Coetzee's Depiction of David Lurie's Character in "Disgrace"

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About this sample


Words: 3135 |

Pages: 7|

16 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 3135|Pages: 7|16 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

The view that David Lurie is “not a bad man but not good either” is a reduction of a provocative character. Disgrace explores compelling political issues ranging from post-Apartheid South Africa to moral paternalism, and David’s placement in the ambiguous boundaries of this context makes him difficult to interpret. Critics condemned Coetzee for aggravating racial conflict by portraying the violent rape of a white woman by black Africans in the sensitive political climate at the end of Apartheid. Such reactions to the publication of the novel exemplify the fundamental issues addressed by Coetzee: the difficulty to justify a moral position in a postcolonial society. However, Coetzee places “his characters in extreme situations that compel them to explore what it means to be human,” which gives David more substance than the political context of South Africa.

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David seems ‘bad’ from the outset as “ninety minutes a week of a woman’s company are enough to make him happy,” and he shows a lack of emotional sensitivity with Melanie, thinking of her “as a quick little affair – quickly in, quickly out”. However, after being removed from the university in disgrace, he struggles with ageing and resolving his values with those of a shifting society. The reader follows David through his conflicts as he makes slow progress in self-improvement. His love for Lucy and his poignant reaction to the euthanising of dogs, where “tears flow down his face that he cannot stop,” show a different David to the thoughtless “intruder who thrusts himself upon” Melanie.

Disgrace is written from David’s perspective and the narrative voice is undoubtedly his. The rejection of narrative realism and an omniscient narrator often leaves the reader uncertain of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Using the protagonist as narrator and speaking in the present-tense gives the reader an additional layer of understanding to consider when assessing David. The reader must not only interpret the events and actions in the novel but disambiguate the attitudes of the narrator. The present tense gives the impression of a lack of control, which creates an uneasy tone throughout the novel and contributes to an uncertain reaction to David.

Coetzee presents David as ‘bad’ by suggesting that he raped Melanie, implying that his only interest in the relationship was sexual: “He asks her about her other courses. She is acting in a play, she says. It is one of her diploma requirements. It is taking up a lot of her time.” These thoughts are abrupt and David appears uninterested. The short and factual sentences reflect an impatience for the opportunity he seeks. In their sexual encounters, “she is passive throughout” and “decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration.” In their second encounter, David goes to Melanie’s flat for only one purpose, and “nothing will stop him.” which suggests that she was raped.

Coetzee raises doubts about his narrator and the protagonist as David attempts to convince himself that it was not rape. As David recognises the consequences of his actions in powerful detail, his immediate response – “Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core” – implies that he must be a contradictory character. He recognises clearly, as stressed by the repetition of “undesired” and the pausing, unconfident syntax, that he is at fault yet continued to act in this way. From most perspectives, even if David’s view is accepted, he was in a position of responsibility, older and more experienced than Melanie and must be considered ‘bad’.

These ‘bad’ actions are contrasted as David shows his principles and bravery during the tribunal. His general contempt for the university administration, which reduced literature to “Communications” as “part of the great rationalisation”, and his opposition to the superficial suggestion to “take a yellow card” and “minimise the damage” despite “the gravity of (his) situation” is significant. David’s response to the accusations is interpreted by Lucy Valerie Graham as showing “very clearly that Lurie is blind to the history of his own actions” and therefore ‘bad’ because he refuses to accept “the long history of exploitation of which [his treatment of Melanie] is a part” . Graham’s criticism is limited, for although David’s claim “I plead guilty. That is as far as I am prepared to go”, can be interpreted as arrogance, it may instead show his principles. David provides a coherent rebuttal: “I have said the words for you, want me to demonstrate their sincerity. That is beyond the scope of the law.” There is a sense of nobility in his willingness to act “for his idea of the world” and his principles as also seen in his sensitive disposal of the bodies of the dogs.

David’s character is detailed most significantly after he is attacked and Lucy is raped and it is in this context that his character is assessed. Coetzee develops a central theme through the attack; the state of morality in post-Apartheid South Africa as “it is a new world they live in, he and Lucy and Petrus”. The theme is controversial as Coetzee wrote only ten years after the end of Apartheid and amid continual violence over the rights of property ownership such as those of ‘District Six’ in Cape Town throughout the 1990s.

South Africa is presented as violent throughout the novel. David reflects after the attack that “It happens every day, every hour, every every corner of the country. Count yourself lucky to have escaped with your life.” David and Lucy have conflicting attitudes towards the correct moral response to the violence they endure from the ‘black South African’ desire to undo “a history of wrong”. Lucy accepts that perhaps “that is the price on has to pay for staying on” whereas David can only see the situation as being “humiliating” and being reduced to living “like a dog.” David’s refusal to accept Lucy’s acquiescence towards the rapists (“I don’t agree. I don’t agree with what you are doing”) creates a variety of possible interpretations of if David is “not a bad man but not good either”.

