On the Killing of Dogs

Answers in this post to two more of the baseline questions about Disgrace, both of which concern Lurie and the significance of his relationship to dogs.


  • In what sense, if any, is Bev and Lurie’s euthanasia of the dogs an ethical/merciful/loving act?

Short answer: As ethical in sum, but complicated by the awareness that one could always do more.

  • Why does Lurie give up the dog at the end of the novel?

Short answer: From kindness and in atonement, but with persistent overtones of the flagellant’s self-involvement.

Hmm … these questions are getting harder. First, to the text: “The dogs suffer … most of all from their own fertility. There are simply too many of them” (142). Note in passing a related allusion to Jude the Obscure in “because we are too menny” (146), which adds an obvious note of pathos. What Bev and Lurie offer isn’t treatment (they are untrained as vets and lack the resources to do much for the animals even if they were) but the relief of a painless death. Bev, we are told, has a particular talent for “easing the passage” of each dog, to which she “gives her fullest attention” (142). Lurie is less skilled, but finally no less devoted. He is shaken by the work, and takes over, metaphorically speaking, the role of “dog-man” from Petrus. It is he who takes the dogs’ corpses to the incinerator and feeds them individually into the flames in order, he says, to preserve an image of the world “in which men do not use shovels to beat corpses into a more convenient shape for processing” (146). Finally and maybe most importantly, there is this description of their shared enterprise:

Sunday has come again. He and Bev Shaw are engaged in one of their sessions of Lösung. One by one he brings the cats, then the dogs: the old, the blind, the halt, the crippled, the maimed, but also the young, the sound—all those whose term has come. One by one Bev touches them, speaks to them, comforts them, and puts them away, then stands back and watches while he seals up the remains in a black plastic shroud.

He and Bev do not speak. He has learned now, from her, to concentrate all his attention on the animal they are killing, giving it what he no longer has difficulty calling by its proper name: love. (218-19)

A couple of things here. The fact that this is all happening on Sunday (as do all the euthanasia sessions; cf. “What the dog will not be able to work out (not in a month of Sundays!)” [219]), plus the persistently religious rhetoric (the communion-like procession of animals “one by one”; the crippled, the maimed, etc.; the shroud; love), plus the scene’s position on the penultimate page of the novel, push any reading toward terms of redemption. On the other hand, there’s the Holocaust-related Lösung (cf. Elizabeth Costello and The Lives of Animals), plus the decidedly non-euphemistic “killing,” plus Lurie’s decision at the end of this scene to give up Driepoot, the dog he could have saved (on which more below). So there’s real tension here, and we should be careful about flattening it out in any interpretation of the acts.

My take is that we are to understand Bev’s actions as driven by a love of animals generally, whose collective suffering it is her project to minimize. This is plainly both ethical and laudable. That part’s easy enough, and if the book went no further, things would be pretty simple (and uninteresting) on this point. It might be distasteful to kill the dogs, but it wouldn’t be a shattering experience. The reason, then, that the killing is so difficult—why it “gets harder all the time”—is that what’s good for the dogs collectively is in at least some cases (and perhaps most of them) bad for any one dog. That’s to say that while there clearly are instances in which killing an individual dog is an act of kindness (as when we put an aging pet “to sleep,” a euphemism the novel refuses), Bev and Lurie are aware that their toll includes as well “the young, the sound”—dogs, in short, that might go on living happily enough past the day of their execution, were it possible to do so.

A relevant question, then, is whether or not it is possible to save any one dog, something Lurie contemplates in the case of Driepoot:

He can save the young dog, if he wishes, for another week. But a time must come, it cannot be evaded, when he will have to bring him to Bev Shaw in her operating room (perhaps he will carry him in his arms, perhaps he will do that for him) and caress him and brush back the fur so that the needle finds the vein, and whisper to him and support him in the moment when, bewilderingly, his legs buckle; and then, when the soul is out, fold him up and pack him away in his bag, and the next day wheel the bag into the flames and see that it is burnt, burnt up. He will do all that for him when the time comes. It will be little enough, less than little: nothing.

He crosses the surgery. “Was that the last?” asks Bev Shaw.

“One more.”

He opens the cage door. “Come,” he says, bends, opens his arms. The dog wags its crippled rear, sniffs his face, licks his cheeks, his lips, his ears. He does not stop it. “Come.”

Bearing him in his arms like a lamb, he re-enters the surgery. “I thought you would save him for another week,” says Bev Shaw. “Are you giving him up?”

