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David Lurie, a fifty-two-year-old, twice-divorced professor from Cape Town, South Africa, arrives at Windsor Mansions promptly at 2:00 PM on Thursday for his weekly rendezvous with a prostitute named Soraya. David and Soraya have sex the novel’s third-person narrator provides details about their relationship: For more than a year, David has met Soraya for ninety minutes in flat number 113, paying for sex at a cost of 400 South African rand, half of which goes directly to Discreet Escorts, Soraya’s employer.
The narrator of Disgrace, who routinely offers insight into David’s thoughts throughout the novel, then reveals additional details about David and Soraya. Throughout his adult life, David has been a womanizer, effortlessly wooing women with his charm until, as he became older, his powers deserted him, whereupon he sought out sex with colleagues’ wives and “whores.” With Soraya, David believes he has now “solved the problem of sex,” though his growing affection for her makes him want to ask if she’ll see him on a personal basis, an idea that quickly fades when he considers his temperament. David knows little about Soraya, other than that she is Black, much younger than he is, has birthed at least one child, and that Soraya is likely not her real name.
After the opening rendezvous, David and Soraya’s relationship changes one Saturday morning in Cape Town when David sees Soraya walking with two children. He observes them at a distance and, studying the boys’ characteristics, determines they must be Soraya’s sons. David and Soraya then share a quick glance, after which nothing is the same between them.
The chance encounter hangs over them the following Thursday and David soon feels Soraya grow increasingly cool to him. Away from her, David imagines Soraya and her fellow prostitutes shuddering about their customers, especially older ones like him. Soon, Soraya tells David she will not be able to meet with him the following Thursday because her mother is ill. Though David presses Soraya on when they can meet again, she is non-committal. After a few days, David calls Discreet Escorts and learns that Soraya has left the company.
Soon after, David solicits sex from another prostitute whom he surmises is no more than eighteen years old. After the encounter, David takes the communication department’s new female secretary to his house where they have sex. David is not satisfied by their encounter, however, and hires a detective agency to find Soraya. After the agency gives David her phone number, he calls and asks when they can see each other again. Soraya tells him he’s harassing her and demands that he never call again. David imagines her husband and has a sudden pang of envy.
David’s weeks feel featureless now that his arranged Thursday afternoon trysts with Soraya no longer exist. To fill time, he frequents the University library, where he reads up on the poet Bryon. As David walks home one Friday, he encounters Melanie Isaacs, a student from his Romantics course, in the college gardens. Melanie is attractive and dressed in a maroon miniskirt. David is instantly attracted to her and looks at her with a desiring gaze.
David invites Melanie to his home for a drink. Melanie agrees but makes it clear that she needs to leave by 7:30 PM. At David’s home, Melanie and David drink wine and listen to music as they discuss David’s class. David and Melanie also discuss the poet William Wordsworth. Melanie is not a fan, though David tells her that Wordsworth is one of his favorites. David also learns that Melanie’s taste in poets is more modern.
Soon, David invites Melanie to stay for dinner. He learns that Melanie is interested in stagecraft and design, and that she is pursuing a degree in theater. After dinner, Melanie tells David she needs to leave, but he convinces her to stay longer. As they drink more, David makes a pass, touching Melanie’s cheek and telling her he’d like her to do something reckless with him. David then recites a quote about “beauty’s rose” from Shakespeare’s Sonnets, though the reference does not rouse Melanie. She again tells David that she must leave and then rebuffs his offer to walk her home. Just before Melanie leaves, though, David reaches out to hold her. For a moment, he feels Melanie’s youthful breasts against him, though Melanie is quick to slip away from his embrace.
David visits his department office, where he gathers Melanie’s information from her personal file. David then telephones Melanie, and upon hearing her voice, realizes she’s too young for him. He pushes forward, though, telling Melanie he thought she might like to go to lunch with him. There, David senses Melanie’s apprehension but promises he won’t let things go too far. Nevertheless, David drives Melanie to his home where they have sex. Melanie is passive during the encounter. David, however, finds it pleasurable, and although Melanie averts her eyes from him and leaves immediately after, David feels happy when he wakes the next morning.
