Prejudice, Politics and Patriarchy:

The Social Decline and Changing Identity of David Lurie in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace


Charley-Ann Pearson

Politics and the Novel

January 2015




This essay sets out to explore and analyse the socio-political events that take place throughout J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and how these affect the protagonist, David Lurie.  Coetzee explores discrimination, both of a racial and sexual kind, as well as motifs of violence linked back to South Africa’s history. This essay explores these issues in direct response and correlation to David Lurie. I will analyse the suffering that Lurie both inflicts and experiences, including his ‘disgrace’ at the beginning of the novel before exploring how and why he reaches a new state of grace and serenity in the novel’s closing chapter.



J. M.  Coetzee’s controversial novel Disgrace (1999) explores many of the conventional themes one would expect from a novel set in post-apartheid South Africa, from racial discrimination to injustice. However, what sets Disgrace apart is the way in which Coetzee explores these themes through his white protagonist, David Lurie, and the suffering he inflicts and experiences first hand as a result of prejudiced socio-political agendas. Through the exploration of racial and sexual relationships juxtaposed alongside a constant reminder of South Africa’s dark history, David Lurie has a dramatic identity change. Coetzee shows the detrimental effect social and political changes can have on both the privileged and the underprivileged within a flawed society, specifically in areas of race and patriarchy. The destabilising of David Lurie is the novel’s central motif and shows a dramatic turn in the status quo; the once powerful and respected David is left as ‘a mad old man sitting among the dogs singing to himself’ (Disgrace 212) whilst Petrus, the black ‘gardener and dog-man’ (Disgrace 64) gains more and more control throughout the novel, eventually marrying Lucy and becoming the primary landowner. This essay seeks to explore David’s dramatic decline through the explanation of his disturbing sex life and relationships with women, the prejudice of his racial politics and apartheid ideologies and the significance of his relationship with dogs

            From the beginning of the novel, Coetzee’s protagonist David Lurie displays a very questionable relationship with the women in his life. Having been married twice, and later divorced twice (Disgrace 1), David believes he has ‘solved the problem of sex rather well’ (Disgrace 1). Throughout Disgrace sex is shown as a symbol for power, namely with David Lurie himself, linking the idea of authority with the body, explaining his patriarchal views towards females and sex. The novel begins with David engaging in sex with a Muslim prostitute called Soraya whom he has been seeing weekly for over a year. From the offset of the novel the reader is very aware of David’s ‘conventional patriarchal and colonial prerogative’ (Boehmer 344) towards women, as he oversteps the metaphorical line between an escort and one of her customers. He speculates about her life outside of Windsor Mansion; ‘Soraya is not her real name’ and has she ‘borne a child’ (Disgrace 3)? We learn that David has no concept of privacy as he tracks her down, suspecting prostitution is only her part-time occupation and that it is a result of a breakdown – a breakdown of which he is willing to take advantage. The patriarchal society that David grew up amongst in South Africa lies at the core of his social value that places men above women, especially in a post-apartheid era, where one could say women were seen as the new ‘other’.  It is almost presented as not David’s fault. As Stratton asserts, men cannot conduct appropriate behaviour in a society where they cannot be wronged: ‘David has occupied for most of his lift a position of centrality, [”¦] a world of white patriarchal distinctions, rules and logic’ (83). Although the patriarchal society was arguably outdated by the time in which the novel is set (1999) the supposed post-feminist South Africa was undermined by men like David whose identities were ground by political and social agendas that gave men power just for being men. As such, the nature of David Lurie’s upbringing can be argued as a large contributing factor to the discord he creates in the lives of the women he forces himself upon, as well as his own, leading to his disgrace.

