Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Encountering Disgrace

Encountering Disgrace: Reading and Teaching Coetzee's Novel

Edited by Bill McDonald
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 372
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Encountering Disgrace
    Book Description:

    Ever since it was first published in 1999, Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace has provoked controversy. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, it follows Prof. David Lurie as he encounters disgrace through his sexual exploitation of a student and

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-732-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
    B. McD.
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)
    Bill McDonald

    Since it first appeared in 1999, Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace has provoked wide readership, political controversy, and strong critical performances. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, the novel follows Prof. David Lurie as he encounters disgrace, first through his sexual exploitation of one of his students, and then through the gang-rape of his only daughter. Lurie’s refusal to negotiate his public confession of guilt over his abusive affair leads to his dismissal, and his daughter’s refusal to pursue her black rapists’ capture baffles and angers him. These parallel events force him to radically re-evaluate his life, with harrowing...

  5. I. Reading Disgrace

    • 1: “We are not asked to condemn”: Sympathy, Subjectivity, and the Narration of Disgrace
      (pp. 15-47)
      Michael G. McDunnah

      The “sympathetic imagination” — the ability to recognize, relate to, and enter the subjective experience of another being — is of the greatest importance in the work of J. M. Coetzee. Long before the term appears in Elizabeth Costello we see this capacity — or lack thereof — as a central issue in many of his books, from the demonizing of the nomads in Waiting for the Barbarians, through the developing sympathies of Mrs. Curran in Age of Iron, and even in Coetzee’s own childhood as represented in Boyhood and Youth.¹ But nowhere, arguably, does he deal with the issue as directly as in...

    • 2: Beyond Sympathy: A Bakhtinian Reading of Disgrace
      (pp. 48-63)
      James Boobar

      At David Lurie’s feet, the crippled dog Driepoot “sits up, cocks its head, listens” to the sound of the banjo, and in response to Lurie’s humming voice “smacks its lips and seems on the point of singing too, or howling” (Disgrace, 215). Earlier, Lurie has asked himself: “Why pretend to be a chum when in fact one is a murderer?” (143), and yet at the end of the novel, bearing the crippled dog in his arms, “giving it what he no longer has difficulty in calling by its proper name: love” (219), Lurie escorts Driepoot to annihilation. As Driepoot’s “period...

    • 3: “Is it too late to educate the eye?”: David Lurie, Richard of St. Victor, and “vision as eros” in Disgrace
      (pp. 64-92)
      Bill McDonald

      David Lurie’s past is largely a blank slate to readers of Disgrace. We know only a few things about his academic career, and even less about his upbringing, marriages, politics, and religion. We do learn, in a fast-moving paragraph, that David was raised “in a family of women. As mother, aunts, sisters fell away, they were replaced in due course by mistresses, wives, a daughter. The company of women made him a lover of women and, to an extent, a womanizer. . . . That was how he lived for years, for decades, that was the backbone of his life”...

    • 4: Disgrace and the Neighbor: An Interchange with Bill McDonald
      (pp. 93-105)
      Kenneth Reinhard

      In his essay, “‘Is it to late to educate the eye?’: David Lurie, Richard of St. Victor, and ‘vision as eros’ in Disgrace,” Bill McDonald is primarily concerned with the nature of erotic vision in Coetzee’s novel, and the possibilities — and limitations — of the redemption that vision represents. The central character in Disgrace, David Lurie, is a literary critic, and McDonald has taken seriously the account we are given of Lurie’s main scholarly works, in particular, his monograph on the twelfth-century Christian mystic, Richard of St. Victor. McDonald shows how this work, as well as Lurie’s books on Boito’s opera...

    • 5: To Live as Dogs or Pigs Live Under Us: Accepting What’s on Offer in Disgrace
      (pp. 106-115)
      Pat Harrigan

      In Disgrace we all make do with a great deal less. The characters lose much certainly, but from the beginning the prose of Disgrace seems underpopulated. Through its free indirect style, we observe David Lurie clearly enough, with little else to distract us, but we observe him, as it were, telescopically, with each item in his mental inventory at the same middle distance from us. This is a narrative without close-ups.

