David’s Permanent Suffering: An analysis of Disgrace
A novel Disgrace (1999) by J. M. Coetzee is an example of how actions of one person can influence the fate of others. In this novel, the author creates an ethical test for different characters. Professor David Lurie is the object of the scandal, which is associated with his sexual harassment of student Melanie. He does not recognize his guilt because the line between voluntary relationship and sexual abuse is thin. Consequently, David believes that his firing from the university is immoral. Nevertheless, the novel shows how the same situation repeats, when David occupies a position of the victim instead of the rapist. In this sense, the violence of his daughter challenges his moral and philosophical standards. This essay argues that J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace explores how the protagonist falls into disgrace through an affair with a student, and has to suffer through the rape of his daughter by the black teenagers, to learn the lesson and admit his fault.
The story begins with David’s humiliation at the University after the scandal with a student. Before that episode, he was an exemplary expert of Byron and Romantic literature, and, thus, the incident has surprised many colleagues. His personal disgrace begins with questioning and accusations of the panel that tries to show how his act is immoral, but David disagrees and rejects his fault. The following passage indicates it clearly: “Don’t expect sympathy from me, David, and don’t expect sympathy from anyone else either” (Coetzee 15). This incident suggests that David does not understand the world in which he lives because all these events are a part of his illusions.
Firstly, the relationship between David and Melanie was not punished, due to the consent of both parties. David believes that “not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless” (Coetzee 25), but, in fact, Melanie has once said “no” in his room. In this case, many feminists would agree that David had raped her (Bernard 24), and there was no excuse to justify his actions. Nevertheless, the relationship with a young African girl shows “how he is losing himself in his desire, how he is acting despite his often repeated knowledge of her age and her uncertainty” (Bernard 23). Since the author did not explain why Melanie decided to have a relationship with David, the situation with rape remained ambiguous. On the other hand, it alludes to the fact that David himself has to control the process and prevent it. Interestingly, he wants to influence the violent episode, when his daughter is raped, but can do nothing.
Secondly, David had not committed direct sexual harassment, but Melanie insisted that she had to meet with him because she was afraid to refuse. Accordingly, David does not recognize his guilt since he does not understand what it means to be dishonorable. However, the character perfectly knows the basic ethical principles from the Romantic period. In addition, he believes that “he is in good health, his mind is clear” (Coetzee 5). According to McCoppin, this episode underlined his inability to understand the Other (53), and this dissonance persisted and reached its climax when his daughter was raped. In fact, the situation was quite controversial because Melanie was not present at the university court, and the detection of justice turned to humiliation of the professor and destruction of his career.
David moved from the city to the village where his daughter lived, and there he faced the disgrace and violence again, but in the more painful way. He became a witness of how young black boys raped his daughter, and poured gasoline and fired him. In fact, such acts of violence show that David’s values do not work in this situation since he does not understand the motivation of these people , as “he is no longer the romantic professor, longing for a life on idealistic terms” (McCoppin 61). This episode mirrors the previous situation in the university when David’s colleagues do not understand his actions. Moreover, the character recognizes the rapists, and then understands that Petrus was the initiator of the whole idea. In a sense, Coetzee suggests that it is a revenge for the abuse of Melanie, and that there is a logical law of justice, but David does not recognize it. In other words, the protagonist had to pay a very high price for his actions, namely experience the humiliation of his daughter. The inversion of roles makes David start rethinking the role of the Other in the day of raping. Remarkably, his experience and knowledge are completely powerless in this situation, showing the conflict between towns and villages, civilization and savagery.
Lucy’s rape exposes an incorrect subjective relationship between a person and the Other, where there is no single truth. The experience of African history has shown that this continent was a source of profit and cheap slave labor in most cases. It is not surprising that Lucy’s desire to live in peace and grow flowers is utopian in the world where black population has something to say to Europeans. Her unpleasant experience demonstrates that “one must be responsible for others without assuming he/she knows what is best for the Other” (McCoppin 62). David’s desire to appeal to the police is useless because the European understanding is perceived as violence in this cultural environment. In this situation, he asks: “I am sure you have your reasons, but in a wider context are you sure this is the best course?” (Coetzee 188). In other words, Lucy understands why they have raped her, so she does not judge and even justifies their terrible act, because they determine who is right and who is not on this territory. Anyhow, both in David’s and Lucy’s cases, a rapist does not respond to his actions because he behaves according to the local rules.
