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July 5, 2016


In J. M. Coetzee novel Disgrace, rape is not only used as an element to influence changes

in the life of the characters, but it is also a symbol to represent the social and racial struggles of

the time. There are two rapes in the novel and despite both of them happen under different cir-

cumstances, by different perpetrators, there is a constant rhythm: after each incident, the author

exposes the struggle Lucy and David Lurie’s face interpreting the events. Coetzee also generates

a power shift in their social status, and eventually a transformation of their lives and personali-

ties. At the time the novel was written, South Africa was going through socio-political changes

and it is reasonable to consider that the author wanted to express them in the novel. Through

Lucy Lurie’s rape and the parallel events that led to her father’s visit, J. M. Coetzee illustrates

the conflict between power and powerlessness in a post-apartheid South Africa.

There is an obvious parallel between Melanie’s rape and the three men that raped Lucy;

however, according to David, these were completely different events. “A mistake, a huge mis-

take” (37) were his initial thoughts after the sexual assault toward Melanie, trying to conceal how

he really knew Melanie felt, “as though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the du-

ration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck. So that everything done to her

might be done, as it were, far away” (37). However, Lucy’s rape took a toll on him and the al-

ready strained relationship with her. It is understandable that as a father, he considered this an

abominable act that needed to be punished, but her daughter, to his surprise, refused to go public

and bring the rapists to justice. “In another time, in another place it might be held to a public

matter. But in this place, at this time, it is not. It is my business, mine alone” (147). Her words

certainly symbolized her acceptance of the inevitable political and social changes happening in a

post-apartheid South Africa.

In the first part of the novel David represents a privileged white male, with apartheid ide-

ologies who uses his social status and profession to exert power to sexually harass a student,

“Melanie: the dark one” (28). He is unapologetic and arrogant as if the author wanted to parallel

this character and the apartheid in South Africa, where a white minority could get away with an-

ything without further explanations. J. M. Coetzee also uses David’s recollection of events in-

stead of Melanie’s, in an unfortunate effort to objectify her even further, silencing not only her

but also the minority she represents in the novel. Not knowing her side of the story has led to a

debate regarding the nature of their relationship and if indeed she was raped or not. According to

Lianne Barnard, Palacky University professor of Dutch Literature:

The border between rape and consensual sex is shown to be problematic in the re-

lationship between David and his young student, Melanie. Although some readers

find that Melanie was willingly seduced, others consider that she was raped. The

charge of sexual harassment is therefore unsatisfactory for both sides and, since

David refuses to read the charges brought against him, he effectively silences his


During the second piece of the novel, the plot is skewed in the opposite direction. Lucy,

despite being the owner of the property, doesn’t treat Petrus as an employee, on the contrary, she

refers to him as “co-proprietor” (147), as if representing the acceptance of change by the new

generation and the return of properties, privileges and power to South Africa again. David’s

blames post-apartheid for her daughter’s rape. According to Nandita Mohapatra, Literature re-

searcher at Ravenshaw University: “Coetzee paints a grim picture of South Africa with the disso-

lution of the white power and the takeover by the blacks. The novelist seems to be pointing out

that political change can do almost nothing to mitigate the hatred which has become an integral

part of the consciousness of the blacks”. David doesn’t interpret the events as a casual misfor-

tune, but as an act of revenge, a premeditated demonstration of power, like “It was history speak-

ing through them” (205).

Despite the constant use of symbolisms through the novel, to represent the division be-

tween races and the struggle between power and powerlessness, at the end of the novel there is

an unexpected twist. J.M. Coetzee decides to find a way to show some sort of resignation and

acceptance of change in David. He apologizes for his behavior toward Melanie with her family

and accepts Lucy’s decision to be a third wife and have a bi-racial baby. It can be inferred as an

overturn of racial and power structures, but one could also argue if the author tried to suggest

that race and power didn’t matter anymore.

Works Cited

Barnard, Lianne. "The politics of rape: Traces of radical feminism in Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee."

Tydskrif vir Letterkunde 50.2 (2013): 19+. Academic OneFile. Web. 23 June 2016.

Coetzee, J. M. “Disgrace”. New York: Viking, 1999. Kindle ebook file.

Mohapatra, Nandita. "Politics of race in J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Notes on Contemporary Literature

41.3 (2011). Academic OneFile. Web. 23 June 2016.