J.M Coetzee’s “Disgrace” – Differing Reactions Lead to Differing Disgraces

Traumatic events yield differing responses from different people. J.M. Coetzee’s characters David and Lucy from his novel Disgrace are not alone in that their responses to the brutal and life-changing attack leaves them altered in their own unique ways. These differing responses of David and Lucy push the reader to ponder and inquire further into their characters. This attack leaves David, the once overly selfish aging man, a newly reinvigorated yet helplessman who for once has a sense of conviction in his sentiments of paternal protection. Lucy, however, finds a newfound silence and an irrational sense of rootedness in the land.

Professor David Lurie is introduced to the reader in the midst of activities with a prostitute and at the beginnings of an affair with one of his students. Immediately, from a basic sense of contemporary societal understandings, the reader develops a somewhat negative idea of David. It is not until David is caught in his affair with the student that the reader garners a better understanding of his stubbornness and selfishness. Before the hearing, David seeks counsel from a lawyer friend and is confronted with the idea that “one of the options offered to …[him]… might be counseling” (Coetzee 43). A confused and somewhat offended Lurie responds, “To fix me? To cure me? To cure me of inappropriate desires?” (Coetzee 43). David feels content in his actions, however during this affair with his student he describes his actions as “Not rape, not quite, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core” (Coetzee 25). From that statement alone, the reader understands full well that David understands what he is doing. He, even a few lines below that previous statement, states that it is “A mistake. A huge mistake” (Coetzee 25). The issue for the reader here is why Lurie understands and admits to his wrongdoing, but yet declines and shows no openness toward counseling, or openness to the acceptance of his actions during his hearing. The hearing put on by Lurie’s university as an inquisition into the allegations at hand and only serves as a public exhibition for how content Lurie is in his actions. David refuses to clarify what he states he is guilty of, but rather that he is guilty of whatever the girl alleges and false documentation. The reader is puzzled by David’s sort of blasé and evasive attitude. David proves an extremely strong-willed and content man that has accepted the workings of life and who has resigned himself to the realities of a new chapter in his life. It is extremely necessary to gather an understanding of both David and Lucy before the life-changing attack took place, in order to truly and adequately analyze their responses.

David’s daughter, Lucy, is described as in some way being everything David is not. Lucy is a lesbian and former commune hippie who has chosen to live on a farm and off of the land, rather than follow in father’s footsteps. Farming and raising dogs is the life that Lucy has adopted in the South African rural lands. This brief and surface-level introduction already lends the reader the knowledge that David and Lucy value different things in life. Now, logically, it would seem to the reader that going through a horrendously traumatic event, such as the attack on David and Lucy where he is beaten and burned, her dogs are murdered, she is robbed, and three men rape her, might result in one of two things. First, this experience might bring David and Lucy together. Second, the experience might draw them apart. The latter is true.

The most telling and illuminating piece of the novel in relation to David and Lucy’s response to the attack is the large conversation that takes place between them later in the novel. There is more weight and is it more pivotal in the broader sense of the novel, because Lucy becomes no longer removed, quiet, or seemingly unreachable. David tries to communicate with her, but it never seemed to permeate her new shell, until now. This conversation in discussion is the point when both David and Lucy open up and discuss what has been weighing on them.

David begins the conversation by urging Lucy to leave this land, he tells Lucy to, “Go overseas. Go to Holland. I’ll pay” (Coetzee 157). Still Lucy remains adamant about staying on the land, she replies, “Thank you for your offer, but it won’t work. There is nothing you can suggest that I haven’t been through a hundred times” (Coetzee 157). Lucy’s vagueness leaves the reader wanting, wanting of an explanation. Throughout the novel, Lucy’s rational for staying on at the farm and not leaving is never produced. This lack of reasoning frustrates the reader in her character. Lucy goes on to tell David that, “There are things you just don’t understand” (Coetzee 157). This is perplexing, because David was indeed within the very house during the attack and for him not to understand something, given the fact that he was present, is somewhat confusing. Lucy tells him that he “doesn’t understand what happened to …[her]… that day” (Coetzee 157). Lucy continues stating to David that, “You are concerned for my sake, which I appreciate, you think you understand, but … you don’t . Because you can’t” (Coetzee 157). This victimization psychology lends the reader somewhat of a lens for which to look at Lucy. Yes, to understand rape the way in which she does now for David is impossible. However, to understand the heinous nature of the incident and know that his daughter is unsafe every second of everyday in the environment in which she lives is quite easily comprehendible. David attempts to rebut Lucy’s accusation of his failure to comprehend what has happened to her. David says, “I will pronounce the word we have avoided hitherto. You were raped. Multiply. By three men” (Coetzee 157). Lucy concedes the point, and David continues to lay out the fact that she was afraid, afraid they would dispatch her after her use has dried up (Coetzee 157). David finally comes to the conclusion that Lucy is upset that he, her father, her protector, failed to save her from this experience, these men, and these memories (Coetzee 157). This is a logical conclusion from a father who has been dealing with a distant daughter and is indeed what the reader might adopt as a reason behind her removed personality of late as well. However, this is not true.

