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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
One of literature’s most versatile symbols, rain features prominently throughout Disgrace. For David, the rain that patters against his window while he has sex with Melanie for the first time can be seen to symbolize a mental cleansing and an outpouring of pent-up desire, a sense he also experiences after his sex with a prostitute in Chapter Twenty-One. For Melanie, however, who is pressured into the encounter and leaves immediately after, this rain more likely symbolizes melancholy. Rain can also symbolize foreboding, hinting here of the trouble that will soon follow. Similarly, the rain that falls in Chapter Five after David is first called to the Vice-Rector’s office to discuss Melanie’s sexual harassment complaint, and David’s later refusal to let Aram Hakim shield him from it with his umbrella, symbolizes David’s impending downfall. Rain can also symbolize growth and change. When David arrives on Lucy’s farm in Chapter Seven, readers learn that “[r]ains for the past two years have been good, the water table has risen,” symbolizing the growth David is soon to experience and his passing into the later seasons of his life.
The two sheep that Petrus tethers beside his stable in Chapter Fifteen symbolize David’s growing compassion for others and his development as a person. That Petrus plans to kill both sheep and serve their meat at his party unsettles David, who untethers them so they can freely graze by the farm’s dam. The move is telling, especially given David’s earlier discussions with Lucy where he contested her defense of animal rights and how adamantly opposed David can be to self-growth and change. It’s possible, too, that David sympathizes with the tethered sheep because they remind him of Lucy’s rape and, as Lucy was trapped by the three attackers, his inability to help her while he was locked in a bathroom.
Like rain and sheep, dogs in Disgrace multi-task in their functions as symbols. The dogs that Lucy kennels on her farm, including Dobermans, German shepherds, Rottweilers, and ridgebacks, can be seen to represent violence related to South Africa’s racial tensions. Indeed, in Chapter Thirteen, as David digs graves for the dogs that were killed by the attackers, he considers how easy and exhilarating it must have been for the men to shoot them in cages, “in a country where dogs are bred to snarl at the smell of a [B]lack man.” Dogs also symbolize one of the lowest tiers in society. In Chapter Eight, Lucy tells David that their welfare is low on South Africa’s list of priorities and in Chapter Nine and she laments how poorly dogs are treated when all they do is love. That David comes to be a “dog-man” at the Animal Welfare League, then, reveals not only how steep his fall has been, but also the amount of compassion he has gained.