David Lurie is a scholar of the English Romantic poets, now professor of communications in Cape Town in newly post-apartheid South Africa. He is fired in disgrace for sexual harassment after having an affair with one of his students, Melanie Isaacs, or raping her (our definition of the act is deliberately blurred until later). He goes to stay with his daughter, Lucy, who kennels dogs and grows flowers on a smallholding in the Eastern Cape, and he passes his time helping Lucy's friend, Bev, in the euthanasia and disposal of sick and unwanted dogs.

Then he and Lucy are attacked by three black men who arrive at the farm. They pour lighter fluid over him and set him on fire, and they gang-rape Lucy. One of the attackers is a relative of Lucy's neighbour, a black man named Petrus, and protected by him. Lucy refuses to press charges or to leave, but Lurie drives back to Cape Town.

On the way, he stops at the home of Melanie Isaacs and meets her father, who invites him to stay for dinner. He apologizes to her father, who asks him some difficult questions about forgiveness and about being in disgrace. There are parallels between him and Mr. Isaacs in relation to their respective raped daughters. In Cape Town Lurie finds that his house has been broken into and everything stolen.

When Bev calls him to say that Lucy is not well he goes back to the farm, where he discovers that she is pregnant as a result of the rape, has decided to keep the child, and intends to agree to Petrus's offer of marriage: if she becomes one of his wives, in name only, she will be allowed to stay on the farm (which he will now own) under his protection.

She resists all her father's objections. He finds a room in the town near her farm, continues to help Bev killing the dogs, and, while he awaits the birth of his grandchild, works on an opera he is writing, about the abandoned mistress of the poet Byron, who yearns for a time that is past.


This disturbing novel explores with clinical precision the effects of losing power. On the widest scale, the book is about whites in a South Africa no longer governed by whites, but is also about being a scholar of opera and romantic poetry in a world that values commerce, youth, and the future, and more universally, about being a middle-aged man in a society where the power of older white men has been reduced. One can resist change, or one can respond as Lucy does [she is named, I think, after Wordsworth's Lucy, who becomes a selfless part of nature, "rolled round in earth's diurnal course, with rocks and stones and trees" ("Lucy," V)] by entirely relinquishing one's claims to power of any kind.

She concludes that it is necessary, as a white person in South Africa--perhaps as a white woman, since women are, according to Coetzee, "adaptable"--to start again now, "at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity …. Like a dog" (205). One may find in this a kind of zen-like serenity, but it is also a loss of humanity. At the end of the book, Lurie gives up his own dog to be euthanized.

While not immediately or obviously about health care, Disgrace explores reactions to extremity and to the way in which most humans struggle, even when they have "nothing," to be human. (The book bears an implicit reminder, too, of the many South Africans who have far less than Coetzee's characters, and for whom the restoration of political power brings both hope and, for some, revenge.) Lurie struggles to write, to create, and he learns, in giving dogs a peaceful death, to provide a kind of care easily translated to medical settings: he learns "to concentrate all his attention on the animal they are killing, giving it what he no longer has difficulty in calling by its proper name: love" (219).


This novel won Coetzee his second Booker Prize.


Viking: Penguin

Place Published

New York



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