Hierdie is die LitNet-argief (2006–2012)
This is the LitNet archive (2006–2012)
Dinie Schoorlemmer - 2008-04-17
This article focuses on Lucy Lurie, daughter of the main character David in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace. At first glance Lucy seems to accept the humiliation of a gang rape because it may be the price a white woman has to pay for staying on in post-apartheid South Africa. However, following the track of intertextuality with reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (1850) and combining it with an analysis of Lucy’s focalisation from a gender point of view, the article develops a completely new insight into the role of Lucy Lurie. She is not a victim but a true heroine, in the spirit of Hawthorne’s character Hester Prynne. This insight leads to a new interpretation of the novel and to the conclusion that Disgrace can be read as an optimistic story and a feministic one.
When JM Coetzee published his novel Disgrace in 1999, it was the first time the balance of power in post-apartheid South Africa took centre stage in a novel written by him. The critics were full of praise, commending style and treatment of the subject, but remarked that Coetzee sketched an exceptionally pessimistic picture of South Africa after 1994. Gerrit Olivier in the South African magazine Boekwurm, for example, reviews Coetzee’s Disgrace as a masterpiece that shows a "meedoënlose perspektief op die Suid-Afrikaanse situasie teen die agtergrond van 'n geskiedenis van mag en magteloosheid" ("a merciless perspective on the South African situation against the background of a history of power and powerlessness").
It is not an unambiguous story: an offender also appears to be a victim. The only round characteris David; the backgrounds and motives of most other characters have largely to be guessed at.
Lucy is the biggest puzzle. She has been robbed and gang-raped in her own house, but refuses to press charges. The three intruders are related to Petrus, her black neighbour and assistant. Rape is a form of everyday violence in post-apartheid South Africa. David realises that as well. "It happens every day, every hour, every minute, he tells himself, in every quarter of the country" (1999:98). He therefore advises Lucy to leave the farm, believing that the violent trio will return. But Lucy refuses and, although the shock of what happened to her is something she cannot comprehend, she suspects it may be the price one has to pay for staying on.
Why does a young woman – whose intelligence and self-awareness are evident from the dialogues between her and her father – choose to stay at a place where she is indelibly vernichtet and where that may happen again? This question triggered me to examine Lucy’s character more closely.
When Disgrace was published David was analysed in great detail, while much less attention was paid to the character of Lucy – understandably, for David as the central figure has a background and motives for his actions, which applies to Lucy to a lesser degree. But she certainly is a supporting character and definitely has a voice of her own to explain herself and make her choices clear. That’s why I want to focus on Lucy and look at her character from a gender point of view.
2. Lucy in the foreground
In NRC Handelsblad (1999) a leading Dutch newspaper, Arnold Heumakers examines the characters of David Lurie and his daughter Lucy in great detail and concludes: "Bij Lucy heeft de vernedering inderdaad tot nederigheid geleid. Zij wil opnieuw beginnen, zonder bezit, zonder rechten, zonder waardigheid – 'als een hond'." ("With Lucy, the indignation has indeed led to submissiveness. She wants to start again, without possessions, without rights, without dignity – 'like a dog')."
In 2005 Elsbeth Etty writes in the same paper: "Maar het ergste is dat Lucy capituleert. Vanwege de schaamte. Dat is wat hun bezoekers hebben bereikt; dat is wat ze deze zelfverzekerde jonge vrouw hebben aangedaan.” ("But the worst thing is that Lucy capitulates. Because of the shame. That is what their visitors have achieved; that is what they have done to this self-assured young woman.”) Gerrit Olivier states in Boekwurm that Lucy "[haar] vrywillig moet uitlewer aan 'n ander taal: die taal van mag en geweld. (...) Met 'n naam soos Lucy is sy dogter miskien die een wat as passiewe slagoffer 'n nuwe geskiedenis sal binnegaan." ("Lucy has to surrender voluntarily to a different language: the language of power and violence (…). With a name like Lucy his daughter may be the one who as a passive victim shall enter a new history.")
In the Western press, literary critics all seem to agree that Lucy accepts her humiliation and decides to live further in "disgrace". And when they discuss Lucy’s character they nearly all quote the following passage:
Elisabeth Lowry, the only female reviewer in the English international press, wrote an in-depth article in The London Review of Books (1999). She covers most of Coetzee’s work that had appeared by then, with a special focus on Disgrace and The Lives of Animals under the title "Like a Dog". According to Lowry the key elements in Disgrace are "a sexually predatory father and an isolated, self-sufficient daughter who is raped by a black neighbour and submits to further sexual contact in the hope that this will bring her in the community with her rapist" (1999:5). Her conclusion is that Disgrace shows us the victory of one expansionist over another and it leaves Lucy silent, without a voice.
