David Lurie, a fifty two year old divorcee, was once a Professor of Modern Languages at Cape Town University but with the change of the times and administration, he is now Adjunct Professor of Communication. He is also limited in the courses he offers. Other than the mandatory Communication 101 and 201, he is allowed to offer only one elective or special-field course. This year he offers a course on Romantic poets. Lurie is apathetic toward the material he teaches and rarely engages his students. He no longer teachers out of passion or conviction but only to make a living. Over the past twenty-five years the professor has published three scholarly books on opera, the erotic nature of Richard of St. Victor's revelations, and Wordsworth's influence on history. Yet, his true desire is to write a chamber opera about love entitled Byron in Italy.
Every Thursday Lurie travels to a prominent gated community, enters a well-furnished apartment, and sleeps with Soraya, a prostitute that he chose from a catalogue at Discrete Escorts under the category of exotic. After Lurie unexpectedly sees Soraya in public with her children, Lurie becomes distracted during their lovemaking. Perhaps because she senses the awkwardness, Soraya announces that her mother is ill and so she can no longer see him. Lurie tries another prostitute also named "Soraya" but she is young and inexperienced. Having grown bored, he sleeps with a married secretary, Dawn; her enthusiasm in bed repels him and he makes sure to avoid her at work. Frustrated and even briefly but not seriously considering castration, Lurie calls Soraya at her home. She is horrified and demands that he never call her house. His response to her reaction is a cool observation, "What should a predator expect when he intrudes into the vixen's nest, into the home of her cubs?(10)."
Without his Thursdays with Soraya, Lurie is terribly bored until he spots a young student in his Romantics course. Melanie Isaacs is thin with dark eyes and hair and broad cheekbones. He first sees her by the college gardens and invites her to his house for a drink. Melanie is not an exceptional student and does not share his passion for Wordsworth or literature; she is a theater major and hopes to have a career in stagecraft and design. After dinner and a movie, Melanie inquires whether or not he is married. He replies he has been married twice and then proceeds to invite her to sleep with him. When she asks why. Lurie responds, "Because a woman's beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it (16)." She seems to be momentarily intrigued until he quotes Shakespeare. Melanie is turned off and makes an excuse to leave.
Instead of withdrawing his advances, Lurie pursues her more intensely. He looks into her records at the university to obtain her home address and telephone number, which he uses to invite her to lunch. Taken aback, she agrees but is clearly uncomfortable throughout the lunch date, not eating or talking much. They return to his house and have sex. She is passive throughout the act but he finds the act pleasurable and passes out on top of her. As soon as he awakes, she makes an excuse to leave. When Melanie comes to class the next day Wednesday, Lurie lectures on Wordsworth's Prelude. Melanie looks up from her book for the first time just as he is re-envisioning their sexual encounter; she at once understands and looks down.
Lurie continues his predatory behavior. He secretly watches her at a play rehearsal where Melanie is playing a hairdresser. The next afternoon, he goes to her apartment unannounced. He carries her to the bedroom even though she says that she doesn't want to have sex. Lurie says, "She does not resist. All she does is avert herself: avert her lips, avert her eye(25)." When it is over she asks him to leave because her cousin Pauline will be back soon. He watches her from his car and sees her immediately take a bath.
Melanie does not come to class for an entire week. She misses her mid-term and Lurie falsifies her record, giving her a C until she retakes the test. Sunday night, the next week, Melanie arrives at his door tired and disturbed, wanting a place to stay. He prepares his daughter's old room for her. Initially he is not prepared for the idea but after a little consideration likes the idea of having her available to him on a consistent basis. Yet, he is disturbed when she seems to be using the situation as leverage for her missing so many classes. The narrator says, "But if she has got away with much, he has got away with more; if she is behaving badly, he has behaved worse. To the extent that they are together, he is the one who leads, she the one that follows. Let him not forget that(28)."
They have sex one more time on his daughter's bed. A young man - Melanie's boyfriend - visits Lurie unexpectedly in his office that afternoon. He threatens Lurie with disclosure of the relationship. That night Lurie's car is vandalized and Melanie does not come to his house. Monday, Melanie reappears in class with her boyfriend. Ironically, Lurie scheduled lecture for that day happens to be Byron's "Lara," referencing Lucy. The class is unusually hushed. The boy answers a question about Lucifer with a knowing smirk saying, "He does what he feels like. He doesn't care if it's good or bad. He just does it(33)." After class Lurie speaks to Melanie in his office asking the boy to wait outside. He demands that she come to class more regularly and retake the test, all the while understanding her unspoken protest. When Melanie finally speaks, she does not commit to taking the test she missed and says that she has not read the material.
Even though Disgrace is written in third person, David Lurie's language, thoughts and perceptions dominate the text. Every character the reader experiences is filtered through Lurie. Yet access to Lurie's interior does not produce intimacy so much as it reveals his isolation. This is most apparent in his relationships with women. Within the first few chapters of the novel, the reader is introduced in detail to two of Lurie's lovers: Soraya and Melanie. These women vary in age, ethnicity, and education. The only thing they have in common, really, is Lurie-and his inability to connect with them.
Lurie's relationship with Soraya, the prostitute, is founded on money. The novel opens, "For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well (1)." His solution to his problem appears to be clear-cut, without any complications. However, as Lurie describes his relationship, we realize that the reason his relationships are so uncomplicated is that Lurie does not allow them to be. He keeps them strictly superficial. Soraya, for instance, is a complicated Muslim woman. Lurie, however, knows nothing at all about her. He does not know where she lives, whether or not she has children, how old she is, or even what her real name is. When Soraya claims to hate nude beaches and beggars, Lurie does not probe the inherent contradiction between her opinion and her occupation. Moreover, Lurie fails to act on his recognition of the injustice of Soraya's employment at Discreet Escorts. Lurie considers paying Soraya directly, cutting out the Escort service, but he dislikes the possibility of having to see her in the morning.
Lurie's relationship with Soraya epitomizes his brazen disregard for the law, societal rules, or ethics. It is utterly selfish. Therefore, it is not completely surprising when Lurie crosses another boundary and has another wholly selfish sexual relationship with a student. Coetzee suggests that his pursuit of Melanie is predatory in nature. He first sees Melanie in the University gardens, a metaphorically rich location connoting love, desire, and fertility. The garden also resonates with the Bible as the place where Eve was seduced by the serpent. At every turn, Lurie has reason to believe that his advances are inappropriate. He and Melanie don't even share interests. As they watch the Norman McLaren movie, Lurie wants Melanie to be "captivated," yet Melanie watches passively. She is passive, too, during sex. Lurie ignores every indication that Melanie is repulsed by him, instead choosing to interpret her behaviors though his own desires. For instance, when Lurie forces himself on her at her cousin's house, Lurie notices, "She does not resist. All she does is avert herself: avert her lips, avert her eyes...Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core (25)." Lurie thus equivocally justifies his action with slippery language. Melanie does not "resist" but rather "averts"; the act is not "rape" but "undesired to the core." He defines his act with his own language, never calling it what it is: rape. Lurie (and the reader along with him) is locked in his own utterly selfish hermeneutic of desire.