Main Themes in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace

I am spoilt for choice, having read so much over the last few years.

One novel lingers long in the back of my mind. I add it to a growing list of works I have encountered and which may someday be included in a literary canon reminiscent to the one drawn up by F R Leavis. Leavis’ list includes novels by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. It includes Crime and Punishment by Fydor Dostoyevsky, a favourite of the Nobel Prize-winning author, JM Coetzee whose own novel, Disgrace was awarded the coveted Man Booker Prize some years ago.

Both Dickens and Dostoyevsky were aware of the social problems faced by people during the Age of Enlightenment. New ideologies emerged and industrialisation firmly gripped divided societies. While Royal Houses prevailed over vast empires the gulf between affluent, educated classes and ignorant, uneducated masses grew.

charles dickens

Queen Victoria’s empire extended to Southern Africa and continued to grow and flourish well into the twentieth century. When King Edward passed away after two devastating World Wars, Britain lost its appetite for world dominance. While Ghandi led India to independence, the National Party of DF Malan began its implementation of formalised segregation. Verwoerd brought independence and allayed the fears and insecurities of the mainly Afrikaans-speaking white minority. They discriminatedly assumed power and patronage over the African majority, just as the British had done before them. Writers from Olive Schreiner, Alan Paton to Nadine Gordimer and Coetzee, were well aware of the devastating consequences of racial hatred and discrimination, brought about by years of colonialism over a diverse native population.

Since his first novel, Dusklands, JM Coetzee chooses to comment on the effects colonialism and discrimination have had on societies beyond South Africa’s borders, as the polarities between a powerful “I” and a powerless “other” exist worldwide. Coetzee’s Disgrace remains his most popular work of fiction. This is not surprising in light of the controversy it aroused amongst political hegemonies and literary society.


Much like the opening lines of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the opening lines to Disgrace are memorable;

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

To begin a story with sex as its subject matter is controversial and surprises even a reader familiar with Coetzee’s oevre. The element of surprise alongside media publicity given to Disgrace, arouses the reader’s expectations. Sex, however, is not a main theme in this novel. Neither is racism. They are sub-themes. It is the themes of alienation, power and post-colonialism that prevail in Disgrace.  I also propose intertextuality as a theme in this discourse. Significantly, ethics is the most important theme. It has been discussed widely as the body of literary criticism of Coetzee’s work expands.

Sex is a means to an end for the story’s protagonist, David Lurie. He is inadequate and powerless without sex. He is powerless in the changing landscape of South Africa. He rapes his Coloured student, Melanie Isaacs, while mourning  a diminishing appreciation for the Romantic era which yielded great literary works of art. He is no longer able to teach students about the Romantic poets, Byron in particular, whom he admires. When his daughter, Lucy, is raped by black youths on her small-holding in Salem in the Eastern Cape, Lurie is again powerless. He cannot stop their pillaging where rape has become a transaction. A setting right of what was wrong before. They are taking back what they believe is theirs. Lurie is dysfunctional in the new South Africa as he ponders what it means to be a good person. It is apt to a changing landscape, and the proposal of power and post-colonialism as two important themes in the narrative, and their submersion into the main theme of ethics;

“He has never been much of a teacher; in this transformed and, to his mind, emasculated institution of learning he is more out of place than ever.

“But then, so are other of his colleagues from the old days, burdened with upbringings inappropiate to the tasks they are set to perform; clerks in a post-religious age.

He continues to teach because it provides him with a livelihood; also because it teaches him humility, brings it home to him who he is in the world.”

The setting of Salem in the Eastern Cape and Lurie’s poet of choice is poignant. Lurie idolises Byron as he vainly tries to model his own life on that of Byron. Byron was an aristocrat, Lurie is merely a university professor who teaches communications. Salem was a sixteenth century puritanical American town where women, suspected of being witches, were superstitiously persecuted. It is on the shores of the Eastern Cape that the 1820 Settlers alighted after leaving England to settle in the Cape Colony.


At this point I wish to comment on the significance of intertextual references in Disgrace and how they correlate with the other themes in the story. Lurie compares himself to Flaubert’s Emma Bovary when contemplating his weakness of sexual infidelity. I have not extended my research to the criticism on the references to the myth of Adamastor that Andre Brink satirised in his The First Life of Adamastor. Melanie Isaacs, the student, is an enslaved “other”, while Lurie, her teacher, is emasculated after she takes corrective recourse in reporting his rape and violation of her person. When teaching his disinterested students, Lurie quotes the poet Wordsworth. He correctly remarks on “puritanical times” and significantly, he reads Byron’s letters of 1820, the same year in which the 1820 Settlers arrived in the Eastern Cape.

The violent actions of the black youths and Lucy’s acceptance of Petrus, initially her neighbour, then as “co-proprietor” and then as her black husband and custodian, are consequences of the long years of colonialism.

The issue of ethics as a major theme in Disgrace is observed in the treatment of animals, rather than humans. Perhaps reconciliation amongst humans is futile. Perhaps it is too late for humans to be transformed. Perhaps running from the past and securing one’s own livelihood is the only alternative. Lurie seems to think so as he pleads with his daughter to leave the country. His ex-wife, Rosalind, seems to think that it is hopeless. Lurie’s treatment and feelings toward incarcerated sheep – “A bond seems to have come into existence between himself and the two Persians, he does not know how” – and dead dogs represents a ground-breaking change in his life which he does not understand. His daughter, Lucy, seems to understand the necessary relationship with animals;

“…there is no higher life. This is the only life there is. Which we share with animals.”


It is a haunting passage which echoes Coetzee’s sentiment throughout his literary oevre. He stands alongside writers such as Albert Camus and Brink who appear to deny the existence of God. I recognise that Coetzee’s scholarship has few peers, but perhaps explanations of his ethics would be better served with more introspective studies of the great philosophical and religious works through the centuries that give vivid explanations and probable cause to the existence of God. I for one, however challenging the task may be, believe that it is possible in a future examination of Coetzee’s work.


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