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Post-apartheid Impression and Power Subversion in the Novel Disgrace by J.M Coetzee


S. Mohan Raj

Ph. D. Research Scholar

Department of English

School of Social Sciences and Languages

Vellore Institute of Technology

Vellore, Tamil Nadu, India




Disgrace is a trailblazing novel by J.M Coetzee. The novel sets in the background of the post-apartheid situation. The novel opens up the sequences of power change, subversion and sublimation in the life of David Lurie. The novel depicts the white minority also. It presents the sombre impression of post-apartheid Africa. The power switchover in the life and character of Lurie is visible in the novel’s progress. Stiffness is a moral weakness of Lurie’s character. He never succeeds in his attempt to get rid of sensual dilemma and acquire a power of self-control. But towards the end, his stiff and rough nature was swapped into pity, humility and acceptance. The present study aimed to investigate the subversion of power in the novel Disgrace. In the novel, the protagonist David Lurie spent his time with animals and with animalistic thoughts. All the attempts of Lurie failed and he remains frustrated. Change of power affected his life. Lurie hates the subversion of power in his personal life and in the nation. He felt that he lost his power in the new post-apartheid situation. He lost his job, position, power, pride and lust. Lurie hardly acknowledges the change of power but slowly he accepts the change. Lurie finally attains complete renouncement and capitulation.


Keywords: Power, Change, Lust, Power Thirst, Time, Post-apartheid Situation


            The novel Disgrace (1999) falls into the post-apartheid literature genre. The novel won Booker Prize and many honours to the novelist John Maxwell Coetzee. The novel popularly applauded and criticised both for its reality and honesty. The novel was written around 1995 after the new constitution was passed in the South African parliament. The novel was written in the third person narrative. Gallagher opines that the novel is a “respond to the oppressive practices that have pervaded South African life for hundreds of years” (Gallagher, 1991) The novel’s protagonist and the narrator David Lurie dominate the novel’s point of view. Coetzee vehemently adopted the technique of free indirect discourse to access the thoughts, passion, desires and discourse of David Lurie. The novel further explores the dynamics of power, changing equation and subversion in the country and in the individual relationships. The political power subversion is obvious in the novel. The white people lost their supremacy and the black people slowly emerged into power. The novel also presented the identity and existential crisis. “A critique of various modes of writing” (Dovey, 1988) The central narrative of the novel carried out with the perspective of a fifty-two years old English Professor, David Lurie. He got divorced twice. He associates with the University of Cape Town. David Lurie experienced the power subversion in his life. Lurie teaches communication to the pupil who is unwilling. It indicates the bleak of the power of English in the South African post-apartheid situation. There are many such incidents in the novel marked the change of power throughout the novel.


            The South African post-apartheid situation made a great impact on the Cape Town University. Parry registers that “a writing practice that diverts and disperses the engagement with political conditions it also inscribes, while remaining…‘ethically saturated’” (Parry, 1993) Many classical and modern language classrooms were closed because of the change of power in the country. It also affects Lurie who was a professor of Modern Languages. He feels it as a degradation to teach communication skills to the pupils who are lack in the passion for learning. He felt that the productive period of his literary life was gone. In the professorship career, he published three books. The books are Boito and the Faust Legend: the Genesis of Mefistofele, The Vision of Richard of St. Victor and Wordsworth and the Burden of the Past. But the books are not successful. It gains poor reception and applause. These books reflect the personality of David Lurie. Lurie couldn’t bear the African post-apartheid situation. He felt sulk and loss of power. Lurie because of the sulkiness never creates any impact on the pupil through his teaching. He does the job without passion and hates to be a teacher. Ironically he corrects the assignments, dictates and annotates without teaching or learns anything. He is much reluctant to go with the African post-apartheid situation and power subversion. The black people now got the power to rule. The change of power is an intolerable thing for Lurie because he lost his former power and position. Along with that, he lost his control and power in his personal life also. As a communication teacher, he failed to communicate successfully with the students. This change over of power and control in the personal and official life collapsed him. Most of his communications are turned to be monologues.


