Study Guide

Disgrace Sex

By J.M. Coetzee


Chapter 1

He thinks of Emma Bovary, coming home sated, glazen-eyed, from an afternoon of reckless f***ing. So this is bliss!, says Emma, marveling at herself in the mirror. So this is the bliss the poets speak of! Well, if poor ghostly Emma were ever to find her way to Cape Town, he would bring her along one Thursday afternoon to show her what bliss can be: a moderate bliss, a moderated bliss. (1.26)

Here, David wants to show one of the great lovers in literature – someone who knows hot sex – that sex doesn't have to be hot. It can be boring. What a boring, academic way to make a boring point about boring sex. Good one, David.

In the field of sex his temperament, though intense, has never been passionate. Were he to choose a totem, it would be the snake. Intercourse between Soraya and himself must be, he imagines, rather like the copulation of snakes: lengthy, absorbed, but rather abstract, rather dry, even at its hottest. (1.11)

So, here we have an abstract way of saying that even when David has hot sex it's missing something – namely, passion for the other person. Here the narrator compares David's sex life to the reproduction of reptiles. Again, it's kind of something that needs to be done to satisfy a biological need but that doesn't come from feelings or love or even lust.

He existed in an anxious flurry of promiscuity. He had affairs with the wives of colleagues; he picked up tourists in bars on the waterfront or at the Club Italia; he slept with whores. (1.36)

David notices that he is aging by the way it affects his ability to attract others. As a result, goes for people who he can get to have a one-night stand with him. Here, we also see David's interest in keeping his relationships simple and short-term; none of these ladies are going to want to embark on a deeper, emotionally-invested commitment with him.

For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters. Waiting for him at the door of No. 113 is Soraya. (1.1)

What a way to begin a book. This quote gives us two ways to look at David's sex life at the beginning of the novel. We see that sex has been a "problem" for David, and that he's "solved" it by getting into a regimen of visiting a prostitute. Doesn't it make it seem that, at this point, sex for David is sort of like brushing his teeth or doing the dishes? It's something that has to be done on a schedule. Doesn't it make sex seem, well, not so sexy?

Her name is Dawn. The second time he takes her out they stop at his house and have sex. It is a failure. Bucking and clawing, she works herself into a froth of excitement that in the end only repels him. He lends her a comb, drives her back to the campus. (1.51)

Part of what characterizes David in the beginning of the novel is his lack of passion in the bedroom. Here, we can kind of understand him – even we are a little turned off and a bit embarrassed for Dawn. This is some pretty unsexy sex.

Chapter 3

Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core. As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck. So that everything done to her might be done, as it were, far away. (3.67)

In Disgrace, sex tends not to be a mutually desired act. Even though Melanie doesn't explicitly fight David off, he can still tell that she doesn't want it. Whether or not it can be construed as rape is something that puzzles David and also leaves us scratching our heads.

On the living-room floor, to the sound of rain pattering against the windows, he makes love to her. Her body is clear, simple, in its way perfect; though she is passive throughout, he finds the act pleasurable, so pleasurable that from its climax he tumbles into blank oblivion.

When he comes back the rain has stopped. The girl is lying beneath him, her eyes closed, her hands slack above her head, a slight frown on her face. (3.21-22)

This is the game-changing moment for David. Having sex with Melanie is not only mind-blowing – it literally knocks him out – but it's also a transformative experience for him. For the first time, we see him having sex and really getting into it. Too bad we can't get excited for him; that frown on Melanie's face is a bad omen already.

Chapter 4

He makes love to her one more time, on the bed in his daughter's room. It is good, as good as the first time; he is beginning to learn the way her body moves. She is quick, and greedy for experience. If he does not sense in her a fully sexual appetite, that is only because she is still young. (4.1)

Pay attention to the perspective here. Who is saying that Melanie is greedy for experience? Probably not Melanie, for one. Instead, this assessment seems to come straight from David, who might be looking for ways to convince himself not only that Melanie is as invested in the experience as he is, but also that she even wants to be there in the first place. Also notice that they're having sex in Lucy's bed. This draws parallel between the two women and their sexual experiences.

