In his novel Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee explores complicated situations of South Africa. Although he focuses primarily on two characters, Lucy and her father David Lurie, issues of displacement, gender, different cultures, subjection, subjugation, and othering are prevalent throughout the novel. In many ways, Disgrace is a novel about boundaries. Coetzee focuses specifically on boundaries—both establishing and questioning—in terms of the body, parent/child relationships, generated knowledge, communication and language, and, ultimately, South Africa.
In considering the novel through the lens of boundaries, it is helpful to first consider Lurie’s lecture on usurping. He tells his students, “usurp upon means to intrude or encroach upon. Usurp, to take over entirely, is the perfective of usurp upon; usurping completes the act of usurping upon” (Coetzee 21). In the context of this argument, to cross a boundary one must usurp upon another (whether that is a person, place, idea, etc.). Lurie makes a clear distinction between this and usurping, or “taking over entirely.” This is an important distinction, obviously in Lucy’s reaction to the rape, but also in the many other ways boundaries are questioned.
In his novel, Cotezee explores many boundaries concerning the body. This can be thought of in terms of the literal body or as the body of humanity. This is particularly present in the boundaries concerning gender. The question of whether Lurie can know what happened to Lucy when the three boys attack her is one of the most contentious arguments Lucy and Lurie have. There are also several occasions when Lurie objectifies women and, in effect, makes them property. We see this most obviously in his references to Lucy as my dearest child, but also in the way he suggests women are property (Coetee 98). For example, after the attack on himself and Lucy, Lurie suggests that women are one of the “things” that is risky to own because everything must “go into circulation” (Coetzee 98). Coetzee raises questions of gender through Petrus and his opinion of Lucy (at one point Petrus suggests that Lucy “is as good as a boy”) and through Bev when she initiates an affair with Lurie, reversing the idea that the male should be the one who initiates (130, 148). But perhaps one of the most complicated issues with gender concerns Lurie when he wonders if he has “it in him to be the woman” in his imagining of Lucy’s rape and later, too, in his embodiment of Teresa as the central character of his opera, instead of Byron as he had originally planned. (Coetzee 160, 181).
Another way that Coetzee considers boundaries of the body is when Lucy questions the line between sex and murder. For much of the novel, Lurie naturalizes sex—even comparing his own desires with those of a dog who was beaten for having desire for a female dog (Coetzee 90). Lucy, though, denaturalizes sex. During a conversation with Lurie, she tells him, “for men, hating the woman makes sex more exciting…. 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…?” (Coetzee 158). This relates directly to the question of gender differences, as we see in Lucy’s claim to Lurie that he “is a man” and he “ought to know” (Coetzee 158). Lucy insists that her father must know what it feels like to murder (sex), but cannot possibly understand what it is like to be the recipient of the act. The line between usurping and usurping upon varies here. The rape did, in fact, murder certain aspects of Lucy and Lurie personally (as we see on page 124). But Lucy refuses to leave her home and refuses to give up her house. She views the situation as something complicated, not something to run away from.
The characters in Disgrace not only experience questions of boundaries of the body, but they also experience issues with boundaries between parent and child. Obviously, Lurie and Lucy’s relationship explores this most intensely, but Lurie also questions (crosses?) those boundaries in his relationship with Melanie. Not only is she young enough to be his daughter, but Lurie is attracted to Melanie and begins a sexual relationship with her and even has intercourse with her in the bed that belonged to Lucy when she was young. Lurie claims Melanie as his own daughter when he watches her in a play and feels pride in her performance and the audience’s reaction: “Mine! he would like to say, turning to them, as if she were his daughter” (Coetzee 191). Similarly, Lurie claims Lucy as his own when he repeatedly calls her “my dearest” and “my child” and when he insists on being the agent of change and action in her life (Coetzee 98, 99). For example, on several occasions he insists on paying for her to move away from the farm. Lurie has a difficult time distinguishing the boundary between his self, his daughter, and his lover.
Although Lurie insists on pressing these boundaries, Lucy often reverses the role and becomes the one in control, while he becomes submissive. For example, she demands that Lurie not tell the police what happened to her, she refuses to let him call the police when he sees Pollux, one of the attackers, at Petrus’ party, and she refuses to leave her home. However, Lurie struggles with the fact that he could not save his daughter from the rape (pages 103-104), but he also keeps pushing her to handle the situation as he wants her to—to leave. When she refuses, he cannot understand why and keeps pushing her; he keeps trying to usurp the relationship. Lurie tries to understand what Lucy is dealing with after the rape, but she tells him he cannot because he was not there and because it is a private matter. He wants her reasoning to be rooted in history, but for Lucy it is not a question of history. Because of his insistence, because he keeps attempting to usurp the boundaries of parent and child, Lucy tells him that he cannot be her father forever and that she is no longer a child—she attempts to recover her voice from him (Coetzee 161). She tries repeatedly to assert herself as a woman, as an adult, and as someone who is capable of making her own decisions, even (and especially) when they do not line up with Lurie’s choices. Lucy thinks about the situation (her and her father’s relationship, and the situation of the rape) in different terms than Lurie, which suggests she sees South Africa in different terms than Lurie, because she refuses to make this about history. She becomes the voice of wisdom, or the parental figure.