On campus the next day, when David finds Melanie waiting with other students by a door for a break in the rain, he tells her to wait and that he’ll give her a ride home. In David’s car, he again realizes how young Melanie is and for a moment, questions what he’s doing, but his desire for her wins out. David then drives Melanie to her apartment and asks her to invite him in. Melanie refuses, though, saying her roommate is likely home.
Later in his class, David discusses Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem The Prelude. He focuses on the phrase “usurped upon” and attempts to explain its meaning. The class doesn’t seem to grasp David’s lesson, so he makes a comparison to being in love as he recalls the feeling of touching Melanie’s youthful breasts. Later, David visits the University’s auditorium where he secretly watches Melanie practice the play, Sunset at the Globe Salon.
David visits Melanie’s flat the next day, again hoping to have sex with her. Although Melanie says no, David continues to pressure her. Eventually, Melanie acquiesces: She averts her eyes, turns her back to David, and slackens as he has sex with her. Though Melanie skips class the next day, David marks her as present and gives her a passing grade on her missed mid-term test. After missing another week of class, Melanie shows up at David’s house at night, and without going into details, asks if she can stay with him for a while. David prepares a bed for Melanie in the bedroom that was once his daughter’s and the next morning, comforts her as she sobs, but uses the moment to try to have sex with her.
Disgrace begins by delving into the protagonist David Lurie’s character while examining his relationship with women and sex. Driven primarily by his desires, David, now twice divorced, regularly uses women to satisfy his needs. This includes paying for the act on his Thursday afternoon trysts with Soraya, but also extends into his history as a womanizer in his younger years and the sex with colleagues’ wives and “whores” that followed as he got older. The sum of David’s actions also reveal that he largely perceives women as mere sexual objects. David does, however, at times waver between simply using women for sex and seeing them as a source of intimacy. Such thoughts are short-lived, however. Were Soraya to agree to seeing him in her personal time, he’d only become distant and difficult to be around. David, then, convinces himself that his temperament is fixed and that he’s incapable of change, an excuse that also allows him to continue justifying his behavior and perceptions of women.
Beyond being selfish, David demonstrates classic predatory behavior. This predation is initially revealed when Soraya leaves Discreet Escorts and David hires a detective agency to track down her phone number, an event that foreshadows following scenes with David’s student, Melanie. Beginning with his and Melanie’s encounter in the college gardens, David pushes for what he wants, and his predatory behavior increases with his desires. He later tracks down Melanie’s personal information, dictates what their plans will be, and shakes off her concerns before bringing her to his house to have sex. At Melanie’s flat, he continues to ignore her protestations and has sex with her in a way that borders on rape.
David’s actions also provide a lens through which readers can examine power dynamics between men and women, the aged and the young, and white and Black people in post-apartheid South Africa. Male, fifty-two-years-old, and white, David doesn’t hesitate to intrude on the personal life of Soraya, a Black prostitute who’s young enough to be his daughter. That a woman’s body is seen as a commodity and that half of Soraya’s income goes to Discreet Escorts speaks of additional exploitation, one that did not deter David from soliciting her services. As a male professor, David is in a position of power over Melanie, his twenty-year-old student whose youth and position become especially apparent as she sleeps in the bedroom that was once David’s daughter’s. Nevertheless, David exerts his will over Melanie, ignoring her apprehensions and protestations. Although David’s lesson on Wordsworth’s The Prelude is meant to show how reality always fails to measure up to our ideas and expectations of something, the parallel of its language is powerful: Melanie is “usurped upon” by David.
Although much of David’s behavior regarding sex can be seen as predatory and exploitative, his age and passage into mid-life also figures into his desire to pursue younger women. David equates sex and sexual prowess with life and sees sex with young women as a lifeline to his younger, more vital self. David’s professional life is also significant here. His three published books feel inconsequential to the modern word and the loss of his tenured position teaching Classics and Modern Languages, along with his students’ general lack of interest in Romantic poets, all increase his sense of becoming irrelevant and antiquated as he ages.