Theme in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace

Moving along from the discussion of Feb 6, “Theme,” I’d like to suggest possible themes of a novel I’ve reread lately. I have no idea whether the author started with a theme in mind, or not, a pronouncement on an idea that was worming its way into his consciousness. Or his society’s. But if you were a white South African of any feeling and intelligence, during apartheid, how could such an idea elude you?

J. M. Coetzee
South African novelist J. M. Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (2003), now resides in Australia.

This book is the celebrated novel Disgrace (1999) by the Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee. It’s set in the South Africa of the 1990s, just after the end of apartheid. It’s about a literature professor named David Lurie who gets fired from his job for abusing, molesting, having sex with (what are the right words here?) a young student of his. He refuses to apologize in the terms his academic colleagues require and is let go.

He goes out into the South African countryside and lives for a while with his grown daughter, who is farming and taking care of dogs. He helps her with these tasks and is there when three black men break into her house, beat him, rape her.

The daughter refuses to get an abortion when she becomes pregnant.

The father continues ministering to the needs of stray and unwanted dogs at a local veterinary clinic; he assists in their euthanasia and takes the corpses to a crematorium. The last page of the novel is unsentimentally powerful, even shocking:

He opens the cage door. "Come," he says, bends, opens his arms. The dog wags his crippled rear, sniffs his face, licks his cheeks, his lips, his ears. He does nothing to 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?"

"Yes. I am giving him up."

No, Coetzee is not proposing a Christian framework of salvation, of disgrace and redemptive grace. This fallen creature, David Lurie, cannot save the dog, even for another week. The dog must die, and David must continue living like a dog; for that is the human condition.

The dog is a secular lamb, not Jesus, and will not redeem our sins. Still, if we cannot save the dog but enter into empathy with the doomed creature, identify with the miserable animal, then we ourselves, not without sin, may begin to rise above our misery, our degradation, our disgrace. May achieve some kind of secular grace, which if it does not take us to heaven enables us to go forward with a better notion of our duties and our place in the fragile human condition.

Vulnerable, crippled, disgraced, carrying on and doing the dogged best we can.

Author: Greg Zeck

Greg Zeck taught college English in Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota. He also had a career in freelance business writing and communications. He's retired now in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with his wife Jennifer, where he continues to read, write, bike, hike, and garden.

One thought on “Theme in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace”

  1. Now here is a theme! That’s what I’m talkin’ about. 🙂

    “…if we cannot save the dog but enter into empathy with the doomed creature, identify with the miserable animal, then we ourselves, not without sin, may begin to rise above our misery, our degradation, our disgrace. May achieve some kind of secular grace, which if it does not take us to heaven enables us to go forward with a better notion of our duties and our place in the fragile human condition.

    “Vulnerable, crippled, disgraced, carrying on and doing the dogged best we can.”

    Zeck, you’re fixin’ ta draw me inta readin’ fiction. Imagine that!

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