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Change in the “Disgrace” Novel by J. M. Coetzee


The most prominent theme in J. M. Coetzee’s chef-d’oeuvre novel, Disgrace, change. The author sets the scene for events in the book in post-apartheid South Africa at a time when a variety of changes are occurring, thus affecting the characters in the story and the overall outcome in numerous ways. Most people connect the events during the post-apartheid period with positive change owing to the liberation of the indigenous South African community from racial discrimination that the colonial government had made legal during colonization. Apartheid had the effect of restricting black South Africans from owning most of the properties in South Africa, restricting their movement, prohibiting attendance to certain learning institutions, and prohibiting black Africans from obtaining certain jobs. The end of apartheid was thus relief for most black South Africans as it marked the beginning of equal rights to white South Africans living in the region at the time. However, the author paints a different picture of the type of change that took place during the period by creating the impression of a bleak reality of events that took place from the perspective of the white South African community, through the protagonist, David Lurie.

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The author portrays such change in various forms, some of which include a change in leadership, a shift in power, change in the protagonist’s perception of his surroundings, and change in the way individuals co-exist in the society, among other forms. The thesis for this paper is that the author insinuates through his story that change in the country’s situation did not change much at all in relation to the objectives of the abolition of apartheid. The author suggests that although the country experienced changes in policy, most practices in the South African community essentially remained the same. This paper seeks to provide a concise explanation of this thesis using literary sources from scholars exploring the author’s point of view on the theme of change in the novel.

Book summary

In Disgrace, J.M Coetzee narrates a story that revolves around the life of David Lurie, a professor at the University of Cape Town, during the post-apartheid era of South Africa’s history. Lurie, the protagonist in the story, is a fifty-two-year-old white male living in South Africa. Despite having undergone divorce twice, Lurie loves indulging in sexual affairs with women as his way of proving his masculinity to himself and as the narrator notes, “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well” (Coetzee “Disgrace” 1). He also loves his work as a professor, although he loses passion for his practice when changes in the administration occur and force him to stick to two compulsory units in communication and romantic literature as the only option for an elective course. His dwindling enthusiasm for his career is evident, as he does not engage with his students when conducting lessons.

Numerous changes occur to Lurie and his environment throughout the book, most of which affect his life negatively. Such changes include loss of power by the colonial government, the loss of Lurie’s career, his dignity, the women in his life, power as a white male in South Africa, and finally the loss of his ability to perform his fatherly duties and protect his daughter from rapists. The results of these changes culminate in a feeling of shame and disgrace for Lurie, as a man, a father, a teacher, a role model, and a white man in a black community. The theme extends through the entire book, from start to finish, intertwining with other themes such as redemption. A notably interesting feature in the author’s style of writing is that although the entire story represents Lurie’s perspective of his life and surroundings, he narrates events using the third person by creating the image of an observer describing his observations. The descriptive nature of the story leaves room for the reader to form his or her own conclusions devoid of the narrator’s perspective.

The concept of change

The events in the book take place during a period through which the citizens and residents of South Africa were adapting to the abolition of apartheid. Although the abolition of discriminatory laws against black South Africans was a step in the right moral direction for the government, the change did not sit well with the white South African community (Nandita 78). Coetzee illustrates this view by narrating a story that depicts the black community committing the same evils that the abolition of apartheid sought to remedy (Gorra 46). In this way, although there are theoretical changes to the legislation, the result is essentially the same, viz. behavior indicative of racial discrimination along the lines of color within the South African population.

Scholar Gertrude Makhaya, in her article, The Trouble with J.M Coetzee, emphasizes the theory of lack of change during a period of change through her analysis of the novel. However, unlike Coetzee, she discusses the issue of change and its effects on discriminatory behavior from the black South African community’s perspective. She considers the book inflammatory to the reputation of the new South Africa and lacking objectivity in consideration of the events that took place during the pre-abolition period. Her focus on the novel is the impact it has on the international audience with regard to the black South African community living in present-day post-apartheid South Africa (Makhaya 3). Her description of the story gives the impression that she considers Coetzee’s work, as well as the author, infamous in South Africa due to the book’s context of events. In her view, Coetzee vulcanized black South Africans and left out the contributions of the white South Africans to the negative occurrences in the story, thus creating a veil over the lack of change during the transition period.

Makhaya begins her review by mentioning some facts about the author that help the reader understand her perspective of occurrences in the book. She is keen to mention that Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940 during a period when colonization had firmly taken root in South Africa. Coetzee, therefore, grew up in an environment where the “politics of hatred” were the gospel, and apartheid was at its apex (Makhaya 1). She states that the government had institutionalized discrimination to the point where racism governed personal and economic interactions between individuals living in the entire country. The black South African community lacked access to most opportunities afforded to the white South Africans including job opportunities, property ownership, leadership, and freedom of movement.

