Disgrace – J.M. Coetzee


Honor in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace          


In his novels and other works, J. M. Coetzee concerns himself with, among other things, the question of evil, the nature and role of it in human life. Disgrace is no exception. In this novel, Coetzee explores the mind and experience of one Afrikaner man-David Lurie, a professor of the humanities-after the end of apartheid. Lurie, like all white South Africans, must accommodate himself to the changes taking place in his country, to the collective trauma of his world and worldview being so thoroughly overthrown by the enormity of the crimes committed to maintain Afrikaner cultural pride. While Lurie symbolizes the Afrikaner perpetrators of apartheid, he also commits his own human rights violations with a student with whom he becomes sexually entwined.

While Coetzee is known for works that interrogate themselves, offering no simple or singular meaning, I will present in this essay only one interpretation of Disgrace. I hope this interpretation will suggest something of the complexity and depth of the novel by teasing out Coetzee’s evaluation of the possibilities for and constraints on South Africa’s future. As this book illustrates some of the ways trauma can be used to tell a story, I must define trauma for the uninitiated before proceeding. Then I will explain Antjie Krog’s social analysis of South African culture and history, as this analysis provides the key to my interpretation of Coetzee’s novel.


Disgrace investigates the collective trauma of apartheid and its aftermath through the personal traumas of only a few characters. But what is trauma and how does it apply to an understanding of post-apartheid South Africa?

Esther Giller of the Sidran Foundation defines "psychological trauma" as

the unique individual experience of an event or enduring conditions, in which:

1. The individual’s ability to integrate his/her emotional experience is overwhelmed, or

2. The individual experiences (subjectively) a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity. (Pearlman & Saakvitne 60, as quoted in Giller)

As detailed below, David Lurie and his daughter, Lucy, each experiences such overwhelming events in Disgrace. While traumatic events can result in one of several different clinical conditions, Coetzee does not concern himself with clinical categories or therapies. Instead, as a novelist, he explores these psychological states through drama, plot and character.

Thematically, however, Coetzee addresses collective trauma. Kai Erickson suggests collective trauma differs from personal trauma by undoing the social fabric that provides group members with support and identity rather than attacking the members’ integrity directly. He describes collective trauma this way:

But it is a form of shock all the same, a gradual realization that community no longer exists as an effective source of support and that an important part of the self has disappeared. . . . "I" continue to exist, though damaged and maybe even permanently changed. "You" continue to exist, though distant and hard to relate to. But "we" no longer exist as a connected pair or as linked cells in a larger communal body. (Erickson 187, ellipses in original citation)

Trauma, then, is an event that threatens one’s identity, either directly by endangering one’s life or sanity, or indirectly by attacking the social and psychological strata that support and constitute one’s identity. Of course, trauma also refers to the psychological state that obtains from such an event.

In Country of My Skull, Antjie Krog relates a conversation with her brothers that illustrates how white South African culture has been traumatized by the dismantling of apartheid in just this way.

My brother shakes his head. "I don’t know. I become aware of things in myself that I never knew were in me . . ."

"Like what?"

"Like feeling daily how my family and I become brutalized . . . like knowing that I am able to kill someone with my bare hands . . . I am learning to fight, to kill, to hate. And we have nowhere to turn. Some years ago, we could pick up the phone and talk to the highest power in the country. Now my home town is run by a guy whose name I can’t even pronounce."

"Ja, but it was always like that for millions of black people."

"Exactly . . . I thought what was coming was a new dispensation for all . . . what I see now is that the brutalization of ordinary people that was previously confined to the townships is not disappearing, but instead spilling over the rest of the country." (Krog 17, ellipses in original)

This sense of helplessness amid the fracturing of society and the institutions that bind it serves as the backdrop for Disgrace, informing the events that transpire and the development of the characters that act within it.

