Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Resistance to Change

Change is inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any easier for David, who spends much of Disgrace fighting it and suffering as a result. David’s resistance to change is most apparent in his aversion to getting older and more irrelevant, which drives him to have sex with younger women such as Melanie Isaacs. What’s more, even after David is given a chance to admit wrongdoing and agree to therapy, he chooses his own downfall. He’s “a grown man” and “not receptive to being counselled,” he tells the committee at his hearing. David is also too old to become a better person, he later thinks when Lucy asks him to volunteer at the animal clinic or calls for peace when his long-held racist sentiments spill over while thrashing Pollux. 

Despite seeing Lucy as a full-fledged adult, David also has difficulty accepting she’s no longer his little girl. David’s reluctance to let Lucy go and not try to control her life, particularly after she decides not to report her rape and keep the child conceived during the attack, ultimately drives a wedge between them. 

Amid all his personal and the larger societal changes surrounding him, though, David does grow in meaningful ways. He learns compassion from Bev Shaw and through Lucy, he gains perspective on how his actions affected Melanie. As David contemplates Lucy’s pregnancy in the novel’s final chapter, he also acknowledges he’s entered the final seasons of his life, even questioning if, as he becomes a grandfather, he can acquire new virtues like equanimity, kindliness, and patience.

The Exploitation and Subjugation of Women

It’s fitting that Disgrace opens with David Lurie’s solicitation of sex from a prostitute, Soraya, who’s young enough to be his own daughter. True, Soraya works for an escort service and likely leads a better life than the “streetwalker” with whom David has sex in Chapter Twenty-One. Still, their encounter reveals Soraya’s body to be a commodity that can be bought and sold, and speaks of sexual exploitation, especially given that half her income goes to Discreet Escorts. 

This knowledge doesn’t deter David, though, and he again prioritizes his own needs during his affair with Melanie. Although Melanie is his student and has hips “as slim as a twelve-year-old’s,” David exerts his power over her and pushes her to have sex, including one encounter that borders on rape. The incident foreshadows Lucy’s rape in Chapter Eleven and Lucy’s revelation in Chapter Eighteen that her attack was about subjugation. The three men, Lucy determines, meant to bring her under their control and likely have done the same to other women. Whether Petrus plotted the attack is unclear, but he clearly profits from the men’s effort to subjugate Lucy. She knows his proposal is only a pretext to acquire her land, a move that largely leaves her under his control and “patronage.”

The Legacy of Colonialism and Racism

Time and setting are critical components of Disgrace. Published in 1999, the novel shines a light on South Africa and its emergence from Apartheid, a social and political system of segregation that allowed whites to subjugate Black people. Despite Apartheid’s end in 1994, readers gain insight into the country’s Colonialist past and lasting racial tensions through white characters such as Ettinger, a German immigrant and landowner who, after Lucy’s rape in Chapter Eleven, says there’s “[n]ot one of them you can trust,” as well as Black characters such as Pollux, the youngest of Lucy’s three rapists, who tells David and Lucy in Chapter Twenty-Three, “We will kill you all!”

After Lucy’s rape, David struggles to accept the racial changes and power shifts that have occurred in the country. Although David has no proof, he’s convinced that Petrus plotted the attack to acquire Lucy’s land and is outraged when Petrus protects Pollux, protection that may stem from an attempt to balance past wrongs. Regardless, when David later sees Pollux peeping on Lucy in Chapter Twenty-Three, he erupts in violence, hurling racial slurs “that all his life he has avoided” while hoping to “show him his place.” Even as Lucy calls for peace, though, David declares it’s too late for him, and likely others like him, to change. 

Compassion and Empathy for Animals

Both Lucy and Bev Shaw extend love and kindness to animals and, despite David’s initial reluctance to change, help him become a more compassionate person. Bev heads the Animal Welfare League, where she cares for old, wounded, abandoned animals, often needing to euthanize them. Of the act, Bev tells David in Chapter Nine, “I mind deeply” and that she wouldn’t want someone doing the same for her who didn’t. Bev, speaking of how many animals are eaten by humans, also tells David she’s not sure how humans will ever justify their actions. 

Lucy echoes Bev’s sentiments, telling David in Chapter Eight she believes she’s living a good life, in part because she has compassion for animals. Later, in Chapter Nine, Lucy laments how poorly humans treat dogs and convinces David to volunteer at the clinic. Despite David’s largely selfish life to this point, his service there eventually leads him to become more caring and compassionate. He helps Bev euthanize dogs with love and in Chapter Fifteen, untethers two sheep who will later be slain for Petrus’s party so they can graze freely. The compassion David gains doesn’t merely represent his personal growth, however. His evolution, and the empathy and respect for animals that Lucy and Bev teach, also parallel the novel’s similar themes of power, subjugation, and status based on age, gender, and race.