In the novel, the exploitation of the human body signifies the wildlife that opposes to the world of civilization and culture. In general, the problem of animal instincts is probably the major issue in Coetzee’s novels, because it indicates the great difference between responsibility and rowdiness. In every case of violence or rape, David does not understand why this happens because he uses the model of understanding of the Western civilized world. Nevertheless, he also reproduces the logic of an animal when exploits Melanie for his pleasure. The violence is the result of desire and instinct, so the only logical component here is the Freudian “I want”, while culture is the only obstacle for realization of this immanent desire. Accordingly, the black youths come to the farm of Lucy and take her body, regardless of any taboos. In fact, they do not understand why they cannot satisfy their instinct in such a way. Coetzee makes a direct connection between the terrible behavior and the animal world by placing in the end a scene of them killing dogs. Moreover, the author takes a more radical stand, saying that animals are better than people since that they do violence without realizing it.
Coetzee also repeats the violent incident in order to rethink the idea of post-colonial domination of the West over the East. Since the main events occur in Africa, it was important to convey his understanding of human relations in this country through David’s disgrace. Therefore, Coetzee describes two scenes of full of violence, showing the evolution of postcolonial discourse. The first scene is connected with Melanie’s humiliation, which symbolizes the old times of Africa. On the contrary, David embodies the West, and, thus, he likes such articulate cultural symbols as Byron, Wordsworth, and Blake. In the novel, Melanie is not as intelligent and is not as civilized as David is. The second scene turns the Western hegemony because now the victim is Lucy. The young rapists symbolize the beginning of postcolonial justice. In addition, these men shoot a number of caged dogs as one more prominent symbol of Western domination (McCoppin 58). The point is that Lucy asks David not to tell about the incident, and leave everything as it is. In fact, the guilt of Western culture for its colonialist policies makes people silently endure the disgrace.
Another way to interpret that plot is identifying Lucy’s rape as the African ritual of initiation, which starts a new stage of history. After this ceremonial, both Lucy’s and David’s lives can no longer be the same. They should obey the new rules and laws of this collective. Coetzee suggests that violence is an ancient form of tribal conquest, and it is quite logical why the young boys have raped Lucy. Moreover, it reflects the patriarchal order of things, and mirrors David’s possession of Melanie, which he remembers as “passive throughout” (Coetzee 8). On the one hand, Lucy was the victim of violence since she did not agree to this act. Moreover, since she was a lesbian, the collective rape was a physical and psychological challenge for her. However, David does not accept it and asks, “Do you think what happened here was an exam: if you come through, you get a diploma and safe conduct into the future” (Coetzee 182). On the other hand, her presence on the territory of Petrus was regarded as acquiescence, since she settled here, she must be aware of the rules. Therefore, Lucy says, “they have marked me” (Coetzee 184), and accepts herself as a victim. Following this, Petrus then takes Lucy as his wife, although he has had three before her, and “make her part of his family and so protect her” (Bernard 26). Therefore, she refuses investigation and revenge and when realizes that she is pregnant she decides to have a baby.
In conclusion, Coetzee hints that David’s refusal to recognize his guilt affects subsequent events, which teach his the pain of being a victim. The author to make an effect on the reader discusses violence and rape in the novel, starting from the implicit sexual harassment of Melanie and ending with David daughter’s rape. The author makes the protagonist suffer to that moment when he does realize his fault. Moreover, David’s humiliation is the experience that has translated his theory of good and bad into the existential perspective of guilt. His story is a hidden history of the Western civilization and its colonial domination in Africa, starting from dominance over the body of Melanie and ending with the scene in the hospital. All the events cause a feeling of dishonor that provokes David to rethink his life principles and ideals. However, David continues to look for pleasure after the disgrace, what suggests that he has not realized his mistakes; consequently, history repeats itself but teaches nothing. Coetzee also shows that there is no single version of moral laws, but only certain rules in a particular area. In this case, violence is an indicator of who is right or who is not, and what version of reality will dominate in the future.