‘Disgrace’ by J.M. Coetzee (1999)

25Nov04

I have great respect for authors, screenwriters, playwrights, etc. who choose to mold their main characters into an almost unlikable form, which Coetzee has done with David Lurie. It is a risky move for many reasons, but the main risk lies in the possibility that the reader will disconnect from the story before the protagonist becomes sympathetic.

I almost did. Almost.

David’s attitude toward his rape of his student (I refuse to call their relationship an affair) and his attitude toward women in general made me want to throw the book across the room and donate it to my neighbor’s dog as a chew toy. But I trudged on through the story and was redeemed for my efforts when Lucy appeared. The development of her relationship with David thoroughly captured my interest and attention, probably because it echoed (slightly) my relationship with my father. The character work Coetzee does on David when he is on the farm was well worth reading; therefore, when David’s desire reawakens in his relationship with Bev and in his encounter with Melanie’s sister, I was a little disappointed. While I suppose that a complete change in David would not have been realistic, I didn’t think that he had removed himself from my “worthy of castration” list, on which his early actions firmly placed him, by the end of the novel.

I wasn’t quite pleased with the forced parallel between Lucy and David. David’s disgrace is obvious and deserved: he slept with (or, rather, practically raped) his student and refused to apologize for his behavior. His punishment during the attack is therefore justified. But what did Lucy do to deserve disgrace and thus rape? She seems to view her assault as social justice for the poor race relations in South Africa. But she has been living an isolated, simple life; her only offense — being born white. So why must she suffer rape and then pregnancy? Because of her implied lesbianism? (I was never fully convinced.) Her independence from men? Lucy states at the end of the novel:

“Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity.”
“Like a dog.”
“Yes, like a dog.”

This confession is hardly supposed to be uplifting and Coetzee seems to lament Lucy’s situation. So why did he place her in these circumstances?

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