and Lurie has to deal with his feelings about it and for her. Lucy decides to accept what has happened to her as part of the new world she lives in and she continues her relationship with Petrus even though Lurie sees one of the rapists in Petrus’ company. Lucy realizes that in order to live the life she wants, she must tolerate brutality and start at “ground level. With nothing . . . no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity. . . like a dog.”

Lurie, a very unlikable character when we first meet him, cold, arrogant and dispassionate, changes as a result of his and Lucy’s experience. He realizes that he loves his daughter and wants to protect her. Another irony here is that he can’t, while Petrus can: the new social structure makes what Lurie has done unacceptable; what the Africans do to him and Lucy is also not acceptable, but they will get away with it. Lurie’s moment of epiphany and change comes when “he heaves and heaves and finally cries.”

The main symbol in the story is the dog. A neighbor of Lucy’s, Bev Shaw, is a vet, and she puts down more dogs than she can save because there are so many of them. She does it though it hurts her deeply. Lurie works for Bev and at the book’s end he becomes close to a dog that is to be put down. How Lurie comes to this point, what he decides to do and what this means to him is for the reader to discover.

Coetzee writes in a complex commentary on human nature in spare, lean, very powerful prose. He reveals that when there is great social upheaval, the old ways are no longer acceptable, yet the old behaviors continue from a different point of view. Lurie makes a powerful statement about South Africa’s apartheid and its ending, what happens to those who had rights and those who didn’t under apartheid, what happens afterwards, and the general condition of humanity. He also comments on the conflicts between fathers and daughters and the relationships between blacks and whites as a result of post-apartheid Africa. Disgrace is filled with ironies and metaphors that reveal Coetzee’s view of human nature and the nature of social change.  ~