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The Animals Images in “Disgrace” by John Maxwell Coetzee

Symbolizing animals is an old practice that persists in modern literature. However, making the symbols too obvious is not considered professional. For example, attributing archetypal feline qualities to a woman or parallelizing cats and witchcraft is considered cheap (Hannah 4). Thus, we can configure that labeling a dog with the symbolic meaning of joyfulness, devotedness, and commitment has also become amateurish in the postmodern era that we live in. In “Disgrace”, a novel by J. M. Coetzee, the author deviates from a standard perception of canines in collective subconscious. Beyond doubt, dogs play a crucial part in the composition – especially when David Lurie, the protagonist, flees Cape Town due to a sexual scandal and settles down at his daughter’s place in he country. Lucy, the protagonist’s daughter, takes care of some of the canines whose names resemble human and who have distinct features of character. However, the presence of dogs in the novel is justified. The author uses the images of dogs over and over again and draws a parallel between the animals and the people’s social status – as well as the disgrace of an individual.

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Employing canine personalities – as well as some other non-human animals – in the narrative, Coetzee represents the social issues not only via the narrative itself, but putting the ideas into the characters’ speech. For instance, a discussion between the protagonist and his daughter reveals the symbolic stance of animals as can carriers for people: “Everyone is so cheerful and well-intentioned that after a while you itch to go off and do some raping and pillaging. Or to kick a cat.” (Coetzee 73).

Animals are a joy for some, but they hold an inferior position on default. The author asserts that, in the circumstances, some people can also adopt such a position: working with dog, a person becomes no more than a dog. This is the reason Coetzee introduces the image of Petrus as “the dog-man” (Coetzee 64). Living in the stables, gardening and caring for dogs, Petrus reflectively asserts that he is approximately on a par with the canines. However, as he experiences significant changes in his social status, he points out smartly that he has ceased to be the dog-man: he is neither the man that looks after dogs, nor the human dog anymore.

While Petrus climbs up, David Lurie seems to descend deeper and deeper in disgrace. Coetzee uses canine images as a depiction of the protagonist’s downfall, as well as the demonstration of his self-analysis. Albeit difficulties in rationalizing, he subconsciously draws a parallel between himself and dogs when reflecting on his humiliation after the sexual scandal. Most dramatically, however, the perception of canines as humiliated humans (and vice versa) is shown through the character of Bev Shaw, the one gifted to interact with non-human animals and the one that ended up assisting them in dying. Bev is described as “not a veterinarian but a priestess… trying, absurdly, to lighten the load of Africa’s suffering beasts” (Coetzee 84).

Animals – dogs, for the best part of them – that are due to meet their death soothed and comforted by Bev are transformed in David’s (and the reader’s) mind into human beings. The protagonist cannot but think how disgraceful death is, although in the case of sick dogs it is rather humane. In the novel, death is understood as a universal remedy both for the physical suffering of the sick animals and for the disgrace of humans expelled from the society (George 73).

Some scholars characterize Coetzee’s narrative as “bleak but coherently salvific” (DeKoven 847). Although the final part of the novel creates an impression of a rather doomed future, the reader can sense a trace of relief. On the one hand the reader can see the protagonist’s perception of death as a shameful and even discreditable process that violates the dignity of every living being. On the other hand, David cannot help thinking that even death is more dignified than a living on the outskirts of humanity. His assistance with the death of a dog that he had gotten attached to is a powerful symbol of his acceptance of death. Moreover, the reader can see that he has – metaphorically speaking – found the way to salvation. Death here is not depicted as an ignominious end but as a universal reality, where one can find their salvation in the very worst of times.

To sum it up, the images of dogs – and other non-human animals – are given much weight in J. M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace”. Parallelizing the humans and non-human animals, the author states the disgrace in lives of both. Both animals and humans of lower social status can become punch bags for higher crust. In addition, the disgrace in humiliated humans’ lives is reflected in that of the dogs that suffer from illnesses and overbreeding. Finally, the dogs’ assisted dying is not only understood as a humane touch, but a suitable way of escaping the disgrace of living on one’s path to salvation.

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Works Cited

Coetzee, John Maxwell. Disgrace, London, United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 2005. Print.

DeKoven, Marianne. “Going to the Dogs in Disgrace.” English Literary History 76.4 (2009): 847-875. Print.

George, Dianne. Fear of Dogs/Dogs’ Fear in Coetzee’s Disgrace. Explorations in Anthropology 9.1 (2009): 70-74. Print.

Hannah, Barbara. The Archetypal Symbolism of Animals: Lectures Given at the C. G. Jung Institute, Zurich, 1954-1958. Asheville, NC: Chiron Publications, 2006. Print.

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"The Animals Images in “Disgrace” by John Maxwell Coetzee." StudyCorgi, 8 May 2020,

1. StudyCorgi. "The Animals Images in “Disgrace” by John Maxwell Coetzee." May 8, 2020.


StudyCorgi. "The Animals Images in “Disgrace” by John Maxwell Coetzee." May 8, 2020.


StudyCorgi. 2020. "The Animals Images in “Disgrace” by John Maxwell Coetzee." May 8, 2020.


StudyCorgi. (2020) 'The Animals Images in “Disgrace” by John Maxwell Coetzee'. 8 May.

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