Disgrace: A Novel by J. M. Coetzee (New York: Viking, 1999. 224 pp)

John Maxwell (J. M.) Coetzee is a Nobel-Prize-winning author of South African descent. He attended St. Joseph’s College and later the University of Cape Town. He later earned a Ph.D. from the University of Texas. While working as an academic, Coetzee began writing novels. In his acclaimed literary career, Coetzee has won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, three CAN Prizes, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and became the first author to win two Man Booker Prizes.

Disgrace Defined Two Ways

Isn’t it funny how often people associate disgrace and shame with being caught in the act? It seems, often times, shame and sorrow proceed from the public revealing of a transgression, not from true remorse for a certain action. In a very real way, this sort of disgrace is hollow and unrewarding.

True disgrace, it seems, should occur not from being caught but from passivity—an event happening to you about which you have no power. When something shameful happens and you can’t control it, that event reaches the depths of sorrow.

I found the dichotomy between these two definitions front and center in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.

The Carnal Desires of Man

“For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well” (1).

David Laurie is a man of passion. A professor of romantic literature at a university in post-apartheid Cape Town, Laurie often submits to his carnal desires.

As the above quote implies, he’s certain of himself, his position, his charm. But oh how the mighty fall.

Photo by Tourist at Home

Laurie’s descent into disgrace begins on a sine qua non day on a walk through campus. He happens upon a student. She’s adequate, though quiet, in class but her looks are as stunning as the late evening sun.

Turning on the charm, Laurie commences his seduction. With ample amounts of power and a disposition for the romantic, Laurie soon conquers his student, engaging in adult relations.

Ravished by her beauty, David ignores his ethical code and sets aside reason. Soon after, news of the relationship spreads and scandal erupts. While damning, David only needs to issue a public apology, enroll in counseling—water under the bridge in the minds of university administration.

But, Laurie considers himself a man of principle—too old to change.

“’And are you so perfect that you can’t do with a little counseling?’
‘It reminds me too much of Mao’s China. Recantation, self-criticism, public apology. I’m old-fashioned, I would prefer simply to be put against a wall and shot. Have done with it’” (66).

To him, an apology and counseling equals guilt and admission of immoral activity; he would rather end his life. In an odd way, David thinks he possesses a moral right to enjoy the beauty of the opposite sex.

The Impact of Carnal Desires of Men

Unsurprisingly, Laurie’s brash behavior results in the termination of his academic position. With nothing better to do and a desire to avoid the scandal’s spotlight, David travels to the South African countryside to spend some time with his daughter, Lucy.

Living alone, Lucy farms and runs a dog inn. Seeing Lucy refreshes David.

“They walked back along an irrigation furrow. Lucy’s bare toes grip the red earth, leaving clear prints. A solid woman, embedded in her new life. Good! If this is to be what he leaves behind—then he does not have to be ashamed” (62).

The good times in the presence of his daughter soon turn ugly when some bandits rob Lucy’s house, assault David, and rape his daughter. The violence of the event—with no rhyme, reason, or motive—shakes father and daughter to the core. The countryside is ground zero for post-Apartheid aggression.

“A risk to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes. Not enough to go around, not enough cars, shoes, cigarettes. Too many people, too few things. What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day. That is the theory; hold to the theory and to the comforts of theory. Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant. That is how one must see life in this country: in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad. Cars, shoes; women too. There must be some niche in the system for women and what happens to them” (98).

Moreover, the disgrace Laurie felt during his university scandal pales in comparison to the disgrace of his daughter.

“She would rather hide her face, and he knows why. Because of the disgrace. Because of the shame. That is what their visitors have achieved; that is what they have done to this confident, modern young woman. Like a stain the story is spreading across the district. Not her story to spread but theirs: they are its owners. How they can put her in her place, how they showed her what a woman was for” (115).

Disgrace Experienced

Photo by Porsche Brosseau 

In comparison to what happened to his daughter, Laurie reveals himself to be selfish and self-destructive. He experiences disgrace for living under passion. His daughter encounters disgrace by having something extremely personal and sacred taken from her.

While both characters experience something we can define as “disgrace”, Lucy’s experience of disgrace is truer. David brought disgrace upon himself; Lucy found disgrace through sins against her.Coetzee’s prose in Disgrace is minimal but powerful. Disgracereads quickly but the content is heartbreaking and worthy of contemplation. How am I causing disgrace in other people’s lives? Am I more like David or Lucy? Such questions are painful but worth consideration.If you’re interested in a deep, thought provoking, and painful book, Disgrace is for you.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

Posted by: Donovan Richards
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