On Lucy’s Response to the Attack

Answers to two more of the basic questions about Disgrace, this time concerning Lucy’s reaction to her rape.


  • 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?

Short answer to both: Because Lucy represents one, abnegatory pole of the novel’s imagined range of potential responses to guilt.

These questions are tricky, they’re related, and they’re absolutely central to making sense of the novel. Lucy offers several iterations of her thinking on both matters, always in conversation (of a sort) with Lurie. So we have her words, presented in direct dialogue, plus Lurie’s own speculation, both put directly to her and contemplated on his own.

Lucy’s words first. Immediately after the attack, she asks David “would you mind keeping to your own story, to what happened to you?” “You tell what happened to you,” she continues, “I tell what happened to me” (99). So from the beginning (minutes or hours after the attack), not only are their stories separable, but they are individual, personal. This is important, because it’s the basis of Lucy’s later claim that what happened to her isn’t properly public. “As far as I am concerned,” she says the next day, “what happened to me is a purely private matter” (112). This is true, according to Lucy, not because rape is always so, but owing to the historical contingencies of her situation:

“In another time, in another place it might be held to be a public matter. But in this place, at this time, it is not. It is my business, mine alone.”

“This place being what?”

“This place being South Africa.” (212)

Later still, however, Lucy confesses—in her only unprompted discussion of the attack with David—that she was baffled and shaken by exactly the personal investment of her attackers:

It was done with such personal hatred. That was what stunned me more than anything. The rest was … expected. But why did they hate me so? I had never set eyes on them. (156, ellipses in original)

It is in response to this question, in an attempt at palliation, that Lurie offers his much-quoted hypothesis that “it was history speaking through them … it may have seemed personal, but it wasn’t” (156).

The distinction here between personal and historical motives matters because it bears directly on Lucy’s reasons for not pressing charges and for staying on the farm. The problem, though, is that the public and private aspects of the attack and of her response to it are inseparable; Lurie is right that the attackers are motivated by impersonal forces, but that doesn’t preclude a deeply personal cathexis on Lucy as the specific object through or in which those forces find expression. So the attack is both personal, which means that these specific men remain a threat to Lucy, and impersonal, which means that apprehending them will do nothing to remove the general threat under which she lives.

That’s the attackers’ side of the equation; on Lucy’s, the problem is no simpler. As she says, what happened to her is personal; she has the right to respond to it as she sees fit and is under no obligation to treat it as a public matter (or, by the same token, as a private one). Moreover, what happened to her did not happen to David, except in the much different sense that his child was raped (an important point when we finally turn to the relationship between the novel’s rapes). But of course Lucy is aware that the attack was also fundamentally impersonal (that is, political) and that her response to it, whatever it might be, cannot but be public and political. She seems determined nevertheless to come as close as possible to removing herself from the public sphere, aware as she is of the reality that to press charges is to enter into a national phenomenon and debate concerning black-on-white violence. But it’s not as though simply accepting the situation avoids an entanglement with those same politics. That’s what she means when she says that what happened to her is a purely private matter: she can only treat it as private, else the consequences to her ethical and political self-image will be disastrous. “I must make the political decision,” she is saying, “to treat this as a nonpolitical matter.”

So that’s why she doesn’t press charges, because it is (to her) the least objectionable political response to an act that, under the circumstances, can only be construed politically.

Note that this addresses, at least in part, two of Lurie’s speculations about Lucy’s motives (see pp. 112 and 156). She doesn’t believe that by failing to press charges she will be spared further attacks, so hers is not an attempt to buy individual peace or reconciliation at the price of rape. I’m not so sure, though, that Lurie’s second guess—that she is trying to work out “some form of private salvation” (112)—misses the mark entirely. In the crudely psychologizing sense, yes, that’s wrong; she doesn’t want to suffer, and therefore doesn’t see the attack as a welcome opportunity for salvation. But in a political and moral sense, Lucy takes seriously the suggestion that she specifically and whites generally owe a historical debt to those who suffered under a social system that favored (and in a way continues to favor) people like her. “What if [another attack] is the price one has to pay for staying on? … Why should I be allowed to live here without paying?” (158), she muses. “Subjection. Subjugation,” she calls it, the new arrangement under which she is prepared to live (159).

