Symbolism in “Disgrace” by John Maxwell Coetzee


People can find symbolism everywhere in their daily life and, especially, in literature. Each person can interpret symbols in their own way, depending on how they look at them. In books, symbols are utilized to make the story deeper and allow a reader to understand the author’s purposes and ideas better. This paper analyzes symbolism in Disgrace by John Maxwell Coetzee. The essay argues that Lord Byron and dogs are symbolic figures through which the author wanted to highlight characters’ traits and thoughts while referring to social status and personal disgrace.

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Plot Summary

Disgrace was published in 1999 and has received both critical reviews and appraisal. The author of the novel won the Nobel Prize and the second Booker prize for his literary work. Disgrace can be considered one of Coetzee’s most widely-read books and is one of 100 best novels ever published according to McCrum. The book presents a story of the professor David Lurie, who leaves Cape Town due to the scandal resulting from his affair with a student.

However, the Eastern Cape is still recovering from Apartheid, which had ended recently. Lurie’s life takes an unexpected turn when his daughter’s house gets attacked. The reason why symbolism used in Disgrace was selected for this paper is that it is interesting that symbols can be seen everywhere, including the books that do not seem symbolic at first sight. This essay is focused on the symbolic meaning of Lord Byron’s and dogs’ representation in the novel.

Symbolism in Lord Byron’s and Dogs’ Representation

Lord Byron

As mentioned above, one major representation of symbolism in the novel is Lord Byron. This character is the subject of Lurie’s newest project, and the reader can see that the professor is highly interested in his persona. Lord Byron is one of the most significant poets of the Romantic era known for his love affairs and extravagant appearance. His appearance in the novel is symbolic and happens for a reason. Professor Lurie wants to associate himself with Lord Byron, who is depicted as an amiable lover for women and a man with a keen wit. The author states that, while being with a woman, Byron “gets bored” with her and “alludes to the women from her cycle with whom he had slept” (Coetzee 182). Lurie wants to be like Byron instead of feeling ashamed because of his romance with Melanie.

Moreover, from some perspectives, the professor shares several Byronic features. For example, he is well-educated but self-critical, prone to self-destruction but is charismatic. His past experiences, such as his secret relationships with Melanie and their outcomes, make him suffer, which also refers to his Byronic side. It is possible to say that Lurie idealizes himself, he wants to be a smoother talker and lower like Byron. Thus, Coetzee introduces Byron’s figure symbolically; he wants the reader to see the professor’s deep desire to become the person he is not while highlighting his personality traits.


The second major representation of symbolism is the portrayal of the dogs throughout the book. Coetzee often uses the idea of an animal as a symbol in his works (Philippou 217). Dogs start to play a significant role in the professor’s life after he moves to Salem. It is possible to say that they are the characters of the story too, as Coetzee repeats the image of dogs several times throughout the novel.

It can be said that these animals are used in the book to emphasize the social status and personal disgrace that exist in society. For example, Lucy says that she “does not want to come back in another existence as a dog” because she does not want to live like one (Coetzee 74). This idea is linked to the disparities in social positions of different people and, specifically, the difference in attitudes towards privileged and non-privileged groups of the population.

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From the perspectives of symbolism, when Petrus introduces himself to Lurie as the “the gardener and the dog-man,” this phrase is used to show that Petrus is Lucy’s assistant; he wants to take care of her and is in a social position to do so (Coetzee 64). However, as he moves up the social ladder and his relationships with Lucy change, his perspectives shift, too. Petrus notes that he is “not anymore the dog-man” (Coetzee 129). This phrase shows that the young man is no longer on the same level as dogs.

The image of dogs is related to the professor, too, as they reflect his inner problems. As the story unfolds, the challenges Lurie encounters enhance, and he grows deeply humiliated and disgraced in the result. He starts to compare himself with a dog and assists the animal clinic in putting dogs down (Coetzee 90). These actions show that the professor wants to escape suffering by all means.


Coetzee’s Disgrace can be considered a highly symbolic work, in which the author uses the images of Lord Byron and dogs to convey his ideas. The character of Lord Byron is linked to Lurie’s idealized version of himself and his personal traits. Dogs are presented to emphasize personal disgrace and disparities in society. Coetzee uses these symbols to help the reader to gain a deeper understanding of his characters while addressing the problems of discrimination.

Works Cited

Coetzee, John Maxwell. Disgrace. Penguin Books, 2000.

McCrum, Robert. “The 100 Best Novels: No 99 – Disgrace by JM Coetzee (1999).” The Guardian. 2015. Web.

Philippou, Eleni. “Dogs, Horses, and Red Herrings: The Animal in JM Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, vol. 57, no. 2, 2016, pp. 217-227.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "Symbolism in "Disgrace" by John Maxwell Coetzee." May 31, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Symbolism in "Disgrace" by John Maxwell Coetzee'. 31 May.

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