            In the novel, the character of Lurie spent his most time with animals (dogs) and with the animalistic thoughts. All the attempts of Lurie got failed and so he remains frustrated. The change in power affected his life entirely. Lurie considered that he is a failure person in life. He got poor reception and money for the books that he has written. He was alienated both inside his life and in the University. He wants to be a normal family man with a wife and home. But his character, attitude towards sex turns his life unattractive. At the beginning of the novel itself, Lurie’s personality was explored by the novelist. Lurie is a man of cold nature, self-centric attitude and dispassionate in living. It was Soroya a prostitute describes the nature of Lurie as a quiet, docile and complaining person. Lurie used to visit her at the weekends. Soroya stops him at a point when she felt bitter with the temperament of Lurie “...his temperament is not going to change, he is too old for that. His temperament is a fixed set” (Coetzee, 2). Lurie’s temperament and attitude towards sex are intense. It was compared with that of snakes. He never wants to have a reciprocate love. Instead, he tries to quench his carnal lust and power. Lurie developed many illicit affairs as a way to exercise his power and lust. He beds with Soroya and also tries to invade into her personal life. Soroya avoids his invasion completely. Disappointed Lurie struggles to satiate is desire and supremacy hunger by illegitimate affairs. But he failed in his attempts and will of power. The command knob transformation of Lurie is evident in the novel’s progress. Towards the end, the stiff and rough nature of Lurie was changed into pity, humility and acceptance.


            David Lurie’s confidence over his power was checked by the feeling of becoming old. At a point, he wants to settle in a marital life but it turns to a dream for him. From his childhood, David Lurie was surrounded by women. In later life, he was associated with the mistresses and got labelled as a womaniser. He is very confident in dealing with women. He led a lustful life. As soon as he felt he is becoming old his power belief slowly vanished off.  But that power subversion feel remains no longer. He met the secretary of his department and slowly conquered her for his power lust. The novelist utilised the secretary to explain the post-apartheid condition. In her casual remarks, she talked about the drug dealers who are roaming in the grounds to catch the young boys. She said it is difficult for her to bring up her young son in such condition. This remark pointed out the changes happened due to the change of power in the country. David Lurie himself struggles between the power changes. His life is attached to the failures. He is unable to digest the swing in the power and adjust to that. He tries to control his sexual desire and his power of control will not prolong. His sexual encounters turned his condition much pathetic. He wants to quench his lust through forced sexual contacts at least. He compelled Melanie Issac a student for his coital lust. The attempt also turned against Lurie.


            Stiffness is a moral weakness of Lurie’s character. He never succeeds in his attempt to get rid of sensual dilemma and acquire a self-controlling power. He even thinks of castration and finally finds it is impossible for him to be in his control. Sexual encounters are the part and parcel of his life. He eventually failed and drowned at his lust. The statement is proved in the case of Melanie Issac. She is a black girl around thirty years younger than Lurie, who is interested in stage art and design. Melanie already got her diploma in theatre arts and pursuing a course in the Cape Town University. Lurie accidentally meets her in his way back home. He intentionally invites her for a drink at his home. His power quest slowly dominates him and he seduced her. Lurie has a good sense of convincing language. He rationalises his lust desire by quoting that “...a woman’s beauty doesn’t belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it” (Coetzee, 16). The mind of Lurie often insists him that Melanie is like his daughter Lucy and he tries to control the lust. But his mind power swings down and he encountered by the lust. Coetzee had drawn the character of Lurie as like as a fox and the Melanie’s as a rabbit. “...not rape, not quite that, but undesired...like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck” (Coetzee, 55).  The image of the fox and the rabbit symbolises power and innocence. The power clutches of the fox feasted the innocence of the rabbit. Animal-human symbolism shows the identity of David Lurie in the new prototype of power in South Africa. He neither goes with the new power nor able to attain his former power and position.