His beliefs may reflect his inadequacy as a father and lack of empathy which is suggested in Lucy’s claim that “you behave as I everything I do is part of the story of your life”. Alternatively, his stance could be interpreted as noble; “he is not prepared to abandon his daughter” despite her disrespect for his ‘good intentions,’ with her repeated criticism that “there are things that you just don’t know”. David’s response to the rape of Lucy may show he is ‘good’ as his intention is only to assist her. Some Feminist interpretations can be critical of David as a father (based on the misogynistic reputation created through his promiscuity). These critics could suggest his affection is selfish as he laments that “I did nothing. I did not save you.” and not Lucy’s situation. However, these criticisms seem limited as his sadness for being unable to help his daughter appears sincere: it consumes him as illustrated when “he had a vision” in which “Lucy has spoken to him” and watches over Lucy sleeping, “guarding her from harm, warding off the bad spirits”.

David’s opinions, such as “if they had been white you wouldn’t talk about them in this way” can be interpreted as racist. Similarly, his criticism of Petrus for defending Pollux because he is “My people” could appear prejudiced. However, these values seem to reflect his courage in confronting the issue of racial conflict in post-Apartheid South Africa. David is not racist; “he is prepared, however guardedly to even like” black South Africans such as Petrus and praises him for being “a man of his generation.” David is not concerned with ethnic origin but with morality. His criticism of Petrus is his threat to Lucy and the South African conflict that he embodies in this threat. Coetzee may imply David is courageous for breaking social taboos and criticising the superficial social etiquette that may have hidden an underlying racism in South Africa at the time of writing.

Coetzee could also be exploring a more significant aspect of the postcolonial genre; the contemporary situation of the ‘post-post-colonial’ . He subverts the traditional postcolonial presentations of ‘native’ cultures such as those in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart where the arrival of ‘western’ colonisers is seen as destroying the Ibo way of life. That novel illustrates destruction via the tragic suicide of Okwonkwo, who epitomises the ‘noble’ values of Umuofia. The presentation of the ‘native’ Ibo is positive: rich in tradition and ceremony as illustrated by the meeting of the “egwugwu” with tribal dress and masks. Early postcolonial literature was written in a tone of lament for the loss of the ‘native’ tradition such as the sadness in Things Fall Apart that the missionaries have “put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” However, the modern ‘post-post-colonial’ genre also considers the difficulties for the subsequent generations of the former ‘coloniser’ (usually the ‘white Westerner’). Judith Wright explores this issue in her poem ‘At Cooloolah’ by describing her dislocation in Australia and the need to “quiet a heart accused by its own fear” as a descendant of the ‘coloniser’.

The central conflict of Disgrace, the threat to Lucy in the Eastern-Cape and the tension between her attitudes and David’s, make it difficult to assess if he “is not a bad man but not good either.” Coetzee does not justify one perspective as more right than another. This raises the questions of the ‘post-post-colonial’; the difficulties of moral justice after colonialism. Many postcolonial texts consider these issues, such as the recognition in Things Fall Apart that “what is good among one people is an abomination with others”. Coetzee presents a similar ambiguity of morals in a postcolonial society to Achebe in Things Fall Apart, in which the ‘Western’ reader must grapple with the seeming incongruity of an Ibo culture with many positive values that nonetheless allows the killing of twins and the murder of Ikemefuna because “the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves has pronounced it”.

However, Coetzee’s David overcomes the ambiguities of the conflicting cultural values by ignoring the issues from a perspective of colonialism by showing the courage to criticise the universal injustice of the violence in post-Apartheid South Africa. His criticism that “it is history speaking through them” and “Vengeance is like a fire” is a brave recognition of a socially uncomfortable truth without fear of being seen as prejudiced; this undermines the view he is “not a bad man but not good either.” Negative interpretations of David may regard his ignoring the ‘colonial’ perspective as a weakness as suggested by the subjective narrative view. Coetzee is ambiguous, providing the reader with little more than his or her perspective to assess David.

The Byronic qualities of David make him difficult to interpret. His link to Byron is distinct, as they share similar physical qualities such as “olive skin” and “flowing hair”, and, the same fear of ageing (David’s lament of “the end of roving” unambiguously refers to Byron’s famous lyric, ‘So, We’ll Go No More A Roving’). David shares the typical characteristics of the Byronic hero of being sexually promiscuous and living in ‘social exile,’ as he loses his livelihood in Cape Town and was already isolated, living alone and frequently consorting with prostitutes. Some of the attitudes he holds under the premise of Romanticism (such as quoting Blake – “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires”) seem detestable to a modern society. His elevated, almost rhetorical, language such as, “I was the servant of Eros” can be interpreted as a feeble justification for relinquishing self-control.

