Eight Questions about Disgrace

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):

  1. Why does Lurie give up his job by refusing to defend himself before the inquiry?
  2. Why does Lurie sleep with Bev, and she with him?
  3. How are we to treat Lurie’s opera?
  4. Why does Lurie give up the dog at the end of the novel?
  5. In what sense, if any, is Bev Shaw’s (and Lurie’s) euthanasia of the dogs an ethical/merciful/loving act?
  6. Why does Lucy refuse to report her rape or otherwise pursue legal remedy for it?
  7. Why does Lucy remain on the farm after the attack?
  8. 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 …

3 thoughts on “Eight Questions about Disgrace

  1. Well, I’m glad to be reading about your reading of Disgrace.
    I think Lurie is a brilliant and self-deluded character, highly likable and yet, when pressed to find his own way, unable to do so with the kind of clarity he brings, for example, to an understanding of romantic poetry, and thus all the more sympathetic – lost in a storm of his own making, another Lurie emerges, who clings with ever greater passion to a romanticism that borders on madness. But like Lear in the storm, senses aroused by so much tumult, he stumbles at last on the quiet beauty of his daughter, alone at work in a potato field. The tension throughout the novel hinges on contradictions between reason and emotion. The highly intellectualized Lurie could do more for his daughter if he would simply lie to the committee, save his position and gather up funds and resources with which to care for her in better style. Instead, again like Lear, he insists that his is the only vision worthy of the name, and discounts the value he might play in the lives of many others. So he falls. He falls from reason, from position, from material belongings, from honor, from all that he might have continued to use for himself and for others. But the Lurie who falls is not the Lurie who can be of benefit to others. He is a narcissistic fellow who surrounds himself with a philosophical insulation that preserves the old order of himself – a hollow order that pays little regard to the needs of others. He hardly has enough insight to see that forcing himself into the arms of a not-really-willing female student could destroy the innocence in his charge. Taking refuge in the intellectualized shields with which he protects himself from self-accusation and lays claim to a mutuality of desire, his delusions become more and more fragile, and more and more refined in the opera that will never see the light of day but will become more and more a perfect reflection of his own glass menagerie. The Lurie who falls is nothing like the Lurie who constructs the delicate opera and comes to the aid of abandoned creatures.

    Like the father, the daughter Lurie stubbornly, from the father’s point of view, insists that her’s is the only road worth traveling, that any other road cannot possibly yield to her perfectionistic understanding of what life in the country can be. She, too, falls, breaks, and eventually comes back together as a different person.

    It is history that crashes in on the two of them, but it is their arch insistence – so clear to us in a novel about others, so unclear to us when the life examined is our own in real life – their arch insistence that they have a point of view, a self-righteousness (put to use for different purposes by each character) that makes them two peas in a pod.

    Did they deserve to be rendered powerless in the hands of violent thugs, robbers, rapists? Does anyone “deserve” that kind of treatment? Did the South African blacks deserve apartheid? Must the response to enslavement be violence and rape?

    We see Lurie’s desire at work with a prostitute, with a child student, with an aging vetinarian, and even, ever so glancingly, perhaps in an unspoken fantasy with his own daughter. What successful man takes refuge with his young daughter? seeks solace under the umbrella of what little she has? The first time Lurie arrives at his daughter’s home, we are curious. After the rape, we are astonished. And before he returns for the last time, we see him arguing with her like husband and wife. He is yet to be her father. But he grows into it, carrying for her farm when she begins to heal, watching out for her from a distance as the pregnancy progresses. Finally, witnessing her quiet beauty and the beauty of nature without his personal difficulties imposed, he sees her quite simply, at least in part, for who she is. It’s not the picture he wants to see, but it’s the woman she is and he is fulfilled in some small way, emerging from the tunnel of suffering he passed through on his way toward insight, however slight, fragile and temporary. His highly intellectualized skills have given way to a kind of decency. He buries other animals with honor. He helps Bev simply as a way of helping. He disconnects from living with his daughter and finds his own home. To get to these basics, to something he can now call his own and not a given, he has sacrificed everything. His schizoid self marches on, but what emerges from him is something worth having, not something that he must deny with pride. Why does he put down the dog a week early? It’s not just “a” dog, it’s, in some sense, “his dog.” He’s putting away a part of himself that must go away. The dog will die sooner or later, and in some ways, it’s a sign of strength on Lurie’s part to be able to choose the time when he can incinerate this part of himself. He can claim a victory over having turn to ash that which was sure to die shortly anyway. It was the right time, just as it was the right time for Lurie to manufacture his own fall, when with a simple compromise he might have kept his “position,” “avoided disgrace.” But disgrace and history and death can never be avoided, not really, and Lurie understands at last, on some level, that succumbing to the ebb and flow is all that is possible. As for his opera, the crying out for love again and again will never bring Byron back. The opera is the fantasy of a man who faces his own demise, who would fantasize a world in which crying out, singing for love and immortality, might make it possible, even while knowing that death, if not always imminent, is certainly the final act.

    That’s my take on this fabulous book. Now I’m off to read the answers as you have formulated them in the links in your blog. Thanks for the opportunity.

    Steve Mullen

    • Steve, thanks for the detailed comment. As you’ll see in my answers to some of the questions, I think you’re right that much in the book points toward this kind of redemptive reading, and I agree that Lurie is in many ways a better man at the end of the book than he was at the beginning. I’m still suspicious, though, of any overall reading of the novel that suggests redemption is possible. Lucy is a figure with all kinds of problems, the dogs—or specifically Driepoot—are more complicated than they first appear, and the opera is a failure.

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