Looking back: J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace

J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace (1999) challenges its readers and, indeed, literary history itself. By Shane Creevy.

The legacy of literary traditions is an important one. Too often throughout the centuries the English language has been used as a tool of domination; from Edmund Spenser's polemic on the barbarians of Ireland to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.

Today the issue is still prevalent. The contemporary writer Toni Morrison once said she struggles "with and through a language that can powerfully evoke and enforce hidden signs of racial superiority, cultural hegemony, and dismissive 'othering' of people and language".

J.M. Coetzee challenges the legacy of the novel as a marginalising, exclusionary force in human relations.

The issue of sex and literature is always problematic. As Eugene Dawn remarks in Coetzee's first novel, Dusklands, "there are no women here. This is an all-male institution". The women frequently mentioned in literary history are merely side figures – for example Dorothy Wordsworth is considered a 'keeper of diaries' and the daughters of John Milton are consigned to the history books with quite possibly the worst job in literary history as transcribers for the blind poet.

Coetzee's spell-binding Disgrace (1999) is structured so that the reader never learns significant details of the many and varied lives of its female characters.

There are countless unanswered questions regarding their lives separate to the protagonist, lecturer David Lurie. For example, why are Lucy and her ex-partner separated? And why is Bev Shaw driven to adultery? Disgrace engages the reader with these characters but is restrained from finding answers because of an over-reliance on the male character to lead the story. Despite the abundance of female characters in the novel we are rarely privy to their thoughts. Rather, the reader is ensnared in David's consciousness. This deliberate shaping of the narrative highlights the marginalisation of women in the narrative of history and the history of literature itself. (One example for instance is the absence of the seemingly omniscient narrator during Lucy's rape.) These sentiments are voiced by Lucy in the most important speech of the novel:

"You behave as if everything I do is part of the story of your life. You are the main character, I am a minor character who doesn't make an appearance until halfway through. Well, contrary to what you think, people are not divided into major and minor. I am not minor. I have a life of my own, just as important to me as yours is to you, and in my life I am the one who makes the decisions."

For Lucy to challenge her father so eloquently is a challenge to the patriarchal structures that have dominated her life, and also the literary canon. For let us not forget that David is also a lecturer. He is a member of the class that traditionally prescribes what is deemed a classic (an issue Coetzee deals with in Stranger Shores). In challenging him, Lucy is subverting not only the authority of a father figure, but also patriarchal structures dominant in society.

Unfortunately, after this moment of eloquence, Lucy reverts to a passive role. When she realises her only options are to stay on the farm under the dubious protection of Petrus or to leave the rural lifestyle she loves with financial support from David she appears to give up, submitting to the notion that the occasional rape is the price she has to pay. There are no choices open to her as a lesbian woman, independent of men.

This draws an interesting parallel with the earlier victim of rape, Melanie. She too can only be freed from the unbearable clutches of David when another man intervenes to 'save' her - in separate instances, her father and ex-boyfriend. She is a passive subject to be acted on, not an active participant in the events of her life. The quiet 'No' of Melanie is ignored as she is raped, not just by David, but also 'by history' as David would put it himself (and as he so coldly puts it to his own daughter).

In the aftermath of Lucy's rape, and as the father/daughter relationship breaks down (the English language fails them), David spends more time conversing with Petrus than his daughter. Eugene Dawn was right to proclaim this a male-dominated world. But there is another parallel with Dusklands here. As Eugene descends into utter madness and stabs his only son (father relationships are often strained in Coetzee's work), he thinks to himself: "Holding it like a pencil, I push the knife in". The imagery is repeated in Disgrace as Lucy associates heterosexual sex with a knife and the pummelling effect of stabbing:

"You are a man, you ought to know. When you have sex with someone strange – when you trap her, hold her down, get her under you, put all your weight on her – isn't it a bit like killing? Pushing the knife in; exiting afterwards, leaving the body behind covered in blood – doesn't it feel like getting away with murder?"

Here, sex is a form of violent domination. Later, when Lucy contemplates marriage with Petrus she calmly states, "I'm not sure that Petrus would want to sleep with me, except to drive home his message".

Lucy becomes submissive in the aftermath of rape, but continues trying to live as a woman, outside the sphere of patriarchal influence. She does not care for her appearance and lives as a lesbian, not for the pleasure of other men (as frequently seen in pornography) but because it is what she chooses. Lucy tries desperately to live an exclusively female life, with no men and estranged from her father.

In the end, the reader is left with a number of questions. Should we see rape in the novel as a political act? Perhaps we should interpret it as, not just an explicit symbol of the subjugation of women, but as the "tribal, intimate revenge" of which Seamus Heaney writes. In this case, then, Coetzee is the "artful voyeur", the author who disappears as Barthes might say.

What then is the reader? Is he or she complicit in the crime – is it we who "have stood dumb" and cast "the stones of silence"? Such is the brilliance of Disgrace that readers are forced to ask themselves these difficult questions.