by J.M. Coetzee
Analysis: What's Up With the Ending?
The end of Disgrace plunks us in a somewhat unexpected place: after heading back to Cape Town in Chapter 20, David decides to cut that visit short and returns once more to the Eastern Cape to wait for Lucy's baby to be born. But hang on – instead of winding the book down by exploring anything having to do with Lucy, we're back in the animal clinic with Bev? At the very end of the novel, David is back in action helping Bev to put unclaimed, unwanted, or unwell animals to sleep. We've learned that, for a while now, a dog with a bad back leg that nobody wants to adopt has sort of claimed David as his master, following him around and wagging his tail while David writes or plays the banjo. We get the impression that David has grown attached to the dog, too; he seems to feel sorry for the creature, knowing that sooner or later he and Bev are going to have to put it out of its misery.
In the last moments of the book, David decides to go get the dog and have him lethally injected along with the others. Let's take a look at how Coetzee renders this moment:
He opens the cage door. 'Come,' he says, bends, opens his arms. The dog wags his crippled rear, sniffs his face, licks his cheeks, his lips, his ears. He does nothing to stop it. 'Come.'
Bearing him in his arms like a lamb, he re-enters the surgery. 'I thought you would save him for another week,' says Bev Shaw. 'Are you giving him up?'
'Yes. I am giving him up.' (24. 62-64)
Think for a second about what this moment feels like for David. In a way, this dog is his dog. For all the attention that the dog gives David, doesn't it seem like David is attached to the dog, too? Why does he decide to put it to sleep, then?
Coetzee gives us a couple of clues as to why this might happen. A couple of pages before the final scene begins, he describes David's relationship with the dog, as well as David's thoughts about the dog's fate: "Its period of grace is almost over; soon it will have to submit to the needle" (24. 12). Let's think about it – when the dog stops living in grace, what's left for him? Ding ding ding! Disgrace. So we get the idea then that David is "giving the dog up" as a way of not only putting him out of his misery, but also as a gesture of keeping him from living in disgrace.
This leaves us with a few questions to ponder over. Do you think David gives the dog up because he identifies with the dog and doesn't want him to live with the same kind of disgrace that he himself experiences? Is it a symbolic way for David to relieve himself of his own disgrace by choosing the dog as a proxy for himself? But doesn't death in itself also constitute its own kind of disgrace? Coetzee gives us a lot to mull over at the end of the novel. So how about it – what do YOU think?