David’s Byronic qualities can also support an interpretation that he is ‘good’ as implied by his noble actions during his tribunal. His Byronic character also reflects the difficulty in defining a moral standard and may justify interpretations that he is ‘good’. The perspective of the Byronic hero on society is no more valid than another, making it unjust to conclude David is ‘bad’ simply because he is a ‘social exile’. David illustrates this in his Romantic interpretation of a character in Byron’s poetry: “we are not being asked to condemn this being with the mad heart, this being with whom there is something constitutionally wrong. On the contrary, we are invited to understand and sympathise.”

Such justifications can also be used to criticise David as it may emphasise his refusal to control his desires. This is particularly emphasised when he understands the consequences of his actions (such as the encounter with Melanie being “undesired to the core”) yet fails to respond or take responsibility. Rosalind also makes the significant criticism that “you were always a great self-deceiver, David” which justifies a negative interpretation of his Romanticism.

Coetzee’s presentation of the change in David as he becomes a ‘victim’ may suggest he is ‘good’ or, in less positive interpretations, pathetic. The change he fears most is ageing and is remorseful that “his pleasure for life is being snuffed out.” This personal conflict with age may justify David’s contradictory and sometimes cynical character. Details such as his frustration of being vulnerable and having to “suffer the ignominy [for example] of being helped out of the bath” show he is strong and independent which are admirable qualities. His transformation from ‘victimiser’ (from his affair with Melanie) to ‘victim’ (through the attack) is lamentable as he is portrayed as defeated (such as the almost farcical collapse of his opera). The pathos of his situation and his acceptance of the change by finding refuge in helping at the clinic reflects his ‘good’, starkly contrasting the “vengeance” in South Africa.

The burning imagery throughout the novel contributes to a positive presentation of David as it reflects his victimisation, conflicts with age and diminishing passion. Phrases such as “when I burn I don’t sing” and hoping for a “last leap of the flame” with Melanie show the conflict David endures as he ages and loses his passions. David can be viewed sympathetically as the image of fire suggests an uncontrollable and consuming force and he could be a victim like the Byronic hero that he asks the reader to “understand and sympathise” with. The setting of Salem has connotations of the historical ‘witch-hunts’ in America; Coetzee could be conjuring the image of David sharing the same injustice as those burned ‘at the stake’. Therefore, David could be interpreted as an innocent victim, despite his flaws.

The presentation of the rapists as animals, influenced only by physical desire (implied by the animalistic connotations of, “I think I am in their territory. They have marked me” and, “no human evil, just a vast circulatory system”) is an indictment of their immorality. However, David uses similar language (blaming “complex proteins swirling in the blood” to justify his sexual promiscuity) in suggesting his actions were not immoral. This again reflects the contradictions of defining moral values; therefore, it may be regarded that Coetzee is showing David as “not a bad man but not good either”. With ambiguous moralities from Romantics to the seekers of “vengeance” in the ‘post-post-colonial’, it is not possible to define moral superiority.

David’s inconsistency and lack of control are his significant flaws. His almost immediate infatuation with Melanie (“a last leap flame”) resonates with Juan in the second Canto of Don Juan where he passionately laments his loss of Donna Julia yet within one hundred stanzas becomes enthralled by Haidee (“As if their souls and lips each other beckon’d”) . Similarly, the failure of David’s two marriages with the recognition “he has never been given to lingering involvements” implies he is ‘bad’. Undoubtedly, his sexual attitudes are unacceptable in legal and modern ‘Western’ social perspectives. However, his intentions are not malicious and as he does not intend to subjugate or cause harm to others, but (as suggested by the connection with Don Juan) the product of his ‘Romanticism’. Even the rape of Melanie, when contrasted with the brutality towards Lucy, seems less horrific.

David cannot be viewed simply as “not a bad man but not good either” as Coetzee places him in the context of such a complicated social conflict. Throughout the novel David is emotionally detached, “though intense, has never been passionate”. However, his final act of agreeing to euthanise his dog may reflect his personal change. David is unable to see other perspectives which is his greatest weakness as it distances him from his daughter and society; “he does understand; he can if he concentrate be there, be the men…The question is, does he have it in him to be the woman?” Relinquishing the dog, despite his feeling of “what he no longer has any difficulty in calling by its proper name: love.” may suggest an emerging ability to see other perspectives as he shows the compassion to make a self-sacrifice he would otherwise reject.

In addition to this transformation, the central political conflicts of the novel leave David seeming ‘good’ as he “was standing up for a principle…Freedom of speech. Freedom to remain silent.” in a society towards which Coetzee seems critical. Coetzee may support Rosalind’s view that “whatever the principle was, it was too abstruse for your audience”. This epitomises the impossibility of justifying a moral standard for ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as every “audience” is subjective. However, David is presented more meaningfully than “not a bad man but not good either” because of his commitment to Lucy, and, his slow change as he begins to see other perspectives. He experiences the compassion needed for morality, to be human, not to be reduced to living “like a dog”.


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Coetzee’s Depiction of David Lurie’s Character in “Disgrace”. (2018, April 18). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from
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