            David’s political and social values towards women are best highlighted through his relationship with his student, Melanie Isaacs. David translates her name as ‘the dark one’ (Disgrace 18), immediately adding a layer of prejudiced politics and discriminatory social values to his ‘affair’.  As mentioned above, David has grown up under the influence of the apartheid, which provides him with both an ‘excuse’ per se, and a motive, for the crime that he commits against Melanie. David views himself as ‘a servant of Eros’ (Disgrace 52), likening himself to romantic poet, Byron, with both men believing they had women throwing themselves at them in their ‘irresistible’ prime (PÁ¶lling-Vocke 5). David’s continued fascination and obsession with Melanie draws parallels with the only woman Byron claims to have felt real love for, with whom he also shared a scandal: his sister Augusta (PÁ¶lling-Vocke 5). Rosalind, David’s ex-wife speaks through the voice of the third-person narrator, describing their marriage as ‘passionate recrimination’, highlighting his history of misbehaviour, inappropriate conduct and inability to resist temptation. It is his nature of wrongdoing and his wish to be a Byronic hero juxtaposed with the ‘political impairment’ (Stratton 87) of growing up with an ideology influenced by apartheid that leads him towards Melanie. The influences of apartheid would have played a pivotal role in David’s view of black South Africans, whether he was aware or not, which can be used to explain why he was so dismissive of being interested in Amanda, another of his students. Amanda is described as having ‘wispy blonde’ hair (Disgrace 29), leading to the assumption she is white. David has ‘no interest’ (Disgrace 29) in Amanda as it would almost be ‘acceptable’ to have sex with her, whereas pursuing a black student is an exercise of ‘power and authority’ (Kossew 156). Stratton claims that this section of the narrative is a ‘trivialisation of questions concerning both racism and sexism in South Africa’ (87), however the novel explores both white dominance and the overcoming of white dominance (Boehmer 344), as will be discussed further on. Coetzee highlights more than just sexism and racism through David’s pursuit of Melanie, he exposes power operating at institutional level, with Rassool suggesting the disciplinary hearing could represent more than the history of white men exploiting black women and instead points to the abuses of power in academia being as old as the profession of teaching itself (quoted in Graham 438).

            It is a widely debated topic as to whether David’s sexual intercourse with Melanie is rape or not (Attwell 338; Boehmer 344; Graham 440; Kossew 158). David vocalises it was ‘not rape, not quite that but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core’ (Disgrace 25) through the third-person narrative. The troubling ambiguity is caused by the blurred line between ‘narrator and focaliser (generally David Lurie)’ (Attwell 334). McDunnah asserts that the reader accompanies a narrator ‘who is limited but not wholly unreliable’ (23) and gives examples of when one can read David’s observations as hopeful misreadings, such as Melanie’s smile described as ‘sly rather than shy’ (Disgrace 11); ‘evasive and perhaps even coquettish’ (12).  Again, David Lurie abuses his authority alongside the social power he feels automatically entitled to as a white male in a country torn by racial prejudice. Power in Disgrace is often shown in conjunction with the body and sexuality, as stated in Attwell’s edition of Coetzee’s essays and interviews, Doubling the Point (1992); ‘it is not possible to deny the authority of suffering and therefore of the body [”¦] for political reasons [”¦.] reasons of power [”¦] the suffering body takes this authority: that is its power’ (248). David sees women as property and asserts his power through using the silent ‘body of the women’ (Disgrace 110) as nothing more than a cheap thrill in which he is in full control.