Cultures of Honor

Country of My Skull depicts South Africa as a country defined by the conflict between what Krog calls cultures of shame, which are societies organized around codes of honor. These cultures of shame embrace two sets of values, two codes of conduct: one for kin within the group, another for those outside the group. Those who fail the group, by breaking the code of honor or exposing the group to dishonor, particularly if that failure is publicized, experience shame. Apartheid was such a culture of shame designed to secure and protect power for the Afrikaners, whose fragile honor and strident nationalism privileged Afrikaners above all others. In many ways, Mandela’s moral rhetoric aside, Africans overthrew apartheid by insisting upon and maintaining discipline within the resistance, by valuing ANC members and their loyalty at the expense of all others, including other Africans. In Krog’s view, then, all South Africans lived within honor-bound cultures of shame during apartheid. (Krog 344-5)

Krog argues that the promise of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission is to move South Africans from a culture of shame to a culture of guilt. A culture of guilt is a democracy where citizens stand equal before the law and bear personal responsibility for their actions. In such a culture, people who violate the rights of others feel guilt, regardless of whether or not their actions become known. (Krog 344-5) Although she does not think the TRC has fulfilled this promise by the end of her book, she continues to hold out this idea of a culture of guilt as the best prognosis for South Africa’s future.

In the pages ahead, I will employ this idea of competing, honor-bound tribes to interpret this novel by Coetzee. Then, I will contrast his presentation of conflict between cultures of shame with Krog’s idea of an emerging culture of guilt in South Africa.

Lurie’s Traumas

By coming to terms with multiple traumas, David Lurie learns the compassion and humility necessary for an Afrikaner of the old order to accept the changed circumstances of post-apartheid South Africa. The first traumatic event Lurie experiences is a board of inquiry into his sexual relationship with a student.

Much like the Truth & Reconciliation Commission requirement of "full disclosure," the board expects Lurie to recite the litany of his crimes, to state what he did, under what circumstances, and for what purpose. Board members suggest this is necessary in order for the community to heal, in order for the community to trust the institutions that serve it, in this case the university. But Lurie refuses to make even this concession to the legitimacy of the inquiry. Instead, he pleads guilty but makes no statement of contrition or explanation, which leads the board to impose the strongest sentence possible: dismissal with censure. Lurie accepts this sentence as his disgrace and retreats to his daughter’s farmhouse in the countryside. This event traumatizes Lurie by exposing him to public humiliation through the inquiry and attendant media coverage of his disgrace, and by stripping him of his livelihood and his identity as a scholar.

This board of inquiry clearly represents the Victims Commission of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. The board chairman is a distinguished professor of religion, just as Archbishop Desmond Tutu headed the TRC. As mentioned above, both bodies expect full disclosure and an expression of regret before they will recommend clemency or amnesty. When Lurie asks if an admission of wrongdoing, in addition to his standing guilty plea, will suffice, one board member, echoing the full-disclosure requirement, answers:

Professor Lurie must make his statement. Then we can decide whether to accept it in mitigation. We don’t negotiate first on what should be in his statement. The statement should come from him, in his own words. Then we can see if it comes from his heart. . . . We will see what attitude you express. We will see whether you express contrition. (Coetzee 54)

Lurie’s refusal to offer explanations or confessions, to enter into the proceedings in a spirit of contrition and reconciliation with the wider community, reflects not only his own personality but the attitude of the National Party, which instituted and ruled during apartheid. When the NP appeared before the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, it disavowed any knowledge of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the state during the years of apartheid, claiming the perpetrators acted alone and without authorization. This disavowal effectively undermined the process of reconciliation between the African and Afrikaner communities before it could even begin, just as Lurie’s lack of cooperation ruined any chances for peace rather than scandal at the university.

Lurie’s second trauma, more devastating for being physical in nature, occurs when two African men and a teen-aged boy attack Lurie, setting him on fire with grain alcohol, and assault and rape his daughter Lucy at her homestead. In this instance, Lurie’s trauma is two-fold: the direct trauma from being physically assaulted as well as the trauma of being a parent unable to protect his child. This second trauma completes the demolition of Lurie’s identity, including his basic sense of pride and competence to care for himself or his daughter, that began during the board of inquiry.

