Disgrace Summary

J. M. Coetzee


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Disgrace Summary

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Communications professor David Lurie works at Cape Town Technical University in South Africa. Though he prefers to teach literature, changing needs of the students and the university find him teaching “communication skills” courses. He’s been through two divorces, and is now estranged from his daughter, Lucy, resulting in his withdrawal from positive social interactions.

David regularly meets with a prostitute, Soraya, but when he attempts to push their relationship into something romantic, Soraya denies him. David deals with this rejection by seducing one of the secretaries at his school, but after this success, he ignores her.

Still facing sexual urges, David turns his attention to one of the students in his Romantic poetry class, Melanie Isaacs, whom he seduces after using his access to university records to stalk her. Though Melanie eventually gives in to David’s relentless and inappropriate pursuit, his obsession is obviously unhealthy. He repeatedly follows her, spies on her, and pressures her into sexual intercourse. Melanie is hesitant during their sexual encounters, and at one point, David uses alcohol and other actions to engage in an encounter that is not completely consensual.

After this rape, Melanie’s attendance in class begins to suffer. David becomes suspicious that the other students are aware of the affair. Melanie’s boyfriend confronts David, harasses him, and it’s implied that the boyfriend vandalizes David’s car.

Melanie’s father, Mr. Isaacs, confronts David, confirming David’s fears that the relationship is no longer a secret. David avoids Mr. Isaacs in order to avoid the confrontation, but Melanie soon files a sexual harassment suit against David.

Even this is not enough to spur David into reflecting upon his behavior. The university gives David an opportunity to seek counseling, apologize, and save his job, but he does none of that. The committee hearings looking into the sexual harassment charge play out like a court case, and eventually, David resigns his position at the university.

David heads to the farm owned by his daughter, Lucy. His time there begins to have a positive effect on him as he settles into the routines of farm life. He joins Lucy at the farmer’s market, and helps tend to the dogs she boards on the property. His positive momentum is disrupted, however, as the political climate in the country changes. Three men attack the farm, rape Lucy, set David on fire, and kill several of the dogs. The attackers steal David’s car and leave.

Lucy is deeply scarred, emotionally, from the attack, and she becomes lethargic as a result. Though David encourages her to make a full report to the police, she refuses. She has become pregnant by the attackers.

David suspects that one of the farm’s black workers was complicit in the attack, and when his suspicions are confirmed, Lucy again refuses to make appropriate reports. The worker is related to one of the attackers. Lucy, it seems, will be forced marry into her attacker’s family, giving over her farm. David believes Lucy has resigned herself to this outcome.

David leaves the farm and returns to his house in Cape Town. In his absence, someone has broken into the building. David tries to attend a theater performance in which Melanie has a part, but is harassed again by her boyfriend.

David goes to apologize to Melanie’s father. While there, David encounters Mr. Isaacs and Melanie’s younger sister. David is invited to stay for an awkward dinner. Mr, Isaacs explains to David that any forgiveness he could offer David is irrelevant. David must find his own redemption.

The end of the book finds David returning to Lucy’s farm. He works with one of Lucy’s friends who operates an animal shelter. When animals are euthanized, David’s job is to dispose of them. David protects one of the dogs, a tough stray, from being euthanized, but eventually relents and the dog is ultimately put down.

The novel is set in post-apartheid South Africa, and matters of race permeate all the characters’ lives. Lucy’s rape, her reaction to it, and the ultimate disposition of her farm are all a result of the apartheid.

Additionally, sex and sexual attraction fuel many of the characters’ decisions, especially the main character, David’s. His frequenting and ultimate obsession and refusal by a prostitute send his life into its downward spiral, and the way he plays the game of sexual conquest ruins his career. Sex is presented as a matter of conquest, and then ultimately, as a weapon, as Lucy’s rape is reflected in David’s rape of Melanie. In the end, these sexual encounters are statements of power, and the effects of the rapes serve to underline who has the power, who wants it, and how it can be wielded.

Disgrace won the Booker Prize after its publication in 1999, and four years later, Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.