Symbolism is a unique literary device that conveys depth within a story. It is difficult to implement as readers should be aware of the author’s meaning behind a symbol. The most memorable symbolism in literature could interweave the plot with the thematic elements, generating complex ideas that cannot be easily defined. The novel Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee is an explicitly symbolic novel. Although portraying a tragic story, the meaning and purpose of the narrative go far beyond the plotline. In Disgrace, symbolism is used as a thematic literary element to demonstrate principles of power and race while providing commentary about the socio-political strife in South Africa.
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In Disgrace, David is a symbol of white supremacy in South Africa that has been under the rule of a racist, pro-white apartheid regime for decades. He is a scholar that is in a position of privilege and power. The first part of the plot focus on the protagonist’s sexual behaviors. Sex, in the context of the novel, is a symbol of power. David maintains a patriarchal view of sex as a link that is established between the body and authority. There are no limits to his actions as he violates the privacy of the Muslim prostitute and abuses his position by making advances on a black student. Even after being charged, he refuses to apologize for the abuse of power, as he does not realize how unethical his actions are (Pearson). The “disgrace” that David experiences are not so much about ignominy as the loss of authority which allows him to use sex as a method of control. Lord Byron, whom David idolizes, is essentially a symbolic representation of power and privilege. A life of sexual pleasure and seduction is the epiphany of David’s desires. Fantasy is a clear reflection of identity, including political ideology. As South Africa undergoes social change, David devotes himself to the opera, a world where Lord Byron maintains a supreme sexual authority (Sheils 38).
The symbols in this novel are closely intertwined. One of the repeating symbols through the novel is dogs. They are present in the plot action and dialogue, both literally and figuratively. The low social status represented by dogs and those people dealing with them directly correlates to the social strife of racial tensions occurring in South Africa. A culture that was defined by European colonialism which viewed locals as feral alongside dogs led to systematic oppression continuing through the fall of apartheid in recent years. Lisa mentions, “on the list of the nation’s priorities animals come nowhere” (Coetzee 20). The discussion inherently revolves around the rights of blacks in post-apartheid South Africa. The humiliation experienced by the protagonist throughout the story brings him down from the pedestal of privilege experienced by whites during the apartheid rule. A ceaseless struggle for survival of animals is symbolized by the social strife which has led specific ethnic groups to desperation (Baderoon 353-355).
David and Lucy are thrown into the reality of lawlessness which impacted the socio-economic affairs of post-apartheid South Africa. There is significant political and ethical disarray in the social fabric of the country which is engaged in the redistribution of power and dominance as whites begin facing historical retribution. Feral violence attributed to dogs in South African culture is directly personified through rape and attempts of land acquisition from Lucy. After the traumatic experiences, Lucy states that she must “start at ground level…like a dog” (Coetzee 51). It is an acceptance of fate, which in the current status quo, her family is now in the position of an oppressed minority. This serves as symbolism for a renunciation of power and privilege that came with the violence as racial roles began to shift (Herron 486). Lucy accepts this fate as she chooses not to report the rape but keep the child as well. David, a well-educated scholar, can see this terrifying reality which makes him fearful for his daughter. In his eyes, she is becoming a peasant, one of the lowest social statures.
However, there is an element of growth and understanding from the protagonist as he undergoes the traumatic experiences. The symbolic change occurs within David’s attitude and perspective towards animals throughout the novel. His initial reaction to Lisa’s kennel and her lifestyle is one of disgust. However, with time he adjusts and makes critical observations of the purpose of which Lisa keeps the dogs or why animals are brought to the animal clinic. Through his job, David begins to understand the experiences of captivity, abuse, and suffering that the animals go through. The formation of an intimate bond with the creatures begins to change him, bringing out sympathy and compassion never seen before. There is evidence of concern and contemplation in David’s thoughts as he witnesses the suffering. Instead of being desensitized to it after weeks of work, he becomes significantly more disturbed (Herron 480).
History has created a socio-political regime in the country which established whites in power, resulting in various abuses of blacks for generations. Many whites were blinded by their privilege, failing to notice the suffering experienced by other races. David’s realization is a symbol of the shock which shook the country after the fall of apartheid. Coetzee was trying to create the symbol of acceptance that gradually came to South Africa. There were unequivocal challenges, wrought with violence and suffering for both races. However, in the end, the situation began to stabilize which is exemplified in the last pages of the novel. David mentions, “between Lucy’s generation and mine, a curtain has fallen” (Coetzee 52). The acceptance of social change and intermixing of races is symbolized by David’s attitude towards the animals.
Baderoon, Gabeba. “Animal Likenesses: Dogs and the Boundary of the Human in South Africa.” Journal of African Cultural Studies, vol. 29, no. 3, 2016, pp. 345-361, Web.
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Coetzee, John. Disgrace. Penguin Books, 1999.
Herron, Tom. “The Dog Man: Becoming Animal in Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 51, no. 4, 2005, pp. 467-490, Web.
Pearson, Charley-Ann. “The Social Decline and Changing Identity of David Lurie in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” South African History Online, 2015, Web.
Sheils, Colleen. “Opera, Byron, and a South African Psyche in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa, vol. 15, no. 1, 2003, pp. 38-50, Web.