Disgrace was published by South African writer J.M. Coetzee in 1999 and immediately rose to both critical and popular acclaim. The novel earned Coetzee an unprecedented second Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary prizes for novels written in the English language (he was also awarded the Booker Prize in 1983 for his novel Life and Times of Michael K). Coetzee went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003 for his entire body of literary work. Out of Coetzee's many highly-regarded novels, however, Disgrace remains one of his most popular and widely-read works. It even hit the big screen recently in a critically-acclaimed film adaptation starring John Malkovich.
The novel tells us the story of David Lurie, a professor in Cape Town, South Africa, who is finds himself in the middle of quite a scandal when he has an affair with a student that goes awry. When David moves out to the country to live with his grown daughter Lucy and wait for the scandal to blow over, he enters an entirely different world. The Eastern Cape is still reeling from the horrors of Apartheid, a system of racial segregation and oppression, which only recently ended (for more information on Apartheid, see our "Setting" section). Thinking that he would leave disgrace and shame behind him in Cape Town, a vicious attack on Lucy's home drives both father and daughter to the lowest depths imaginable.
As with many of Coetzee's novels, Disgrace reveals the troubled relationship between its characters and their native South Africa. In previous works like Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K, and Age of Iron, Coetzee renders disturbing visions of South Africa under Apartheid. Unlike these other novels, Disgrace takes place after the end of Apartheid; nevertheless, it shows the ways in which the memory of racial and political oppression persists and is very much alive out in the country, pervading characters' attitudes, actions, and relationships.
It is worth noting that Coetzee himself ultimately left South Africa for Australia in 2002, where he became a citizen in 2006 and continues to live and write today. His major works of fiction since then, Elizabeth Costello, Slow Man, and Diary of a Bad Year, have taken place in Australia, though his most recent work, a fictionalized memoir called Summertime (2009), largely takes place back in South Africa. To read Coetzee's fiction is to learn a great deal about his own background and ambivalent attitudes toward the country where he spent his youth. As the last work of fiction that Coetzee published prior to leaving South Africa, Disgrace not only gives us insight into what life was like for many during a difficult time in his native country, but it also tears into our sympathies and fears on a universal, human level.
Disgrace. That's a pretty loaded word, huh? In our lives, it fits into a lot of situations. Your dad might yell "What a disgrace!" at the TV when someone on his favorite football team misses a pass; your teacher might tell you that your class's behavior in front of your substitute teacher was disgraceful. We've all been there – but so what?
Well, let's think about disgrace on a more personal level. We're not trying to say that we've all done bad things, but we are all familiar with what it's like for something embarrassing or shameful to happen to us – experiences that make us want to crawl into a hole and come out ten years later. Maybe your best friend told that popular kid all about the huge, embarrassing crush you have on him or her. Maybe you studied like crazy for a test but then bombed it. Maybe you played a prank on someone that hurt their feelings more than you meant to. Maybe you forgot your lines during the school play and had two hundred people in the audience look at you like you were stupid. No matter what, everybody goes through moments like these.
So, what in the world does this have to do with a story about a middle-aged South African university professor in the 1990s? Well, nothing and everything. We might not know what it's like to be punished for having an affair with a student, but we know how bad it feels to want to be with someone who doesn't like you back. We might not know what it's like to be the victim of a violent home invasion, but we do know what it's like to be truly, deeply scared and worried. We don't know what it's like to deal with a daughter who has been brutally hurt, but we do know what it's like to look for the right words to say and come up empty. The characters of Disgrace go through some unimaginably tough experiences that most of us haven't been through, but the emotions that they display and the shame that they feel belong to all of us.