by J.M. Coetzee
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
George Gordon, Lord Byron, was one of the most important poets of the Romantic Era, and is still one of the most widely-studied Romantic poets today. He was also one of the most controversial and followed celebrities of his day. Think of him as Mick Jagger before Mick Jagger even existed – he was known for his flashy, flamboyant appearance and his numerous, highly-public love affairs. The ladies in question included Lady Caroline Lamb, who was married to someone else, and Byron's own half-sister Augusta Leigh (nobody knows for sure if this is true, but a lot of Byron scholars will tell you it happened). Byron had an illegitimate daughter, Allegra, and it is also rumored that he was bisexual. Byron eventually left England to escape the social stigma surrounding his sex life, and he died young in Greece at the age of 36.
So where does Byron fit into Disgrace? Well, we know that David definitely has his fair share of knowledge about Byron – he's a scholar of the Romantic poets, after all – and Byron is the subject of his newest project. But where does Byron belong beyond these interests – and why is Byron such a source of interest for David in the first place?
Well, if we think about the identities of characters in Disgrace, isn't Byron in some ways the guy that David wants to be? Aside from the whole dying young bit, doesn't David sort of idealize himself as a smooth talker and suave lover of the ladies? In fact (look out – here comes your crash-course in nineteenth-century poetry in the middle of an analysis of a twentieth-century novel…), in many ways, David fits a character type called the Byronic Hero, which is loosely based upon Byron himself. Byronic Heroes aren't perfect. They're sophisticated but arrogant, well-educated but highly self-critical, charismatic and seductive but self-destructive and suffering from something that happened in the past. Byron isn't just a figure to whom Coetzee makes reference; both Byron and the figure of the Byronic Hero become symbols of David's own character.