Disgrace Themes

Animal Treatment

One of David Lurie's greatest transformations in the novel concerns his attitude towards animals. Initially, when he meets Bev Shaw, the owner of the animal shelter, he is repelled; she is not attractive and smells of the animals she works with all day. Reluctantly, he agrees to volunteer at the shelter as his daughter suggests. His experience assisting with the treatment and etherisation of animals changes his perspective. At one time convinced animals have no souls, Lurie is disturbed when two sheep he has become acquainted with are slaughtered for Petrus' party. By the end of the book, Lurie discovers his purpose in life is not to write a famous opera on Byron or even to be a animal rights advocate. He finds his purpose in the humble task of disposing of the dogs' bodies with dignity.

Fathers and Daughters

David Lurie and Lucy Lurie have a unique father-daughter relationship from the novel's beginning. Even though Lucy was raised in a home of two academics, she has chosen the life of a farmer. Her livelihood comes from the sale of flowers and vegetables and the housing of dogs on her farmland. As a white lesbian woman, she lives by herself in Salem, South Africa. Lurie on the other hand lives in Cape Town. His livelihood comes not from the work of his hands but from the generation of ideas. He has written three books and currently hopes to compose a opera about Byron. The two could not be more different, yet they both find themselves caught in devastation that forever changes their lives. Disgrace unites them. Lurie has been fired from his position as professor because of sexual misconduct with a student. Lucy has been raped by three Africans and must bear the shame and humilation the crime carries with it in her community.


Disgrace is set in post-apartheid South Africa. Even though apartheid has legally ended, its legacy still haunts the country. Robbery and vandalism frequent the countryside. Rape is a common occurrence. The outrage from a history of oppression and violence cannot be suppressed. J.M. Coetzee brings racial tensions to the forefront of the novel when David Lurie arrives in Salem. His daughter, Lucy, is one of the few white farmers remaining in the region. In the back of her property lives an African named Petrus who helps around the farm tending to the garden and helping with the farm. He is in a subservient position. The racial dynamics become more strained when Petrus is implicated in indirectly facilitating a robbery on her land. He disappears when three men attack and comes back with building supplies to renovate his new house. The division becomes clear when Lurie confronts Petrus. The end of the novel however does not allow for such a clear distinction when Lucy becomes pregnant with one of the robbers' children and thus becomes a part of Petrus' family, though unwillingly.


Lucy is raped by three men as they rob her house. The rape is a violent, hate-filled act. Although they are strangers, it is described as "personal." Lucy makes the critical decision not to report the rape because to her it is a private matter. She also realizes that in the context of modern South Africa, no true justice will be served. The rape forever changes her relationship with her father. There is now a clear division between men and women. Her father becomes one of them. Her father must stand on the outside as he watches his daughter go through the aftermath of fear and depression, unable to offer any comfort or solace.


As an ideal, justice is the standard by which one measures guilt and innocence. However in this novel, J.M. Coetzee explores the moral foundation on which justice depends. The university's investigation into the sexual harassment charges filed against Lurie is modeled after the criminal justice system. Throughout the hearing, guilt and confession are inextricably linked. Justice becomes a public act that is driven by guilt and shame. Lucy too finds herself struggling within the justice system. She decides not to report her rape in order to protect her privacy. However even with the charges of theft and robbery reported, justice is never served. The criminals are never prosecuted.

Geriatric Sexuality

At fifty-two, David Lurie is a sexually active man. He has been married twice and currently sleeps with a prostitute to fulfill his needs. The problem comes when Lurie crosses both departmental and generational boundaries and sleeps with his student. As a professor, it is against the University's code of conduct to sleep with a student. When Lurie crosses this boundary, he places the student in a difficult situation. Although she complies, his position of power gives Lurie an unfair advantage. The young student drops out of school and eventually files charges. Lurie is fired and publicly censured for his action when the student's boyfriend commands him to "stick to your own kind."