The events of yesterday have shocked him to the depths. The trembling, the weakness are only the first and most superficial signs of that shock. He has a sense that, inside him, a vital organ has been bruised, abused-perhaps even his heart. For the first time he has a taste of what it will be like to be an old man, tired to the bone, without hopes, without desires, indifferent to the future. . . . In a while the organism will repair itself, and I, the ghost within it, will be my old self again. But the truth, he knows, is otherwise. His pleasure in living has been snuffed out. Like a leaf on a stream, like a puffball on a breeze, he has begun to float toward his end. He sees it quite clearly, and it fills him with (the word will not go away) despair. (Coetzee 107-8)

As part of his rehabilitation, Lurie works at a local animal clinic, assisting however he can, but primarily with the humane euthanizing of unwanted animals and the ultimate disposal of their bodies. He even goes to the extreme measure of placing the bodies directly into the crematorium himself, to spare the dogs’ bodies the disrespect of being broken into smaller parts by the biological waste crews at the hospital where he deposits them. Lurie’s first genuine, unselfish feelings for a fellow creature, his first act of kindness toward another, are for these dogs and other animals whose transition from life to death he eases and honors.

Why has he taken on this job? . . . what do dogs know of honour and dishonour anyway?

For himself, then. For his idea of the world, a world in which men do not use shovels to beat corpses into a more convenient shape for processing. . . . Well, now he has become a dog-man: a dog undertaker; a dog psychopomp; a harijan.

Curious that a man as selfish as he should be offering himself to the service of dead dogs. There must be other, more productive ways of giving oneself to the world, or to an idea of the world. One could for instance work longer hours at the clinic. One could try to persuade the children at the dump not to fill their bodies with poisons. Even sitting down more purposefully with the Byron libretto might, at a pinch, be construed as a service to mankind.

But there are other people to do these things-the animal welfare thing, the social rehabilitation thing, even the Byron thing. He saves the honour of corpses because there is no one else stupid enough to do it. That is what he is becoming: stupid, daft, wrongheaded. (Coetzee 145-6)

This passage reflects his growing sense of his own inconsequence to the larger world, and a grudging admission that the things that matter to him, like the dignity of animal corpses, are increasingly anachronistic, unwelcome and unnecessary. This inconsequentiality of his values, of his honor, which has been a persistent lament of Lurie’s throughout the book, extends to all the values of the old South Africa, the values that sustained apartheid. And much like the National Party, he admits this only begrudgingly and hesitantly. This activity, then, this caring for animals, teaches Lurie compassion, as he expresses respect for a living creature other than himself, other than his own kind, his own tribe, and humility, as he begins to question his own relevance, his own importance to the world at large.


This opening of himself to other lives eventually brings him to two things: admitting responsibility and wrongdoing in his actions toward his student and her family, and accepting his daughter’s decision to remain in and accommodate herself fully to African dominance in South Africa.

While returning to Cape Town after Lucy has told him he cannot help her with her situation, Lurie stops in the hometown of his former student. He meets with her father but cannot bring himself to speak to the issue between them. The father invites him to dinner with the family, where Lurie finally manages to apologize to the father for what he has done. To which, the father replies:

But I say to myself, we are all sorry when we are found out. Then we are very sorry. The question is not, are we sorry? The question is, what lesson have we learned? The question is, what are we going to do now that we are sorry? . . . The question is, what does God want from you, besides being very sorry? (Coetzee 172)

Lurie responds:

In my own terms, I am being punished for what happened between myself and your daughter. I am sunk into a state of disgrace from which it will not be easy to lift myself. It is not a punishment I have refused. I do not murmur against it. On the contrary, I am living it out from day to day, trying to accept disgrace as my state of being. Is it enough for God, do you think, that I live in disgrace without term? (Coetzee 172)

Lurie then stumbles from the room to find his student’s mother. "With careful ceremony, he gets to his knees and touches his forehead to the floor." (Coetzee 173) He has literally prostrated himself before the mother, a humble act of contrition, of reconciliation. By admitting responsibility and performing even this symbolic act of contrition, Lurie completes what the National Party and Afrikaner leadership have failed to do for South Africa. Lurie’s success, then, serves to indict the old state system, and the National Party in particular, for their failure, particularly since Lurie has represented these institutions, and only acted as they have, up to this point in the novel.