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This aspect is evident in all the white Cape Town University students that Coetzee describes in his novel. She also notes that although 1994 marked the end of the apartheid period historically, the reality was different. Makhaya states, “The general reaction to the novel reveals reflections of the times” (47). The general presumption among the black community is that they worked harder towards reconciliation and democracy during the period of transition while the whites concentrated on fighting anti-apartheid laws, complaining about unfairness, and emigrating to other countries without due consideration of the way they treated blacks before the abolition of apartheid. One of the aspects that stand out to Makhaya is that although Lurie considers himself superior to the blacks, his knowledge of French and Italian dialects could not save him from Africa. She states that the impact of the book’s insinuations extends beyond the assumption that the story is a mere narrative to the South African audience.

Although the international community judges the work based on artistic abilities, the uncanny similarities between Coetzee and the protagonist, David Lurie, have created a problematic relationship between the author and South Africans, especially the blacks. She also notes that the book bears resemblance to his other work, Doubling the Point, in terms of the perception of the South African society (Coetzee “Doubling the Point” 65). Makhaya elaborates this point by giving an example of the reaction she got from a white female waiter who saw her with the book. The waiter had just completed her high school education and warned Makhaya that the book was horrible and shocking. She adds that at some point, some teachers had lobbied to have the book extracted from the reading list. Makhaya’s facts and opinions about the book prove that even though the abolition of apartheid was aimed at eliminating discrimination, the same still subsists, both in the book and in the modern South African society, albeit at different levels.

One of the occurrences that suggest the lack of change during the period of change in the novel is the subjugation of women by the male members of society. David Lurie conducts sexual relations with several women in the book while considering his actions as part of his rights as a man rather than a privileged the women afford him. Laurie believes that a “woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone…It is part of the bounty that she brings into the world, and thus she has a duty to share it” (Coetzee “Disgrace”16). He travels to a gated community every Thursday day to be with Soraya, a prostitute, who later cancels their engagement because of her need to take care of her child. Even though she makes it clear that she does not wish to continue with the arrangement, Lurie continues to pressure her and calls her house at one point. Later, he moves on to Dawn, a married secretary whom he considers too enthusiastic and thus breaks the engagement. His sexual frustration leads to a moment at which he briefly contemplates castration. He, however, goes on to seduce one of his students, Melanie Isaacs, and later takes advantage of her naïve nature to pressure her into having sex, at some point forcing her to accept his advances.

He states that she did not reject his advances, but merely obviated her lips and her eyes. When Melanie’s father and boyfriend report the matter to school authorities, Lurie refuses to apologize, by explaining to his daughter that he rests his case on “his rights to desire” (Brink 2). However, his perception is different when his own daughter is gang-raped by three black men at her farm in his presence. The event traumatizes him and leads to his decision to stay and protect her. This case proves that although the perpetrators are different, the evils in the society that Coetzee depicts remain the same despite a change in governance and interaction dynamics. It, however, leads to the realization of a shift in power between the black and white individuals living in the same community.

In the article the politics of shame and redemption, Sue Kossew contributes to the debate regarding change through her review of Coetzee’s work. According to Kossow, the change in the administration causes the need to redefine identities in terms of status and charge. Both status and change represent power, an element that most other authors single out in their discussion of the book (Kossew 156). In her discussion, Kossew notes that although Lurie, who represents the white male community in South Africa in the story, loses his authority when he loses his job and Soraya, and the loss represents again to another set of people, thus resulting in more of an exchange than a loss. This aspect particularly applies to the black men at the Eastern Cape where Lurie decides to settle with his daughter, Lucy, after losing his job. Kossow also interestingly equates sexuality with power in her review and states that adaptation to changes that emerge from such gain form the basis of Coetzee’s entire story. Kossow makes the statement that Disgrace “is a novel in which bodies are strongly linked to power, desire, and disgrace…it is through the exercise of his social power and authority…that David falls from grace” (156). She further states that Lucy’s rape was, in her analysis of the book’s context, one of the ways in which those in power exercise it other than those that do not bear the same. She also points out a phrase at the beginning of the novel where Coetzee states that the protagonist had “…solved the problem of sex rather well” (Coetzee “Disgrace” 1). In Kossew’s view, the tone with which Lurie says these words displays smugness and a show of authority and that the tone changes when he loses Soraya, who is his solution to the sex problem.

