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The Habit of “Disgrace” by John Maxwell Coetzee

John Maxwell Coetzee is considered one of the most prominent contemporary novelists. His literary talent facilitated the South African writer’s worldwide recognition and won him the Booker Prize and Nobel Prize in literature. Coetzee is the author of numerous remarkable novels such as “Life and Times of Michael T”, “Waiting for the Barbarians”, “Elizabeth Costello”, and many others. However, his novel “Disgrace” published in 1999 acquired him the universal acclaim. The plot describes the life of a university professor, who loses his job and reputation due to an affair with his student. He moves to the rural South African territory where his only daughter lives only to find other disappointments and see that his sense of life is fleeing from him all the time. Despite the fact that the novel can be perceived a common sentimental story that can be found on any bookstall in the world, its plot proves that disgrace is usually a string of choices one makes and not an affliction that strikes anyone randomly.

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To begin with, the novel does not lack symbolism. The first thing that might attract a potential reader’s attention is the cover of a paperback version of the book. Almost any addition has a dog in it, and it is not a coincidence. The life of the main character, David Lurie, is tightly connected with these animals. His daughter keeps dogs in her kennels; he helps at a vet clinic to mortify sick dogs. It becomes obvious with every page that the depiction of the canine images is deliberate to use them as a ground of comparison between different social groups. Dogs have everything they need to lead a doggish life. They are liked and appreciated, but still these animals are in the inferior position to their masters. They are symbols of the depth of disgrace in the novel (Coleman 601). Lucy, David’s daughter, states, “I don’t want to come back in another existence as a dog or a pig and have to live as dogs or pigs live under us” (Coetzee 125). However, the author justifies the social comparison by pointing out that such creatures as dogs get what they deserve by following their basic instincts with David’s words:

A dog will accept the justice of that: a beating for a chewing (slippers). But desire is another story. No animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts (Coetzee 92).

This remark only underscores that people always have a choice being masters of their instincts, unlike their four-legged companions.

The second vivid symbol is George Byron. Lord Byron was one of the greatest poets of the Romantic Period. His talent was unquestionable. However, his love affairs led to dire consequences, putting Byron into the havoc of scandals and even forcing him to escape from the country. Ironically, Lurie was preparing an academic work on Byron’s love affair with Contessa Guiccioli. Nonetheless, that is not the only thing that connects these two men. David perceives himself as a Don Juan. Marais states that David “routinely reduces women to the status of objects with which to gratify his desires” (88). He keeps playing with fire when his passion to one of the students overwhelms him. The result of this romantic endeavor has been already mentioned in the introduction. According to Coetzee, “notoriety and scandal affected not only Byron’s life but the way in which his poems were received by the public” (Coetzee 37). The same fate awaits Mr. Lurie after the details of his relationship with Melanie emerge to the public. The work David on Byron and his mistress, he was so committed to, loses its scientific value. That is what the main character had to experience for his disgraceful ways.

The novel is abundant with historic and literary references. Another good example of symbolism is an allusion of David’s daughter Lucy to Byron’s daughter Allegra. Allegra died at a very young age, and many scholars believe that Byron thought over his outlook and values at Allegra’s deathbed, grieving over the loss of his little daughter. To an extent, David understands that he has lost his daughter as well when he first visits her after many years. Lucy lives in solitude at a desolate rural place. David cannot help wondering how she ended up like this, “Curious that he and her mother, cityfolk, intellectuals, should have produced this throwback, this sturdy young settler” (Coetzee 113). He spent most of his life pursuing his own goals and subconsciously realizes that, at some point, he abandoned his daughter. Her life is sometimes seen disgraceful even to Lucy. However, she refuses to admit it trying to persuade herself that she is content with her life and keeping the papist’s child.

To conclude, even though many people cannot understand why disgrace has become their lifetime companion, it is obvious that their actions caused the states and situations they have to endure. This novel is a good example of how disgrace can be hardcoded into people’s lives without them even realizing it.

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Works Cited

Coetzee, J. Disgrace: A Novel, New York, NY: Penguin Books. 2008. Print.

Coleman, Deirdre. “The” Dog-Man”: Race, Sex, Species, and Lineage in Coetzee’s” Disgrace”. Twentieth Century Literature (2009): 597-617. Print.

Marais, Mike. “JM Coetzee’s Disgrace and the Task of the Imagination.” Journal of Modern Literature 29.2 (2006): 75-93. Print.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, December 24). The Habit of “Disgrace” by John Maxwell Coetzee.

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"The Habit of “Disgrace” by John Maxwell Coetzee." StudyCorgi, 24 Dec. 2021,

1. StudyCorgi. "The Habit of “Disgrace” by John Maxwell Coetzee." December 24, 2021.


StudyCorgi. "The Habit of “Disgrace” by John Maxwell Coetzee." December 24, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "The Habit of “Disgrace” by John Maxwell Coetzee." December 24, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'The Habit of “Disgrace” by John Maxwell Coetzee'. 24 December.

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