Now we must turn to Lucy and her role in the novel. Her story centers around her desire to remain not simply in South Africa but specifically on this farmstead in the countryside. She has tied herself to the land and refuses to consider leaving it; she is South African and will pay whatever price necessary to live as one. Not even the assault and rape, nor her utter defenselessness in the face of any future such attacks, can dissuade her from her determination to stay. She tells her father, in reference to the attack and her attackers:

what if that is the price one has to pay for staying on? Perhaps that is how they look at it; perhaps that is how I should look at it too. They see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves. (Coetzee 158)

Lucy may truly believe one must suffer this tax, must experience this trauma, in order to be South African after apartheid, that the Africans paid their dues, suffered their trauma, during apartheid so now she must pay, endure, hers. By the end of the novel, after David has learned Lucy is pregnant by her attackers and will stay to raise the child, she agrees to sign ownership of her land over to the African man who has helped her tend it-Petrus-and to become, at least in name, his third wife in order to secure his protection from further assault. She wants him to accept the child she will bear as his family. She responds to Lurie’s disgust with this turn of events by detailing the requirements for whites to remain in South Africa:

Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity. (Coetzee 205)

Although Lurie finds this proposal of a union between Petrus and Lucy preposterous, he eventually acquiesces to it, thanks, I would argue, to the compassion and humility he has learned from his own disgrace and his works of kindness with dogs. Eventually, at the close of the novel, watching Lucy tend her flower garden, he recognizes the beauty of the simple life she has chosen, and accepts the essential peasant nature that unites her with her African neighbor Petrus. In essence, he finally accepts that Lucy is as much, if not more, of Petrus’ tribe as of his own.

Early in the novel, upon first meeting Petrus, Lurie describes him as a classic peasant, linked to the land he tends:

What appeals to him in Petrus is his face, his face and his hands. If there is such a thing as honest toil, then Petrus bears its marks. A man of patience, energy, resilience. A peasant, a paysan, a man of the country. A plotter and a schemer and no doubt a liar too, like peasants everywhere. Honest toil and honest cunning. (Coetzee 117)

Seeing Lucy with her flowers, he describes her similarly, if more lovingly:

She is wearing a pale summer dress, boots, and a wide straw hat. As she bends over, clipping or pruning or tying, he can see the milky, blue-veined skin and broad, vulnerable tendons of the backs of her knees: the least beautiful part of a woman’s body, the least expressive, and therefore perhaps the most endearing.

Lucy straightens up, stretches, bends down again. Field-labour; peasant tasks, immemorial. His daughter is becoming a peasant. (Coetzee 217)

Lucy, then, has become a peasant, literally joining herself to the fate of Africans. The child she will bear, of mixed heritage and raised on the land, symbolizes the future of South Africa. Through David and Lucy Lurie’s story, Coetzee suggests this is the only way forward for his country: the old must apologize and step aside, accepting whatever ways the young devise to bridge the divide between tribes and join with the African majority.

Contrasting Visions

In a fundamental way, Coetzee contradicts Krog’s prognosis for South Africa with this conclusion to Disgrace. While Krog hopes that all South Africans will abandon their tribal affiliations in favor of what she calls a culture of responsibility, Coetzee presents a South Africa where tribal affiliation and the culture of honor still holds sway. Still, Krog’s analysis of South Africa as one of competing cultures of honor has been very helpful in understanding Coetzee’s novel.

One example from the novel of the primacy of tribal honor occurs when Petrus learns that one of the perpetrators of the attack on Lucy and David is literally his kinsmen, a brother of his second wife. Petrus’ reaction is to point out how hard it is for him to keep the peace with David making accusations. When David protests that the police should handle this matter through the law, Petrus says the insurance company will pay him for the stolen car, besides the boy is too young to go to jail. Then he tells David that he will protect Lucy, that she is safe now. (Coetzee 137-9) This exchange shows how Petrus’ puts tribal loyalty above the rule of law, and by offering to protect Lucy in the future, he makes clear what replaces the law in his worldview-personal affiliation and honor (of kept promises) keep the peace.