An analysis of Kossew’s review of Coetzee’s work supports the thesis that although there is a change in power, the power transfers to people who use it in ways similar to their predecessors resulting in a lack of notable change for the society. For instance, in Lurie’s view, the body of a woman does not belong to her and she serves as a means through which men satisfy their desires. His ideology justifies the reason why he considers sex with Melanie Isaacs as a moral act, including pressuring her into the act, and the reason why he refuses to apologize for the same resulting in job loss. In the same breath, the argument would justify the act of rape against Lucy at her farm while her father was living with her (Graham 440). Although the perpetrators and the victims are different, the result is the same in both cases, viz. pressure on women to have sex with men against their will. The equation of bodies to power as Kossew suggests also creates an image where the loss of sexuality marks the period of transition of power from one group to another. In the beginning, David Lurie seems certain of his sexual authority. However, as events unfold, he loses Soraya, the prostitute, Dawn, the married secretary, and eventually Melanie. Moving to his daughter’s farmhouse marks the concession of defeat. His inability to protect his daughter from the rapists marks Lurie’s submission to the people wielding the authority that he lost. Kossew’s review of Coetzee thus contributes greatly to supporting the thesis that this paper presents, albeit through an interesting perspective.

Michael S. Kochin, in his article, Metaphysical literature: Reflections on J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, takes a different path from Kossew, but one bearing similarities to Makhaya’s interpretation of the novel. Kochin applies the element of morality in his discussion of Coetzee’s novel. From his perspective, the novel is “…a story about endings: the end of rape, the end of morality, and the end of humanity” (Kochin 4). He adds, “…white racial supremacy has been overthrown and replaced by tribalism whose only vestige of universal morality is in the justified self-condemnation of the remaining whites” (Kochin 4). This analysis presents the same perspective as this paper’s thesis using morality as the focal point for the review. Morality is society’s sense of right and wrong and the element that aids in the distinction of good from the bad. Looking at Coetzee’s story from this perspective reveals that although there is a change in laws and administration, the mentality of the people living in the society largely remains the same, thus negating the idea behind the need for such change.

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Apartheid essentially resulted in the discrimination of black South Africans by the white South African community leading to unequal distribution of property, rights, and opportunities. Most theories of morality reveal that such treatment was wrong as it denied the majority of the South African population rights to access property and opportunities that were theirs, to begin with, as the indigenous community. This aspect is the main reason why the country fought to regain its independence and banish oppressive acts. The aim of the new anti-apartheid laws was to improve democracy and foster equality regardless of color or race. However, the theoretical and practical aspects of such laws present significant differences for the various races coexisting in the South African society. In the story, the black community in South Africa takes advantage of the loss of power that the laws cause for the whites to exact revenge for the perceived injustices the white community causes for the blacks during the period of apartheid. The main example of such revenge is the frappe scene where three black men invade Lucy’s home, destroy property, kill the dogs, set Lurie on fire, and rape her. Another example from the book that indicates such use of power for revenge is in Petrus’ choice not to report the perpetrators of the crime to law enforcement authorities even though he has a relation to one of them. He also jokes about not being the ‘dog-man’ any longer (Coetzee “Disgrace”122), which is an indication of his rise in status and an indirect celebration for having no dogs to care for. These incidents show that the black community applies the same methods it considered immoral when the white community possessed all the power and authority to exact their revenge for past wrongs.

The trauma that Lucy’s rape causes her and her father Lurie also indicates their perception of the act as immoral. This aspect means that even though the anti-apartheid laws turn the tables on the players in the story, their actions result in a similarity of the outcomes, viz. disgrace, chaos for the entire society, and defeating the need for the laws in the first place. Kochin also mentions the elements of differing standards of morality in the society depicted in the novel and suggests this element as one of the reasons why the society has lost hope in the wake of positive changes in policy administration. He notes that there is a huge gap between moral standards at the university and those outside the university, even though the institution exists within the same moral parameters as the world outside it. He uses the term self-righteousness in reference to the standards at the university.

He makes reference to a phrase that a female member of the university’s faculty, Dr. Farodia Rasool, uses during the disciplinary hearing regarding sexual harassment charges against, whereby she mentions “the wider community” as the university’s gauge for morality (Coetzee “Disgrace” 50). The book depicts a different reality on morality than that which Rasool refers to, as the rape incident proves. Arguably, such notions of self-righteousness result in disillusionment for members of the university community leading to a lack of preparedness for the world outside when they leave the institution (Marais 59). However, Kochin is keen to state that such differential standards may prove advantageous to the community outside. He explains that higher standards of morality in the universities in society create an opportunity for real change for the future generations (Kochin 5). Therefore, even as Coetzee depicts post-apartheid South Africa as a society devoid of any inkling of hope, the element of rising standards of morality in the universities create an image of hope for the society in the future.

