Disgrace By J. M. Coetzee
Making Heaven of Hell
The protagonist of Disgrace is David Lurie, an aging professor in Cape Town who “lives within
his income, within his temperament, within his emotional means. Is he happy? By most
measurements, yes, he believes he is. However, he has not forgotten the last chorus of Oedipus:
Call no man happy until he is dead.” He is someone who has convinced himself that he has come
to terms with his life. Sex is a problem he has “solved” rather well, he tells us in the first line of
the book, meaning of course that he hasn’t. His visits to Soraya, a coloured prostitute are a
“moderate bliss, “a moderated bliss”. The problem is that the hint of darker things always lurks
behind such facades of moderation. One day he runs into Soraya when she is with her sons.
Presumably, she has a regular family life outside her profession and she does not want the two
worlds to mix. She cools off towards him and catalyses the tumbling of his house of emotional
cards, his carefully constructed notion of wellness. Bored and disconsolate, he pursues a young,
Black student called Melanie, and eventually there is “not rape, not quite that, but undesired
nevertheless, undesired to the core.” Melanie complains and he is indicted of sexual harassment.
He refuses to repent publicly and chooses instead to leave the job.
Unlike his contemporary Nadine Gordimer who adopts the mode of realism, Coetzee deals with
South African history through allegory and fable. But Disgrace, written soon after the end of
apartheid and Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, looks at
concepts like judgement and fall in stark and startling ways. David’s defiance in the face of his
fall is almost Luciferian and when he takes refuge at his daughter Lucy’s home in the
countryside, his manner is not so much defeated as that of shrugging acceptance. He tries to
settle into life here, helping at a dog kennel and taking an interest in his daughter’s life. Lucy