Disgrace is a 1999 novel by J. M. Coetzee, written from the perspective of a middle-aged white South African professor living in Cape Town, who loses his job and, consequently, his usual life after his black student files sexual harassment charges upon him. David relocates to his daughter’s farm in the village, only to witness another sexual assault as his lesbian daughter Lucy is robbed and raped by three black men. The novel is therefore centered around two different rape stories that elicit two distinct responses from the main character. Both David and Lucy face rape and their reactions to the disgrace are fundamentally different given their positions in the act and their dissimilar social environments.
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Rape in Disgrace
The sexual act between David and his student Melanie is never defined as rape, despite the girl’s apparent lack of interest and consent: “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” (Coetzee 24). Lurie opposes this term, even though he is unable to find a different word: “Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core.
As though she has decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration” (Coetzee 25). Even though the story is commonly viewed as being told from David’s point of view (Stott 350), the attitudes of the narrator and the main character are opposing, which is highlighted when David is characterized as an “intruder” because of his actions. This passage, incidentally, is also the first time where the audience is presented with the victim’s perspective of rape. Later, Lucy will also compare being raped to death, however, is a more disturbing way:
When you have sex with someone strange […] isn’t it a bit like killing? Pushing the knife in; exiting afterward, leaving the body behind covered in blood – doesn’t it feel like murder, like getting away with murder? (Coetzee 158)
Along with other similarities between the two females – for instance, the fact that “Lucy is as accepting of her fate as his student Melanie was of the sexual act to which she was subjected” (Mardodossian 80) – this parallel conveys Coetzee’s view on the two assaults and confirms that the author views both as rape, even if the main character does not.
The reason for David’s ignorance, as Mardorossian argues, is his racist and sexist background: “he identifies his daughter’s violation as rape while being unable to recognize his act as such exposes his sexism as well as his racism” (80). As a white man, he fails to see an assault against a black woman as rape, whereas the same act performed by black men on a white woman is undoubtedly a rape to him, which allows to classify him as a “white anachronism of the colonial era” (Mardorossian 80). He tries to persuade Lucy to file rape charges against the men, apparently ignoring his similarity to them.
Lucy, on the other hand, refuses to be the victim of the rape. She does not seek revenge or justice; having lived in the black community for years, she sees the action as the punishment for the past actions of white colonists and accepts it:
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What if… what if that 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. (Coetzee 158)
The strategies that the two characters employ to deal with the disgrace inflicted on them after the two assaults are very different. David rejects his responsibility and does not classify his actions as rape. He tries to escape the disgrace by fleeing town but later returns to find retribution by apologizing to Melanie’s father. He fails to piece his life back together after the incident, and he seems content to leave Cape Town again and to remain in the village indefinitely, aiming to avoid the disgrace and the memories of his actions. Lucy, on the contrary, accepts what has been done to her. She does not leave the house where she was raped and refuses to abort the pregnancy that resulted from the act.
She lives with the consequences and manages to restore her life to the usual order, not to pretend like the traumatizing event had not happened, but rather to not let it define her future actions: “In choosing to remain on the farm, Lucy refuses to escape her past, and in that refusal witnesses to it. The same is true for her decision not to terminate her pregnancy” (Stott 356).
Thus, where David is biased by his sexist and racist attitudes to a point where does not see his actions as rape and therefore tries to escape the blame by avoiding his past, Lucy chooses to live as a witness to her rape and to accept the traumatizing event as something that had to happen. Both characters, therefore, deal with rape in very different ways, and their strategies are mostly defined by their background and views on sexual assault.
Coetzee, John. Disgrace. New York: Viking, 1999.
Mardirossian, Carine M. “Rape and the Violence of Representation in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 42, no. 4, 2011, pp. 72–83.
Stott, Graham St. John. “Rape and Silence in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Philosophical Papers, vol. 38, no. 3, 2009, pp. 347-362.