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Themes and Devices in “Disgrace” by Coetzee


The novel “Disgrace” written by John Maxwell Coetzee can affect anyone who reads it. The author of the work has received several awards for it, and experts in the field have highly appreciated the book. The reading reveals the essence of extremes that can exist in any person, and it vividly illustrates the way human desires can have catastrophic consequences. Moreover, this novel gives the reader an opportunity to comprehend and feel the torments of choice to act or not to act. The purpose of this paper is to provide an analysis of this novel by Coetzee.


The central storyline of the novel unfolds around the events in the life of David Lurie. He is a 52-year-old professor at the University of Cape Town. His occupation teaches him humility because students have no interest in his discipline, and David continues working there to pay bills. The professor has sexual contact with one of his students, and “he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well” (Coetzee 2). However, this occurrence transforms into a major scandal, and David escapes to his daughter’s farm, where he and his childhood experience a terrible event. Lucy is raped and gets pregnant from one of the therapists. Apart from that, the former professor has poor relations with the local population, yet he cannot move anywhere else.

In general, this cruel psychological novel reveals the idea that a person can easily lose everything that he or she has because well-being is very fragile as well as the position in society (Meyers 334). The protagonist turns from a professor into a subject of condemnation and has to live in an environment in which shame has become the norm of his life. On the example of David and his destiny, the author also exhibits the moods existing in post-apartheid South Africa.

Themes and Setting

One of the major themes in the book is the issue of nationalism. The author shows the way the setting in South Africa has affected the relations between people from different backgrounds. He uses his characters to reveal the confrontation that existed between individuals of different genders, nations, and cultures. The interaction between people was very complex as a consequence of the new regime that was settled in the terrain. According to Tarka Fai, “the post-apartheid era is being wrongly managed by South Africans” (160). The rape of Lucy validates this statement. Despite the shifting conditions, violence is still regarded as an instrument of power and authority; it is used to show the influence over the former oppressor. Therapists wanted to exhibit their dominance over Lucy to expose the power they have gained (Coetzee 49). However, this understanding is not explicit because the author does not provide his argumentation and allows the reader to analyze the setting and draw individual conclusions based on the events.

Artistic Devices

The audience can gain valuable insights into the core of the text by analyzing the symbolism and other literary devices utilized by Coetzee. The allegory in the book can be observed in the main hero and his daughter. The protagonist represents the old South Africa while his daughter envisions the new regime (Tarka Fai 157). The events in which the young woman has found herself are an illustration of this assumption.

Apart from that, the writer tried to reveal the disgrace of people through multiple allusions to dogs. In the book, the author wrote that a dog was battered every time it got excited. It was repeatedly done so that “the poor dog began to hate its own nature” (Coetzee 23). According to Meyers, the book takes the reader “on a complex moral journey” (334). It can be assumed that the audience is challenged to go through this journey together with the protagonist. When David justified the sexual assault that he committed, he was unable to recognize it as an act of violence because he thought that he was satisfying his natural desire. However, after he and his daughter faced harassment, David understood that his intentions were cruel and wrongful. Therefore, to be able to reflect on his actions, the protagonist had to experience the same torments that he had delivered to other people.

The symbol of a dog is used to show that David has been able to recognize his irreversible mistake. When he tries to apologize to Isaac for what he has done, “he gets to his knees and touches his forehead to the floor” (Coetzee 43). By doing so, he intends to show remorse. Importantly, the main hero used to disdain dogs because he viewed them as creatures with no pride. The psychological journey of the protagonist has resulted in David’s transformed belief about his identity. Having experienced the atrocities of life (and having committed them in the first place), he recognizes himself as a disgraceful being.


Thus, it can be concluded that the perpetrators in the novel are also victims of either circumstances or events, the regime, or some other factors. The book stimulates the reader to speculate about the right to violence and the actual need to practice humility through the representation of negative mental states. However, the main nerve of the book written by Coetzee is the disposition of racial accents and a new correlation in the opposition between the colonizer and the oppressed.

Works Cited

Coetzee, John Maxwell. Disgrace. Penguin Books, 2005.

Meyers, Jeffrey. “In a Dark Time: Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Style, vol. 47, no. 3, 2013, pp. 334-342.

Tarka Fai, Gilbert. “Post-Apartheid South Africa and Patterns of Violence in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to our Hillbrow.” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, vol. 4, no. 8, 2014, pp. 155-162.

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