Another example comes during the inquiry into Lurie’s sex scandal. All the men on the board keep coaxing and conciliating David, attempting to find a way to save him from dismissal, while the women members continually attack his evasiveness and undermine the efforts to draw him out. At one point when he’s being encouraged yet again to reconsider his attitude and strategy, Lurie says, "In this chorus of goodwill, I hear no female voice," only to be greeted by silence from the panel. (Coetzee 52) This passage shows how tribal loyalty can divide even a culture built on responsibility, as we might expect to exist between colleagues at a university. In this case, the room divided along gender lines, gender-based tribal affiliations, within the larger context of the university’s culture of responsibility. Tribal conflicts, then, exist everywhere, not simply in the old South Africa, but in liberal, democratic institutions as well, and loyalty in these contexts can be just as divisive and exacerbating as in any other.

In these examples, Coetzee depicts humanity as fundamentally divided along lines of tribal loyalty, with the delineation between tribes moving and changing depending on the particular context-a less optimistic but perhaps more steel-eyed view than Krog offers. Krog’s sole concession to this aspect of human nature, this reality of loyalty comes in one colleague’s reaction to her contrast between tribe-based, honor-bound societies and democratic, responsibility-based communities. He says:

Maybe the more interesting question is: If the definition of ‘us,’ of ‘the South African group,’ of ‘African,’ were to be changed to the extent that it now included you, wouldn’t you then move happily into the culture of honor and shame? . . . Because you want to be included in their circle-the circle of guilt." (Krog 344-5)

In effect, her colleague has pointed out that Krog desires what Lucy desires: to be considered first and foremost a South African rather than a Boer or Afrikaner or white, and to be adopted into some tribe ("the circle of guilt") that allows her to be just that. Coetzee, too, would consider the "circle of guilt" as just another tribe-just another arena for conflict between tribes-rather than a counterweight to tribal loyalty itself. In his presentation human beings always divide themselves into tribes, regardless of whether the overarching society defines itself as honor-bound or responsibility-based.

Interestingly, one can take Coetzee’s shifting-context view of tribal loyalty as optimistic in its own way. The fact that one’s tribal affiliation can mutate depending upon circumstances is precisely what opened the possibility of reconciliation between the Luries and Petrus in Disgrace. Petrus’ tribe now includes Lucy, and David recognizes her new affiliation while remaining loyal to her; in other words, both men express honor-bound strands of loyalty to her. Through this and other methods, such as the university board scene, Coetzee demonstrates how fluid a concept "tribe" can be, with people possessing membership in multiple tribes simultaneously, and how this web of affiliations can link people who would otherwise never find common ground, like Petrus and David Lurie. If this possibility of fluid tribal affiliation can work for the Luries, then perhaps, Coetzee suggests, it can effect reconciliation in South Africa as a whole.


Despite all this, the novel ends ambiguously. You don’t know if Petrus secretly approves of, or even planned, the efforts to drive out or punish the Luries. You don’t know if he’s accepted the proposal of union with Lucy. You might even question Lucy’s sanity for abiding these conditions and countenancing such a solution. This ambiguity does not invalidate the interpretation presented in this essay. They complicate it, as Coetzee surely intended. The novel offers this interpretation while leaving the reader with persistent doubts and lingering questions, or even entirely alternative interpretations, in order to elicit critical engagement with the issues from the reader. Coetzee’s other novels require similar work from the reader, and ambiguity appears to be central to his method and style.

Coetzee, through Disgrace, shows how this tendency in human nature toward tribal loyalty can both connect us and divide us. Early in the novel, during the inquiry and David’s first attempts to connect with Lucy, people’s affiliations only divide them, but then, as characters change and develop through the story, reconciliation based on widening tribal boundaries becomes a possibility. By employing trauma as a plot device, an impetus to character development, social commentary, a symbol and a theme, Coetzee tells the story of South Africa, a land torn by honor, and the story of David Lurie, a man of outdated principles, to show not only the possibilities for but also the constraints against reconciliation between the honor-bound tribes, black and white, of post-apartheid South Africa.




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