When Disgrace was awarded the Booker Prize for fiction in 1999, J. M. Coetzee became the only author thus far to receive that award more than once. (Coetzee had also won for his novel Life and Times of Michael K in 1983.) Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003 for his morally and ethically charged examinations of South African culture, especially of the implications and effects of apartheid (state-mandated racial segregation and oppression).
Disgrace marked a stylistic departure for Coetzee, ushering in an era critics have dubbed his “recent” fiction. Up until Disgrace, with the exception of Age of Iron (1990), Coetzee’s novels were classifiable at least in part as allegories of political conditions in South Africa, as a result of their displaced treatments of politics, race, location, and time. Disgrace, however, was clearly “of the times” in which it was written: postapartheid South Africa in the late 1990’s. Legislation passed in 1990 and 1991 repealed the majority of the apartheid laws, but segregation and discrimination were still largely in effect until free elections in 1994 produced a black-majority government, marking the end of state-sanctioned apartheid though not its embedded economic and social aftereffects.
Disgrace is set in a rapidly changing and evolving South Africa. The novel has been criticized by South African commentators for painting a bleak picture of the cultural rebuilding process underway. Although this portrait of South Africa is a pivotal backdrop for Disgrace, the narrative is tightly centered on David Lurie’s point of view and his ethical journey, not on politics.
David Lurie realizes he is a relic, and he lives uncomfortably in the culture of the new South Africa. Though he does not articulate it, he identifies strongly with the colonial oppressors—the white ruling class that held power in South Africa from the time it was first colonized by the Dutch in the 1600’s until the elections of 1994. As an academic, Lurie occupies a station in life that was formerly one of the seats of colonial power, but power is shifting away from the classical Western disciplines of the humanities. As his role in life is failing him, so do traditional connections: He is twice divorced, is not close to his daughter, and resorts to a prostitute for intimacy.
Lurie’s choice of sexual partners—first Soraya and later Melanie Isaacs, both of black or “colored” racial ancestry (under the legal categories of...
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