J.M. Coetzee

Elizabeth Costello

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Elizabeth Costello Summary

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In J. M. Coatzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello (2003), the eponymous main character is an Australian author whose writing has gained some notoriety. She is the mother of two and twice divorced. The character appears in several of Coatzee’s works, including The Lives of Animals and Slow Man.

Writing is Elizabeth’s passion, and at the beginning of the novel, she is on the brink of receiving a literary award that brings with it both prestige and cash. When she accepts the award, her speech centers on a Kafka story about an ape speaking to an academic audience. The crowd applauds her speech even though they’re not entirely certain what to make of it. Elizabeth’s son, John, travels with her and is also present at this award ceremony.

When Elizabeth is asked to lecture on the contemporary novel aboard a cruise ship, she runs into Emmanuel Ergudu. Emmanuel, also a writer, was once Elizabeth’s lover. He’s aboard the ship to lecture too. Emmanuel tells Elizabeth about African writers and the difficulty they have getting readers in the Western world to connect with their works. Elizabeth doesn’t think that African writers need to reach a Western audience and tells Emmanuel that they should focus on reaching an African audience. According to Elizabeth, writers write for the audience they belong to.

It’s not long before Elizabeth is asked to speak publicly again. This time, she draws a comparison between the Holocaust and the slaughter of animals. Her audience is shocked, but Elizabeth is able to shift gears to talk about how poets view animals. Her own opinion of the topic causes confusion not only for her audience, but also for herself.

After twelve years pass, Elizabeth takes a break from public speaking to visit her sister Blanche, a nun who lives in Africa. Their visit isn’t a smooth one, and the sisters argue. Blanche favors the church and its dogma over academic teachings, particularly the humanities. Elizabeth, on the other hand, prefers the humanities and defends those subjects as well as the Ancient Greeks. Ultimately, they agree to disagree, recognizing that due to their chosen careers, neither will change the other’s mind. But when she returns home, Elizabeth can’t forget the discussion she had with Blanche.

She decides to write to her sister, defending the humanities and citing what they can teach people. She writes about a time when she sat for a painter. It’s only after she sends the letter that Elizabeth remembers more details of the story. Not only did she sit for the painter, but she posed partially nude at his nursing home so he could paint her.

Elizabeth returns to the lecture circuit; the book is structured around these talks. This time, she’s been invited to speak on the subject of evil. She prepares to talk about Paul West, who has researched and written about men who had planned to assassinate Adolf Hitler but were executed before they could complete the deed. Elizabeth speaks about how she disapproves of West’s work because it welcomed darkness into his own life. As it happens, West is scheduled to speak at the same conference, so Elizabeth wonders whether she should cite someone else’s work instead of his.

Rather than change tack, Elizabeth decides to confront West. She tells him ahead of time that his book will be the subject of her presentation. Then, she launches into her memories as she recalls the first time she encountered evil, when a man viciously beat her and set her clothes on fire.

Elizabeth thinks about how immortals and mortals interact and have liaisons with one another. She finds herself in something akin to purgatory. In order to pass through the gate, she must defend her beliefs. However, because she doesn’t know what she believes, she’s stuck. She’s sent to a dormitory where she must prepare a statement for a hearing. She fails the first time and so she must try once more. The novel ends before Elizabeth learns the results of her second hearing.

John Maxwell (J. M.) Coatzee has won a number of prestigious literary awards, including the Booker prize (in 1983 and in 1999), the Nobel Prize in Literature, The Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and the Prix Femina étranger. Coatzee’s philosophical focus is on South Africa, politics, law, animals, and the South. The latter doesn’t just encompass South Africa or South America. Rather, it includes anywhere considered to be south, such as Australia. One of Coatzee’s well-known research projects, Other Worlds: Forms of World Literature, focuses on this theme.