There is one reviewer who does not see Lucy as a victim who passively resigns herself to her fate: Michael Gorra, in the New York Times (1999) credits her with strength: "[T]he daughter is marked by an integrity that her father knows he cannot claim for himself." And where other authors write about the hopelessness and pessimism of Disgrace, he stands alone in his conclusion that the lives of the characters "remain unresolved and unfinished, their problems and possibilities still open". But he does not substantiate this opinion with arguments or quotations from the text.
3. The track of intertextuality
The phenomenon of intertextuality is an important idea within the framework of views on literature. Anthony Mertens creates order in the various views, starting with Mikhail Bakhtin and Julia Kristeva, and finishing with the restricted perception of intertextuality as manifested in practical literary analysis.
In this article I depart from the narrow, hermeneutic concept of intertextuality: the tracing of intertextual references and the use of them in the interpretation of the novel. Intertextual analysis, Mertens points out, aims to balance elements in a story which do not seem to tally at first, by means of a detour which leads to the encyclopaedia of literature (1990:21). According to Kristeva, and Mertens agrees with her, intertextuality also "happens" inside the reader’s head; there, too, is a network of previously read texts on the basis of which readers ascribe meaning to what they read.
The intertextuality in Disgrace is an extensively ramified network on which Coetzee has left his tracks. One readily detects the one which is leading to Lucy’s farm. She agrees to report the burglary and the theft to the police, but refuses to report the gang rape because she views that as a private matter.
Elisabeth Lowry points out that this is an echo from Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago: "The personal life is dead, history has killed it." Could it be "that the claims of the individual are necessarily of secondary importance, even irrelevant?" Lowry asks in the beginning of her article (1999:1). It is certainly plausible that this is Lucy’s reason for not pressing charges, for she says that her only motive for not doing so lies in the fact that a reversal has taken place between the personal and the public. However, apart from Pasternak I hear another echo. It comes from the place where Lucy lives:
South Africa – Salem, to be precise. Little attention has been paid to this place name, but this is a very distinct intertextual reference. It is definitely not coincidental that Coetzee uses the same place name that is used in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850, is about a Puritan community in the 17th century, where a settlement takes place between the private and the public domain. In her introduction to The Scarlet Letter Nina Baym wrote about the conflict between the public and the private self:
There is another reason why I think Coetzee has chosen the Eastern Cape location of Salem. Already before the publication of Disgrace he expressed his appreciation of Hawthorne. His weighty essay "Into the Dark Chamber: the novelist and South Africa" actually starts with a quotation from the first page of The Scarlet Letter, where Hawthorne writes that for every new colony one of the first practical necessities is "to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison" (1986:45). There is an additional reason for referring to this quotation here: the last part illustrates how discipline and punishment were elementary building blocks for a new colony.
Coetzee’s novel Age of Iron (1990) also refers directly to The Scarlet Letter. When the elderly Mrs Curren, the protagonist, discovers that five boys – one of whom, named Bheki, she has known and liked – have been shot, she contemplates taking her own life as a public act of defiance. She then remembers a famous novel in which a woman was condemned to wear the A of Adultery stitched on her dress every time she appeared in public; but after many years people forgot what it stood for:
In Hawthorne’s Salem everyone was a suspect from the start, everyone was permanently on trial and a potential victim. Witch-hunts were held to keep the community pure and deter its members from straying from the strict path of Protestantism.
Arthur Miller also latched on to the events in Hawthorne’s Salem for his play The Crucible (1952), when political witch-hunts took place in the USA during the McCarthy period. He dramatised the witch-hunts to mirror the hearings of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The Crucible is a parable of McCarthyism and a critical commentary on the hearings of the HUAC, as it was based on the same procedure: an act of contrition done not in solemn privacy but out in the public. In Coetzee’s Salem David tells his daughter he was called to account for himself before a committee because he had had a sexual relationship with Melanie. "These are puritanical times," he then says. "They wanted a spectacle: breast-beating, remorse, tears if possible" (1999:66).
