Disgrace Study Guide


Disgrace by John Maxwell Coetzee

Disgrace is a novel by John Maxwell Coetzee about a South African professor and writer named David Lurie, who loses his job and dignity after refusing to apologize for an affair with a student. He goes to live with his daughter on a farm but, as soon as he begins to feel comfortable again, the farm is attacked, his daughter raped and he is assaulted. He remains on the farm to keep his daughter safe, disillusioned and unable to find redemption.

David Lurie is a South African professor of English who loses everything: his reputation, his job, his peace of mind, his dreams of artistic success, and finally even his ability to protect his own daughter. He is twice-divorced and dissatisfied with his job as a 'communications' lecturer, teaching one class in romantic literature at a technical university in Cape Town in post-apartheid South Africa. Lurie's sexual activities are all inherently risky. Before the sexual affair that will ruin him, he becomes attached to a prostitute and attempts to have a romantic relationship with her (despite her having a family), which she rebuffs. He then seduces a secretary at his university, only to completely ignore her afterwards. His "disgrace" comes when he seduces one of his more vulnerable students, a girl named Melanie Isaacs, plying her with alcohol and later, when she stops attending his class, falsifying her grades. Lurie refuses to stop the affair, even after being threatened by Melanie's erstwhile boyfriend, who knocks all the papers off Lurie's desk, and her father, who confronts him but whom David runs from. This affair is thereafter revealed to the school, amidst a climate of condemnation for his allegedly predatory acts, and a committee is convened to pass judgement on his actions. David refuses to read Melanie's statement, defend himself, or apologize in any sincere form and so is forced to resign from his post. Lurie is working on an opera concerning Lord Byron's final phase of life in Italy which mirrors his own life in that Byron is living a life of hedonism and excess and is having an affair with a married woman.

He is dismissed from his teaching position, after which he takes refuge on his lesbian daughter Lucy's farm in the Eastern Cape. For a time, his daughter's influence and natural rhythms of the farm promise to harmonise his discordant life, for example, in attending farmers markets where Lucy sells her wares, and in working with Petrus, a polygamously-married black African whose farm borders Lucy's and who nominally works for Lucy as a "dog-man" (Lucy boards dogs). But the balance of power in the country is shifting. Shortly after becoming comfortable with rural life, he is forced to come to terms with the aftermath of an attack on the farm. Three men, who claim to need Lucy's phone to call for aid for a sick sister, force their way into the farmhouse. The men are armed with firearms, rape Lucy, and attempt to kill David by setting him on fire. In addition to these actions, they also shoot a collection of caged dogs which Lucy is boarding, in an action which David later muses was done since black people in South Africa are taught to fear dogs as symbols of white power and oppression. The men drive off in David's car: it is never recovered and they are never caught, although police once contact David to come pick up "his" car, which is in fact evidently not his car (different colour and registration number). Newspapers spell Lurie's name inaccurately ("Lourie"), meaning nothing will tie his persona of disgraced academic to the attack.

Lucy becomes apathetic and agoraphobic after the attack. David presses her to report the full circumstances to the police, but she does not. She has become pregnant by one of the rapists, but ignores advice to terminate the pregnancy. She does not want to, and in fact does not, discuss the attack with David until much later. Meanwhile, David suspects Petrus of orchestrating the attack. This suspicion is apparently confirmed when one of the attackers, a young man named Pollux, attends one of Petrus's parties and is claimed by Petrus as a kinsman. Pollux ultimately comes to live with Petrus, and spies on Lucy bathing. When David catches Pollux doing this, Lucy forces David to desist from any retribution. David surmises that ultimately, Lucy will be forced into marrying Petrus and giving him her land, and it appears that Lucy is resigned to this contingency.

Returning home to his house in Cape Town, David finds that his house has been broken into in his long absence, by either looters or students protesting his affair with Melanie. Either way, his house is in shambles. He attempts to attend a theatre performance starring Melanie, but is harassed into leaving by the same boyfriend who had earlier threatened him. He also attempts to apologize to Melanie's father, leading to an awkward meeting with Melanie's little sister, and Melanie's father, who insists he stay for dinner. Melanie's father insists that his forgiveness is irrelevant: Lurie must follow his own path to redemption.

At novel's end, Lurie has returned to Lucy's farm. He works with Bev Shaw, a friend of Lucy's, who keeps an animal shelter and who frequently has to euthanize animals, which David then disposes of. Shaw has earlier had an affair with Lurie, despite David finding her physically unattractive. Lurie has been keeping a resilient stray from being euthanized, but at the end of the novel "gives him up" to Bev Shaw's euthanasia.

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