            The lust hunt of Lurie over Melanie stops at a point when he was warned by a young black man. The power pride of white Lurie was checked by the black young man. This indirectly indicates the change of power. In the classroom, another incident shows the power subversion. David Lurie in a classroom talks about Byron in related to the poetry of Byron. The students have a poor literary background. And so they remain silent and were unable to appreciate the poem. Lurie was disappointed by this thing. The novelist here draws a parallel between Lurie and Byron. Lurie blames the subversion of power in the nation. It completely disappointed him. He felt that he lost his power in the new post-apartheid situation. In addition to these events, a few other teaching experiences of Lurie pinpointed the swing of power. Lurie teaches Wordsworth, the poet who emphasise the events of the past. Lurie carries a longing attitude about the past apartheid situation and white power. It is a burden in his mind which continues throughout the novel. Lurie talks about Lucifer to explain a poem. The image of Lucifer juxtaposes with Lurie. Lucifer is an angel who violates the law and protest for his belief and power. He faced failure in his attempt. Likewise, Lurie struggles to attain power over him and his lust. He failed again and again. Lucifer himself was the reason for his dishonour and pain. Lurie does shameful activities and earns disgrace to him. Coetzee made a genuine and uncompromising characterisation of Lurie. He utilised the following statement to explore the personality of David Lurie. Lurie talks about Lucifer as “...with whom there is something constitutionally wrong, on contrary, we are invited to understand and sympathise” (Coetzee, 33) the statement clearly explores the personality of Lurie.


            Lurie and Lucifer both are alike in terms of time and power. Both failed to understand the dynamic nature of power. Both failed to adjust to the changing time. Both understood their powers and skilfully used them to attain their targets. The targets of Lurie and Lucifer are mostly innocent. They prey innocence. Lucifer prefers solitude; in his speech, at the new land (the hell) he quoted that it is better to be a ruler alone in that land of fire than to serve at heaven. Exactly this is the state of Lurie who is all alone throughout the novel. Lurie and Lucifer received the consequences for their dreadful act in the search of power. The quest to power tatters their living condition. Lurie faced the consequences for the seduction of Melanie. She reluctantly stopped her studies. Her letter of withdrawal found in Lurie’s letterbox. Melanie’s father pointed out the reason for the withdrawal is that the university is ‘a nest of vipers’. His daughter may not be safe and so he never sends her again to the university. It was clear that Mr.Issac denotes Lurie as ‘viper’. The word literally denotes a venomous snake. Again Lucifer and Lurie share a similarity. Lucifer took the shape of a serpent to spoil the mind of eve. Lurie acted like a viper to prey Melanie. The power quest of Lucifer and Lurie forced them to take the steps to pollute others. Both received the subversion of power as a result of their ill-will. Melanie filled a complaint against Lurie. Eventually, he lost his job. The power and the image of Lurie as a Professor of Cape Town crumble and dilapidated. The complaint against Lurie drastically changed his power and position in the university. He seeks the assistance of a lawyer. The lawyer suggested Lurie should go for a compromise and settlement. Lurie never thinks about the compromise. He knew that he lost his image in the campus. Followed by this the campus organised an event in relevance to the rape awareness week. Lurie finds a pamphlet at his door. The pamphlet contains a message, it addresses him as Casanova. This incident slightly shook the mind of Lurie. He further feels desperate in the comments of his ex-wife Rosalind. Lurie’s daughter Lucy was born to Lurie and Rosalind. Rosalind mocks him for his affair and the consequences. She accused him that his act is shameful, which never deserves any sympathy. Her talk indirectly pointed out the subversion of power in Africa. The African National Congress attains authority and so it is a tough period for the white people. David Lurie internally felt hard about this change. This new change in the power is totally unfavourable to Lurie. Rosalind marks the end of the White rule and the end of Lurie’s unethical activities and profession as an ‘inglorious end’. Rosalind underlines the age of Lurie. She notified that the age is fit for a person to receive respect and honour. But Lurie defames himself. She slaughters the pride, personal power thirst and lust of Lurie in her talk. Lurie initially offended but later he handles it casually in his natural way. He never bothers her comments.


