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The Development of the Character David Lurie in John Maxwell Coetzees Novel Disgrace.

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The Development of the Character David Lurie in John Maxwell Coetzee’s Novel Disgrace.

“All of Coetzee's writings are similar in that they often center on a solitary character. No direct moral is ever given, but rather situations are set up for the reader to think about. Coetzee’s aim is not to provide solutions, but to highlight problems and have the reader form their own conclusions.” (Price, Jonathan, the Postcolonial Studies Website, English Department, Emory University, 2000)

I could not agree more. J. M. Coetzee's main character David Lurie, in the novel “Disgrace”, is a complex character in a way that one does not know whether he is a bad person or a good person. One does not know whether one should sympathize with him or not. He is difficult to understand and one can interpret him in many ways.

At the beginning of the novel one learns that he is a man who has been divorced twice, and who has found pleasure in women his whole life. On chapter two, in the book, he states:

“Because a woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it”

When he begins an affair with his student Melanie, half his age, the pleasure he finds sharing her beauty, soon comes to lead to his personal downfall, his disgrace.

Lurie acknowledges his guilt before a Hearing, but is unwilling to express regret and consequently is dismissed from his position as Professor at the University in South Africa.

Disgraced, he “runs away” to his daughter Lucy, who lives on a farm in Eastern Cape.

Here, he helps by working on the farm and assisting at an animal welfare shelter. Keeping himself busy helps him to forget his disgrace. However, the disgrace comes up from the shadow, when Lucy and he are brutally attacked, and Lucy is raped by three men. Lucy’s disgrace over being raped becomes his disgrace.

He profoundly feels helpless that he could not save her, and angry that Lucy does not want to report her rape to the police. Somehow Lucy’s stubbornness metaphors his stubbornness to not acknowledge that what he did, sleeping with his student, was wrong and that he regrets it.

Lurie's downfall is complete after the rape and one can almost see the irony, that right after his manipulating and unequal affair, his daughter is raped. It is as an act of reprisal. He feels humiliated, first his professional prestige has been crushed, and now his Achilles’ heel, which is his daughter.

Further on in the novel, Lurie asks for pardon from Melanie’s father. The father tells him:

“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?”

Lurie replies:

“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.”

This demonstrates that he has at last accepted his disgrace and is prepared to live with it, as Lucy is trying to do when she decides that she must tolerate the humiliation and her disgrace to be able to live where she lives.

"Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept," she tells her father. "To start at ground level. With nothing ... No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity ... Like a dog."

In the end of "Disgrace," Lurie comes to the same solution. He gives up everything, more than a dog ever could. He gives up his daughter, his dream of the opera on Byron and even the dying animals he has learned to love without reservation, without thought for himself.

Primary source:

Coetzee, John M., Disgrace, Vintage Books, 2000.

Secondary sources:

Price, Jonathan, the Postcolonial Studies Website, English Department, Emory University, 2000


Bradshaw, Peter,  Disgrace, The Guardian, 2009.


Newman, Paul, Disgrace, Benang, and the Search for Benvolence, Journal of Australian Studies, 2005.


O’Hehir, Andrew, Disgrace, Salon, 1999


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