Symbolism in “Disgrace” by John Coetzee


The Novel, Disgrace, revolves around David Lurie, a University lecturer who faces one disgrace after another. Disgrace follows David wherever he goes throughout the novel. The 52-year-old man faces life in a post apartheid South Africa where racial discrimination is still rife. David’s first scandal with Melanie at the University leads him to a different setting in Salem (Eastern Cape).

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According to Coetzee, Salem is still brewing with insecurity and racial discrimination. Coetzee uses the protagonist to explore differences between both settings after apartheid. This paper will examine the author’s use of symbolism throughout the novel (Dailey 1).

Plot Summary

The story begins at Cape Town where the protagonist visits his prostitute (Soraya) every Thursday. The lifestyle in Cape Town is modern and structured. However, sex scandal with Melanie costs David his job. David is forced to visit his daughter Lucy in Eastern Cape (Salem) where there is poor lifestyle. Moreover, racial tensions are still high in Salem.

David and Lucy are robbed and assaulted by two men and a boy. In the process, Lucy is raped. Of great concern is the fact that Lucy refuses to report rape, a big contrast between life in Salem and life in Cape Town. Ultimately, David’s mission for revenge breaks his relationship with Lucy forcing him back to Cape Town.

Unfortunately, he finds that his house has been robbed forcing him back to Salem. The novel contrasts between white controlled zones and black controlled zones after apartheid as observed in David’s lifestyle in Cape Town and Salem respectively.

Use of Symbolism

The author uses numerous symbolisms in the novel, which signifies a range of issues from differing settings to racial discrimination. Coetzee uses man’s best friend as a symbolism throughout the novel. The author utilizes dogs to symbolize life status of characters in different settings. For instance, dogs are mentioned mainly in Salem where there is poor lifestyle. In one instance, Lucy mentions that she does not want to go back in another existence like a dog and has to live like a dog (Coetzee 71).

In this regard, a dog is used to symbolize low life since dogs normally live lower lives than people do. Additionally, Petrus introduces himself to David as a “dog-man” (Coetzee 55). However, during his party, Petrus jokes that he is no longer a “dog-man”. Petrus’s remark after climbing the social ladder shows that dogs symbolize low life.

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David’s personal tribulations are also compared to the dog life. For instance, David opens to Lucy about his affair with Melanie, which he compares to “a dog that has been beaten for following its sexual instincts” (Coetzee 20-22).

David is disgraced from being a university lecture to caring for dogs, a statement that symbolizes his move from a modern to a traditional lifestyle. As the novel continues, a dog is utilized to symbolize poverty or life without dignity, rights, chance, property or weapons. Use of symbolism is evident in the latter exchange between David and his daughter over their disgrace of having to learn to live “like a dog”, as Lucy stresses, “yes like a dog” (Coetzee 122-114).

Essentially, the author points out that people who live like dogs are in the lowest levels of life where there is no right, dignity or chance of getting property. Moreover, Lucy’s dogs are killed shamefully without protection or dignity, which is reminiscent of the low and insecure life at Salem. Moreover, Lucy and David are raped and robbed respectively in Salem. In the end, David gives up his dog for lethal injection, which symbolizes a relief from his sense of disgrace.

It is worth noting that David’s life and character symbolizes Byron, one of the most prolific poets of his time. However, David savors Byron‘s personal life, as he was sophisticated, arrogant and loved ladies. Byron ran from England to Greece because of stigma just as David ran away from Cape Town to Salem because of shame. Use of symbolism is also evident in the sex life of David, which is linked to copulation of snakes (Coetzee 1).

David believes that he is in control of sex without knowing that he is indeed a slave to sex. His romantic life with Soraya is dry, showing David’s own temperament and rigidity. The author explains that Soraya enjoys sex with other clients except David. In essence, snake is used to symbolize David’s temperament and lack of affection in romance (Atwell 865–867).


Coetzee uses animals to symbolize the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa. Snake, dogs and pigs are mentioned predominantly in the novel to symbolize characters’ behavior and settings. Firstly, snake copulation is used to symbolize David’s intercourse with Soraya. However, Coetzee mentions that Soraya enjoys intercourse with other clients as opposed to David, which shows that snake symbolizes David’s lack of affection during intercourse.

Of great importance is the use of dog to symbolize lifestyle in Salem. Salem is mainly a black occupied setting where Lucy and David toil to earn a living. Coetzee uses dogs to symbolize low life. Both David and Lucy agree that dog life is painful, lifeless, and without dignity. Moreover, David and Lucy also agree that dog life offers no cards, rights, weapons or property. In essence, symbolism is used to convey insecurity, segregation and racial discrimination in the aftermath apartheid in South Africa (Kedari 1).

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Works Cited

Atwell David. “Coetzee and post-apartheid South Africa.” Journal for South African Studies, 27.4 (2001):865–867. Print.

Coetzee, John. Disgrace, New York, Penguin, 1999. Print.

Dailey, Vickie. A Review and Commentary on Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. 2010. Web.

Kedari, Narasimha. “Redefining “Worlds”: the writerly ethics in the trailing temporality of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Springerplus. 2 (2013). NCBI. Web.

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"Symbolism in “Disgrace” by John Coetzee." StudyCorgi, 29 Oct. 2020,

1. StudyCorgi. "Symbolism in “Disgrace” by John Coetzee." October 29, 2020.


StudyCorgi. "Symbolism in “Disgrace” by John Coetzee." October 29, 2020.


StudyCorgi. 2020. "Symbolism in “Disgrace” by John Coetzee." October 29, 2020.


StudyCorgi. (2020) 'Symbolism in “Disgrace” by John Coetzee'. 29 October.

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