      What we discover in Disgrace are the limits of Lurie’s ethical understanding, and possibly our own. The book proposes different methods of situating ourselves ethically — Romantic, institutional, aesthetical, allegorical...

    • 6: Tenuous Arrangements: The Ethics of Rape in Disgrace
      (pp. 116-137)
      Kim Middleton and Julie Townsend

      For teachers concerned with the ethics of the classroom, the moderation of a discussion about rape activates an array of concerns. Disgrace — with its representation of an unethical teacher-student relationship, an acquaintance rape, a problematic father-daughter dynamic, and a violent and racist rape scene — seems bound to provoke charged responses from contemporary college students. At two different colleges, we read the novel with two very different sets of students. In Kim’s class at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, for example, after the first day of discussion, a student refused to return to class until the group...

    • 7: Dis(g)race, or White Man Writing
      (pp. 138-147)
      Sandra D. Shattuck

      My introduction to J. M. Coetzee’s writing began with Disgrace, and a first reading of the novel did not dispose me kindly towards the author. I found the rendering of black South African characters truncated and skewed, Lucy’s silence on her rape offensive: in short, I thought Disgrace was sexist and racist, an indulgence of a self-absorbed narrator. I fell into the camp of readers described by Derek Attridge as condemning Coetzee “for painting a one-sidedly negative picture of post-apartheid South Africa, representing blacks as rapists and thieves, and implying that whites have no option but to submit to their...

    • 8: Clerk in a Post-Religious Age: Reading Lurie’s Remnant Romantic Temperament in Disgrace
      (pp. 148-172)
      Gary Hawkins

      No, this chronicle of a fall is not written to enlighten. Nor is schadenfreude sufficient to compel a modern reader’s descent into the unraveling life of a middle-aged man who will show little inclination to stave off his own disgrace nor much ability to mend its collateral effects — a young woman, his student and his lover, chief among the dire complications. Instead, J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace draws us into unyielding witness of a man’s pathetic fall via Coetzee’s unwavering gaze.¹ Within this perspective David Lurie is repeatedly exposed: as a professor of Romantic literature marooned in a post-Romantic age — then...

    • 9: Saying it Right in Disgrace: David Lurie, Faust, and the Romantic Conception of Language
      (pp. 173-201)
      Patricia Casey Sutcliffe

      The titles of books David Lurie wrote when his scholarship still commanded “his heart” (162) are among the few things we know about his past life. And, just as McDonald shows us that the subject of The Vision of Richard of St. Victor has continued to influence Lurie’s consciousness, so too has his critical study entitled Boito and the Faust Legend: The Genesis of Mefistofele. Its inclusion in the backdrop to Lurie’s present likewise deserves more explication. The title offers intriguing ambiguities for interpretation: does the book focus on biography, literary history, or more narrowly on the stages of Mefistofele’s...

    • 10: The Dispossession of David Lurie
      (pp. 202-230)
      Kevin O’Neill

      What happens to David Lurie in Disgrace? Having been dispossessed of his place and identity in the world of reason, he discovers, or rediscovers, a new way of knowing, as well as a new way of being, that exist, and have always existed, beyond the reach of traditional Western categories of mind and body.¹ Coetzee, through Lurie, privileges the body and the senses as vehicles for knowing and being, and in so doing he reveals a profound connection between his protagonist and the animals whose bodies, passions, and senses traditional philosophy has devalued or ignored, and among whom Lurie, dispossessed,...

  6. II. Reading Disgrace with Others

    • 11: Community Reading: Teaching Disgrace in an Alternative College Classroom
      (pp. 233-247)
      Matthew Gray

      Over its forty-year history, the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies has developed a program based on the principles of collaborative learning. These principles have their roots in the alternative college movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and also strongly resemble those found in the literature on democratic classrooms (e.g., Brookfield & Preskill 2005), socially just pedagogies (Freire 1998 and hooks 2003), and student success-centered learning (Kuh et al. 2005). Methods inspired by this history and these thinkers have been put in practice on campuses around the world, and I take the Johnston Center version to be representative of the practices...