Lucy affirms in David that it was not his fault and that he could not have done anything, especially if they had come during a time when he did not happen to be there (Coetzee 158). Here, Lucy changes gears to bring into discussion the main explanatory evidence behind her flawed rational for staying on the farm. She says, “I think they have done this before… I think they are rapists first and foremost. Stealing is just incidental. …I think they do rape” (Coetzee 158). David surmises that if they are rapists, they know where she lives, and are still on the loose, then they might come back. Lucy says that, “I think I am in their territory. They have marked me. They will comeback for me” (Coetzee 158). If a gang of rapists mark one as a target, as their property, that would make an overwhelming argument to leave “their territory” and make one’s self safe again. David understands this statement, he responds by telling Lucy, “Then you can’t possibly stay” (Coetzee 158). This sparks Lucy into a polemic-like response on post-apartheid life in South Africa. Lucy goes off saying,

“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 her without paying?” (Coetzee 158).

Even with this knowledge, or philosophy behind the rapists’ motives, what reason does that give one to stay? How, in any way, is that “price” acceptable? This issue is one that perplexes the reader most throughout the entire novel. Why someone would submit to this type of life is befuddling and inconceivable.

The conversation continues as Lucy attempts to illuminate for David why these rapists do the things they do. Lucy goes into another polemic,

“Maybe, for men, hating the woman makes having sex with someone more exciting. You are a man, you ought to know. When you have sex with someone strange – when you trap her, hold her down, get her under you, put all your weight on her – isn’t it a bit like killing? Pushing the knife in; exiting afterwards, leaving the body behind covered in blood – doesn’t it feel like murder, like getting away with murder?” (Coetzee 158).

It does not make sense for Lucy to make these claims about men and sex. It is understandable for her to attempt to rationalize her rapists’ actions, yes, but this polemic seems more like a release of anger towards not only men, but men that use women. It just so happens that her father, David, is one of those men that, as was proved earlier, enjoys women, arguably to a fault. Additionally, this animosity might not only be derived from the base negative effects of rape as an experience, but more so from the fact that she is a lesbian. Earlier in the novel after the attack David states that “Raping a lesbian is worse than raping a virgin: more of a blow” (Coetzee 105). Intuitively, this makes sense, not only is rape a violation of body, but in Lucy’s case it is a violation of sexuality. As this analysis progresses it is becoming more and more evident that the attack on Lucy, in particular, we especially egregious. It was an attack on her entire being, sexuality, home, passion, and future happiness.

At this point, David and Lucy arrive at a point in the conversation where David has reduced Lucy’s semi-convoluted responses and simplified them down to Lucy feeling like these men want her “for their slave” (Coetzee 159). Lucy corrects David and says that she is not discussing slavery, but rather “Subjection. Subjugation” (Coetzee 159). It is absolutely astonishing Lucy’s submission to these rapists’ terrorism. However, it might be true that she sees leaving as submission in another form. It is unclear. The lack of clarity is the main issue of the novel and one that makes it as provocative as it is.

An attack like the one had on David in Lucy is one that tests the limits of human cruelty. As such, when going through these life-altering events, they take different form in each one their effect. As shown in this piece, David the womanizing selfish city-man becomes somewhat of a lost and desperate father doing everything in his power to, in his mind, save his daughter’s life. Whereas, Lucy the most violated and the most vulnerable goes from being a content converted country-girl to a victimized woman yearning for rationalization for what happened to her. Lucy’s rationalization seems to protect herself, i.e. her sexuality, or her person rather, from being the direct target; instead it lends her to a race, which needs to pay their dues on a land that does not belong to her. However, this still leaves some pity and empathy with the newly found character of David, in a sense that he simply wants to save his daughter and that seems impossible due to her psychological state. In addition, Lucy’s rationale still rubs the reader in the wrong way. It seems to be a very basic understanding of human existence that if one is in danger, one must remove the threat of danger in order to ensure further existence. Subjugation is something that can be argued no one in their right mind would submit to. Lucy does submit openly and willingly, all in the desire to stay on her farm. This only leaves the reader questioning. This might be contributed to a failure in Coetzee’s prose and character development, however it is ever so difficult to combat a Nobel Prize winner in Literature. For now, it is left on the note that Lucy’s decision to stay is arguably the most provocative point in the novel Disgrace.

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