David Lurie

Driving home from a concert that evening, he stops at a traffic light. A motorcycle throbs past, a silver Ducati bearing two figures in black. They wear helmets, but he recognizes them nevertheless. Melanie, on the pillion, sits with knees wide apart, pelvis arched. A quick shudder of lust tugs him. I have been there! he thinks. Then the motorcycle surges forward, bearing her away. (4.64)

Slow down, boy. Now, we aren't saying that the image of Melanie with her knees apart, accommodating another person's body isn't an explicitly sexual image, because it totally is. Still, we only see it because it's going through David's mind. This moment gives us another example of how Melanie gets David all hot and bothered, but from a distance. Sure, he feels the tug of lust, but he feels it as a spectator.

Chapter 6
David Lurie

"I was not myself. I was no longer a fifty-year-old divorcé at a loose end. I became a servant of Eros." (6.63)

Here, David explains to the committee just why he was so bewitched by Melanie. She inspired passion in him. At first it seems like he's giving himself a way to argue temporary insanity ("I was not myself, your honor"), but we know from his guilty plea that David isn't really out there to make excuses. Instead, he's confessing that Melanie had the ability to totally transform his sense of love and passion. Still, he blames it on Eros (Cupid) instead of taking personal responsibility for what he did.

Chapter 9
David Lurie

He wonders how it is for Lucy with her lovers, how it is for her lovers with her. He has never been afraid to follow a thought down its winding track, and he is not afraid now. Has he fathered a woman of passion? What can she draw on, what not, in the realm of the senses? Are he and she capable of talking about that too? (9.12)

Thinking about sex is second nature for David, and even though it seems he hasn't thought about Lucy's sex life in the past, he nevertheless isn't weirded out by wondering about her experience. What is interesting here is that it seems that David genuinely wants to talk with Lucy about sex; he's interested in what her experiences have been like. Is it possible that he wants to compare and contrast to see if other people feel the same way he does about sex?

Chapter 10
David Lurie

Would they dare to share a bed while he was in the house? If the bed creaked in the night, would they be embarrassed? Embarrassed enough to stop? But what does he know about what women do together? Maybe women do not need to make beds creak. (10.57)

The narrator doesn't hit you over the head with the fact that Lucy is a lesbian, but instead reveals it to us through David's thoughts and curiosities about her sexual experiences. What is interesting about this quote is that it shows David wondering about what sex is like when it is a purely female experience. He's not just wondering about what sex is like for Lucy, but rather what sex is like in the absence of a man. As far as David is concerned, it is his experience of sex "as a man" that has gotten him into trouble up until this point. Maybe sex between women is purer and less violent?

Chapter 17
David Lurie

Two blankets, one pink, one grey, smuggled from her home by a woman who in the last hour has probably bathed and powdered and anointed herself in readiness; who has, for all he knows, been powdering and anointing herself every Sunday, and storing blankets in the cabinet, just in case. Who thinks, because he comes from the big city, because there is scandal attached to his name, that he makes love to many women and expects to be made love to by every woman who crosses his path. […] Bev. Never did he dream he would sleep with a Bev. (17.26-27)

Well, we don't actually know if what David thinks about Bev's preparations is actually true – maybe she hasn't been holding out to have sex with him all this time – but we'll also never know that. What we do get here, though, is David's perspective on the sexual image he puts forth. It seems part cocky and part insecure – he wants to think that others see him as a mysterious Don Juan from the big city, but at the same time, he seems not to want to be boxed in just like that.

Chapter 18
Lucy Lurie

"When it comes to men and sex, David, nothing surprises me any more. Maybe, for men, hating the woman makes sex more exciting. You are a man, you ought to know. When you have sex with someone strange – when you trap her, hold her down, get her under you, put all your weight on her – isn't it a bit like killing? Pushing the knife in; exiting afterwards, leaving the body behind covered in blood – doesn't it feel like murder, like getting away with murder?" (18.96)

One of the major ways that we encounter sex in Disgrace is as a tool of violence and domination. Lucy gives David a really unsettling image of what sex can be like from a woman's perspective, and it seems pretty clear at this point that David hasn't spent a whole lot of time thinking about it in this way.