Examining Gender Dynamics in 'Disgrace' by J. M. Coetzee

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In the novel of Disgrace by J.M Coetzee, Coetzee does present relationships with men as a limiting option for women but to me ‘limiting’ does not deem to be a strong enough word. There could be many ways of interpreting the term ‘relationships with men’ as there are different kinds of relationships - the way in which two or more people are connected or behave toward each other is the main interpretation – but when women are referred to with men in the novel, it is thought that women were defined by what men thought of them and whether their relationship is worthy of their respect. To say it is a ‘limiting option’ connotates a position beyond which something does not or may not reach to – it is restrictive. This is definitely something that is an underlying theme in Disgrace, and it can be magnified with a strong feminist critique.

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Disgrace is set in post-apartheid South Africa and it tackles the struggles facing the adjustments people were being ‘forced’ to make. It challenges themes of political and social violence in a deeply divided country, it magnifies the tension between its historical institutionalization of racism and the desire that had been longed for, equality for all. The novels follows the story of David Lurie, a white male professor,52; who has two ex-wives; who had a regular appointment with Soraya, an ‘Escort’; who had a sexual relationship with his student that ends in a sexual harassment report; whose daughter end ups being gang raped by 3 black men; and has sex with a married woman who he first described as “dumpy”. All in all, the reader is left with the overall sense that women having a relationship with even the protagonist of the novel is a destructive option for them, rather than ‘limiting’.

Soraya: Objectification and Limited Agency

Soraya is the first of Lurie’s sexual relations in that we meet in the novel and she is limited by his objectification and purely sexual “usefulness”. The relationship between Soraya and Lurie has been going on for some time before the novel starts and we can tell this because straight to the point Lurie is about the routine of their weekly meeting on “Thursday afternoons” by listing what takes place: “he drives to Green Point… he presses the buzzer… speaks his name and enters… He goes straight to the bedroom… Soraya emerges from the bathroom, drops her robe”. There is emphasize on the routine-like nature of their relationship and how it is lacking any significant human emotion, as it is almost ritualistic and tedious. It’s more of a transaction that Lurie says he finds “entirely satisfactory” rather than an act of passion; it’s an oxymoron that represents the unequal disposition of their relationship where he feels within the right to objectify her. This contrasts to Soraya’s inferred lack of enthusiasm: she is described as “not effusive… in bed” with a “temperament” that is “quiet, quiet and docile”, highlighting her subordination and lack of agency. Also, the way in which Lurie focuses primarily on Soraya’s appearance, describing her as “tall and slim, with long black hair and dark, liquid eyes” shows that he… Her race is not spoken about until we are given the description of Lurie stroking her “honey-brown body”, this could be interpreted as a fetish to him, it is only important to him in the context of female sexuality and seduction. This is representing the deliberate silence of men being a ‘limiting option for women’ – Lurie is silent about every feature and characteristic of Soraya except her appearance, he is entirely superficial. This reflects how he objectifies Soraya, along with the other female characters in the novel, with his focusing on her color of skin, suggesting a kind of fetishization with regards to her darkness, seeing her as “Exotic” as she is labeled by the escort agency she is ‘owned’ by. This could be seen as a remark on the patriarchal society of post-apartheid South Africa. Emma Lowry says that “The fundamental flaw in the colonial enterprise [the novel] suggests, consists in this absence of a real relationship between the paternalistic power and its subjects.” Here we can see Lurie as representing this ‘paternalistic power’ openly as he declares that “he is old enough to be [Soraya’s] father” which juxtaposes with the lack of connection with Soraya, who he refers to as his “subject”. All of this suggests that Soraya’s relationship with Lurie is a limiting option for her as Lurie’s deliberate silence does not allow the audience to connect to Soraya and allows the exploitation of women for men’s pleasure and that he has a systematic disregard for personal life.

Portrayal of Melanie Isaacs

Like the rest of the females in the novel, Melanie Isaacs has two sides to her character, she's presented to be an intelligent student who seems to have a lot of thoughts and she chooses her words carefully. To Lurie, Melanie should have been a student he could hold and intellectual conversation with but to him, she was merely another notch on his belt. As Melanie’s professor, Lurie has a hierarchal power over her and when he decides that her beauty is a gift, that it “does not belong to her alone” but is to be shared, he wants his taking and he is abusing that power. Lurie is determined to have sexual relations with her; his speed of wooing is indicative of this. He immediately tries to wine and dine her into sharing her beauty with him, at first, she refuses, but later surrenders to his desire and lets him seduce her. “Smooth words, as old as seduction itself. Yet at this moment he believes in them. She does not own herself. Beauty does not own itself.” It is never made clear to the reader why Melanie gives into Lurie’s advances, whether it is because she is intimidated by someone who is meant to be an authority figure, or whether it is because she isn’t as naïve as she is made out to be. She has sex with him even when she says she doesn't want to, making us think that he raped her; but then later she shows up at his apartment unannounced, crying hysterically and asking if she can stay with him. Because of the limited point of view in Disgrace, we’re not granted access to Melanie’s thoughts and perceptions. Readers are aware of David’s, and only David’s, thoughts and impressions of the rape. Except, of course, he doesn’t see what he does as rape, or not exactly as rape: “Not rape, not quite. As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck.” It matches between this situation and the later rape of his daughter may be drawn as it is never fully outlined whether Melanie did experience this sexual encounter this way. The 'not quite that' could imply that David avoided violence and yet the 'undesired' shows a lack of consent. Melanie had in fact clearly said 'no'. Disgrace presents the reader with many very different forms of rape. Although she fills in the harassment form against him, we and David never discover the contents of her complaint and she does not speak about this here or elsewhere in the novel. The oppression of Melanie’s voice is made clear when Lurie refuses to hear her testimony against him, so the result of their relationship became a limiting option for Melanie as her story is disregarded. Lurie’s absence is a silence that took away Melanie’s voice.


In conclusion, in the novel of Disgrace J.M. Coetzee definitely presents relationships with men, not only has a limiting option for women, but as restrictive. Women in Disgrace, except for Bev Shaw in some respects, have had aspects in their lives taken over and changed in the course of the men’s actions.  

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Examining Gender Dynamics in ‘Disgrace’ by J. M. Coetzee. (2023, Jun 26). WritingBros. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/examining-gender-dynamics-in-disgrace-by-j-m-coetzee/
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