J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace is a complicated study of the private and the public world of David Laurie where the personal interactions of the protagonist delineates the prominent themes of the novel of desire, love, intellect, physical need, grace, disgrace, and deliverance. The novel set in the post-apartheid South Africa distinctly relates the redefining of identities caught within inertia and transformation (Bonnici 88). His complacency and narcissism leads him to be inept in social interactions and personal life. David’s self-gratifying sexual needs and misogynistic tendencies are clearly understandable through his treatment of women (Harvey 101). He reduces women to the status of inanimate objects demonstrating his self-absorbed nature (Nejat and Yaghoobi 570). The relationship between David Laurie and three secondary female characters, Soraya, Desiree Isaacs, and Bev Shaw, is indicative of the condescending treatment of women by David shows his arrogance and the reason for his subsequent disgrace and deliverance. The paper will closely look at the kind of relation David had with the three women, and the point of commonality in it.
The novel begins with David, twice divorced, regularly visiting a colored prostitute, Soraya, for gratification of his sexual needs: “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well” (Coetzee 1). Soraya withdraws her services when she finds that David had discovered her double life as a part-time prostitute and a respectable middle-class homemaker with two sons. Though this revelation shatters the image David had of Soraya, he discreetly employs a private detective to peep into her private life. Soraya perceives this as a blatant encroachment on her privacy and is outraged. She tells David, “You are harassing me in my own house” (Coetzee 10). This ended David’s relationship with Soraya.
Sue Kossew believes that David’s sexuality has a strong link to his desire for authority (156). David’s disgrace lay in his inability to channel his sexual desires in this right way (Azoulay 33). For David, sex is a problem and as we read the story, we understand that David has a tendency towards abstraction (Kossew 157). David’s lovemaking with Soraya is described as “lengthy, absorbed, but rather abstract, rather dry, even at tits hottest” (Coetzee 3). Though he is physically inadequate to satisfy a younger woman, he still desires them as he sees them as his suitable partner. When David rings Soraya directly at her home, we find David making mental corrections of the grammatical errors in her sentences instead of paying heed to her anger. This shows David’s intellectually arrogant nature.
The problem that David faces with Soraya, and the other two women, is ownership. He is irritated with the fact that David has to interact with Soraya through Discreet Escorts and they claim half of what he gives to her. What angers him most is the agency’s control over Soraya and therefore on the sex they have. The ownership problem pushes him to think that he would like to own more of her in his own terms (Min and Xiaoyan 53). For David, his appetite for sex has a masochistic arrogance, egotistically motivated. Sex with a prostitute allows David a situation to usurp Soraya solely for himself. For David, Soraya is “Exotic” with her goddess-like “honey brown body” (Coetzee 7). Harvey points out that David’s attraction towards this prostitute remains solely narcissistic (101). His transcendence relies on the cost that he pays for her services and therefore, he arrogantly pursues her even when she refuses to see him anymore (101). The reason for his relation with the prostitute is solely exploitative and hence, disgraceful. David dreadfully assumes Soraya as simply an object of pleasure:
Because he takes pleasure in her, because his pleasure is unfailing, an affection has grown up in him for her. To some degree, he believes, this affection is reciprocated… His sentiments are, he is aware, complacent, even uxorious. Nevertheless he does not cease to hold them. (Coetzee 2)
For Desiree Isaacs, whom he meets when he goes to apologise and tell his part of the story to Mr Isaacs, Melanie’s father, David’s student with whom he had a physical relation, David instantly has a pornographic fantasy with Melanie’s little sister (Graham 441). In the presence of Mr Isaacs, David visualises a three-some with his two daughters. Desiree is Melanie’s younger sister, the desired one. David is unable to stop himself to sexually desire this young girl. His spoken apologies to Melanie’s family shows no sign of remorse as he still fantasises about the younger sister though he had an illegal affair with her elder sister and faced disgrace for it. His male egotism becomes explicit as he lusts for a young girl even when he is aware of that she is just a child. However, David recognises the girl as a mere child but the “current of desire” in her eyes hits him as his eyes meets that of Desiree. The racial intonation within the desire of David for a nubile black girl strikes the readers as his arrogance and disgrace.
