Coetzee’s David Lurie: Tale of the Ladies’ Man

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A N A L Y S I S – C H A R A C T E R

Fiana Islam

“So tell me, Fiana, how would you defend David Lurie?” My course instructor threw this question at my face during my viva. The moment he asked that, I became completely blank; my head started to spin. I felt like I was the defence attorney and the antagonist from Disgrace, David Lurie, is my defendant. How should I answer this question? 

I took my time and started to think. I don’t know how many seconds had passed before the instructor asked me again, “We don’t have all day… So, tell me how would you defend him if you ever have to?” 

“If I ever have to!” Within the next split second, I had these weird questions lurking in my head — do I really need to defend him? A White good-looking man who is merely a creation of Coetzee, who is in his fifties, a former University professor, and most of all, a womaniser — and that too, not in a stable way. So how is it possible that I would legitimise a person who inflicts trauma and initially propagated assault culture? Is it feasible to applaud the novel Disgrace without even concerning its “pro/antagonist” David Lurie? Is it okay for a Literature major like me to “not” look at the other side of the (or his) story? 

So how should I put his character in the most neutral way? 

Let me be honest, Prof. David Lurie’s characterisation did not strike me when he first attempted to manipulate one of his students, Melanie Issacs, a coloured girl in her seventeen, for a sexual relationship — as it seemed nothing new to me. The issue is not unfamiliar in the patriarchal society, and for a reputed professor like Lurie, it rather became nearly easy to manipulate a clueless minor to have sex with her teacher. 

Point to be noted that Prof. Lurie was Melanie’s instructor of Romantics. So later that same concerning issue caught my attention when the professor justified his actions to the University board by comparing it with his literary experience. According to him, he was “enriched by this sexual experience with his student” (Coetzee, 24), and indirectly denied Melanie’s legal charges. In his encounter with the world of Wordsworth and Byron, literature has blinded him to enhance his knowledge through every single thing, including the “assault”. 

The story goes on in the post-apartheid setting in South Africa where the power dynamics had shifted; the Blacks were finally rising and the Whites were losing their glory. In such a time, the novel portrayed its two major assaults: One with Melanie and the other with Lucy, who was David’s daughter. We get to see the perspective of David Lurie in this novel for most of the time than the women. What he thinks, depicts, and does about the assaults has become the central attraction of the novel, and deep within, his side also gives away a hypocritical nature of himself.

In my opinion, there are three phases of David Lurie’s characterisation in the novel:

1. He, as a doer

2. He, as an observer, and

3. He, as a repentant

The first point represents David Lurie’s experience as a doer which means his direct involvement in sexual activities with women: both legally and illegally. The second point represents him as an observer, but not in his own actions but the one he witnessed through his daughter’s rape. Lucy was raped by three Black men in front of David’s presence which shook him at his very core. This is the first and only time he realised what damage sexual violence can do to a girl. In Melanie’s case, David silenced her in the trial by denying the activities as “rape” but in the case of Lucy, David acted contrarily. He constantly tried to convince her daughter to report the attack to the police. This led to the third phase, in which David feels remorse. He feels his daughter’s pain and repents at last. His transition is visible yet confusing. Does he really repent his past guilt or is it only because of Lucy’s current condition? If Lucy were not raped, what would have happened then?

At this point when a storyteller is narrating a story from one point of view, there is a slight possibility of the unreliability of the whole picture. The narration that we are observing can be a biased one. We set out to find the real story and arrive at the resolution that the storyteller is either retaining the genuine rendition of the story or is coming up short to portray the whole scenario. There is a probable reason that it happened in Disgrace too. The smoke in David’s transformation hasn’t actually cleared the air, rather it gives away the genuine cause (about his daughter) of making that in the first place. So what is the point of defending him if I do not have the whole picture in my hand? 



Well… my instructor is looking at me with a straight face. All my soundless blabbering must’ve pissed him off, no? 


Fiana is a human-ish writer by day and a Scorpio coven witch by nightfall. Reach out to her @_ffikipedia_ to share any thoughts.

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