“Disgrace’s” importance comes from the time and location where the novel takes place. There was still a lot of segregation in South Africa. Post-Apartheid South Africa was going through a drastic change of power and was still in transitioning stages. This novel is touching bases with a lot of what was going on and gives us an insight of people’s lives at that time. J. M. Coetzee “Disgrace” heavily relies on this background to build his characters and events.
Despite claims that the novel is written as if no one sees color, I find it to be extremely racist at times.
The book was feeding me with ignorant and negatively portrayed one-sided stories. It starts with Soraya and it ends with the rapists. Not only are the few black people in the novel described as barbaric and impotent towards white power, but also it’s always the whites who had to comply with their assaults. Chris van Wyk, a South African writer believes “The white characters are fleshed out, the black evildoers are not.
” The first main incident that emphasizes what it is really like to live in Post-Apartheid South Africa are—David’s scandal at the Technical University in Cape Town, where he worked as a professor of English Lit and Communication. Years of teaching Romantic poetry lead to him taking sexual advantage of one of his students, Melanie, a presumed black (after being referred to as “the black one”). What aggravates the situation, and has David out casted, is his lack of remorse after he gets held accountable for his actions.
“The rights of desire” (89), is the only justification he gives when the committee for his hearing demanded a confession.
David’s white privilege and status makes him think that what he was doing to Melanie would not come back to haunt him. Melanie later on, holds him accountable for his actions, which gets David fired. Showing how she—representing a whole race, showing they would not keep silent anymore towards racial injustice.
As a way to escape his scandal, David goes to visit is daughter—Lucy. She lives a completely different life from her dad, in rural South Africa, farming for a living. Lucy falls victim of gang-rape in her own farm house in Easter Cape. Three black intruders kill most of her dogs, destroy her house, put David to flames and steal his car. And at this moment we are presented with the harshest plot in the novel that fires up race relations representation.
Lucy thinks she has to accept what was done to her and move on, she says: “What if . . .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 here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves” (Disgrace 158).
History of slavery, injustice and prejudice have to come to this. She sees herself as a debtor. Her debts are due and she has to keep silence to remedy past harm. After finding out she is pregnant, she decides to keep the baby and refuses David’s requests to file charges against the rapists. Lucy feels as if she is paying back her dues by keeping her mouth shut and keeping everything to herself. Rape in this novel is not only linked to gender but to also to social class and most importantly race. And ironically the tables have turned on David. Now he is on the side of the victim, understanding the importance of taking legal actions against the rapists.
Another Nobel Prize winner and South African writer, Nadine Gordimer said in an interview “In the novel ‘Disgrace’ there is not one black person who is a real human being”. She was disappointed in the way Coetzee portrayed Post-Apartheid South Africa. She also mentions that the only reason Melanie’s parents are nice to the man who abused their daughter is because “they he’s one of them”. The cliché representation of South African society even got the government to denounce the novel as racist, making Coetzee’s move to Australia look like a David’s flee from trouble and responsibilities.
What makes reading the novel difficult, is drawing a line between Laurie’s character and Coetzee. They are both white Afrikaners, and by knowing little about Coetzee and his life, the reader can easily associate elements of Coetzee’s life to that of the protagonist— David. Such ambiguity is disturbing and leaves room for doubts and questions, leaving it to the reader to interpret. But maybe I, as the reader, am over reading the piece. The constant reassurance I would need to not associate Coetzee to his characters, is unfair. Fictional characters are not to be judged based on moral standards. In some way, Coetzee couldn’t avoid racist claims if he wanted to portray race relations in Port-Apartheid South Africa. That is why race relations are pessimistic, damaged and portraying unresolved tension.
Contrary to some beliefs, “Disgrace” was an unprecedented novel that spoke about racial relations in such a raw manner everyone was shocked. The novel could have meant to put an end to white privilege once in for all. Lucy’s actions show a stepping stone to racial equality. Because by looking at her actions as a way to get “equal”, we understand that she refused to press charges as a sacrifice to have inner peace.