Study Guide

Disgrace Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By J.M. Coetzee

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory


Man's best friend plays a huge role in Disgrace, particularly after David moves to the country. On a surface level, they become characters in the novel. Some of the dogs that Lucy cares for in her kennel, like Katy the bulldog, have names and recognizable personalities. When you think about a little more carefully, though, it becomes apparent that they're not there as just your average canines; rather, Coetzee deliberately repeats the image of dogs as a way to emphasize the novel's interests in social status and personal disgrace.

On a broad scale, Coetzee employs dogs as a way to represent the statuses that various people hold in society. Lucy, for example, once says, "I don't want to come back in another existence as a dog or a pig and have to live as dogs or pigs live under us" (8.71). Sure, we all love dogs, but they live life lower on the totem pole than we do. Think of how dogs are used to characterize Petrus, as well; when we meet him, he introduces himself to David as the "dog-man" (7.55). At this point, he occupies the role of assistant to Lucy. As he ascends the social ladder, however, this changes. At his party, he jokes that he is "not any more the dog-man" (15.69). In one respect this is a tasteless joke about how all of Lucy's dogs were murdered – after all, he can't be the dog-man if there are no dogs to care for. At the same time, though, we can see this statement as an assertion of Petrus's growing social status: he's no longer on level with the dogs.

The opposite seems to happen to David. Though dogs are used to characterize his status, they more often reflect his personal, internal trials and tribulations. As things get worse for him and he dives deeper and deeper into shame and disgrace, his character becomes more closely aligned with that of a dog. When he talks to Lucy about his own humiliation at the University following his affair with Melanie, he compares himself to a dog that is beaten for following its sexual instincts (11.20-22). In a more concrete way, as David's personal situation worsens, he spends more and more time in the animal clinic helping to put dogs to sleep. On one hand, this act represents letting dogs out of their misery and suffering, but on the other hand, it's a truly pathetic way for them to go. Perhaps it's even more pathetic that David involves himself in the task.

As the novel winds down, the connection between dogs and people experiencing disgrace is made more explicit. Consider the following exchange between Lucy and David as they discuss the humiliation of how things have turned out:

"Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity."

"Like a dog."

"Yes, like a dog."

To be a dog in this world is to be a base, low, helpless creature without rights or pride. Not long after this exchange, David becomes attached to one particular dog at the clinic that suffers from a crippled leg. Even though he sees disgrace in dying, he also sees extreme shamefulness in the way the dog is forced to live. The novel ends with David putting the dog out of his misery by giving it up to Bev for lethal injection. When he does so, we get the idea that he's in some way trying to save the dog from a life that is more disgraceful than death. We can't help but think that he does so in part to symbolically relieve his own sense of disgrace. The persistent presence of dogs in Disgrace pushes us to consider the shame and disgrace that humans go through, even though it plays out through the lives of animals.


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.


Teresa shows up in Disgrace as one of Coetzee's many historical and literary references, which is totally reasonable since she was the mistress of one of the poets that David both researches and teaches in his course. When David begins his opera on Byron, however, Teresa takes on a life of her own beyond mere historical reference; she essentially becomes a character in the novel.

Initially, Teresa provides a starting point through which David can explore the themes of love and sex in his opera. But then Coetzee does something sneaky – he makes Teresa a lens through which we explore David's changing attitudes toward love and sex. Initially, David hopes to write an opera about the lustful affair between Byron and Teresa in Italy. He forms this plan, incidentally, while he still thinks that the younger ladies are fair game to him. Here's what the narrator has to say about the initial plans for the opera:

That is how he conceived it: as a chamber-play about love and death, with a passionate young woman and a once-passionate but now less than passionate older man. (20.48)

Um, so, is this opera really about Byron and Teresa, or is David writing it about someone else we know? (Hey, Melanie's a drama student. If she could sing opera, maybe David could entice her with a sweet leading role. Then she could play someone exactly like herself!)

As time progresses, however, David starts changing his mind about the way he wants the opera to look. Rather than staging his opera during the actual affair between Byron and Teresa, he decides to make it a retrospective from Teresa's point of view, long after Byron has died and when she's in the throes of middle age. Let's take a look at the new, aging Teresa:

The passage of time has not treated Teresa kindly. With her heavy bust, her stocky trunk, her abbreviated legs, she looks more like a peasant, a contadina, than an aristocrat. The complexion that Byron once so admired has turned hectic; in summer she is overtaken with attacks of asthma that leave her heaving for breath. (20.53)

Does this new Teresa remind you of anyone we know? Maybe someone whose name rhymes with Dev Zaw? If David resembles Byron, then the person who resembles Teresa represents David's own romantic interests. While we won't go so far as to say that David's feelings towards Bev are at all romantic, they nevertheless show that he's maturing a little bit. David charges himself with the task of loving this new older Teresa in his opera, and perhaps he does so as a way of transitioning from loving the younger ladies (which heretofore has just brought him scandal and misery) to seeking out older, wiser, and perhaps more down-to-earth women.


Allegra was the illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont. The real Allegra died at the age of five of malaria, and it is reputed that Byron felt guilty about having neglected her during her short lifetime. So, what is she doing in David's opera – and in this book?

Well, on the surface, she shows up unexpectedly as a character in David's opera; even he doesn't see her coming until she gets there. If we are to take David's opera as a metaphor for his own experiences and understand Byron as a metaphor for David himself, then it's only fitting that there should be a stand-in for Lucy somewhere. That's where Allegra comes in. In David's opera, Allegra is on her deathbed, wailing in pain and misery for her father to come save her – and he doesn't. Oh, wait – doesn't David feel like he did the same thing to Lucy by not saving her when she was raped? Acknowledging the suffering of an ailing, ignored daughter in his opera gives David a way to deal with his feelings towards his treatment of Lucy in real life.