Symbolism is often used in fiction to describe pressing but controversial issues. Through subtle comparisons and allegories, authors can connect simple objects and situations to more complex problems. The novel Disgrace, written by Coetzee in 1999, uses a number of symbols to strengthen the message of the author. First of all, David Lurie, the protagonist of the story, is fascinated with the persona of Lord Byron, whose temperament resembles the main character’s personality. Moreover, the novel makes a statement about otherness through the depiction of animals and people with whom they interact. The portrayal of dogs can be linked to the racial issue of post-apartheid South Africa. Coetzee uses multiple symbols that revolve around Lurie’s worldview and self-assurance as he tries to elevate himself to the status of Lord Byron while degrading other people to the level of animals.
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The story of the book is centered on David Lurie, a professor of English, whose life drastically changes after he sexually assaults one of his students. His advances to seduce a young woman, Melanie, end poorly for him, and he loses his job at the university and his status as a respected professor. Lurie moves to a small town to live with Lucy, his daughter, on her farm. After some time, the farm is attacked by three men, who assault Lucy, rob the farm, murder dogs that Lucy raises, and attempt to kill Lurie by setting him on fire. This incident leaves Lucy devastated and anxious, and Lurie lost and mistrustful. Lurie finds a job disposing of dogs that were put to sleep. He returns to Cape Town, where he tries to make amends with Melanie’s family. He finds his old home robbed and goes back to Lucy’s farm, returning to his new job.
This first symbol that is mentioned throughout the whole novel is the persona of Lord Byron, an English poet. However, it can be assumed that Lurie is equally or even more interested in Byron’s personal life than his work. The protagonist studies Byron’s life and has many of his books. Moreover, the author often describes Lurie reading about Byron as Lurie even wants to write a play about him: “he has been playing with the idea of work on Byron … What he wants to write his music: Byron in Italy” (Coetzee 3). The use of Byron as the subject of Lurie’s interest is not accidental. The main character’s life can be compared to that of Byron’s who also was occupied by his lust and had a hedonistic outlook on life. According to Diehl, it is notable that Lurie tries to write the play and fails (11). Here, his connections with Byron end, as he does not succeed in the same way in which the poet once did.
Moreover, this comparison also creates a difference between time periods in which the two men live. Lord Byron’s escape to Italy mentioned in the novel is seen by Lurie as a way to “escape a scandal” and is deemed by him as positive (Coetzee 3). Lurie believes that this departure could be explained by Italy having been “less hemmed in by convention, more passionate” (Coetzee 3). On the other hand, Lurie’s escape to Lucy’s farm is not the same, as Lurie moves from a modern city with many opportunities to live a satisfactory life to a farm where he can not have the same autonomy. While his love affairs and unwillingness to suppress his urges resemble the life of Byron, his shameful flight from the old life starts to create a new path for Lurie. In the end, he has to neglect his initial idea of writing about Byron to focus on another character in the poet’s life. This difference further enhances his inability to follow the poet’s footsteps.
While Lurie’s comparison to Byron reveals him as an arrogant and self-centered person, his own perception of other people exposes his cruel and insensitive nature. Here, Coetzee uses animals as a way to dehumanize people in the eyes of the protagonist. According to Olson, the use of dogs in the novel can not only reveal the systematic violence that many animals are subjected to but also make a connection to the notion of otherness rooted in racism and social disparity (119). Dogs in this novel become objects that can be beaten, experimented on, or killed. However, their possible role of companions does not exhibit any compassion in characters as well because people use dogs to their own volition. Human cruelty is described through the perspective of animals that suffer at the hands of people in the novel. Even Lurie decides to euthanize his dog, Driepoot, while the reasons for that action remain unclear (Coetzee 93). The dog’s fate is determined by a human, similarly to how the lives of people with lower status are controlled by more privileged individuals.
Coetzee’s book Disgrace uses symbolism to make the description of the protagonist’s worldview and his actions more vivid. Lurie’s interest in Lord Byron shows his hedonistic outlook and his need to follow his urges and sexual desires. However, while Lord Byron’s successful escape grants him more freedom, Lurie fails to run from his mistakes and has to reconsider his choices. The depiction of animals further shows how people in the novel treat those who do not belong to their established classes. Dogs suffer from violence and lack of freedom, which is compared to underprivileged people without status. The use of dogs as objects of interest and violence is paralleled with the racial tensions described in the plot.
Coetzee, John Maxwell. Disgrace. Harvill Secker, 1999.
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Diehl, Lindsay Ann. “‘Savage Practices’: Geography and Human-Animal Relationships in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Postcolonial Text, vol. 11, no. 4, 2016, pp. 1-16.
Olson, Greta. “‘Like a Dog’: Rituals of Animal Degradation in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace and Abu Ghraib Prison.” Journal of Narrative Theory, vol. 44, no. 1, 2014, pp. 116-156.