    • 12: Out of the Father’s House into a Community of Readers
      (pp. 248-263)
      Kathy Ogren

      When I joined the fall 2006 Coetzee seminar taught by recent Johnston Center graduate Matthew Gray and our editor, Bill McDonald, I was self-conscious about my status as a historian with over twenty years of experience in the classroom. I feared that students would expect me to read as an “expert,” yet like them I was a newcomer to J. M. Coetzee, his work, and South African fiction generally. At first I planned to compensate by relying on my disciplinary expertise, including some knowledge of comparative South African and North American history, and by developing an essay on a long-contemplated...

    • 13: Sympathy for the Devil: On the Perversity of Teaching Disgrace
      (pp. 264-275)
      Daniel Kiefer

      Teaching J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace has revealed new complexities in the book and in my teaching, and not just because my students’ reactions were different from what I expected. When I’m teaching fiction I usually ask students to reflect on the sympathy they feel with the protagonist of the narrative, and how that sympathy is established. But this novel exposes the tenuous dangers of sympathetic reading, challenging readers to examine our judgments in the light of eloquent expression.

      These were fifteen willing students from various disciplines, taking an introductory literature course to fulfill a general education requirement at the...

    • 14: Teaching Disgrace in the Large Lecture Classroom
      (pp. 276-287)
      Nancy Best

      I just love a good lecture! I love the buzz in the air as crowds file into theatre-style seats. I love pull-down chalkboards and electric podiums that rise and lower at the press of a button. I love the projection booths and electronic screens. I love the hushed whispers of early comers consulting each other about assigned readings and Scantron tests. I even love the hollow, amplified banging of the double doors at the top of the lecture hall; after all, something weird and wonderful might walk through them at any time.

      Most of all, I love the distance between...

    • 15: Discussing Disgrace in a Critical Theory Class
      (pp. 288-296)
      Bradley Butterfield

      Whenever I teach “ENG 355: Critical Theory” here at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, there are at least a few students who dare to ask what “all this” has to do with literature, or even English. My usual reply is that while their question is perfectly understandable, while what we are reading is technically called twentieth-century philosophy, not literature, not literary criticism even, its relevance is nonetheless manifold. Theory is transportable, I tell them; you can take it anywhere and use it to contextualize an inquiry or a debate about anything, and for literature majors, that thing is literature. This...

    • 16: Disgrace in the Classroom: A Tale of Two Teaching Strategies
      (pp. 297-312)
      Raymond Obstfeld

      This exchange between a perplexed student (Timms) and his earnest but eccentric teacher (Hector) captures the dilemma every English teacher faces when choosing what works to use in a literature course. The teacher wants to select works of Enduring Value, meaning ones that display the craft of writing at its highest level while also presenting themes that offer useable insights into the complexities of our daily lives. On the other hand, those “enduring values” will be totally lost if the works selected are irredeemably boring to the student. Plus, you run the risk of forever alienating them from the joys...

    • 17: The Bodies of Others: A Meditation on the Environs of Reading J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Caryl Phillips’s The Nature of Blood
      (pp. 313-329)
      Jane Creighton

      I begin at an open window, leaning on the sill to feel the air outside, a cold breeze on my skin. I’m looking out across a fenced zone, barbed wire and concrete wall, beyond that a road I can’t see but for the tops of vans, small trucks going by, the sound of tires, and beyond that a field fringed by trees in the middle of February, gray and misting, near freezing, but not quite. Beyond those trees, maybe a river. I don’t know.

      I’m finding likeness, looking at a scene that, but for the wall and wire, could come...

    • 18: Disgrace as a Teacher
      (pp. 330-340)
      Patricia Karlin-Neumann

      In his book, The Genesis of Ethics: How the Tormented Family of Genesis Leads us to Moral Development, Rabbi Burton Visotzky makes a surprising assertion. We do not learn how to live ethically from the rosy, pristine, and immutable portraits of Biblical exemplars perpetually taught in Sunday School. Rather, Visotzky claims, our education begins by reading the Genesis text carefully in community and unearthing the failings of the much-vaunted patriarchs and matriarchs. Only by studying how deeply flawed and fractured are the figures of Genesis, only by grappling with their limitations and mistakes and considering the contrast between the contrived...

  7. Works Cited
    (pp. 341-352)
  8. Notes on the Contributors
    (pp. 353-356)
  9. Index
    (pp. 357-364)