The novel Disgrace by Coetzee is one of the major postcolonial texts, which reveals race, gender, and political issues from different ethical perspectives. The author tried to understand human nature and, in particular, the reasons people are so cruel to one another. Consequently, there are many brutal and dramatic scenes in the text, making Disgrace difficult and inexorable for the reader. One of the key themes in the novel is the motive of the victim, which manifests as a form of postcolonial restoration of order in the society and culture destroyed by imperial countries, especially English forces.
The plot of the novel is the story of the professor David Lurie who has a relationship with his student, which finally causes his dismissal from the university. Then, he moves to the village of Cape Town, where he lives for some time with his daughter Lucy, trying to recover from the incident and find a new meaning in life. However, fate throws him a new test after which he is completely disappointed in people.
Already on the first pages, the reader can meet the first example of sacrifice represented by a young girl Melanie Isaacs, Lurie’s student. In fact, it is a dummy victim because David does not rape her. They mutually agree to engage in sexual relations: “She does not resist. All she does is avert herself: avert her lips, avert her eyes” (Coetzee 25). It is a snag that surrounds the real situation of the victim, who is David Lurie. On the one hand, he is guilty because he has an intimate relationship with his student, creating a precedent in the university. Despite this, the relationship between them is still not equal from both ethical and psychological point of view. Lurie often has sex with Melanie without her wish. Obviously, it cannot be considered rape but one cannot call David an innocent victim. On the other hand, he finds himself in a situation where his colleagues try to judge him as an amoral person. In fact, the pedagogical committee has to dismiss him to keep order in the university, without violating his authority among others. The following words of Melanie’s father can prove it: “We put our children in the hands of you people because we think we can trust you. If we can’t trust the university, who can we trust?” (Coetzee 38). David is sacrificed for a greater purpose, although the professor does not feel like a victim. The situation is absurd because he is the best expert in Byron literature and Romanticism, thus being a bearer of high values. His act discredits his image, but David does understand why he should be judged in such a way. He says, “I don’t know. I’m not sure I will be permitted to come back to the university. I’m not sure I will want to” (Coetzee 44). His inner state and the way of life have changed from a position of dominance to a position of humiliation.
The main victim in the novel is Lucy who is raped on her farm by three young black boys. She is the opposite figure to Melanie who is a dummy victim because Lucy is not a victim of her own. She lives peacefully on her farm and does not want to hurt anyone; thus, she always tries to fit into the local landscape. In fact, she clearly stands out due to her skin color but tries to ignore it. Nevertheless, Mardorossian underlined that “Lucy’s rape is not just about race anymore” (77), it is committed because she is a stranger. On the other hand, there is no rational reason for crime because cruelty cannot be explained logically. It is also hard to understand why three black men try to kill David. From the perspective of postcolonial criticism, the cruel act is a revenge for colonization by white people. It is not an accident that David accuses their neighbor Petrus of organizing the attack, as he thinks that one person has planned all these things. David is the carrier of English codes, which was one of the key imperial countries. He and his daughter are just markers of the imperial culture that should be destroyed or at least tamed.
There is also a paradigm shift in the relationship of David and Lucy with Petrus. In the new era that follows, Petrus takes a different position than the one on which he relied before. He is no longer a slave, not a servant, but a neighbor, co-owner, and manager of the farm, and he “has the right to come and go as he wishes” (Coetzee 116). Accordingly, no one has a right to dismiss him. On the contrary, all have to pay him for work. However, it is not enough for Petrus. He seeks to achieve a higher position than his white neighbors, attempting to control and manipulate them: “It is a new world they live in, he and Lucy and Petrus” (Coetzee 117). Once he asks David to give him the tools and then convinces Lucy to marry him and instead he promises to protect her from attackers. Lucy’s “marriage” to Petrus is the means by which she will become the part of Petrus’ extended family, “part of the family,” “my people,” as he says (Coetzee 201).
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Furthermore, it is important that an animal is also the victim in the pre-Christian form of archaic culture. The events occur mainly in rural areas, where most people are far away from civilization and close to the ancient forms of order. The basis here is the male patriarchal regime manifested in the cruel sacrifice. For instance, in one of the scenes, three black men kill dogs. Essentially, it means that instead of killing Lucy, black people kill animals as a symbol of colonialism and admiration. Thus, human sacrifice is replaced by the animal one. It is crucial that in African culture dogs are creatures that are often associated with the colonization of Africans, so they also have a quite symbolic meaning in the novel.
After the rape, Lucy is broken and completely apathetic, although she does not condemn criminals. It seems that she is even sorrier for David and dead dogs than for herself. She does not want to report to the police because it does not change anything. Moreover, Lucy’s “balking at reporting the rape suggests that she knows that representing the self is inseparable from representing others” (Mardorossian 76). Lucy is the central victim who symbolizes a form of return to the old order for black people and an unwillingness to disturb the order for whites. Moreover, as a result of rape, Lucy becomes pregnant, so the situation becomes even more complicated. Lucy’s baby is just one more attempt of adaptation, even at the expense of its honor.
In the novel, two rape cases can be compared. In both cases, black people are carriers of dishonest behavior, indicating the inverted colonial discourse. According to Kelly, “the historical specificity with which customary authority is drawn in Disgrace both registers the potential force of ethnic identity in the postcolonial state and forecloses any straightforward celebration of it” (169). In this world, the rulers are black people, and white individuals are their victims even if they are more civilized or experts of Byron. Violence is the natural result of unjust policies of the previous order; thus, Africans feel a right to treat unjustly white people, regardless of ethical standards. They are right in any case, even if they are wrong.
Therefore, the victim and its cultural significance are the main motives in the novel Disgrace, which permeate from the beginning to the end and are finally transformed by different symbolic registers. Melanie is the first victim due to her sexual relations with Lurie; however, their relations are mutual, and David does not do anything criminal. On the other hand, it is the amoral act because he often has sex with his student without her wish. Despite David does not admit his guilt, the order in the university is saved. Then, another victim is his daughter Lucy who is raped by three black guys on a farm. In addition, they also kill dogs, which can also be considered victims in this situation. All these acts symbolize a wish to revenge, especially by Petrus who embodies the postcolonial African culture, where the imperial power is removed. David and his daughter are just innocent victims in this situation, but for Petrus and all Africans they represent the imperial discourse.