Power, Sex and Subjugation in J M Coetzee’s Disgrace

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Power, Sex, and Subjugation in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace

By – C Praveen Kumar & Prof. V. Srinivas (February 2017, Vol.III Issue.XXV)



Literature and society are interrelated in form and theme, the way it is along with all its facts and fiction. It is a symbolic relation and yet it is strange fact that often existence gets stagnated. A person is valued until he/she contributes to the society at large, the attitude and respect turns into disgust. A similar situation with David Lurie in Disgrace, he is a symbol of demoralization and degradation of the body and mind. Disgrace is a complex exploration of the broken emotions between passion and ethical worlds; intellect and psyche; desire and love; and public disgrace or shame and the idea of individual grace or salvation. Set in a recognizably post apartheid South Africa. The essay focuses on the major character David his way of acting. This research article focuses on sexual power abuse over women to represent domineering male characters to make women insecure in order to be controlled. It also delves into the protagonist David’s metamorphosis, who was seen as strong, becomes docile. The novel is equipped with a gender, power, and sexual perspectives, which can be sprung into the subjugation of common people as a weapon in Disgrace.

Keywords: Power, Sex, Subjugation, Romance, Realization



The novel, Disgrace, could mean many things figuratively, for instance shame and dishonor, the word itself could refer to three actions in the story: David a fifty- two – year-old professor at the University of Cape Town, his daughter Lucy, who lives on a farm on the country side and Lucy’s dog-keeper Petrus being accused of sexual molestation, Lucy’s rape, and the disgrace of the dying dogs, the ones David helps put to sleep (219). Sexual politics beginning from economic dirge of people to violent extremism is a vast area of debate for many years. Absurd in his world existence as replication vanish when required for the most. The present paper analyses the complexity of existence, the true evolution and transformation from uncertain circumstances. Along with realizing his hamartia, he also makes us feel about the future that does not give us bright clue of catharsis ahead. One of the best outputs of this prize winning book is it discusses not only about the present problems of the African society but its protagonist also makes an attempt to foresee the future that does not seem bright. This paper is an attempt to show many contradictions, in the hero‘s character, between the hero and other characters, between the characters and the narrator, between the background of the plot and action of the characters etc. These contradictions are helpful in simulating the many aspects of reality.

Power and Sex

This striking novel Disgrace seeks to disintegrate broken life images with gender and sexuality into the mainstream of social and political theory with the aim of challenging and transforming these traditional areas into socio-ethical integrated harmonious world.

Though the story revolves mainly around three characters, viz. David, entangled in the problem of sex rather well being by a weekly date with the prostitute Soraya. But his teaching reveals that he is struggling and failing to integrate the intellectual and sensual aspects of his character which can also be observed during his class on ‘The Prelude’ he reminds Wordsworth, that “we cannot live our daily lives in a realm of pure ideas, cocooned from sense-experience” (22). However, David plunges in the literary direction prioritizing his sensual impulse. He is completely absorbed in English Romantic poetry; he uses Byron and Blake to justify his behavior. His daughter Lucy to showcase men to gain power both psychologically as well as materially to encompass discipline and morality in life is failed to create sustainability. David Lurie, who seduces his student, loses his job and status as a professor. He’s then shamed in a different way when his daughter, Lucy, is raped. Coetzee gives us a story filled with national problems. It reflects a country with lacking security and with inhabitants with a destructive look upon life. He reveals the deepest thoughts of characters put in challenging situations. Derek Attridge describes it as “a society in which crime is rampant, the police service is inadequate and the middle classes are barricaded into the fortress homes” (315). In other words, this is a country filled with distrust. The sexual apartheid ramifications of the ethical life is failed to make a confession, as double enacted David. He refuses officially to apologize for sexually abusing a student when he had raped. Later, his daughter Lucy, the victim of a gang rape, provides charges for what has happened. The question of subjugation and oppression are conventionally feminine where an ethic of unstinting love requires the elision of subjection of the body of the woman.

Disgrace is a novel in which physical passion is very strongly linked to power, desire, and disgrace. It is through the exercise of his superiority through social status and authority, as a university professor having an affair with a young female student to satisfy his sexual desires that David dehumanized. If sex is a fun and satisfaction, as he seems to believe in, then growing old means maturity from bodily passion. Ageing men and women are graceful dissociated from their bodies and from desires they are recluse but David is salacious and his own sexual activity is described disparagingly as a man exercising himself on the body of a woman. Apparently, remorse was not considered part of the conscious process, as it was deemed too difficult to measure its sincerity in David. He refuses public repentance, unable to draw a distinction from pleasure and guilt. The bodily treatment of David was able to incorporate the soul and in contrast to his earlier cynical representation of the human soul as his whims and fancies. Despite David’s resolution not to change, it is the fate that unleash his emotions made him to understand what was happening to him as his indifference towards human beings and animals dissipates from an otherworldly nature of existence.

To bring analysis, the concepts of sex and power, subjugation and gender need to be redefined. In terms of power, a definition stressing control is relevant to this essay: “the ability or right to control people or events” (Longman 1356) and “the ability to influence people or give them strong feelings” (Longman 1356).

