“Disgrace” by John Maxwell Coetzee: Conflict Resolution


The novel “Disgrace” is set in post-apartheid South Africa and revolves around David Lurie, an older male professor who is at a crossroads in his life and career due to emerging social and political realities. The main narrative in the novel projects several themes, which include social and political complexities, generational and sexual tensions, geriatric sexuality, animal treatment, immorality, racial relations, and justice. This paper undertakes a literary analysis of the novel to demonstrate that, even though the characters of David Lurie and Lucy Lurie have in common the suffering of facing sexual experiences, their conflict resolution styles are very dissimilar due to their social environments and sexual genres.

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Brief Summary of the Two Characters

Much of the novel revolves around three characters: David Lurie, the main protagonist who is in the habit of using women to gain psychological power after experiencing two divorces; Lucy Lurie, the daughter of David who lives in rural South Africa and experiences a shameful rape at the hands of three African men; and Petrus, who works for Lucy as a dog-keeper. The story portrays a nation filled with arrogance, contempt, immorality, violence, and a bleak future due to the social and political conflict facing it at that time. Early in the novel, readers are exposed to the character of David as a man who uses his power and arrogance to have sex with women, including prostitutes and young students (Coetzee 1-5). David’s obsession with women and incapability to show any remorse for his sexual escapades with his student (Melanie Isaacs) makes him to lose his job at the college. The character of Lucy is portrayed as submissive to predatory sexual behaviors including rape, as demonstrated by the fact that she refused to initiate charges against individuals who raped her in the countryside (Coetzee 159).

Literally Analysis

Although it is clear that the characters suffer from traumatic sexual experiences, the forms differ as David’s experiences are mostly self-inflicted while Lucy’s experiences are as a result of violence and breakdown of the social fabric. Early in the book, David attempts to compensate for conflicts emanating from his public and career life by having sex with women in what can be described as sexual predation. Being in an urban environment that encourages all forms of immorality, David uses his sense of superiority to seek sexual favors irrespective of the fact that her supposed “lovers” do not seem to enjoy his overtures. In noted episodes, David insinuates that he follows his temperament and that he is a lover of women (Coetzee 1, 7). In another sexual overture to Melanie, David suggests that “a woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone…She has a duty to share it” (Coetzee 5). These instances show that David compensates for his sexual emptiness by using psychological power and masculine predispositions to dominate women. This view is reinforced by another author, who acknowledges that Lurie is depicted in the novel as being totally self-absorbed and as an individual who routinely reduces women to the status of objects with which to satisfy his masculine desires (Marais 76).

David’s conflict resolution style changes when he flees to his daughter Lucy’s farm in the Eastern Cape and witnesses her rape at the hands of three African men. The change of social environments (from urban to rural) and the events that follow (e.g., the sickening rape and working with animals) are critical in triggering David’s own form of personal salvation by obliterating his sexual vanity as well as his sense of superiority. For once, the protagonist criticizes the action of rape in spite of the fact that he has also perpetuated the vice by taking advantage of women. In one instance, David says “they were not raping, they were mating. It was not the pleasure principle that ran the show but the testicles, sacs bulging with send aching to perfect itself” (Coetzee 199). David no longer sees rape as being influenced by primal desires for male dominance; rather, he demonstrates a new appreciation of the ways in which women can be used by men and submits himself to a self-abasement that is intended to assist him find a new identity. Later on, the novel is clear that David deals with the conflict by submitting completely to the work at the animal clinic and also through emotional attachment to the injured animals.

Lucy’s conflict resolution style is illuminated when she experiences rape, which is “capitalized on, if not instigated, by Petrus to humble Lucy and to force her to accept Petrus’s protection and yield control of her remaining land to him” (Kochin 4). Lucy demonstrates a self-dispossessed and submissive inclination when dealing with her traumatic sexual experience of rape, refusing to prosecute or even admit what the three men have done to her by choosing to renounce all claims to rights. Lucy demonstrates feminine discourses in dealing with her conflict by submitting further to sexual contact and humbling herself before history in the hope that this could bring her into community with her rapists. Although Lucy becomes apathetic and agoraphobic after the attack, her sense of self-sufficiency even in despair is demonstrated when she writes a note to her father saying “I cannot be a child forever. You cannot be a father forever. I know you mean well, but you are not the guide I need, not at this time” (Coetzee 161). This shows that Lucy uses her traumatic sexual experiences as a sign of strength, rather than weakness.


This analysis has demonstrated several important points that serve to demonstrate how the conflict resolution styles of David and Lucy are remarkably dissimilar due to social contexts and sexual genres.

Works Cited

Coetzee, J.M. Disgrace, New York: Penguin, 1999. Print.

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Kochin, Michael S. “Postmetaphysical literature: Reflections on J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Perspectives on Political Science 33.1 (2006): 4-9. Academic Search Premier. Web.

Marais, Mike. “J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and the Task of the Imagination.” Journal of Modern Literature 29.2 (2006): 75-93. Academic Search Premier. Web.

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