Is this salvation? Probably not, and Lucy herself rejects the term as inappropriately religious. Still, she is plainly trying to work out an ethical sense of her obligations, ones that, as she acknowledges, are more (but not entirely) collective than individual.

This is then also the beginning of the answer to the second question, about why she stays on following the attack. Following the logic above, the problem is that she has not yet adequately atoned for her sins, not yet paid off her historical debt. So although she will likely be attacked again (or else give up to Petrus all she possesses in return for protection), that is what she understands to be demanded of her. This is at once absurd and obviously correct. Absurd because her suffering is so clearly out of proportion to her individual debt, particularly to these three men (whom she has “never seen before”—I suppose one could do something with the optics of power here, though I’m not so inclined). If she must expect, justly, to be raped, then nothing is prohibited in the aftermath of apartheid. But it’s also obviously correct if we accept the hypothesis that she is merely an object through which historical wrong begins to find redress; there is nothing she can give and nothing she can suffer that can possibly offset the wrongs of apartheid, which are very plainly greater than what can be undergone by any one person. If it is Lucy’s ethical obligation to compensate those victimized by her race, then she must be prepared to pay endlessly.

This is an unattractive conclusion, and I certainly don’t think it’s Coetzee’s, but I do think it’s one that the novel presents and works through, and I think it’s something that Lurie also confronts. (It would be worth thinking in particular about Life and Times of Michael K. in connection with this point, a novel that I think is underaddressed in studies of Disgrace.) My position is that Lucy is mistaken concerning the nature of her obligation, largely because she’s wrong about the metaphor of debt and repayment (see two earlier posts on ethics and debt, “Disgrace and Debt” and “Debt and Punishment“). But if she’s wrong, the error is hardly hers alone; it’s deeply embedded (rightly, perhaps) in our thinking about law and punishment. The novel’s suggestion, however, is that it’s misplaced in the case of moral transgression and obligation (again, see those earlier posts for the details of this argument).

There is also one further explanation of Lucy’s decision to stay on, one that’s closer to her own direct claims, namely that she has kind of blind, unreflective compulsion to carry on carrying on. “Guilt and salvation are abstractions. I don’t think in those terms,” she says (112). Later she writes (to Lurie) “I am a dead person and I do not know yet what will bring me back to life. All I know is that I cannot go away” (161). Both of these declarations mirror her claim, the day after the attack, that although Lurie sees returning to the farm as “a bad idea … not safe,” “it was never safe, and it’s not an idea, good or bad. I’m not going back for the sake of an idea. I’m just going back” (105).

There’s a certain modified sense of existentialist ethics here insofar as Lucy remains committed to a kind of cause, but it is absent the important component of a meaningful decision or any guarantee that the course itself is a laudable one. And that’s a significant “but.” In fact it’s this blind drive that makes Lucy serve more as a totem for, or principle of, atonement without limit than as a full ethical actor in her own right. If there’s a full-fledged individual ethical figure in the novel—and I’m not at all convinced there is—it will therefore have to be Lurie or no one.

That’s it for questions two and three. One to go, the most difficult of all.

2 thoughts on “On Lucy’s Response to the Attack

  1. Great thoughts.
    Of all the challenging aspects of this magnificent book, I have most trouble with the idea of Lucy remaining on the farm. I always thought it was simply Lucy loving the farm lifestyle so much she won’t budge for any reason, but I think that is too simplistic of a reading. Your articulation of her idea of repentance for the white peril is hard to swallow for a reader, but I can’t help but agreeing with your arguments.

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