The Symbolism of Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee Disgrace, a fictional novel written by J. M. Coetzee in 1999 revolving around, on its surface, the life of a university English professor teaching in South Africa. Considered by many to be the magnum opus of Coetzee’s career both for its unflinching look at the lives of people living in post-apartheid South Africa, but also for its deep and complex symbolism. Although the symbolism in Disgrace stretches from beginning to end, we will be focusing on the symbolism found in the “first act” or from the start of the novel to the end of chapter six.
The symbolism revolves primarily around David Lurie being symbolic of “the old whites” of South Africa throughout the “first act” of the book both by his actions and reasoning of his actions towards primarily Soraya and Melanie Isaacs, who are symbolic of “the blacks” in South Africa. The symbolism found in these chapters can be classified into categories of owner/worker, teacher/student, and old/young.
Disgrace begins with a description of the protagonist of the story David Lurie, a fifty-two-year-old divorced man living in Cape Town, South Africa making his weekly appointment. This appointment” is with a local prostitute named, or the name David is given, is Soraya a black muslin woman who works at the Windsor Mansion for Discreet Escorts. It is in this first interaction of “whites” and “blacks” that we can begin to see Coetzee’s masterful use of symbolism and allegory. Two good examples of this are the quotes from David Lurie when he says, “His sentiments are, he is aware, complacent, and even uxorious” and “That is his temperament.
His temperament is not going to change, he is too old for that. His temperament is fixed, set.” (Coetzee 2). Both of these quotes are meant to signify the mentality of “whites” in South Africa during that time period. The first quote on how although many if not all “whites” where aware of the abuses and the injustice in their society, they were content as long as they got what they wanted. It is important to note that although their relationship is strictly one of business, owner/worker or customer/server, David feels as if Soraya has some genuine feeling for him. The second quote is meant to symbolize the sheer stubbornness, crossing into perhaps bitterness, of many “whites” in post-apartheid South Africa of the feeling that they did not want to change their society or way of viewing life itself after living their entire life in that system.
The allegory of this second quote is furtherly reinforced when followed up by “The skull, followed by the temperament: the two hardest parts of the body.” (Coetzee 2) in which Coetzee argues that for many they will pass on to the next life, before the mindset will change.
As the novel progresses David as a falling out with Soraya after seeing and contacting her outside of her “work”. It is around this time when David has a chance encounter with Melanie Isaacs, a student in his Romantic Literature course, while walking home from the University. They talk and he invites her over to his home where they talk, drink wine, and eat dinner together. Once again David will go beyond the set roles in the relationship, before owner/worker now teacher/student. After finding her information in the enrollment records at the University, Lurie calls Melanie’s home address, awkwardly arranges to pick her up for lunch, and takes her home where they “make love”. It was after several other awkward encounters that Lurie drives to Melanie’s home, knocks on the door, and essentially forces himself onto her. The symbolism in this chapter can be found in Coetzee’s writing of this episode between David and Melanie. “She does not resist. All she does is avert herself avert her lips, avert her eyes.” and “Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core. As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, 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.” (Coetzee 11). These quotes are both meant to symbolize the helplessness of blacks in apartheid South Africa, that it is better to minimize and evade than confront your oppressor, to simply do what you can to let it pass. We also once again see the previous allegory of as long as David, or the whites, get what they want they are concerned with little else. David on some definitive level understands what he is doing and the moral and ethical ramifications of his actions, but simply does not care or does not care enough, to stop himself. This can be seen clearly in the quote “when he reaches his car, is overtaken with such dejection, such dullness, that he sits slumped at the wheel unable to move. A mistake, a huge mistake.” (Coetzee 11).
After some time passes David learns that not only as Melanie withdrawn from the Romantic Literature course, but also that a complaint has been filed against him with the University. The complaint against him is of harassment between teacher and student. To respond to the complaint, and to put the issue to rest, David is scheduled to meet with several administrators of the University. It is in this meeting with the school administrator’s that we see perhaps the clearest show of symbolism in all of Disgrace, if not certainly the “first act”. The first bit of this can be seen in David’s conversation with his lawyer, the same lawyer who handled his divorce, to discuss what his potential actions can be regarding the complaint. In it, David’s lawyer presents a possible course of action in which David may have to “give certain undertakings” (Coetzee 19). To this, David takes it almost as an affront to him and his character, insinuating why “to fix me, to cure me of inappropriate desires” (Coetzee 19). This repeats itself when David is to have his hearing for the complaint with the university panel. David from the onset pleads guilty to the now two complaints against him, one for harassment of a student and the other for the discrepancies found in his student records. To this the panel asks him repeatedly what are you guilty of, to which David’s only reply is “to what I have been charged with”. These responses anger some members of the panel to the point of them raising objections against David believing him to only be accepting the charges in name. The symbolism can be found in David’s entire attitude to the hearing, but can be found particularly in David’s response when he says “No, I have not sought counselling nor do I intend to seek it. I am a grown man. I am not receptive to being counselled. I am beyond the reach of counselling.” (Coetzee 21). Both the attitude shown with the conversation with his lawyer and his response to the panel show that although David understands what he did was wrong, perhaps even deeply wrong, but he does not seek to remedy it. He is simply resigned to his fate, he feels he is beyond helping or changing of his mindset. David is meant to symbolize the opinion of many whites in post-apartheid South Africa, many of whom either directly or indirectly participated in discrimination, and in some cases far beyond that, of their fellow countrymen and knowing this, yet had no interest in building a new South Africa with them. These “old whites” like David are simply resigned to their fate and do not have an interest in changing their philosophy or outlooks on life after living it their entire lives. In this you can see how David is the “old” while the students and administrators are the “young”.
Even through just a cursory read of Disgrace, one can see the masterful use of symbolism and allegories throughout the novel from both its characters and scenes. It is important to note when discussing the symbolism and the elements of race relations between whites and blacks in South Africa found in the novel that the story and context of it are constantly evolving, and perhaps will always be an “open book”. An example of this would be in how “Of the 24.4 million Africans, men and women, of working age (15-64 years) in the first quarter of 2010, 12.5 million were officially considered economically active, and of those 29.7 per cent were listed as unemployed” (Clark & Worger 127). Although we did not touch on it the symbolism of Disgrace also is meant to approach how reconciliation could occur in South Africa as discussed here “However, in Disgrace, the question no longer is who ultimately survives, the black South Africans or the white. The question after liberation is how South Africans of different racial and ethnic origins might recover from violence and historical divisions.” (Deepa 44). The “first act” of Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee is meant to symbolize the social and power relationships between different classes of society, but squarely aims at the race relations between whites and blacks in post-apartheid South Africa, using David Lurie to symbolize the whites and Soraya and Melanie Isaacs to symbolize the blacks.