What was your first response to the novel \”Disgrace\”? Themes in J.M. Coetzee\’s \”Disgrace\”

****What was your first response to the novel \”Disgrace\”?
What are some of the most striking parts of the story, in your opinion?
What are a couple of questions that arose for you as you read the novel?
Which character do you feel most interested in? Explain your answer.*****

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Themes in J.M. Coetzee\’s \”Disgrace\”

1 – Characters in Brief

David Lurie: A white professor of communications at a University in Cape Town, South Africa.

Soroya: A sex-worker and mother whom David visits frequently. We\’re unsure of her ethnicity, but we know she has a dark complexion.

Melanie: A student of David Lurie\’s.

Lucy Lurie: David Lurie\’s daughter who lives in the country.

Petrus: A black South African who works for Lucy Lurie on her little farm.

Bev Shaw: A woman who runs the animal clinic in the country.

2- 2 The Theme of Land


Black South Africans have been historically excluded from ownership of land, housing, business. When people exist within a racist, repressive system that ensures poverty for blacks, and has essentially taken their rights and land away, it is difficult to gain any economic foothold. The cycle of poverty continues. But in Coetzee\’s novel, we see an important shift occur, one that signifies the theme of land ownership in South Africa.

Ownership of land is a looming theme in Coetzee\’s novel, \”Disgrace,\” and remains to be a very controversial topic in South African society. Succinctly, black South Africans want land, they want access to things previously denied them. In the novel, the character, Petrus, represents symbolically the theme of new land ownership by a black South African who seeks land, seeks to build a house, a life. Keep in mind the tensions, the conflicts in the air as you read Petrus\’s story. In a Post-Apartheid South Africa, land gains a new premium and importance in that blacks have access to ownership where there may have been little hope for such things before.

In the novel, Petrus begins to gain more access to land, to opportunity, to security, to those things that he had been previously kept from by the racist Apartheid system. The land represents a new day in South Africa, one in which Petrus can gain self-determination through land ownership. This shift in land ownership signals the dawning of a new South Africa. But as we\’ve read in the novel, this new day is not necessarily a happy one. Given the violence perpetrated against Lucy and David that takes place in the country, as well as the tension and distrust between David and Petrus, J.M. Coetzee tells us that a shift to a new South Africa will not necessarily be a smooth one.

Although it might be interesting to speculate as to whether Petrus has anything to do with the brutal attack on Lucy, the novel really doesn\’t give us enough clues as to the truth of that. But what we do know is that Petrus is taking advantage of an opportunity that he had never had in an Apartheid system. Before he was a second-class citizen. Now, he is able to own land, he is able to build his own little kingdom for himself and his family. Petrus represents the new black South African who has new opportunity where none existed before. And that is the important shift that J.M. Coetzee creatively shows us in his novel.

3- 3 Post-Apartheid South Africa


Without going into an in-depth description of the horrors of Apartheid, I want to stress the importance that the novel, \”Disgrace,\” takes place in South Africa in the wake of Apartheid\’s end. (Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apartheid for more in-depth information).

The novel, in essence, is a kind of comment about what happens in a country when a government sanctioned policy of racial segregation ends. We are not naive enough to think that everything just gets better for black South Africans, nor are we naive enough to believe that white South Africans become less racist just because Apartheid is no longer in force.

Apartheid was an official government policy from 1948, and South Africa began such segregation as far back as 1910. In 1994, after a transitional period seeing the official end of Apartheid, South Africa instituted a new consitution (see http://www.racism.gov.za/host/pasa.htm for highlights of the new constitution).

Keep in mind this Post-Apartheid context in which the characters in the novel live and act. Think about the intense conflict, the intense fear, the intense pain that accompanies such a radical end to the way South Africa worked for so long. There is no doubt that Apartheid\’s effects are still felt, still deep in the systems of economics, politics, social, and health spheres. That is part of the drama in the novel, especially when the action unfolds in the country region of South Africa.

As you read, keep in mind the intense conflicts that arise when black and white South Africans are thrust into situations in which things are changing rapidly. Whites may resist that change, may not be able to accept many changes that occur. Conversely, black South Africans may feel that certain change isn\’t fast enough, that they\’ve suffered under repression so long that they feel entitled to things right here, right now. Blacks may rightly feel that they continue to be excluded, continue to suffer under policies that although have officially ended, yet still exist deep within the social systems of the country.

REMEMBER: The characters are living in a deeply racist system, a very real system that is inside their thoughts, inside their bodies, which affect their actions and choices. This is what gives the drama to the choices each of the characters make. Their choices may surprise us, puzzle us, or might even make us mad~! But that\’s what makes a novel compelling: we want to know why these characters do what they do~! And we may never know. But it might be an interesting trip trying to find out. Next, you\’ll read an important theme in the novel, the theme of LAND.

4- The Theme of Dogs


Dogs. Dogs. Dogs. Dogs figure into the novel in significant ways. You wonder to yourself, \”What\’s with all the dogs?\” Well, Coetzee is a brilliant, clever writer. He weaves the themes of dogs throughout the novel, providing rich symbolism for multiple interpretations. Coetzee doesn\’t tell us what to think about the theme of dogs; he leaves it up to our own imagination and intellect to develop. That\’s why he\’s a strong novelist. He doesn\’t tie up every theme with an answer.