            David Lurie begins the novel as a highly controversial protagonist who refuses to say sorry for his abuse of power. This changes as he loses authority after having sex with a student – his ‘disgrace’ - but also when he loses supremacy and control in a bodily sense. Later, upon being beaten and set alight by the three black men who gang rape his daughter, Lucy, David starts to view life in a different light and begins to humble himself through his relationship with his child. David’s relationship with Lucy is far from simplistic from the offset; instead of making him understand the opposite sex, his childhood ‘spent in a family of women [”¦] made him a lover of women, [”¦] a womanizer’ (Disgrace, 7), which tainted his bond with Lucy as he fears he gave her ‘too much love’ and he fears she gave it ‘a darker reading’ (Disgrace 76) too. This is one of David’s first repenting thoughts, relating back to his stream of consciousness when comforting a sobbing Melanie where he almost uttered ‘Tell Daddy what is wrong’ (Disgrace 26), crossing his sexual instincts with his fatherly intuition. David is unable to move on from his role as sole protector of Lucy, which is evident from the moment he arrives at her house in the Eastern Cape, as he struggles to stop old parenting habits ‘creeping back in’ (Disgrace 86). David’s original concern and social block in his father-daughter relationship is his pondering of her sexuality, suggesting Helen and Lucy ‘sleep together merely as children do [”¦] sisters more than lovers’, declaring ‘Sapphic love, an excuse for putting on weight’ (Disgrace 86). His inability to fathom the possibility of sexual connection and love being possible is also his inability to have an equal relationship with a woman - be it a prostitute, a student, or his own daughter. Lucy’s homosexuality in twentieth century South Africa would have resulted in her being considered ‘huntable’ (Disgrace 105), which Graham (439) believes ‘may have provoked her attackers’. The narrative speaks through David as it stresses ‘raping a lesbian worse than raping a virgin’ (Disgrace 105). Lucy is the only character to address David’s warped and disturbing egoism and sexism, suggesting ‘hating the woman makes sex more exciting’ (Disgrace 158) for men, referencing their ‘differences in gender and sexuality’ and therefore widening ‘the generation gulf between them’ (McDonald 323).

There are obvious yet unspoken parallels that run between David’s rape of Melanie and the gang rape of Lucy. Whilst unapologetic, David is aware that his actions towards Melanie were ‘debatable’ and admits his mistake to himself, yet he considers Lucy’s abuse of a higher severity and importance. It can’t be denied that in part, this will be because he is her father, and will naturally take her abuse personally, compared to a girl who was once a stranger to him. And true, that Lucy’s attack was one of ‘excessiveness and apparent gratuitousness to violence’ (Stratton 86) which also targeted David himself, but it cannot be ignored that part of his anger lies in his socio-political apartheid ideologies. Boehmer addresses Disgrace’s covering of both white dominance and the overcoming of white dominance being subject around the female body (344), leaning further towards the idea that Melanie’s attack was more acceptable as the victim was black. David himself views his daughter’s attack as a post-colonial consequence, explaining that the attack was not personal but merely ‘history speaking through them’ (Disgrace 156). Ever the sexist, David appears to overlook ‘the long history of female exploitation’ (Boehmer 344) as well as the eerily close verbal parallels between the two women’s attacks. As stated in Boehmer, Lucy (derived from the Latin Lucius, meaning ‘light’) refers to herself as a ‘dead person’ (Disgrace 161) after the rape, much like Melanie (as already mentioned ‘the dark one’) becomes as passive as the deceased as David forces himself upon her (Boehmer 344). David does not dismiss race in the assault of his daughter, insisting if they had been ‘white thugs’ (Disgrace 159) she would be less inclined to silence, showing his belief that black rape was more violent than white rape  (Attwell 337) and thus legitimising his own behaviour towards Melanie.

David’s acceptance of change in South Africa is what finally kick-starts his own identity change, as ‘the self that has inflicted suffering is broken down by [”¦] unintended participation in suffering’ (Boehmer 343). He asks himself ‘Do I have to change? Do I have to become [”¦] Bev Shaw?’ (Disgrace 126). His story conforms perfectly into Tvetan Torodov’s narrative theory, where a narrative begins with a sense of equilibrium, before an event occurs that disrupts the harmony, leading to an attempt to repair the damage before successfully instilling a new equilibrium. The above events examine the various features in David’s ‘disgrace’, or in other terms, his disequilibrium. He begins as a character with his identity grounded in past apartheid political ideology and a chauvinistic view of women, but begins to humble himself and find his new equilibrium through his relationship with Bev Shaw, and more specifically, the dogs he cares for and euthanizes. The dogs in Disgrace serve as a metaphorical device that exemplifies the development of several characters, including David. In South Africa, dogs were most commonly associated with white privilege, after being introduced by Europeans who brought them into the country allegedly for protection against blacks (PÁ¶lling-Vocke 5). David’s journey towards a man with no dignity or status, self-proclaimed as no better than a dog (Disgrace 205) begins by handling dog meat (77) and agreeing to help Bev Shaw in the animal refuge. Through his changing perception on dogs and animals more generally, David gains a renewed appreciation of his life and learns to love with his heart, not through power (Giles 5). The motif and significance of the dogs in David’s life mirror the significance of the countryside in his changing identity as he moves away from the place which cemented his ideologies and baited him with temptation. Giles points out that it is not at all obvious until David moves to his daughter’s smallholding that the novel is set in South Africa, other than the mention of Cape Town and Melanie’s play, set in Hillsbrow (11). David’s move to the countryside to run from his disgrace is what Coetzee depicts as the ‘problems confronting Europeans when they found themselves in terrain not lending itself to being picturesquely conceived’ (White Writing 37). David is wildly oblivious to the social change South Africa is facing until it is forced onto him in the attack, resulting in his ‘surrender of the self through empathy’ (Boehmer 346). 

