J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. A Realistic Criticism of ‘New’ South-Africa?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

18 Pages, Grade: 1,0

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1. Introduction: A troubled novel

2. Why realism?
2.1 Coetzee, realism and resistance writing
2.2 The fictional mode of Disgrace

3. Lurie’s non-confessions
3.1 The hearing at the university
3.2 The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)
3.3 The apology to Melanie’s father

4. The rape of Lucy
4.1. The deceptively idyllic rural life
4.2 The multiple juxtaposition of Lurie and Lucy
4.3 Possible explanations for Lucy’s behavior

5. Further criticisms
5.1 Retribution and redistribution
5.2 Rationalization

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction: A troubled novel

Ever since its publication in 1999, J.M. Coetzee’s award-winning novel Disgrace has stirred up a lot of controversy. Some praise it for “unblinkingly depicting the lack of progress South Africa has made towards its declared goal of a non-racial, non-sexist democracy” (Attridge 2002, 317), others criticize it harshly “for painting a one-sidedly negative picture of post-apartheid South Africa” (ibid.). Its negative depiction of blacks has been seen as an endorsement of white racist stereotypes. The most drastic attack on Disgrace was the submission to the United Nations as a typical example of white racism in South Africa.1

While the public reception might have been problematic, the reaction among literary critics has been positive. The sheer amount of research to date shows that Coetzee certainly knows how to appeal to his peers. The editorial to a symposium dedicated to Disgrace puts it like this: “Not since the aftermath of an earlier metatext by Coetzee, Foe, have we seen such multiples of invested, engaged and argumentative critical writing about a South African author” (Editorial of Scrutiny2 2002, 3). An “extraordinary number” of critics have dealt with this novel (Attridge 2002, 316), analyzing numerous aspects of it. In this paper, I want to cover two of them in particular.

First, I want to analyze the degree of realism in Disgrace. Before the end of the Apartheid-era in 1994, all of Coetzee’s novels were located in a remote setting,2 alluding to the events in South Africa but never striking at their core. In contrast, Disgrace, written after the dismantling of Apartheid, is set against an apparently realistic background. Has realism really found its way into Coetzee’s writing, and if that is the case, what were the reasons for this change?

This leads me to the second aspect. Over the years, Coetzee has often openly criticized the repressive system. One would assume that his opinion of South Africa would have improved with the changes in 1994 as a brighter future seemed ahead. In 1999, his portrayal of South Africa is grim and deeply troubling.

In this sense, Disgrace can be read as a criticism of `New` South Africa.3 I will try to highlight this aspect by analyzing Lurie’s non-confessions and the rape of Lucy as well as further criticisms.4

2. Why realism?

2.1 Coetzee, realism and resistance writing

According to Gareth Cornwell, literary realism “reflects the worldly contingency of ideas, dramatizing the contexts in which the ideas acquire meaning” (Cornwell 2002, 308). It is a direct connection between the words on a page and the things to which they refer. But the reader should not rely on this direct relationship anymore, as modern literary approaches have changed it drastically: “Modernist experimentation […] has permanently destabilized the code on which literary realism depended for the authority of its representations” (ibid. 309), in Coetzee’s own words turning the dictionary into “just one code- book among many” (quoted from ibid.).5

Coetzee himself has always tried to undermine “the illusion of reality that storytelling seeks to establish” (ibid., 307), asking himself “whether it isn’t simply that vast and wholly ideological super-structure constituted by publishing, reviewing and criticism that is forcing on me the fate of being a ‘South African novelist’” (Attridge 2000, 99). Seeing realism as a limitation, Coetzee tried to free his novels from the immediate background of Apartheid.6 This forced detachment created tension, as Coetzee “cannot avoid having to deal with his national situation. Every attempt to hold South Africa at arm’s length […] simply confirms the intensity and the necessity of his struggle” (Attwell in Horstmann 2005, 31). Bearing Coetzee’s skepticism in mind, the verisimilitude of Disgrace deserves a closer look.

2.2 The fictional mode of Disgrace

The majority of South African writers are rather conventional in their style, whereas Coetzee has always been trying to implement (post-)modern elements into his writing. He deploys various literary means in order to avoid crude realism, such as the discontinuity of place and time, a psychoanalytical approach or intertextuality (Mennecke 1991, 8f). In Disgrace, this is not so evident. The locations are real, the time is identifiable and the novel is written in his “trademark” present tense, so the “representational mode […] appears to be conventionally realist” (Cornwell 2002, 312). What are the reasons for this change?

This question is essential in regard of Disgrace raising awareness for problems in current South Africa, and Cornwell gives the following as an answer:

He is writing in a society in which meaning has been restored to the activity of the writer, or rather, perhaps a society in which, now that all voices are permitted to be heard, all are equally authorized to create meaning. In such a context, Disgrace seems to me to represent a deeply serious ethical gesture, […] exposing [the] readers […] to a radically different ethical perspective on situations and events with which they are all too familiar (ibid., 313, my italics).

