A while back, I blogged about some issues in Coetzee criticism. As I’m continuing work on my own essay about Disgrace, I’ve come up with a list of questions that I think every critic should be able to answer about the book before writing on it. These aren’t the only relevant questions, of course, nor does answering them constitute criticism proper. But they’re the prerequisites of criticism; if you can’t take and defend a position on each of them, you haven’t thought hard enough about the novel and its tensions to offer a coherent reading of the work as a whole.
The questions, in loose order of dependence (but definitely out of textual order):
- Why does Lurie give up his job by refusing to defend himself before the inquiry?
- Why does Lurie sleep with Bev, and she with him?
- How are we to treat Lurie’s opera?
- Why does Lurie give up the dog at the end of the novel?
- In what sense, if any, is Bev Shaw’s (and Lurie’s) euthanasia of the dogs an ethical/merciful/loving act?
- Why does Lucy refuse to report her rape or otherwise pursue legal remedy for it?
- Why does Lucy remain on the farm after the attack?
- What is the relationship between the two rapes?
[Note: Links from each question above point to the post with my answer to it.]
As I say, certainly not the only questions one could or should ask about the novel. But they’re crucial because they address the specific content of Coetzee’s allegorical meaning. It’s not enough to claim that the book is, for example, an allegory of South African society after apartheid (which is to say almost nothing at all, yet seems to satisfy many critics); you need to work out the tenor of that allegory. And it turns out that that’s a difficult and fraught thing to do, because it requires you to take positions on questions like these about which the novel is ambivalent or ambiguous or flatly contradictory. But that’s why we get paid the big bucks, isn’t it?
My own answers to each of these in the coming days …