Disgrace is a Booker prize-winning novel written by a prominent South African writer John Maxwell Coetzee in 1999 (McCrum par. 1). The book tells a story of a middle-aged professor of English, David Lurie, who is faced with life-changing events and decisions precipitated by his relationship with a much younger university student—Melanie Isaacs. On its surface, the novel is an exploration of desire and frustration in postapartheid South Africa. However, beneath the veneer of infinitely regressive confession about one’s sense of desire and shame, there is a story about the conflict between public and private spheres as well as personal grace and salvation. The aim of this paper is to explore the use of symbolism in Disgrace. It will trace a thematic connection of the animal imagery to the victimization of South Africans and examine how Lord Byron represents David’s desire to be a suave and charismatic lover.
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Man’s best friend is a major representation of symbolism in the novel. Not only Coetzee repeatedly employ images of dogs throughout Disgrace, but he also turns them into convincing secondary characters that have recognizable personalities. By deliberately using this kind of symbolism, the author opens a forum for moral inquiry that allows his readers to critically consider the question of status and how it shapes social discourse. For example, Lucy, the protagonist’s daughter, expresses her unwillingness to “come back in another existence as a dog or a pig and have to live as dogs or pigs live under us” (Coetzee 20). When Petrus, Lucy’s neighbor, calls himself “the dog-man” (Coetzee 33), readers instinctively understand that it is an allusion to his low socioeconomic status. However, after all of Lucy’s animals have been brutally killed, Petrus suggests that he has moved up the social ladder by cynically joking that he has ceased to be “the dog man” (Coetzee 33).
However, it is clear that on the symbolic level, there is no substantial difference between him and Lucy’s dogs. It can be argued that Coetzee tries to paint a broad picture of the abnormality of social alienation by resorting to the engagement of his readers with ethics mitigated by the symbolic use of animal images. David recognizes another symbolic connection between dogs and the victimization of minorities when he draws parallels between animals and weapons. According to Olson, Lucy’s rapists “were victimized by a violent system in which dogs acted as an instrument of oppression” (118). The scholar refers to the time when dogs were used by the white propertied classes to attack and threaten the black population of South Africa. Therefore, on the symbolic level, the novel uses animal imagery as a substitute for white oppression. Moreover, it can be said that David makes mental articulation of this idea when he thinks about the rape of his daughter and how she must have felt like an object.
Lord Byron is another example of symbolism in Disgrace. Lurie is fascinated with the poet to such an extent that his high regard for Byron’s poetry permeates many aspects of his life. Considering himself as a specialist in the Romanic poets, Lurie cannot help but draw parallels between the events of his own life and that of the poet. The professor calls himself “a servant of Eros” (Coetzee 23) when speaking about his love affair with Ms. Isaacs. It is clear that by making this reference, Lurie is cognizant of defiant individualism of Byron who to a large extent was also driven by sexual desires. Therefore, he is not remorseful about responding to the promptings of his hormones in the form of a repulsive sexual experience with a young student.
On the contrary, Lurie mystifies and glorifies the event by describing it using impulsive and lofty language: “Strange love! Yet from the quiver of Aphrodite, goddess of the foaming waves, no doubt about that” (Coetzee 25). It is no surprise that the professor speaks about the experience in such terms. After all, he wants to be a suave lover and eloquent speaker like Lord Byron. The symbolic use of Byron can be explained by the fact that Lurie is highly reminiscent of the Byronic hero whose self-destructive nature determines his fate. The professor teaches the significance of the poem ‘Lara’ to his students by explaining to them that it describes Lucifer. There is no doubt that Coetzee hints to his readers that charismatic and seductive Lurie is a Satanic figure who just like Byron is predisposed to live a dangerous life in an attempt to reform himself. It can be argued that the sexual intercourse with Melanie, which resulted in his dismissal from a university, is an example of destructive behavior aimed at replacing boredom of professorial existence with the wretchedness of disgrace.
The paper explored two major sources of symbolism in Coetzee’s novel Disgrace: dogs and Lord Byron. It argued that animals in the book represent instruments of oppression and low socioeconomic status. The analysis of the symbolic use of Byron in the novel showed that he represents David’s desire to be a suave and charismatic lover.
Coetzee, John. Disgrace. Penguin Books, 2000.
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McCrum, Robert. “The 100 Best Novels: No 99-Disgrace by JM Coetzee (1999).” The Guardian, 2015, Web.
Olson, Greta. “Like a Dog: Rituals of Animal Degradation in J.M.Coetzee’s Disgrace and Abu Ghraib Prison.” Journal of Narrative Theory, vol. 44, no. 1, 2014, pp. 116-156.