This sounds indeed like a critical, realistic perspective. However, that is not to mean that a political background has entered his writing only in Disgrace. While he may be no “resistance writer” (Attridge 2000, 99), Coetzee has always been a political writer. Under the changed sociopolitical circumstances, he simply felt that a different, more realistic literary mode would suit his concerns better. But in spite of the newfound realism, his radically different ethical perspective remains morally ambiguous. This ambiguity is personified by the character of David Lurie, the focalizer. With the use of a limited omniscient narration (Longmuir 2007, 119), Coetzee requires the reader to “counterfocalize” (ibid.), therefore critically questioning Lurie’s narration. Reluctant as Coetzee is to “assign easy ethical labels” (Kossew 2003, 159), he is yet to give easy political statements.

3. Lurie’s non-confessions

3.1 The hearing at the university

David Lurie, 52-years old, divorced and professor of communications at a university in Cape Town, sees himself as an old-fashioned womanizer in the vein of Byron. He lives out his temperaments with a prostitute, Soraya. The dark color of her skin is not the only feature she shares with his next conquest, Melanie, one of his students: They both fulfill his bodily needs, which he returns with money and grades respectively.7 Although he thinks that he has “solved the problem of sex rather well” (1),8 his liaison with Melanie has negative repercussions. A scandal ensues, gaining momentum day-by-day. Her father comes into his office, appalled by the behavior of somebody who should have taken care of his child. After the official complaint word spreads, finding its way into the local newspaper. Lurie is called into the Vice-Rector’s office. As he refuses both legal advice and counseling, a hearing is instigated in order to decide on his future at the university. In front of the committee, his attitude is not what one would call submissive. Confronted with the charges, he pleads guilty at once and invites the jury to “pass sentence, and let us get on with our lives” (48). This joviality is not mutual and his “subtle mockery” (50) is not what they are looking for: a full confession and public repentance. Lurie does not take their request seriously and offers to “shed tears of contrition” (52). As a “servant of Eros” (ibid.) he shows no trace of guilt, not willing to provide more than a simple admission that he was wrong.

One of the last comments by the committee puts the entire situation into a different perspective, mentioning “the long history of exploitation of which this is part” (53, my italics). Considering the colonial background of male and white subjugation, the hearing is not an isolated episode. It is the crucial part of a “teasing conjunction of non-confession […] and post-apartheid catharsis” (Boehmer 2006, 135), suggesting a strong parallel with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

3.2 The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)

Echoing the situation in post-WW2 Germany, the end of the Apartheid called for a means of finding its perpetrators and helping the victims. (Van der Elst 2006, 40). For this purpose, the TRC was installed under the leadership of Desmond Tutu. The problem it had to solve collectively was similar to the individual one in Disgrace: How do we achieve moral cleansing?


1 The African National Congress, the leading political party, submitted Disgrace to an

investigation of the Human Rights Commission about racism in the media (Jolly 2006, 149).

2 Age of Iron (1990) is also set in South Africa at the time of its composition, but the presence of the “obtrusively symbolic” character Vercueil “de-realizes” the narration (Cornwell 2002, 312).

3 “‘New’ South Africa” as in the ethnically diverse South African democracy after 1994 (also called ‘Rainbow Nation’).

4 I leave out the role of animals in Disgrace and its implications only for reasons of space. While its consideration would certainly have been interesting, its omission does not affect the main conclusions I draw in any way.

5 As verbalized by Lurie: “The language he [Petrus] draws on with such aplomb is […] tired, friable, eaten from the inside as if by termites. Only the monosyllables can still be relied on, and not even all of them. What is to be done? […] Nothing short of starting all over again with the ABC. By the time the big words come back reconstructed, purified fit to be trusted once more, he will long be dead” (Disgrace, 129, my italics).

6 In contrast to fellow South African writer André Brink, who firmly believed that literature has a “regenerative social influence” (Van Collar 2006, 26).

7 Did Lurie rape Melanie? Probably not. Although the act is described as “undesired” (25), she “even helps him” and even comes back to Lurie later. Bearing the power politics between student and professor in mind, I will leave it at “rape”. Lucy Graham would be disappointed by my interpretation (Graham 2002, 13), but I disagree with her accusations against Lurie.

8 All references without further context are in Disgrace1999 2000.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. A Realistic Criticism of ‘New’ South-Africa?
LMU Munich  (Englische Philologie)
Proseminar Postcolonial Literature
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coetzee, south africa, realism, racism, disgrace, apartheid, rape, modernism, lurie, novel
Quote paper
Niklas Manhart (Author), 2007, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. A Realistic Criticism of ‘New’ South-Africa?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/188993


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