4. Hester Prynne in Puritan times
Hester, the protagonist in The Scarlet Letter, is a young woman who carries a child after an adulterous relationship. It is no longer a private matter when her child is born. She refuses to name the father and when she is released from prison, she holds the child in her arms and wears a scarlet letter A embroidered on her clothes. It is meant as a mark: the A stands for Adultery and a court of law has ordered her to always wear it.
When after her confinement Hester walks to the scaffold, the crowd of Puritans awaits her with the Governor and his magistrates looking down from the balcony upon
The narrator tells us what is in store for Hester when she is allowed to leave the prison the next day:
Over the years, Hester transforms her "shame" into an "honour". She doesn’t internalise the scandal and the shame. On the contrary: she refuses to behave as an outcast who is humiliated and thus gives her own meaning to the letter A.
Owing to her vital spirits and her affectionate association with everyone in Salem, the people around Hester slowly but surely start associating the red A with positive characteristics like able, affection, admirable, angel. In the end, no one remembers the original meaning of the A. Nina Baym says about this:
So Hester has won this deepest conflict. Her spirit appears to be stronger than the letter of Puritan law.
5. Lucy Lurie in Puritanical times
In the early settlement of Salem adultery was a criminal offence. But Lucy, in South African Salem, had committed no offence. On the contrary, she had stood up for the black population; she would fly into a rage when black adults were referred to as boy (1999:109).Lucy was "merely" the victim of "a history of wrong"; a history that "came down from the ancestors", according to David (1999:156).
Following the fatal events, Lucy no longer wants to go to the weekly market. David tells us what he thinks is her reason:
Later on Lucy comes to the same conclusion when she tells David: "I think I am in their territory. They have marked me. They will come back for me" (1999:158).
Later, when David has decided to sell his house in Cape Town, he tells her again that he will pay for everything she may need to set herself up again. Lucy thanks him for the offer, but says,
Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter also had a choice – even within the strict laws of the Puritan settlement. She could have gone back to her birthplace, or settled in another European country, where she could have taken on a new identity. The other option for Hester was to disappear into the "dark, inscrutable forest" (1986:72). Apart from the practical obstacles to such a choice she decided to stay in Salem. The narrator tells us why:
Hester accepts her punishment because it will purify her. She is no passive victim, but sets herself a goal: working out another purity than that which she had lost. So she doesn’t lose her grip on life and at the same time protects her inner spiritual life.
By the time Lucy can answer the question of whether to leave or not, the communication between her and David continues through letters slipped underneath the door. She writes to him:
Later on Lucy tells David that although she has taken every reasonable precaution after the assault, she is pregnant "from that day" and refuses an abortion.
6. Hester and Lucy compared
Lucy’s behaviour is less of a conundrum with reference to Hester’s role in 17th century Salem. The comparison does not mean that their lives are exactly matched. Hester’s adultery is clearly different from Lucy’s gang rape. The key is: they are both marked; they have both been publicly humiliated in a way that has permanent consequences for their private lives. The way Lucy handles her position as a marked person is similar to Hester’s approach.
Another point of resemblance is that they are both "with child", but without a father and breadwinner. Both Hester and Lucy put the welfare of their child before their own. Both women possess resilience. Hester has transformed her role as a victim into the honourable role of a woman who retains her self-respect and gives her own meaning to the scarlet A and her life in Salem. It is quite conceivable that Lucy will do the same in the Salem of South Africa. She not only refuses to renounce her child, she also refuses to assume the role of the victim. This is a courageous stand. They are both independent women who, interestingly enough, support themselves by making use of ultimate feminine talents: Hester with her needlework and Lucy with her "green fingers".
Leland Person examined Hester’s social position in its historical context and found similarities with the position of slave mothers because of the lack of power in their own lives and the doom laid on children conceived in miscegenation. It happened frequently that a slave mother killed her baby to keep it from a cruel and unhappy life. Thus it was not an unusual procedure for Hester to be carefully watched when – cold through and through and mentally crushed – she left the scaffold at the end of the day. Committing violence on herself or on the poor babe had to be prevented by all means. But in Hester’s case there was no need for that: she protects her baby that final night in prison when a "practitioner" has come to intervene (1986:65). And when her daughter Pearl is three years old, the magistrates of Salem want to take her away from her mother: to have a sinful mother cannot be in the interest of a young child. Her response: "'God gave me the child,' cried she. (…) 'Ye shall not take her! I will die first!'" (1986:100).
