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Disgrace’ by J.M. Coetzee: Novel Review


The novel Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee is a fascinating snapshot of post-apartheid South Africa. The main character is David Lurie, an aging scholar of literature and languages, who has passed his prime, and lives in Cape Town, busying himself with earning a living and satisfying his sexual appetites. One of the women he sleeps with is his twenty-year-old student, Melanie Isaacs. She is an intriguing and multifaceted figure, who unravels David, exposing his conflicting sides to the reader.

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Summary of the Affair

David is an introverted loner, whose interest in the opposite sex is limited to a brief courtship and a single night a week. He has no interest in settling down with a woman, and no interest in fathering a child. He has been divorced twice by the beginning of the novel and has strained relationships with his daughter. He has an affair with a prostitute, which falls apart when they meet outside their relationship one day, and he sees her children. He is left without a satisfying partner for a while, and his hunger grows.

That is when he meets his student Melanie outside of the classroom. “He is mildly smitten with her. It is no great matter: barely a term passes when he does not fall for one or other of his charges.” (Coetzee, p. 4) This time, however, he attempts to court her, and she almost accepts. He begins stalking her and gets her to sleep with him. There is an unmistakable air of unwantedness and awkwardness in their relationship. David clearly forces himself onto her.

That impression is challenged when Melanie appears at his doorstep and asks to spend the night. She is in some crisis, and he is the person to whom she turns. The relationship seems reciprocal after that moment. He takes care of her, and she feels more comfortable around him. However, there is a manipulative side to her, as she takes advantage of his feelings the way he took advantage of her weakness. During their brief tryst, she enjoys sex and the company. After that, everything quickly falls apart.

Her family, classmates, and boyfriend find out about her affair with David. A complaint gets filed against him, by Melanie or by others coercing her to sign it. There is an uproar in campus advocacy groups. He is pressured to give a remorseful public speech and undergo counseling, which he refuses and loses his job. David escapes Cape Town and goes to live with her daughter on a farm.

The Character of Melanie

Melanie is not a straightforward character. The initial impression is that she is a charming but vulnerable young woman and that David is consciously taking advantage of her. The author writes: “[h]e has given her no warning; she is too surprised to resist the intruder who thrusts himself upon her. When he takes her in his arms, her limbs crumple like a marionette’s.” (p. 8) She does not want him, even though she helps him undress her. It could be interpreted as confusion, fear, and weakness. There are multiple factors to support that interpretation: “Lurie’s “affair” with his student, Melanie, is complicated by the imbalance of power between them, which is not just that of student-teacher, but is based on race, affluence, and especially gender.” (Moffat, p. 409) What has happened between them at first is abusive.

However, Melanie has a positive influence on David. When she turns to him in a moment of crisis, he takes care of her as if she was his daughter. Much later in the novel, when he sees Melanie’s play, he feels possessive: “[…] when they laugh at Melanie’s lines, he cannot resist a flush of pride. Mine! he would like to say, turning to them, as if she were his daughter.” (Coetzee, p. 47) She awakens deeper emotions in him, even though he had not felt them in a long time. It is difficult to say whether she developed any feelings for him in turn. The only certain thing is that Melanie is conflicted and not entirely rational throughout their relationship.

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That said, David’s fatherly concern is very shallow. It has been pointed out, that “[i]n Coetzee’s novel, one may contrast Lurie’s concern for Lucy’s body after she is raped (he wants her to have HIV and pregnancy tests) to his lack of concern for Melanie Isaacs, whom he forces himself upon after his sexual relationship with Soraya, a prostitute, comes to an end.” (Graham, p. 438) The more one dwells on the relationship as it was narrated through David’s eyes, the more predatory it appears, despite the obvious emotional toll Melanie took on David.


Melanie Isaacs is not a one-dimensional being that is only lustful, or only afraid. She is all of these things and more. Coetzee’s masterful execution of the narrative leaves the reader unsure of her true nature and desires, and her side of the story is left untold. She is intriguing, and she has a profound impact on David, which ripples throughout the entire book.


  1. Coetzee, John Maxwell. Disgrace. Penguin Books, 2000.
  2. Graham, Lucy Valerie. “Reading the Unspeakable: Rape in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 29, no. 2, 2003, pp. 433–444.
  3. Moffat, Nicola. “Rape and the (Animal) Other: Making Monsters in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 43, no. 2, 2018, pp. 401–423.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Disgrace’ by J.M. Coetzee: Novel Review'. 28 December.

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