This paper provides a reading of J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace. Professor David Lurie, formerly professor of modern languages, then of communication, has seduced one of his students in the Romantics class, and was dismissed by the university after a disciplinary hearing where he refuses to defend himself against the charges. He pleads guilty, denying the right of the university to judge the morality of his conduct. Later he states: “I became a servant of Eros” and “I am not prepared to be reformed. I want to go on being myself.” When asked by his daughter to make his case, Lurie says, “My case rests on the rights of desire.” Somehow he senses that to state “I was a servant of Eros” or “It was a god who acted through me” was an effrontery. He understands that the case he wants to make is a case that can no longer be made, and if he tried he would not be heard.

But there is another, much more ominous case to be made: his daughter farms on a piece of land which a long time ago had been taken from the Africans who lived there and who now demand restitution. To make their point, they rape his daughter Lucy and set Lurie alight.

The novel raises the question on whether anyone can be “guilty” of something which one has not done personally, merely by association, and whether one should feel shame or disgrace for deeds of people with whom one is associated (as members of a state, an ethnicity, a religion, a profession, the family, etc.). In the ethical center of the novel there is therefore the question of the possibility of atonement, and the acceptance that the one who has been wronged has a right to retaliate.



apartheid, Coetzee, guilt, trope of rape

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Kritika Kultura
Department of English
School of Humanities
Ateneo de Manila University

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Jan Baetens
Faculty of Arts
Katholieke Universiteit te Leuven (Belgium)

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Yale University (US)

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Barnard College (US)
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Columbia University (US)

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Honorary Professor of Drama
Trinity College Dublin (Ireland)