The tension between private and public life is not the only challenge in Lucy’s life that harks back to Hester Prynne. There is also the conflict between thematriarchal versus the patriarchal in Hawthorne’s Salem. Both Hester and Lucy make choices which benefit their children, they both support themselves and their child, and they both – in their own time of history – stand for a new idea of community: one that is more nurturing, flexible and less judgmental. A matriarchy, in short.
And, as Nina Baym points out in her interpretation of The Scarlet Letter, there is a third area of opposition: the spirit versus the letter (1986:xxi). Hester’s spirit proved stronger than theletter of the law of the Salem magistrates. Will Lucy’s spirit also be able to rise above thestory of the rape? Will she have enough power "to set the meanings", to quote Nina Baym, or will her rape indeed remain a stigma, spreading like a stain through the district: "not her story to spread, but theirs: they are its owners" (1999:115)?
7. Not like a dog
From now on I will focus again on Lucy.
In the final discussions between her and David, Lucy’s mental strength is increasingly apparent. More and more she is standing up to David and her message hits home.
This is the voice of a strong and independent Lucy, who, as it were, protests against the fact that she is not a main character. She is no martyr, no masochist, no dog, but a self-assured young woman who makes her own decisions. She fully realises the complexity of her situation. The proposal that follows is entirely consistent with everything she has said so far. She wants to stay in the place she loves, but recognises that she will need protection, for herself and even more for her unborn child. Petrus can provide this protection. It is a clever strategy, a good move, to make Petrus jointly responsible for the child, all the more so because it is customary in his culture to stand up for his people (1999:201). And where her personal life is concerned: the house remains hers and she decides whom she lets in. So Lucy does not flee either. She asks her father to go to Petrus (her neighbour and co-worker) with the following proposition:
When we look more closely at the dialogue we see that it ends in the same way as the subsequent discussion, which ends with the often quoted "Like a dog". In both dialogues Lucy’s humiliating position is rubbed in by David. And this happens every time at the end of a difficult conversation in which Lucy ultimately confirms David’s negative qualification. However, she did not do so initially. David, maybe not intentionally, makes her even more of a victim than she already is; for example, tenant becomes bywoner (subfarmer), and he interprets Lucy’s clever negotiation proposal as humiliating.
When Lucy defines her position as having to start on ground level with absolutely nothing, one hears the echo of Hester on the scaffold: "… yes! – these were her realities – all else had vanished!" David labels it a hondeposisie, a position fit for a dog. And whatever else one may think of dogs: their nature is subservient, they need a boss.
It may be clear that I do not agree with all of Lowry’s interpretations. Firstly, although she notes that "Petrus himself was suspiciously absent on the afternoon of the rape", she mistakenly implies elsewhere that Petrus was one of the violent trio (1999:5-6). Secondly, Lowry assumes that Lucy agrees "to become his [Petrus's] mistress, in return for his protection" (1999:5). It is not clear, however, that Lucy "submits to further sexual contact in the hope this will bring her into community with her rapists", as Lowry suggests (1999:6). On the contrary, I would say – Lucy relinquishes her land in exchange for autonomy in her own house, as we've seen:
Meg Samuelson’s view differs from Elisabeth Lowry’s. Where Lowry is unequivocal, Samuelson seems to be ambivalent. She analyses Lucy’s violation as a "carefully historicised representation of rape that acknowledges the act of power being performed over women’s bodies", but also states that Lucy seeks an independent life. (2002:92). Samuelson sees what happened to Lucy as an allegory for the rape of the land, meaning the takeover of Salem by the early colonists (2002:91). In Salem – "old Kaffraria", as David puts it – historically home to native and settler, the land is now reclaimed by Petrus. It mirrors David’s observation that Lucy was raped because of "a history of wrong".
He calls her name and when she looks up he is surprised by her appearance:
Lucy smiles at him and offers him some tea "as if he were a visitor. Good. Visitorship, visitation: a new footing, a new start." (1999: 218)
The spirit of the post-1994 age blows at full strength through the lives of David and Lucy. However, it looks as if the realities of the political upheaval following centuries of white domination are sooner recognised by Lucy than by David. Cynical though it may be, Lucy understands the "necessity" of the black population to take, without scruples, like the white colonial settlers before them, that which they think is necessary in order to secure an existence. In this she recognises the reality of post-apartheid. She can put herself in Petrus's position, and is then able – under the circumstances – to negotiate skilfully and independently for a position that enables her to live her own life in the new South Africa.
