Disgrace: Essay Q&A
1. Consider the relationship between the father, David, and his daughter, Lucy.
The gap in understanding between David and Lucy is described in Chapter Twenty Three by David as a curtain that has fallen between them. He regards this as generational, but the difference between is also encouraged by the experiences they have had in terms of their genders. Whereas he is depicted as embracing his sexual freedom, Lucy is seen to be initially circumspect about her lesbian relationship and then wholly withdrawn following the rape she endures.
Because of their differences, it is possible to interpret these two characters as offering two contrasting but still liberal white perspectives of post-Apartheid South Africa. David is a middle-aged white man who remembers the times of Apartheid and is able to compare these ‘old days’ with the present situation where it has been dismantled. Lucy also remembers Apartheid, but it is strongly suggested that she feels a greater burden of the past inequalities (as a white person who lived in a racist society) than her father. The disgrace that the novel’s title refers to may be easily understood as a reference to those who thrived during Apartheid but are now experiencing guilt, as well as a reference to David’s charge of sexual harassment.
2. How is language and communication depicted as being limited in this novel?
This is a central but subtle aspect of the narrative that is introduced in the first chapter with the explanation that David is a Professor of Communications. As the readers go on to discover, he is limited in his communicative skills and is capable of misreading situations that others may question, such as his sexual relationship with Melanie.
Within the narrative, this difficulty in communicating clearly is demonstrated as a more widespread concern as the English language is critiqued for not being sufficient to relate the experience of those like Petrus who have endured Apartheid.
The narrative also supports the idea that communication is problematic even when we have the words to describe what has happened. Few clear references to rape are made, for example, and there is no actual mention of Apartheid in the course of the novel. Through the use of these absences, silences and euphemisms, Coetzee demonstrates how evasions circumvent the truth.
3. Consider how the subject of Apartheid and racism in South Africa is broached.
As argued in the previous point, the narrative is often constructed by the silences of the main characters with regard to the significant issues they attempt to address and understand. Because the main focus tends to be on David and Lucy to a lesser degree, the understanding of racism and South Africa’s history is filtered through their privileged white perspective.
It is of note, then, that the word Apartheid is not used explicitly as this may be seen to reflect the position of these liberal white characters that are aware of the injustices that have occurred but are unable or unwilling to address them clearly. This is most apparent in the construction of David’s character and when the liberal surface is scratched when he and his daughter are attacked, Coetzee highlights that racist thinking lurks not too far beneath.
4. Analyze David’s treatment of women and debate whether this is depicted as having parallels with the rape of his daughter.
Because of the subtlety of Coetzee’s writing, it would be a mistake to say the link between his disgrace and her rape is overly apparent. Instead, there are ambiguous similarities that raise the question of when does an abuse of power become rape.
In this light, there is a refusal in the novel to simplify sexual exploitation and rape. The ambiguity of David’s relationship with Melanie leads the readers to consider his subsequent punishment as both deserved and/or overly severe. That is, a comparison with the attack on his daughter may invite the readers to regard what he did as minimal, or, depending on one’s subjective position, understand it as being of the same abusive strain.
5. To what extent is the weight of history and the influence of the past seen to impact on the lives of those in the present?
Of all the characters, Lucy is most evidently the one that experiences the weight of history as a form of guilt. As a child of the generation that benefited from Apartheid, her anger may be compared to that of the generation of children who grew up in Germany following the Second World War. It is as though she is feeling the shame and disgrace that her parents did not, and it is ironic that she is the one who is symbolically and literally punished when she is raped.
Her suffering following this may be interpreted as resembling that of the sacrificial lamb of the Christian faith, as she is punished for the sins of others. She may also be compared to the dogs that Bev and David put down every Sunday, in that the innocent are seen to be the ones who suffer the most.