How are we to understand the workings of grace in Coetzee’s Disgrace? In this narrative, David falls from grace for abusing his young student, Melanie. Although in my own reading I see his advances as violations of the girl’s will, David quite emphatically denies that his throes of passion should be construed as rape (25). As I read the arc of this narrative, I wondered whether David would change, whether he would recognize how he had abused his position of power, and whether he would cease to pity himself and reorient himself into the position of the other—the woman he abused. The rape of his daughter does little to prod an awareness of his own participation in the abuse of women. David refuses to see himself as an abuser, for example, when Lucy suggests that rape is akin to murder. She says, “Maybe, for men hating the woman makes sex more exciting. You are a man, you ought to know” (158). But David patronizingly refuses to see himself as a rapist. He thinks, “Does one speak to one’s father like that?” (159). He acknowledges that perhaps some men experience this pleasure in murderous rape, but he is denies that he is such a man.
As far as I can tell, he does not repent of his exploitation of Melanie or recognize his actions as abuse, which I think we see clearly toward the end of the narrative. When David seeks out Melanie’s father at her home, he inadvertently runs into her sister Desiree, to whom he experiences strong sexual attraction (history repeating itself). And at dinner with the Isaacs family, David asks the Isaacs to pardon him for the grief he caused them; and Mr. Isaacs tells David, “We are all sorry when we are found out…The question is not, are we sorry? The question is, what lesson have we learned?” (172). David responds by conciliatorily suggesting that perhaps he is not “too old to learn lessons” – that he is “being punished for what happened” by being “sunk into a state of disgrace” (172). Yet, he still longs to renew his dalliance with Melanie, suggesting that his disgrace has not changed him (190).
The only sense in which I see David truly beginning to change is in the ways in which he surrenders control. At the end of the novel, he gives up the dog to whom he has grown quite attached—relinquishing the animal to death—in a way that parallels the way he must give up Lucy, who identifies herself as a dog in her humiliation (205), to her own fate. In fact the only moment in which I see David longing for genuine forgiveness is when he has abandoned Bev’s dogs because they will now die “unmourned” (178). I question though whether this relinquishing of control is enough to redeem David from his state of disgrace, which is troubling if (and perhaps this is not so simple) David represents white Western masculinity in South Africa. The white Westerner constantly romanticizes his exploitation and struggles to control his daughter, without the ability (as Bev suggests) to identify with Lucy’s pain and without understanding her desire for peace and reconciliation with Petrus and others in the village. He sees himself, as Lucy says, as the main character in the story, the ultimate authority on truth, without acknowledging that her point of view (the marginalized point of view) is equally significant.