Coetzee uses Disgrace to tell two racial stories; the story of the white characters and the story of the black characters. The comparison between Petrus, Lucy’s black assistant turned co-proprietor, and David Lurie is slightly subtler than that of Melanie and Lucy’s sexual assaults. Petrus is first described as the ‘gardener and dog-man’ (Disgrace 64) in his first conversation with David, automatically signally an inferiority, especially considering the role of dogs as protectors of the whites. Throughout the novel, Petrus gains more and more power as David loses his; Petrus gains more property and declares himself a dog man no more (Disgrace 129) and Lucy accepts his proposal to become his third wife (203). As Petrus’ power grows, so does David’s sympathy for animals, beginning with his compassion for the sheep waiting to be slaughtered for the party (Disgrace 123). This constitutes the start of the ‘narrative of bodily reduction and animal identification’ (Boehmer 347), which plays a vital role in David’s change of character. The reader never learns much about Petrus, other than what is learnt in contrast to David. He is an enigma, but one with ’supreme knowledge of this world, [”¦] unknowable because his position transcends the two others’ (Holland 398). However, Coetzee’s symbolism implies he is the future of the new South Africa through his name, Petrus, derived from  the Latin for ‘rock’ and thought to be the origins of the name Peter. Peter is commonly known as one of Christ’s disciples in the Bible and was known as the rock upon which the church was built (Matthew 16:18), signifying the beginning of post-apartheid South Africa and black power.

Nearly everyone in the book, including Lucy and her rapists, is described as a dog during the novel, focalised through the eyes of David. David’s admission to becoming ‘a dog-man:  dog undertaker; a dog psychopomp’ (Disgrace 146) shows the reader his loss of being heard, the loss of his voice. He describes Bev, the owner of the animal hospice, as ‘not a veterinarian but a priestess’ and compares her to the patron saint of dogs, St. Hubert. However as Giles notes, despite assigning Bev as St. Hubert, it is David who patterns himself after the saint (21); ‘having said farewell to the city [”¦] I find myself [”¦] doctoring dogs’ (Disgrace 91). As he learns empathy, the politics behind his identity changes, as he realises the dog’s suffering and places above his own, becoming increasingly concerned for the creatures’ welfare’s both dead and alive. Through what Herron (quoted in Giles 22) establishes as ‘becoming animal’, David discovers fulfilment through giving himself ‘to the world’, and transforms from a sexual predator, to an empathetic and sympathetic man.

It is through learning humanity and dignity as a ‘dog-man’ that David slowly repents the actions illustrated in the beginning of the novel. It is often stated that a person is who they are as a result of nature and nurture, and David’s upbringing in a society overshadowed by an apartheid ideology can go some way to explaining just why he saw no fault with his chauvinistic disregard of women, specifically women of colour. His ambivalence towards animals unknowingly changes his perceptions from an ‘abstract disapproval of cruelty to a personal commitment to the dogs and [”¦] his idea of the world’ (Kossew 160). It is through losing everything, and offering the very little he has left to give that David discovers a new kind of grace and takes strides towards repentance, a world he vastly denied existing at the tribunal. The socio-political backdrop for David’s identity has passed, and through learning compassion alongside man’s best friend, David also manages to put it in his past.

This article forms part of the SAHO and the University of York Partnership Project


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