However, is that Disgrace deals with two different kinds of power, the visible power which the men use to use women and the inner power of self-confidence and inner peace.

Romantic Realism

The term “Romantic Realism” is that derives from European literary work; nevertheless, it actually rooted from Dostoevsky’s understanding of the world. It is inspired to believe about the function of literature in a revolutionary socialist society. The international production of romance and realist fiction is characterized by an underlined theme in the power of the word and in the writer’s ability to portray in a satisfying documentary fashion the structure of social reality.

According to Dictionary of Literary terms by Coles;

Realism, in literature, is a manner and method of picturing life as it really is, untouched by idealism or romanticism. As a manner of writing, realism relies on the use of specific details to interpret life faithfully and objectively. In contrast to romance, this concerned with the bizarre and psychological in its approach to character, presenting the individual rather than the type. Often, fate plays a major role in the action. Realism became prominent in the English novel with such writers as Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, Laurence Sterne, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Anthony Trollope and William Makepeace Thackeray.

Socialist realism means the depiction of the social reality not as it is but as it should be: idealized. The second kind of approach is typical Marxist approach to literature. Socio-ethical living is a construction built by human beings to make it easier to handle the world around and make sense of it. Harriet Bradley claims in her book Gender: Key Concepts that the distinction between males and females has a very old history but power and authority is something that varies according to time and place that sexual power politics today is not the same as hundred years ago and female in South Africa is necessarily defined in the same way as in other country. But it never happens.

These explanations are important to be aware of since sexuality and gender are a big part of the book which could be summarized in the following way:

It seems that one of the most important subjects touched upon in the novel is sexuality, in its different varieties: those of older and younger men, rapists and men who impose themselves on women in some way dependent on them or else manipulate them into having sex; and also blurred images of the sexuality of women, those sharing their bodies in return for money or favors, willingly and unwillingly, those raped or violated (Stepien 203).

Though David learns from the rape of Lucy, he gains understanding and sympathy. He apologizes to Melanie’s father for the pain he caused their family. Eventually, he realizes what he caused them because he went through the same process with Lucy. He now looks for forgiveness and some kind of catharsis and his way of seeing women changes in his attitude.

There were times when David ruled on his will to follow his desire when it comes to women and it also becomes his burden and it makes him lose his power. When he at the end asks Mr. Isaacs for forgiveness, he tells his side of the story:

A fire: what is remarkable about that? If a fire goes out, you strike a match and start another one. This is how I used to think. Yet in the olden days people worshipped fire. They thought twice before letting a flame die, a flame-god. It was that kind of flame your daughter kindled in me. Not hot enough to burn me up, but real: real fire’. Burned– burnt – burnt up. (Coetzee 166).

The flame of realization, reconciliation, and redemption is not in David earlier, but recuperative by desire, and then forced upon Luc, made David realized. Later, a flame was set in David, he forced himself upon Melanie. This fire could be seen figuratively. It could be seen as the difference between one setting the fire himself and being forced into someone else’s flame. The flame could be comparable to desire, once a flame is started in you, one would do anything to get there but being a victim of someone else’s flame could be very unpleasant.


True examination of characterization of David and his power to rule on subjugation of women, it is found that David starts out as the most powerful character in the story. He is respected but as time goes by, he loses his authority and his power to seduce women starts to fade. The first time we see David lose his power is when he tries to seduce Melanie. The story itself never punishes David, he gains power by sexually violating Soraya to scare her and then get her attention. Soraya and Melanie are never heard from again after David uses them and though apologies are given to them but they are not meant personally, so, justice is therefore never given to the oppressed. It is considered a story with a unhappy ending but it gives an insight into the lives of women in South Africa laterally but largely there are many a time suppression through power and authority is rampant which is of course metaphorically represent in the undercurrent.



Bradley, Harriet. Fractured Identities. Cambridge: Polity, 1996. Print

Coetzee, J.M. Disgrace. London: Vintage. 1999. Print

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. Seventh edition. Harlow: Pearson Education

Limited, 2009. Print


Attridge, Derek. “J.M Coetzee’s Disgrace: Introduction.” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies. (2011): 315-317. Web.5 Dec 2015. [http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/1369801022000013752]

Kumar, Chinta Praveen. “Notes from the Underground: A Psycho Analytical Criticism with Reflection on Today’s Man.” Research Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences Rese Jour Human. and Soci. Scien. 7.1 (2016): 6. Web. ISSN 2321-5828 DOI No. 10.5958/2321-5828.2016.00002.4

Chinta Praveen Kumar, “Guilty Pleasures” The Criterion-an International Journal in English Vol-5, Issue-1, February 2014 ISSN 0976-8165


Introduction to the Authors:

Chinta Praveen Kumar is a research scholar at Telangana University as well as a faculty member in the Humanities and Science Department, Vardhaman College of Engineering, Hyderabad. The co-author, Prof. V. Srinivas is a faculty member, department of English, Kakatiya University, Telangana.


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