In J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, why doesn't Lucy report her rape?

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belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Disgrace is an award-winning 1999 novel by J.M. Coetzee.

In the novel, David Lurie goes to live with his daughter Lucy after he is fired from teaching for sleeping with a student. Lucy is a lesbian and a farmer, and tries to help her father deal with his personal issues. When she is raped, David is shocked and furious, and wants her to press charges against the rapists, but she refuses.

Lucy's acceptance of the rape and her pregnancy from it is an example of her attitudes towards men and women, and towards societal pressures. She sees the rape as a method of communication, not strictly violent assault, as the men around her do not accept her lesbian lifestyle. Lucy also accepts her pregnancy because she believes that her rapist unconsciously wished to father a child: "They were not raping, they were mating" (Google Books). Lucy's attitude is pragmatic and somewhat passive, but she also seems to accept herself as a part of a larger world without needing to subjugate herself to it; after the rape, Lucy continues to live on her farm according to her own principles, refusing to allow the rape to define her life.

n75 | Student

In fact, the incident of Lucy's rape and her silence is one of the significant and most symbolic events in Disgrace. In order to understand the significance of Lucy's rape, it is essential first to refer to Coetzee's position as a white writer who witnessed two different and crucial eras in South Africa; apartheid and post-apartheid. Being a white author put him in a difficult situation when he started to express his ideas about political and social issues during apartheid. During apartheid, Coetzee’s contemporaries, like Nadine Gordimer and André Brink, believed that the role of any South African writer, whether Black or White, should be to provide a realistic representation of the South African life, to bring to light the oppressive operations of the state and to introduce the kind of characters that act for their own freedom. Coetzee, however, rejected realism as a fixed norm for fictional representation and favored instead an allegorical depiction of resistance against apartheid.

Coetzee defended his position in the intensely quoted, but never anthologized, talk “The Novel Today” in 1987 in which he spoke about the relationship between the novel and history:

[I]n times of intense ideological pressure like the present, when the space in which the novel and history normally coexist like two cows on the same pasture, each minding its own business, is squeezed to almost nothing, the novel, it seems to me, has only two options: supplementarity or rivalry. (quoted in Head, Cambridge 24)

Coetzee, in this speech, refers to the “ideological pressure” practiced by his contemporaries to set “realism” as the established norm for writing in apartheid South Africa. For Coetzee, the novel should challenge such “orthodox privileging of realism” (Head, Cambridge 24), a novel should not document or complement an agreed history, a novel should be rival to history; it should be a medium for examining and discussing opposing ideas to find the truth. Thus, during the apartheid era, Coetzee devised for himself a mode of writing that emphasized the autonomy of storytelling.

In the post-apartheid era, Coetzee’s concept of autonomous representation as expressed in his talk ‘The Novel Today’ (1987) seems to lose its significance with the publication of Disgrace. Coetzee places a historical and social context for his novel that is unmistakably post-apartheid South Africa.

Lucy’s rape is one of the incidents that stand for this shift in Coetzee's novelistic practice. Lucy's rape and her silence add to the verisimilitude of the novel for they reflect the occasions of violence that were not uncommon in post-apartheid South Africa as recorded in William Beinart's book Twentieth-Century South Africa:

South Africa was reported to have one of the highest rates of rape in the world – 52,000 notified to police in 1998, of which only 3,500 brought to court, and a similar figure in 1999. Many incidents were thought to be gang rapes as an expression of power or bravado, or for enjoyment. . . . (333)

Thus, Coetzee’s novel serves as a realistic commentary on the state’s notorious crime rate, the frequency of rape, and violence by poor black South Africans against white farmers.

Significantly enough, the element of verisimilitude in the incident of Lucy’s rape is not confined to the depiction of violence; much more implications can be drawn from Lucy’s silence. In her essay “Scenes from a dry imagination: Disgrace and Embarrassment”, Myrtle Hooper believes that Lucy’s silence is understandable: “Lucy is a woman living alone in an isolated area and does not want further trouble. So her quietism is not unrealistic. . . . Nor is it inauthentic, psychologically, that a rape victim should blame herself for being raped from the point of view of her rapist(s)” (128). In other words, Hooper believes that Lucy’s silence and attempt to blame herself for the rape are significant because she sees them as the normal reaction of any rapped woman.

Similarly, in her essay “Realism, Rape, and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace”, Gareth Cornwell believes that Lucy’s reaction to the rape incident and her silence abounds with psychological realism (317). As a start, her insistence on keeping the incident of rape from the police and just reporting the ransacking is verisimilar for she believes that “[w]hat happened to [her] is a purely private matter” (112). Moreover, her avoidance to speak about it with her father adds to the mimetic effect of the event because he is a man and he cannot understand what happened to her: “you don’t understand what happened to me that day . . . you think you understand, but finally you don’t. Because you can’t” (157). Finally, Lucy’s reasons for refusing to have an abortion are psychologically plausible especially when she explains to her father that she is not going to get rid of the child because she has gone through an abortion before and is not ready to have another: “But I am not having an abortion. That’s something I am not prepared to go through with again” (198). Her second reason is that she is a “woman” and she loves children (198); an excuse which is poignantly acceptable even for the father who finally submits to his daughter’s decision to keep the baby.

Hence, Lucy's rape becomes a clear evidence for the significant change in Coetzee’s apartheid concept of the novel for it puts history in a complementary rather than a rival position with fiction. One of the striking statements in the novel that enhances this hypothesis is David Lurie’s answer to his daughter when she expresses her belief that her rape was motivated by “personal hatred”, he tells her: “It was history speaking through the rapists” (156). Despite the amount of pain, one feels in Lurie’s answer, yet it draws our attention to the fact that history does have a strong presence and firm position in the novel. This quotation implicitly invites readers to revise Coetzee’s novelistic practice in the post-apartheid era which seems to gain new potentials. Disgrace is no longer in rivalry with history; history is speaking through the most violent incident in the novel suggesting a clear and powerful engagement with realism.

Moreover, Lucy’s silence or refusal to speak about her rape opens the text for allegorical reading. From Cornwell’s point of view, Lucy’s silence could be read as an allegory of “atonement” or “a parable about the necessary expiation of white guilt in post-1994 South Africa” (317). Even her attempt to make sense of the rapists’ motives is allegorical as much as it is real:

“What if . . . what if that is the price one has to pay for staying on? Perhaps that is how they look at it; perhaps that is how I should look at it too. They see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why I should be allowed to live here without paying. Perhaps that is what they tell themselves.” (158)

Thus, Lucy’s contemplation invites the readers to “ponder the wages of white historical sin and contemplate the costs of national healing and reconciliation”. Hence, Lucy’s decision to marry Petrus becomes acceptable only from an allegorical perspective (Cornwell 318).

Finally, Lucy's silence reflects a significant change in Coetzee’s concept of the function of the allegory of silence in his post-apartheid novel. As mentioned before, in his apartheid novels, take Life and Times of Michael K as an example, silence is represented as a postcolonial allegory of peaceful resistance. Yet, in Disgrace, the allegory of silence acquires new dimensions in the light of the new social and political contexts and thereby performs another function for the readers who see it this time as an allegory of the Whites’ redemption and contrition.

user6430488 | Student

The novel moves on more than one level. It is moving on a real level and a historical level. Many of the references can be connected to the plot but also be connected in a historical context.
for instance: "Confessions, apologies: Why this thirst for abasement? A hush falls. They circle around him like hunters who have cornered a strange beast and do not know how to finish it off." first of all this is a description of David and how he is being treated, but definitely also a description of Post-Apartheid - the remains of Apartheid.