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Symbolism in John Maxwell Coetzee’s “Disgrace”

The issue of social isolation and ostracism has been explored extensively in literature, yet it shines through especially vividly in Coetzee’s award-winning Disgrace (Poyner 1). Among the characteristics that make the message of the novel especially poignant, one must mention the fact that Coetzee manages to incorporate the political and social aspects of the environment in which he places his characters, therefore, making the personal drama thereof intertwine with the social and political conflict, thus, providing a sad yet profound commentary on the human nature. While Coetzee uses an array of stylistic devices to stress the importance of his message, it is symbolism that shines through as the author mentions the image of Lord Byron as the smooth talker and the one of the dogs as the representation of a low social status that makes the idea expressed by the author all the more meaningful.

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Coetzee uses symbolism in a very elaborate manner, as seen in every facet of the story. For example, the incorporation of the image of Lord Byron as the ultimate representation of civilized manliness as seen by the narrator is rather delicate yet persistent. Particularly, Coetzee mentions Byron as he talks about the passionate attempts of David Lurie, the lead character, to resemble the poet, as well as his miserable failure to do so: “Abandoning the pages of notes he has written, abandoning the pert, precocious newlywed with her captive English Milord, he tries to pick Teresa up in middle age” (45). Therefore, the symbol of Lord Byron becomes the measure of an intrinsic worth for Lurie, as well as the means of depicting the duality of his character, i.e., the willingness to be both socially accepted and self-destructive.

The choice of Byron’s image as the representation of Lurie’s state of mind, however, is also defined by the fact that the latter also experiences the feeling of being trapped due to the social and political situation in which Lurie has found himself by interpreting “Byron’s complex legacy in the age of apartheid in South Africa” (Beaton and Jones 31). As a result, Byron’s image becomes a twofold symbol that embraces both the tragedy of Lurie’s situation and his inability to live up to the standards set by the captive English poet. Furthermore, the fact that Byron cannot be deemed as the perfect character that should be viewed as a role model for anyone who is in relationships should be mentioned. Indeed, Byron was a flawed human being, and Lurie brings these flaws into his relationships with Melanie, as well as his attempts at building relationships with his daughter Lucy (Coetzee 49). Therefore, while being viewed as positive by the narrator, the qualities that he attributes to Byron and, thus, attempts at developing as the foundation for his interactions with the people around him work to Lurie’s detriment, slowly getting him trapped in the realm of his own illusion.

Similarly, the image of dogs appears consistently throughout the story; it opens the novel and ends it (Coetzee 9). It could be argued that the specified symbol represents the other side of masculinity as it is portrayed in the contemporary society, i.e., its aggressive side. Thus, the two images that appear regularly throughout the novel can be regarded as two sides of the same phenomenon, i.e., the depiction of masculinity and the nature of the lead character as a soft and smooth one, and its other incarnation that represents rough and violent sides of the lead character. Consequently, the novel comes full circle as the image of a dog that is clearly going to face its death is portrayed: “The dog wags its crippled rear, sniffs his face, licks his cheeks, his lips, his ears. He does nothing to stop it” (Coetzee 53). The confirmation of the inevitable death by the lead character (“Yes, I am giving him up” (Coetzee 53)) portrays a tragic denial of a significant part of his own self, therefore, closing Lurie’s arch and contributing to a tragic yet unavoidable ending. The symbolism in the novel, hence, serves a distinct purpose, contributing massively to not only the representation of the character but also to the portrayal of his arch development.

The symbolism in Coetzee’s Disgrace is depicted primarily by two images, i.e., the one of Lord Byron and that one of a dog; both contributing to the interpretation and a better understanding of the lead character, the two concepts introduce the reader to two different interpretations of masculinity. Remaining consistent throughout the story, the mentioning of the two symbols allows furthering Lurie’s character arch and contributing to rendering the feeling of helplessness and social isolation that he is experiencing. Rooted deeply in the political and social struggles that South Africa was facing at the time, the symbols used in the novel reflect the state of being ostracized to the point where one feels deprived of the very concept of safety. Incorporating both the humane and inhumane sides of Lurie, the two symbols remain part and parcel of the narration, thus, allowing the reader to take a deep look at the nature of an internal conflict.

Works Cited

Beaton, Roderick, and Christine Kenyon Jones. Byron: The Poetry of Politics and the Politics of Poetry. Routledge, 2016.

Coetzee, John Maxwell. Disgrace. Penguin Essential Editions, 1999.

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Poyner, Jane. J.M. Coetzee and the Paradox of Postcolonial Authorship. Routledge, 2016.

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