Disgrace Study Guide

In Disgrace (1999), J.M. Coetzee enters intimately into the mind of a twice-divorced academic, David Lurie, as he wrestles with the impediments that societal standards place on the fulfillment of his sexual desire. Fired from his position in Cape Town because of sexual misconduct with a student, the professor goes to live with his daughter, Lucy. Lurie, a specialist in Romantic literature, is catapulted into a rural South Africa much different from the scenes described in Wordsworth. Crime, poverty, and rape fill the landscape of Salem, and Lurie and his daughter must salvage what they can of their relationship after violence strikes.

As the winner of the Booker prize, Disgrace finds a honored place within the genre of post-apartheid literature. While both black and white authors, such as Nadine Gordimer, Alan Paton, and J.M Coetzee himself, played a major role in bringing apartheid to global attention decades earlier, many of these same authors were responsible for bringing global attention to the condition of South Africa after apartheid as well. What distinguishes post-apartheid literature from apartheid literature is primarily its thematic focus. Although race is a current throughout these works, post-apartheid literature foregrounds the themes of poverty, crime, bloodshed, homosexuality, and the AIDS epidemic. Although abroad Disgrace was applauded for its brutal honesty, South Africa's political realm was not as receptive. The book sparked debate in Parliament. Many members of the ruling party, the African National Congress, felt the book portrayed South Africa in too pessimistic a light.

Disgrace was written after 1995, when the new constitution for South Africa was passed. This constitution gave men and women equal rights. The constitution also gave equal rights regardless of sexual orientation (a fact very relevant to Lucy in the book). The African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party, was one of the most prominent anti-apartheid movements led by Nelson Mandela. In 1994, Mandela won by a landslide to become the first President of South Africa. Post-apartheid South Africa was by no means idyllic, however. Violence increased significantly in the country. Incidents of car jackings escalated, and many commercial farmers either emigrated or gave up farming because of violence committed against them. From 1989 to 1994 the murder rate doubled, and a young South African woman could be expected to be raped twice in her lifetime on average. The changing landscape encouraged many of the wealthier South Africans, particularly in Johannesburg, to move into gated communities.

Disgrace is unique stylistically because even though it is written by a third person narrator, David Lurie's point of view dominates the story. 'Free indirect discourse' and 'third person limited' are terms that describe this mode of writing. Coetzee decision to use this technique gives his audience access to not only Lurie's spoken words but also his unspoken thoughts. The reader becomes intimately familiar with Lurie's desires, passions, and discourse.

In fact, Lurie's discourse is distinctively academic in nature. David Lurie is a perpetually thinking character, living more in abstract thought than concrete experience. Disgrace's narrative style grows out of Lurie's studies in literature and language. Throughout the narrative, Coetzee inserts phrases in Afrikaans, Latin, German, Italian, and French into the text. David Lurie references romantic poets such as Byron and Wordsworth or Scarlatti's sonatas, Charles Dickens' novels, or Norman McLaren's films. David Lurie also pays close attention to language even in everyday conversation. Often in the novel, Lurie would linger over a word used by someone else or even himself delving into its context, connotation, or etymology. Lurie's language is just one symptom of his detachment from South African society. In the country, the people of the land (the majority) speak Xhosa, and Lurie's opera and philosophy does not matter. Yet his displacement began even before his exile to Salem, when Lurie, whose academic specialty is Romantic poetry, is reduced to a Communications professor who is allowed one elective course per semester on literature. Lurie is a man of exile. With two divorces behind him, Lurie at the age of fifty-two has not been able to sustain an intimate relationship. The relationships in the novel display this failure of intimacy. For instance, Soraya is a prostitute, Bev Shaw is a one-night stand, and Melanie is simply an average student with whom he does not even share the same passion for art and literature. Lurie's relationship with his daughter is his last chance to step outside of himself. Yet as violence enters their world, Coetzee leaves us to question whether even this relationship is salvageable.