The novel also raises questions about the boundaries of authority. As a generator of knowledge (a scholar at the university who publishes books), Lurie feels himself in a position of authority (consider his taking advantage of Melanie, to a degree), and it is not until he is told that Bev is in awe of him and he returns to that authoritative position, that he starts to look at her differently. This becomes a situation of arousal for him, again. But he also sees himself in a power position based on race. The roles of power are continually reversed in this novel, not just between Lurie and Lucy (father and child), but between white and black. Lurie’s “rational understanding” (his perspective) is always called into question. Petrus is in some ways Lurie’s mirror: he has two wives just like Lurie did (even though he remains married), he is dominating (as Lurie describes him on page 137), and he is a dog-man (which Lurie becomes on page 146). Lurie becomes the man that works for Petrus, on Petrus’ land, and ultimately Lurie negotiates a “trade” between Petrus and Lucy for the remainder of her land. The historical shifting of landownership in South Africa becomes a question in the relationships between Petrus and Lucy/Lurie, and Lurie’s self-assessed power as a generator of knowledge becomes null once he moves to the country and is forced into a relationship with Petrus.
Similarly, Coetzee raises questions about the boundaries (the possibilities and limits) of language and communication. The novel sometimes lapses into German, Italian, and Xhosa, often without translation, which questions the boundaries of language. But there is also a question of language in the exchange with the committee when Lurie is brought up on charges and in the statement he is asked to sign (Coetzee 54, 57-58). Both situations culminate in nuances of language that lead to frustration on the part of all parties involved. Questions of what one can and cannot know about another person based on the words he says are central to these scenes. This raises questions about who has power (often it looks like Lurie does, at other times the committee) and to what extent language has power.
Lurie also tests the boundaries of language and communication when he tries to usurp the narrative of the lives of those around him by creating his own narrative. Ultimately he is only able to usurp upon those narratives instead of completely taking them over. He often decides for himself how Melanie must feel and how Lucy must feel, and he often creates a narrative for situations concerning them. He even goes to the extent of imagining who pushed Melanie into filing charges and what the conversations would have sounded like (Coetzee 39). Lurie is very much about himself, which we see in his use of language. For example, he creates new names for people (Melanie becomes Meláni and later Melanie-Gloria, and Bev becomes “poor Bev” for much of the novel). When he speaks of Lucy with what some would think of as affection, it is usually preceded by a pronoun of ownership such as his or my (my child, my dearest), making anything he says concerning her really about him. Lurie’s narrative is very much, as Lucy points out on page 198, about himself. He brings every situation back to his own feelings and his own self. What makes this a case of usurping upon is that the others refuse to let him take over entirely. In the end, he must join them or be alone.
Ultimately, Lucy’s assertion that she (and, eventually Lurie, too) must be brought down to the level of dogs, to be humiliated, and then to start over again raises questions of boundaries in South Africa (Coetzee 205). The repeated acts of displacement that occurred in South Africa are reflected in many parts of this novel (it seems that Petrus is the representative of the Xhosa, Lurie of the British, Lucy of the Dutch, and her unborn child of all three—a renegotiation, of sorts), but the solution offered by Lucy is not to leave the country or to even to seek retribution for the crime committed against her. For Lucy, the rape is a personal trauma, a grief she does not want to publicly express, yet Lurie refuses to see Lucy’s rape as one of an individual. Through Lucy’s insistence on silence, Lurie’s solutions are continually called into question. In the end, Lurie—the symbol of the British establishment in South Africa—is the one brought down to the level of the dogs; he spends his time in a yard with them, a madman playing a child’s banjo and socializing mainly with the animals. The novel questions the ability of a new South Africa to overcome the boundaries created by a series of displacements (the Dutch colonization of the Xhosa, followed by the British colonization). By juxtaposing the private with the public, Coetzee highlights these boundary issues and leaves us with an unsettled, unsatisfied ending that suggests the situation is more complicated than what “rational understanding” can repair.