Study Guide

Petrus in Disgrace

By J.M. Coetzee


When we meet Petrus, we seem to be meeting a representative of the countryside. David immediately notices his physical features: "A lined, weathered face; shrewd eyes. Forty? Forty-five?" (7.51). With a face that's lined by the outdoors, it's hard to tell exactly how old he is. Petrus introduces himself to David in terms of his occupation, which is comprised of distinctly rural duties:

"I look after the dogs and I work in the garden. Yes…I am the gardener and the dog-man." He reflects for a moment. "The dog-man," he repeats, savouring the phrase. (7.55)

Yet Petrus doesn't seem to really enjoy being identified as the "dog-man," does he? He seems to repeat it as a mantra that reminds him of who he is, where he is now, and where he wants to go (think of how he later says I am no more the dog-man just as he begins to celebrate the land transfer that will make him a wealthier and more powerful man).

Social status is a topic comes up frequently in reference to Petrus, and through him we not only see the way that social dynamics shift between characters in the novel, but also throughout their community and country. Even before his stock starts to rise in the novel, Petrus is already pretty well-established, but with Lucy's help, she notes, he'll go far:

"He got a Land Affairs grant earlier this year, enough to buy a hectare and a bit from me. I didn't tell you? The boundary line goes through the dam. We share the dam. Everything from there to the fence is his…By Eastern Cape standards he is a man of substance." (9.16)

Through the land transfer from Lucy, Petrus becomes an example of the changing opportunities for blacks in South Africa after Apartheid. Lucy never comes right out and says why she helps Petrus to get the land, and she also seems embarrassed when Petrus refers to Lucy as his family's benefactor (15.27). David seems uncomfortable with the ensuing shift of power; he thinks that Lucy feels pressured to sacrifice her own interests in order to make up for past injustices in South African history (for more on this, check out "Setting").

In fact, the shift of power dynamics is one of the more important issues in the novel that Petrus helps to illuminate for us. The major power struggle we encounter in the novel is the intrusion of the two men and the boy. Lucy and David are rendered powerless while the intruders are empowered by the way they get away with the crime. Whose voice could be the deciding factor in making things right? Why, Petrus's, of course. Does he do anything with that power? No.

During the scenes that follow Lucy's rape, Petrus seems reluctant to get involved in the conflict – he doesn't even seem to want to offer an opinion as to what happened, which drives David totally up the wall. He turns a blind eye to the fact that Lucy was raped when he talks to David about the invasion; he acts like it was just a simple robbery. His behavior at the party is no different when he chooses not to pursue David's accusation that the boy is wanted by the police; in fact, Petrus basically ignores any pleas that David makes for him to set things right. Of course, we don't know at this point that the boy is Petrus's wife's brother. Regardless, you could argue that the entire course of the novel would be different if Petrus acted differently in response to the rape – or if he had even just been there when Lucy called for him.

On one hand, Petrus's actions (or lack thereof) push the dynamics of power decidedly in favor of the intruders and against Lucy and David. But Petrus's actions aren't just affected by the potential outcomes where power is concerned. We learn that he also has a lot at stake in terms of his own family's well-being. When Petrus protects Pollux, he doesn't just look out for a member of his own race; he also looks out for a member of his own family.

Where does that leave his relationship with Lucy, then? We never really find out how he feels about her on a personal level, but his actions both work against her (when he's anything but helpful after the home invasion) and for her (well, sort of – he offers her protection when he declares he'll marry her). In either case, he serves the needs of the group with which he most identifies, both on a large and small scale. Petrus is one of the most frustrating characters we have to deal with, but he's also one of the most interesting; from him, we learn an unbelievable amount about loyalty, betrayal, and trying to make it in the world.