Elements of power and authority in the novel

Coetzee uses various ways through which he portrays power and authority and brings out the element of change in the story, and through these elements, critics base their analyses of the work. One of the ways that Coetzee depicts the existence and transition of power in the novel is using imagery. Imagery is a literary technique whereby writers insert certain elements or characters into a narrative as representations of a specific element or concept. For instance, in Disgrace, Coetzee chooses to incorporate dogs into his narrative, not only to develop the story but also as characters signifying power in the story. Kochin (4-9) discusses the application of this imagery from a moral perspective and states that the dogs portray the right of inferior members of society to enjoy certain rights such as dignity. In addition, Coetzee gives a ‘human’ side to dogs through the mention of feelings and rights (Lowry 13). Bev, a woman that runs an animal clinic states that her job, and later that of Lurie, involves helping dogs die painlessly, with dignity (Coetzee “Disgrace” 72-79). Lurie, after the loss of his power, seems to embrace the concept, while Petrus, once the person who cared for Lucy’s dogs, treats his goats inhumanely by tethering them at a bare field. Lurie feels pity for them and moves them to an area of the field where they can graze, even though they face slaughter later. Kossow regards the dogs as a representation of the inferior members of society, connecting them to the phrase ‘giving power to the dogs’ in reference to the transfer of power from white to black South Africans. To Kossew, the way that different characters in the story, including Petrus, Bev, Lucy, and the three rapists treat the dogs represents the way people in power treat those under their authority.

The author has also used the human body as a representation of power. Individuals in the story with authority over their own bodies bear all the power while that does not appear submissive to those that do. In the beginning, Lurie displays complete control over his body in terms of his behavior, often opting to have sex with women of his choice. However, as the story progresses, he loses this power, starting with the loss of Soraya as his sexual partner of choice and eventually the loss of Dawn and Melanie as well. Kossew is keen to point this fact out and mentions the statement at the beginning of the story where Lurie expressly states that he believes to have found the solution for sex. Soraya and Dawn also exhibit such power through their decision on whether or not to have sex with Lurie. Melanie, however, lacks the power through her indecisive nature, often swinging between a desire for sex and a lack of desire for the same. Her decision to end the affair with Lurie also appears as a contribution from her boyfriend, her father, and the committee at the university. The attack on Lucy and Lurie at the farmhouse indicates loss of power as both characters lose control over their bodies, thus leaving them at the mercy of the attackers. The resultant effect is Lucy’s rape and Lurie’s burn injuries.

Gender and age also play a contributory role in the creation of imagery indicative of power and authority in Coetzee’s story. Sue Kossew (155) makes note of the phrase “…last leap of the flame of sense before it goes out”, in reference to Lurie’s age. In her opinion, as Lurie gets older, his ability to reason critically becomes questionable and eventually leads to a stream of losses in his life including the loss of his job, his dignity, and consequently his power too. Old age refashions Lurie’s identity in the story, which is why the author considers it important to include Lurie’s age in the story. The author also presents the male members of the post-apartheid South African society as having more authority than women have. Throughout the novel, men host most of the positions of power, and women that seemingly possess the same do so under the instruction or authority of men. For instance, Lucy appears as a strong and independent woman taking care of her affairs and property on her own until her father arrives at her farm in the Eastern Cape. The events that follow indicate male domination of such independence, thus culminating into her dependence on her father for protection after the three-man gang rapes her and leaves her to reconstruct her life and property once more.


Coetzee paints the picture of a society undergoing changes in the administration of power and authority through an overhaul of governance principles. The anti-apartheid regime seems necessary to correct the wrongs that the black community endures at the hands of the whites during colonization. The laws aim at fostering equality and democracy and result in the peaceful co-existence of the two races that form a large part of the South African society. However, even with such changes, society continues to experience the same problems of abuse of power and authority, with the exception of reversed roles in terms of perpetrators and victims.

Works Cited

Brink, Andre. The Rights of Desire, New York: Harcourt Publishers, 2000. Print.

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Coetzee, John. Disgrace, New York: Penguin Group, 1999. Print.

Coetzee, John. Doubling the Point, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991. Print.

Graham, Lucy. “Reading the Unspeakable: Rape in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Journal of South African Studies 29.2 (2003): 433-444. Print.

Gorra, Michael. “After the Fall: In J. M. Coetzee’s novel, one man’s humiliation mirrors the plight of South Africa.” The New York Times 28 Nov. 1999: 46. Print.

Kochin, Michael. “Postmetaphysical Literature: Reflections on J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Perspectives on Political Science 33.1 (2004): 4-10. Print.

Kossew, Sue. “The Politics of Shame and Redemption in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Research in African Studies 34.2 (2003): 155-162. Print.

Lowry, Elisabeth. “Like a dog.” London Review of Books 21.20 (1999):12-14. Print.

Makhaya, Getrude. “The Trouble with J. M. Coetzee.” The Oxanian Review 3.2 (2004): 46-52. Print.

Marais, Mike. “The Possibility of Ethical Action: J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Scrutiny 25.1 (2000): 57-63. Print.

Nandita, Mohapatra. “Politics of Race in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Notes on Contemporary Literature 41.3 (2011): 77-83. Print.

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