            The incidents that followed by the complaint of Melanie is totally against Lurie. A disciplinary committee comprises of the three senior faculties and a representative from students formed to enquire the complaint. The formed committee is the representation of the newly formed government in Africa. The committee members are the black African senior professors of the university. Lurie immediately understood the situation and power change over. The charge against Lurie is that he gave marks and attendance to Melanie who never attended classes or submits any assignments. Lurie’s nature and his pre-apartheid brought up stops him to explain or persuade his cause. He hates the power change and he never wants to disown his pride before the committee. The committee is ready to do some favour for Lurie. But Lurie never gives a chance or space to them. Lurie is completely aware that his responses bring him the loss of the job. But still, he stands with the rigidness. The committee disappointed at the reckless responses of Lurie. He never feels sorry, remorseful and regrets his shame. The sceptical views, tough nature and indifference towards the power subversion earned him dishonour. Lurie was surrounded by the students. They raised many questions. Lurie simply evades them. Lurie was compared with a beast in this juncture. The novel’s description described the event as “They circle around him like hunters who have cornered a strange beast and do not know how to finish it off” (Coetzee, 56). The situation is completely against Lurie. Coetzee explores the changeover of power in Lurie’s characterisation. Initially, Lurie was marked as a fox which cornered the innocent preys. Now Lurie stands like a cornered beast before the students. Lurie questions pupil in the classroom. Now they question him and show their anger at him. This incident is a peek of the complete change of power in the novel.


            A newspaper ridicules David Lurie. He never repents and never accepts his fault. A few people insist Lurie apologise and regret to save his image at least to an extent. David Lurie never thinks his act as a sin. He indirectly noted that the beauty of Melanie is not her own. It should be shared and he had his share. Lurie’s attitude towards women is obvious in his statement. He considers women as a thing which comes under the power of men. Men can dominate women as they possess power. This rationale view and supremacy thought never allows him to think the sexual exploitation as a mistake. Further, he replies a person who asks him to regret is “Repentance is neither here nor there. Repentance belongs to another world, to another universe of discourse” (Coetzee, 58). He maintained an arrogance and superiority in many places like his affair with Soroya and Melanie, at the committee and at the interview of students. He never accepts the guilt. Both Melanie and Soroya are black. Lurie explored them for his sexual desire. It is also a kind of racial discrimination. As an English professor, he considered himself as superior to that of black Melanie and Soroya. Lurie never listens to the voice of the black Africans. His pride and racial supremacy restrict him from remorse and repentance. His power thirst and lust drive him to a disgraceful way of living.


            David Lurie went to visit Lucy and her farm. He shifts his abode to that countryside. In this phase, Lurie’s sequences are associated with the animals. For instance, Lucy and Lurie open up a conversation in their walk. Lucy took the three dogs along with them for the walking. Lucy was aware of the complaint of Melanie. She asked about the incident. Lurie explained her hesitantly. Lurie carefully replied that the girl was bullied by her lover to lodge a complaint against him. Lurie never wants to diminish himself before his daughter Lucy.  Lucy introduces Bev Shaw the black lady who runs an animal refugee form and a pet clinic. The meeting of Bev Shaw and Lurie is surrounded by the animals. Lurie was warded off with the smell of cat excretion and dust. This incident is an evidence for the transformation of power. In the pre-apartheid situation, the animal welfare league is active. But the present change in government power shows less attention to animal protection. Bev Shaw with the help of volunteers runs the pet clinic. Bev Shaw in her talk with Lurie highlighted the situation and dejected status of animals. The hint given by her is there is hardly financial assistance is available in the newly formed Africa. David Lurie is not interested in the talk of Bev Shaw. Lucy clearly understood the disinterest of Lurie. David dislikes Bev Shaw’s idea of sharing human privileges with the animals. Animals do not have higher aims in life. The life of the animals and the humans are entirely different in the view of Lurie.


