Empathy and Redemption in J.M. Coetzee's 'Disgrace'

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J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace suggests that certain scenes throughout the novel played significant roles that were crucial for David Lurie to develop remorse and provide subsequent action. In the novel, multiple controversial scenes transpired that created dishonor for Professor Lurie but also regret. These scenes allowed our beloved protagonist the opportunity to respond to controversial change, affairs of authority, and most importantly, empathy.

Female Characters' Impact in 'Disgrace'

Towards the beginning of the novel, the female characters in Disgrace provide our protagonist the motivation to go through situational events in which led to the development of the plot. The first female character mentioned in the novel is Soraya, who happens to be a prostitute that David had a fondness of but borderlines on an obsession. “It surprises him that ninety minutes a week of a woman’s company are enough to make him happy” (5). However, the relationship between the pair was short lived and our protagonist was unable to process the concept of the end of the unusual relationship. “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well” (1). Without giving himself the opportunity to cope with his imaginary loss, David instantly positions himself into a complicated situation and a perfect example of that is his next conquest, his student, Melanie Isaacs. “The company of women made him a lover of women…. That was how he lived; for years, for decades, that was the backbone of his life” (7). With that said our protagonist becomes a predator and acts completely upon impulse, without a second thought to other parties. Nonetheless, Professor Lurie is the protagonist of J.M. Coetzee’s story, the one in which the story is centered on, and the perspective in which most of the story is perceived; which makes the minor and major events that David come across significant, and provides the story a sort of plot or action.

Lurie's Controversial Actions and Beliefs

The forceful nature of Professor Lurie towards Ms. Isaacs ends up in the hands of the University of Cape Town ethics committee, as it was her right to file a complaint. David’s straightforward responses and collected composure led his colleagues to question, what they thought, was his outlandish decision. “Professor Lurie pleads guilty, but I ask myself, does he accept his guilt or is he simply going through the motions in the hope that the case will be buried under paper and forgotten?” (49). The committee provided David multiple opportunities to admit his faults and write a statement but he was set in his approaches and did not find his actions incorrect. “Do you regret what you did?

‘No,’ he says. ‘I was enriched by the experience” (53).

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Professor Lurie showed no remorse regarding Melanie and his forceful ways, and made that very clear multiple times. Even during a conversation with Mr. Manas Mathabane, David clearly questioned, “I am being asked to issue an apology about which I may not be sincere?” (56). It gives J.M. Coetzee’s readers a clear image of David’s thought process on his encounter with his student. He even expressed his thoughts to Melanie personally; “A woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it” (15). Unmistakably, these statements provided by our protagonist clearly shows a shameless perspective and lack of consideration to the events that have occurred. Melanie’s father even attempted to speak to David in regards to the matter but he was unwilling. Having said that, David resigned from the university and had a drastic change in scenery, leading him to his daughter Lucy.

Character Development of David

Lucy’s gang rape is a highly controversial scene, not because it happened but because of how she handled it. Her refusal to report her rape was essential to David’s journey towards remorse and empathy. It gave him the opportunity to get a viewpoint on how dreadful such a situation can be, especially since he did not have any consideration for Ms. Isaacs. David questioned Lucy and her decisions in the same way the committee questioned him. As Lucy eventually came to terms with the rape, David did not comprehend her perspective. “‘Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property no rights, no dignity.

Like a dog.

Yes, like a dog.” (Coetzee, 200).

This traumatic experience hit close to home for David and was necessary to develop his weakened empathetic side. He began to reflect on the occurrences in his life. “Do I have to change, he thinks?” (123). It was beginning to come together for our protagonist and David began grasping the idea that Lucy was set on her decisions, in not only refusing to report her rapists, but also in keeping the baby that she conceived during her rape. “Forgive me, Lucy” (77). The difficulty of this event led David to flee back to Cape Town as, “time does indeed heal all” (138).


With the challenging situation David encounters on Lucy’s farm, he now understands how painful it is to have someone you love, experience such traumatic events. All that our protagonist experienced while with his daughter led to him finally being able to apologize for the traumas he caused to someone else’s daughter. David was able to provide an overdue apology to Mr. Isaacs: “I am sorry for what I took your daughter through… I ask for the grief I have caused you and Mrs. Isaacs. I ask for your pardon” (168). Undoubtedly, this was an incredibly sincere scene within Coetzee’s Disgrace as it showed the readers that our beloved protagonist was finally able to come to terms with what happened with Melanie Isaacs. All through J.M. Coetzee’s novel, the reader experiences and accompanies Professor David Lurie on an adventure to explore who he is, and how the events of his life provide him perspective. “That is what Soraya and the others were for: to suck the complex proteins out of his blood like snake-venom, leaving him clear-headed and dry” (181).   

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Empathy and Redemption in J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’. (2023, Jun 26). WritingBros. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/empathy-and-redemption-in-j-m-coetzees-disgrace/
“Empathy and Redemption in J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’.” WritingBros, 26 Jun. 2023, writingbros.com/essay-examples/empathy-and-redemption-in-j-m-coetzees-disgrace/
Empathy and Redemption in J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’. [online]. Available at: <https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/empathy-and-redemption-in-j-m-coetzees-disgrace/> [Accessed 18 Jun. 2024].
Empathy and Redemption in J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’ [Internet]. WritingBros. 2023 Jun 26 [cited 2024 Jun 18]. Available from: https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/empathy-and-redemption-in-j-m-coetzees-disgrace/
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