“I am giving him up.” (219-20)

It is Lurie’s claim that he cannot save the dog, not in the long run, and if that’s true of this dog, it is surely true of any dog. I will admit frankly that I find this scene, which ends the novel, deeply affecting. And so I want to believe what Lurie says, that he can’t save the dog, not beyond the next week or the week after that, thus that his decision to give him up is a matter of mature acceptance rather than weakness. Such a reading works nicely with a larger interpretation of the narrative as one of ethical development and redemption, showing Lurie as finally able to cease clinging to his own interest (he enjoys the dog’s affection and company, even if he holds himself slightly aloof from it, knowing its inevitable fate) and to do instead what must be done, even at significant cost to himself.

[Incidentally, Lurie’s fascination with the perfective (“burnt, burnt up”) is a recurring feature of the novel and might certainly be related to this reading, both concerning the dog and his own developmental arc. Why this is the case might have been elevated to question of its own. There’s a bit more on it below, and if I remember I’ll say something more about it in connection with question one, on the relationship between the two rapes.]

I think there’s much in the novel that points toward this reading, which sees the “giving up” of Driepoot as the symbolic culmination (perfection) of a larger process of learning to live with less (or with nothing), i.e., without the historically determined advantages of Lurie’s initial position. This is a reading that restores maximum political advantage to the novel, though it might also be possible to tint it with irony and to complain (crudely, I think) that Coetzee thus likens the abuses of apartheid to losing a (potential) pet.

Still, even the unironic version of this reading strikes me as too neat by half. It aligns Lurie too closely with Lucy, who (for reasons I’ll talk about in a later post) serves as one (flawed) pole of a potential response to the crimes of history. It also removes much of the productive ambiguity that accounts for the bulk of the novel’s value; it is an intriguing and valuable book precisely because it refuses to give us obvious moral precepts (James Wood is wrong on this point), or perhaps more accurately because it takes seriously the defects of a field of related and competing precepts.

What’s the alternative? Well, that Lurie might indeed have saved the dog indefinitely and that while doing so would constitute only a small mercy in a field of enormous suffering, it would still be better than the alternative. The issue turns in part, I suppose, on what we’re to make of Driepoot’s life at the clinic, assuming Lurie cannot simply adopt him as a proper pet: the dog’s existence seems dull, of course, and he’s crippled, but he appears otherwise happy and certainly enjoys Lurie’s company. It’s hard not to feel a bit foolish trying to think this through, evaluating the utilitarian happiness of a lightly-described fictional dog, and I suspect I’d be unhappy with Coetzee if Lurie did save it (cheap sentiment, an animal better loved than humans, a minimal piece of literal grace or salvation to close the novel, etc.). But still, it’s not clear to me that killing the dog is as strictly required as Lurie claims; Lurie has come far down in station, but he’s not so utterly destitute that he can’t afford a bit of kibble. What he clearly cannot do, however, is save every other dog in Driepoot’s position.

The larger question, which hangs over not only this novel but much of Coetzee’s fiction, is what to do about problems so large that any individual action is dwarfed in proportion to it. Saving a dog will do almost nothing (“little enough, less than little: nothing”). The quote is pulled slightly out of context (it refers to what Lurie will do for Driepoot as the dog dies) but still, the slide from “little enough” to “nothing” is one that we ought not to overlook, which is the novel’s point. Lurie helps the dog’s passage because it is not nothing, even if on another level the result is the same in the end. The dog is still dead, but its final moments have been easier than they would have been otherwise.

The consequence of this final action, though, is to leave Lurie without salvation except in the most roundabout of ways. He cannot or will not save the dog, he cannot save Africa’s dogs, he cannot find companionship with an animal in lieu of a human. He has almost nothing. At best, he eases the death of dogs that do not wish to die and ought not—in a better world he is powerless of bring about—to need to. If there is atonement, it is through his affirmative role in the mortification of his own experience by killing Driepoot as a part of his (Lurie’s) world, that is, by seeing the dog as a part of himself that he is willing to give up. But to do that is to instrumentalize the dog as Lurie has done with people in so many earlier cases. A lesser sin, surely, than most of the others, but of a piece with them. If he is reformed, the novel tells us in the closing line, it is imperfectly.

Note that one of the features of our investigation of this and almost every other question to this point has been to undermine the prospects for reading the novel redemptively, with the result that it’s looking harder and harder to construct such a reading. Properly critical questions to keep in mind, then: Is it a problem if there’s no redemption here? And if there’s none, what’s the novel about anyway?

2 thoughts on “On the Killing of Dogs

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