            The rural environment and the countryside never affect or made any change in the nature of Lurie. Lucy suggests Lurie that he can help Petrus in the farm or can assist Bev Shaw in her clinic. Lurie prefers to help Bev Shaw. He informed Lucy that he will not be altered from his nature and Pride. “I will do it. But only as long as I do not have to become a better person. I am not prepared to be reformed. I want to go on being myself” (Coetzee, 770). Lucy assured him that no one asks him to change. He can live as his will. David enters into an old dog’s cage and lay there for a while. Lucy got surprised by this. Lucy explores the status of dogs in the new country. After the change in the centre of power, the dogs disowned their former position. The dogs once treated as higher livings but now it is degraded and treated just like non-living things. This incident is a glimpse of a change of power and situation. Lurie tries to fix himself in the position of dogs. He feels pity or a sort of feel close to those animals. Lucy asked him a question about whether it is good for him to stay there and engage in the jobs available there. This question put Lurie into a self-enquiry about his position and power. He is clear that the scandal and the disgrace follow him even he got a new job in a new university. Lurie enjoyed the position and power as a professor of English in a university. He never thinks to fix himself in a position less than that of his former position. Moreover, he knew that he cannot command respect, without respect the job would be obscure. “I am no longer marketable. The scandal will follow me, stick to me. No, if I took a job it would have to be as something obscure, like a ledger clerk, if they still have them, or a kennel attendant” (Coetzee, 88).


            Another incident of power subversion is found in the novel. The interaction of Lurie and Petrus is the evident thing for the change. Petrus is the neighbour of Lucy. He helps Lucy in her vegetable form. Once Petrus and Lurie watched a football match on the television. The commentary of the match is in the African language. Lurie doesn’t understand the commentary. So, he turns the volume down. Petrus wants to enjoy the match with the commentary. He turned the volume up. The language preference of Lurie and Petrus is evidence for the change in power. The regional language preference of Petrus and the commentary is a symbolism of the denial of English. The remote button is a symbolic representation of power. The new switchover of power in the nation heavily affects the status of the English language. The English commentary is now in the marginal status. The English language commentary is replaced by the regional languages. The new African ruling authority and independence tend to change the position and status of English.

            The novel foreshadows the dilemma of white people in the post-apartheid African condition. The novelist presented the law and order status, land and economic rationalisation. The novelist explored the marginality. The marginal status of the animals is explored through David Lurie who has a close connection with animals. Both human and animals suffer humiliation. “The industrial, mechanical, chemical, hormonal and genetic violence to which man has been submitting animal life for the past two centuries” (Derrida, 395). The quote from Derrida clearly pointed out the sufferings of human and animals. Lurie is paralleled with animals in the novel Disgrace. He is surrounded by the animals which are abandoned, fading and dead animals. The expression of the novel is not possible without animals. In the novel flow, Lurie lost his power, identity and self-respect. He internally and externally experienced the power subversion. The novel travels in the trajectory of power. The track of the novel holds the issues of identity, race, gender and dignity. Sublimation of power in the Lurie’s profile explores a complex dimension of power in post-apartheid Africa. The novel closely investigates the central character. Lurie hardly accepts the change of power but slowly he accepts the change. He lost his job, position, power, pride and lust. Lurie finally attains a complete renouncement and capitulation.



Works Cited


Coetzee J.M.  Disgrace. Secker & Warburg, London. 1999. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Animal That Therefore I am”. Trans. David Wills. Critical inquiry winter. p. 380, 2002.

Dovey, Teresa. The novels of J. M. Coetzee: Lacanian allegories. Craighall: Ad. Donker. 1988.

Gallagher, Susan Van Zanten. A story of South Africa: J. M. Coetzee’s fiction in context. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press. 1991.

Parry, Benita. Speech and silence in the fictions of J. M. Coetzee. New Formations, 21, 120. 1993.