Dogs, of course, do not mean the same thing in every culture. In the universe of the novel, dogs function in many ways. Let\’s look at the literal functions:

Dogs are wild, uncontrollable, expendable: In the novel, dogs are mongrels, expendable animals that serve no purpose, running loose among the community. We see that these dogs are euthanized, killed with an injection at an animal shelter that functions as both a veterinary hospital and a place to dump unwanted animals, especially dogs.
Dogs are workers: In the novel, dogs are workers, like guard dogs. Lucy Lurie, the daughter of the main character, David Lurie, lives on a small farm which is guarded by dogs.
Dogs are a business: In the novel, dogs are a business. Lucy owns and runs a kennel as part of her farm. In addition, the dog kennel provides Petrus, a major black character, with work. We see that dogs provide income as a business for others.
Dogs can be \”pets,\” sort of: In the novel, a dog becomes a partial pet for David Lurie, the main character. Here we see a more domesticated dog, one that provides companionship.Near the end of the novel

Now, let\’s look at the possible symbolic functions of those same dogs, in those same categories:

Dogs are wild, uncontrollable, expendable: The dogs that run wild in the novel might be symbolic for the three men who commit the rape of Lucy Lucy and violence against David Lurie halfway through the novel; in addition, dogs might be symbolic for David, in that his behavior towards women might be construed as \”dog-like.\” In short, the symbolic meaning of dogs gains great significance as we think of how it might be applied to people in the novel. J.M.
Coetzee, a smart writer, hints at these possible interpretations. He might even be saying that humans in general are like dogs in many ways.
Dogs are workers: Dogs, representing workers, might be symbolic of earning a living for many, for Lucy, for Petrus. The dogs are shot by the three men, thus destroying opportunity for earning a living for others. In the destruction of the dogs, we see the destruction of economic opportunity for Lucy and Petrus.
Dogs are a business: As noted above, the destruction of the Lucy\’s dogs, in essence, destroy a part of her earning potential. She runs a kennel, which can bring in income in various ways. So when the men who attack her shoot her dogs, they destroy a part of her working farm.
Dogs as humans/humans as dogs: Petrus says at one point, \”I am not a dog-man anymore.\” This is very symbolic, because Petrus, a black South African, is moving from working for a white woman having to take care of her dogs–a seemingly menial job–to a more respectable landowner with a house. Why it\’s so significant is because David Lurie, an educated, affluent professor, in essence, takes Petrus\’ place, becoming a true \”dog-man.\” It\’s a very poignant reversal of fortunes, symbolic of the new South Africa. In short, the black South Africa gains in power, while the white, affluent, educated South African becomes the \”dog-man.\”
Dogs are often helpless creatures, living at the whim of humans. Dogs might be symbolic for the innocence that is destroyed by others who wield power, such as how the South African government has consistently mistreated and cruelly punished black South Africans, treating them like less than human, like dogs.
Dogs are wild, instinctual animals that have no morals or conscience, only existing to procreate when they can. Thus, the dogs can also represent the men in the novel, especially David Lurie, who uses women, pursues them for sex without conscience. He\’s like a dog in many ways.

There are many rich interpretations around the dogs in the novel. I\’ve only highlighted a few.

5- The Theme of Significant Women



Women are integral to Coetzee\’s novel. They are complex, multi-layered characters (though some might disagree), whose qualities we can see in their actions and words. Lucy Lurie, David Lurie\’s adult daughter, experiences a horrible incident. Her reaction, her thinking, her total being. is complex after the incident. Yet, she\’s a strong, independent, complex woman, living in the country of South Africa. Her choices are her own, and they may not make sense to her father, or to us as readers, but she is an intense, serious, deep character.


Soroya, a character in the early pages of the novel, nevertheless plays an important role in the novel. She\’s not just there to show us David Lurie\’s character by way of comparison, although she does. However, she in herself has complexity. Soroya has a double-life, working as a sex-worker and being a mother. It\’s also significant that she has brown skin. We\’re never told what ethnicity she is, but we can assume she is not white. Note her \”honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun\” (1). She might be black, she might be an immigrant from a bordering country to South Africa. Regardless, Soroya brings an interesting complexity to the novel.

Her character indicates a double-presence, one in which shows the complexity of her situation. She is multi-dimensional, even though she only appears in the early part of the novel. She is a mother, a muslim, a sex-worker, a wife. In a short period in the beginning of the novel, J.M. Coetzee hints at a woman whose depth, one could argue, is more than David Lurie\’s, even though Lurie is the main character of the novel. In a sense, the little we see of Soroya, reveals much about the socio-economic situation of her, and other women like her, in the context of South Africa.


Melanie is a complex, ambiguous character in the novel. A young college student of David Lurie\’s, she injects much complexity to the novel. Her relationship with David Lurie raises interesting questions, throwing her character into multiple depths. Is she complicit in her relationship with David Lurie? Is she simply a victim? Is she manipulating David? These questions can be interpreted from the text, offering multiple views to her character.

When I\’ve taught this novel before, our in-class discussions become quite animated when we argue over whether Melanie is a victim in her relationship with David Lurie. Some aruge that she is fully aware of what she is doing, thus manipulating David Lurie. But some argue that David Lurie is a predator, in essence, victimizing Melanie, using his power as a professor to seduce her. Whichever interpretation you draw from the text, what is sure is that Melanie is a significant woman character in the novel.


Although Bev Shaw plays a small role in the novel, she is also important. She has a unique sense of animals that David learns from. Bev Shaw is David\’s age, in her 50\’s, making her relationship with David that more interesting. David up to the point he encounters Bev, only goes after young women. With Bev, he seems to shift his tastes. What is it about Bev that intrigues him? What pull does she have on him? Is it just sexual, or is it something deeper? Does this signal a change in David Lurie? Bev Shaw has subtle complexity that enriches the novel\’s storyline, especially for David Lurie.