Liaison with Bev Shaw plunges David into the reality of his sexuality. He instinctively dislikes Bev Shaw’s appearance that he considers ugly. When in his daughter’s farm in the country, David has sexual relation with Bev Shaw, the voluntary animal care-worker, and his daughter’s friend. This relation makes him realize that his disgrace lay in his sexuality. David believes to be a man of cultivated taste, educated in the western cultural and social norms. However, his initial judgment of women is based on shallow beliefs as can be observed when he first encounters Bev in her clinic and call her an “ugly little woman” (Coetzee 36). His initial consideration of his sexual partners, especially that of Bev and Soraya is that of superciliousness, if not outright dislike (Meljac 153). We find out from his expressions that he was not physically attracted to her because of her lack of external beauty indicative of David’s arrogance:
He has not taken to Bev Shaw, a dumpy, bustling little woman with black freckles, close-cropped wiry hair, and no neck. He does not like women who make no effort to be attractive. (Coetzee 31)
His initial perception of Bev is disgraceful for he judges her as an object with no external beauty and he conceives their physical relation as something he is reduced to accept as a consequence of his inability to have someone he desires. The episode of their lovemaking is “without passion” (Coetzee 64). However, this feeling towards Bev changes as he sees the love she has for the dogs. The lack of physical attraction towards Bev does not make David loath her as he is fascinated by her job as a voluntary caregiver to animals. He, therefore, calls her “not a veterinarian but a priestess” (Coetzee 36). He even asks himself to stop thinking of her as “poor Bev Shaw” for he believes that “if she is poor he is bankrupt” (Coetzee 64). However, after Bev and David had made love, he thinks, “After the sweet young flesh of Melanie Isaacs, this is what I have come to” (64). He considers the episode of lovemaking with an “ugly little woman” like Bev as relegation from his earlier status of a womanizer of beautiful women like Soraya and Melanie (64). He considers Bev as an object and address her with the pronoun “This”: “This is what I will have to get used to, this and even less than this” (64).
David’s desire for younger black women is amply apparent in the novel as he is seen, from the very beginning, lusting for younger women. Even though he is acutely aware of his age, David is unable to stop himself from desiring younger women. David assumes the picture of moral ambiguity like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert – a “serpent” coveting and tainting the innocence of younger girls. For Soraya David himself states that she was young and he was old enough to be her father. Desiree is the younger sister of one of his students and David is acutely aware of his attraction to this juvenile but attractive girl. David’s sexual appetite and interests are more complex than rape or paedophilia. Hence, the road to redemption becomes more complex. Bev Shaw is also a black woman who is his daughter’s friend. Thus, David’s relation with all these women demonstrates a constant struggle that is interracial and intersexual, a struggle between men and women, black and white.
David’s disgrace and redemption lies in the sexual relations he had with these women and many others. David had fantasised and aspired to remain in control of young, beautiful, black women like Soraya, Melanie, Desire (with whom he does not copulate but none the less desires), and Bev Shaw. His relation with these women had “enriched” his being, which he considers as a “stupid” word:
By Melanie, … by Bev Shaw, Soraya: by each of them he was enriched, and by the others too, even the least of them, even the failures. Like a flower blooming in his breast, his heart floods with thankfulness. (Coetzee 83)
These women (with an exception of Bev) were the ideal women that David wanted to own completely. However, they denied him love or pleasure. This led him to face his disgrace. On the other hand, it was with Bev that he finally finds love through her care for the emasculated dogs. This was the place for his deliverance. David’s arrogance rested on his choice of beautiful women and his desire to control them. In his arrogance, he sees Bev as ugly. His disgrace lay in his sexuality, his impropriety and controlling attitude of the women he coveted. However, his redemption was through succumbing to a relationship with Bev whom he considered unattractive physically, but later realised to posses a beautiful heart. Nevertheless, David’s redemption is complicated, like his apology to Melanie’s family, due to the dichotomy of his thoughts and expression, which rings of false arrogance.
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