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Disgrace follows the life and thoughts of the fifty-two-year-old protagonist David Lurie as he’s forced to face himself and reckon with his feelings about women, sex, race, age, and power after his sexual affair with a young student leads to his downfall. Set in post-Apartheid South Africa amid rapid societal changes, the novel also examines how David’s great resistance to change, particularly to passing into the later seasons of his life and therefore, as he sees it, losing his relevancy and sexual potency, contributes to his self-inflicted state of disgrace.
The novel begins with a glimpse into David’s perceptions regarding women and aging. David, a white, twice-divorced university professor and incorrigible womanizer from Cape Town, solicits sex from a young Black prostitute named Soraya. He knows that she likely shudders at the thought of having sex with a man his age and that her work is a form of sexual exploitation. Still, he clings to their weekly trysts, relying on their sex to satisfy his own needs and viewing the trysts as a lifeline to his younger, more vital self. David later pressures his twenty-year-old student Melanie Isaacs into a sexual affair, including an encounter that borders on rape, for the same reasons. This inciting incident then sets the plot of Disgrace into irreversible motion: When Melanie files a formal complaint against David, he defiantly refuses to take responsibility, believes he’s too old to change his ways, and leaves his university in exile to live with his adult lesbian daughter, Lucy, on her farm in the Eastern Cape.
When three Black men, the novel’s antagonists, lock David in a bathroom, kill all but one of the farm’s kenneled dogs, and rape Lucy, David begins to examine his past actions and grapple with the many changes, both personal and societal, swirling around him. Lucy’s rape, and her later revelations that the attack was motivated by hatred, power, and subjugation, teach David how his actions affected Melanie. David then gains additional perspective into women’s issues when Petrus, Lucy’s Black neighbor and former assistant, proposes to marry Lucy, using the attack as leverage to acquire her land in return for his protection. Lucy’s refusal to bend to David’s insistence that she leave the farm and abort the baby conceived during her rape makes David finally recognize what she’s been asking him to see: that she is now an independent adult whose actions he can no longer dictate. The dogs’ deaths, along with David’s service at a local animal clinic where he helps Bev Shaw care for and euthanize old, unwanted dogs, also help him gain compassion and insight into his own state of disgrace.
The more David changes throughout Disgrace, though, the more he stays the same. Even after all he learns while living on Lucy’s farm, he later visits Melanie’s home in George. There, he looks at Melanie’s younger sister with sexual desire and offers an insincere apology for the affair to their father, Mr. Isaacs, who realizes David likely only visited in hopes of seeing Melanie. When David eventually returns to Cape Town and finds his life in ruins because of his scandal, he again attempts to see Melanie at a play and later solicits sex from an inebriated prostitute. Later, when David returns to Lucy’s farm, he again reveals his reluctance to change after he catches Pollux, the youngest of Lucy’s three rapists, peeping on her. As David thrashes Pollux, his long-seething racist sentiments boil over and even as Lucy calls for peace, showing David the way to a better future, both for himself and his country, David still claims he’s incapable of changing and becoming a better person.
The violence, misogyny, and racial divides found in Disgrace, coupled with David’s repeated reluctance to change, are likely to cast doubts about both his and South Africa’s future. At the novel’s conclusion, when David decides to euthanize a dog that he had bonded with and tells Bev “I am giving him up,” his words may signify that he has resigned himself to living in a permanent state of disgrace. Still, the optimistic reader can find reason for hope in the novel’s preceding scenes. When David returns to Lucy’s farm for the first time after she demanded he leave for thrashing Pollux, he watches his daughter tending to her flower fields and contemplates how much she’s grown, her pregnancy, and the continuum of life. In the process, David also acknowledges, seemingly peacefully for the first time, that he is no longer a young man. His words to Bev, then, may in fact signify that he is at last ready to give up his former self and transition into the final seasons of his life. In fact, amid Lucy’s blooming flower fields, David earnestly asks himself whether he can change his ways and, when he becomes a grandfather, acquire new virtues and become a better man. Whether David will change is a question each reader must ponder, but his invitation from Lucy to enter her farmhouse again represents a new start from which anything is possible.