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.

Words and deeds

The other night — actually three nights — I watched the Netflix documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door about the Colorado man, Chris Watts, who killed his pregnant wife and two baby daughters in the summer of 2019. It took me three nights not because the film was so long but because it was so painful.

Watts worked for Anadarko, the oil and gas exploration company, and the night his wife returned to him from an out-of-town conference he had sex with her and then confessed he no longer loved her. He was working out like a maniac, chiseling his body for the sake of his ego and his new GF and chiseling his wife in the bargain, as he adamantly denied he was interested in anybody else. He was making love to her that last night, he was fessing up that he did not love her, and then he strangled her in the bed.

Chris Watts' wife and daughters
From left, Bella Watts, Celeste Watts and Shanann Watts. – The Colorado Bureau of Investigation via AP.

He took the wife’s body to his truck and packed in the two girls, three and four years old also, who were crying and asking what was wrong with mommy. He drove to a worksite and laid the wife’s body on the ground, then strangled both girls, the younger, then the older, and threw the bodies into an oil storage tank.

You see what I mean? This is hideous and incomprehensible.

One of the lines that struck me in the film is one of the little girls skipping and singing, “I love school!”

But her father hadn’t learned much. He was a liar, in short. He was quieter than his wife, Shanann, who was passionate and frantically needed to be loved. She would text her girlfriends about Chris’s indifference and his lack of interest in her. She would hope to be lucky, that night, she would tell her friends, but Chris was not interested.

He was interested in working out, which he would do in lieu of talking to her or leveling with her or doing things with the family. He would bite his tongue till the blood roiled and keep his feelings to himself.

After the murders he told investigators, when he began to break, that his wife had strangled the girls, so he strangled her. That wasn’t true, of course.

He denied he had an extramarital love interest. And that wasn’t true.

Even his friends knew something was wrong. He was ordinarily such a calm, or should we say repressed, character, and here he was in the presence of investigators, in his house at first, acting weirdly nervous.

Wouldn’t you?

The wife doesn’t come across in the film as a very sympathetic figure — too needy and wheedling. But that’s no reason to kill her, as witnesses say. Why not simply leave her and the girls? Go with the GF and create a new life?

There was something darkly, demoniacally compelling, though.

“Every time I think about it, I’m just like, did I know I was going to do that before I got on top of her?” he told investigators. “It just felt like there was already something in my mind that was implanted that I was gonna do it and when I woke up that morning it was gonna happen and I had no control over it.”

This despite his apparent, or overt, Christianity. Chris Watts and his wife both hailed from North Carolina, part of the Bible Belt, and Watts’ father could not believe his son had committed murder. “In my heart,” he told ABC News, “I know he didn’t kill those girls.” After all, he “knows the Bible inside and out.”

But you can say one thing and do another, yes? You’ll see famous liars even in the Bible: Satan, St. Peter, Judas Iscariot.

You’ll see liars in Dostoevsky and other authors of the modern condition.

There’s love and marriage, and then there’s murder.

There’s saying one and doing something else.

There’s crime and, of course, there’s punishment, and Chris Watts is in prison for the rest of his life, where he will have ample time to cogitate his words and deeds.