David Lurie, a white university professor and incorrigible womanizer from Cape Town, South Africa, relishes his weekly rendezvous with a young, Black prostitute named Soraya. David, who is middle-aged, twice divorced, and disenchanted with his life in academia, thinks his trysts have “solved the problem of sex,” an idea that means he believes they allow him to satisfy his sexual needs without the complications of a relationship. After a chance encounter where David happens upon Soraya and sees she has two young sons, everything changes. Soraya leaves the escort agency, and, after David hires a detective agency to find her phone number, she tells him he’s harassing her. David, acutely aware that he is aging, and that his younger, more vital self is fading, then sets his sights on Melanie Isaacs, a twenty-year-old student in his Romantic poets course. 

Despite Melanie’s age, status as a student, and expressed apprehension, David pressures her into having sex at his house. The experience rattles Melanie, but David pushes on. He finds her phone number and address, where he again pressures her to have sex, this time in a manner bordering on rape. Melanie’s boyfriend, Ryan, later confronts David in his office and classroom during a lesson on Byron’s poem “Lara,” which examines Lucifer’s flaws and fall from heaven. When David scolds Melanie and tells her she needs to work harder and improve her attendance, she withdraws from the university and files a complaint against him with the Vice-Rector’s office. At an ensuing hearing before a committee of his peers, David is mostly defiant. He offers only a weak apology, stating that he was merely following his natural desires. Eventually, the committee offers David a way to save his career by signing a written admittance of wrongdoing, but he declines, opting instead to leave the university in disgrace.

David, now in exile, travels to stay with his adult daughter, Lucy, on her farm in the Eastern Cape. Lucy lives there by herself, which causes David concern for her safety. Lucy earns her living by selling flowers and produce and by kenneling dogs with the help of her assistant, Petrus. During discussions with Lucy, David refuses to admit regret or responsibility for his affair with Melanie, again deferring to his desires. Although David tells Lucy he’s too old to change and become a good person, she convinces him to volunteer at the nearby animal clinic, led by her friend, Bev Shaw, whose services include euthanizing old, unwanted dogs. David also ponders his next work, an opera about the last years of the poet Byron’s life, marked by affairs and scandal. He helps Petrus on his portion of land, recently purchased from Lucy via a land grant. David views his helping Petrus as intriguing, given that Petrus is Black and because of South Africa’s past, where whites held power over Black people under a segregated system of Apartheid. 

Soon, David’s fears for Lucy’s safety manifest when three men, including one youth, force their way into the farmhouse, detain David in a bathroom, and rape Lucy. The men, who are Black, also shoot all but one of the farm’s kenneled dogs. The attack forces the characters of Disgrace and its readers to reckon with South Africa’s simmering racial tensions. In the days that follow, David questions why Petrus was away from his home during the attack, and if he orchestrated it to take over Lucy’s land. At a party at Petrus’s soon after, David’s suspicions grow when Lucy recognizes the youth who raped her, and Petrus becomes upset when David threatens to call the police. Lucy’s rape forces David to confront his attitudes and past actions regarding women, particularly Melanie. After Lucy remains largely silent about her rape for weeks, she eventually shares certain insights, saying the act was about hatred, power, and subjugation. What’s more, she tells David that, as a man, he likely understands.

In the days that follow, David’s aversion to change is further challenged. Through his work at the shelter with Bev, with whom he also has an affair, David learns compassion for animals, though remains cynical about his personal development. David also reluctantly sees that Lucy is no longer a child when she defies his insistence to report the rape and start over someplace new. As a result, David and Lucy’s relations grow more fraught, and he leaves the farm. Despite his newfound insights, David visits Melanie’s home in George, telling her father, Mr. Isaacs, that he wanted to apologize. Mr. Isaacs questions David’s motives, though, then evokes God and asks David if he’s truly sorry, after which David returns to Cape Town to find his life in ruins: His home has been ransacked, his finances are in chaos, and neighbors pretend not to see him. With little to do, David works on his opera about Byron, though decides to shift its focus from the fallen poet to Byron’s middle-aged lover, Teresa. David then attempts to see Melanie again, watching her perform at a play, though he is chased away by Ryan. After, David solicits the services of a prostitute, an act that makes him recall Soraya and leaves him feeling contented.   

David later returns to Lucy’s farm when Bev tells him there have been “developments.” There, he learns that Lucy is pregnant with a child conceived during the rape and that the youth who raped her, named Pollux, is related to, and now lives with, Petrus. Petrus then offers to marry Lucy, a move she knows is a pretext to take over her land in exchange for his protection. Later, when David sees Pollux peeping on Lucy, he thrashes him, and David’s long-standing, seething racist sentiments spill over. Lucy breaks up the fight, telling David she only wants peace and that he should leave the farm. Days later, now living in his own apartment in town, David visits and silently watches Lucy as she tends her flowers. He considers how she’s grown into a full-fledged adult, her pregnancy, and how life has and will continue to move forward, even after he’s gone. Disgrace concludes at the animal clinic, where David decides to put down a dog he’s bonded with, telling Bev “I am giving him up.”