The trail of intertextuality proves to be a profitable way of understanding the choices Lucy makes. Following that trail I found the link between Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne and Coetzee’s hidden heroine Lucy. "Those who have power set the meanings," wrote Nina Baym, and Hester won the battle from the Puritans – she was able to give a new meaning to the scarlet A. In the same way Lucy’s spiritual power will outlive the humiliating story of the rape. Coetzee portrays her as standing a really good chance that her privacy will be respected in her own house.
By reading against the dominant grain of the reception of Disgrace and by incorporating intertextual links I have been led to take another view of the book from those views previously taken. Intertextuality in the hermeneutic sense has led me to a new interpretation. Put beside The Scarlet Letter and the choices made by Hester, Disgrace may be read as an optimistic story and also as a feministic one – optimistic because David develops from a man with a withered soul into a human being with respect for other people, especially women, and with consideration for animals. But the true heroine is Lucy, whom Coetzee ultimately portrays as alive and well and continuing to live in Salem, South Africa.
 Coetzee, John M. Disgrace, Secker & Warburg, London, 1999
 www.boekwurm.co.za/blad_boeke_abcd/coetzee j m 2.html on 17/01/06
 Graham, Lucy Valerie, "A Hidden Side to the Story: Reading Rape in Recent South African Literature", in Kunapipi, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Post-Apartheid Issue: 24/01/2002: 20
 Heumakers, Arnold, "De duivelse logica van de geschiedenis", in NRC Boeken 29/10/1999:1
 Etty, Elsbeth, "Vanwege de schaamte" in NRC Boeken, 23/12/05
 www.boekwurm.co.za/blad_boeke_abcd/coetzee j m 2.html on 17/01/06
Gorra, Michael, "After the Fall" in The New York Times, 28/11/1999
 Lowry, Elisabeth, "Like a Dog", in The London Review of Books online, vol 21, no 20 (cover date 14/10/1999)
 Gorra, Michael, "After the Fall", in The New York Times, 28/11/1999
 Mertens, Anthony "Intertekstualiteit", in A Mertens and K Beekman (eds), Intertekstualiteit in theorie en praktijk, Dordrecht: 1990:1-23
 Lowry, Elisabeth, "Like a Dog’, in The London Review of Books online, vol 21, no.20 (cover date 14/10/1999)
 Hawthorne, Nathaniel, The Scarlet Letter, with an introduction by Nina Baym and notes by Thomas E Conolly. USA: Penguin Classics, 1986
 Coetzee, John M. Doubling the Point, Essays and Interviews, edited by David Atwell, Harvard University Press, 1992:361
 Coetzee, John M. Age of Iron, Penguin Books, New York, 1990
 Hawthorne, Nathaniel, The Scarlet Letter, with an introduction by Nina Baym and notes by Thomas E Conolly. USA, Penguin Classics, 1986
 Person, Leland S, "The Dark Labyrinth of Mind: Hawthorne, Hester, and the Ironies of Racial Mothering" in Leland S Person (ed), Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings, A Norton Critical Edition, New York/London, 2005:658
 Baym, Nina, "Revisiting Hawthorne’s Feminism", in Leland S Person (ed), Nathaniel Hawthorne,The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings, A Norton Critical Edition, New York/London, 2005:553
 Samuelson, Meg, "The Rainbow Womb: Rape and Race in South African Fiction of the Transition", in Kunapipi, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Post-Apartheid Issue: 24/01/2002:88–99
 Samuelson states that Lucy seeks an independent life, but on the other hand she suggests that Lucy has given up her autonomy: "Living alongside one of her rapists, Lucy says that she is “prepared to do anything, make any sacrifice, for the sake of peace” (Samuelson 2002:92). I would like to comment that Lucy says this after she has clearly defined her position as cited above. So I read it in the context of that proposition. For David has started again to intervene in Lucy’s affairs, telling her how she should deal with Petrus and his people. But Lucy wants to be left alone and she accuses David of spoiling the compromise that was reached after so much effort. It is in this context she reproaches him: "David, we can’t go on like this. Everything had settled down, everything was peaceful again, until you came back. I must have peace around me. I am prepared to do anything, make any sacrifice, for the sake of peace" (Coetzee 1999:208).
 My thanks to Sue Kossew for bringing this to my attention. (Kossew, Sue, "The Politics of Shame and Redemption in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace" in Research in African Literatures 34.2 (2003), 155-162
 This echoes the visitation in the biblical tradition and the epiphany in the literary tradition. The whole scene breathes modesty and quietness in the calm light of the sun, until "the spell is broken" (Coetzee 1999:218). Earlier David has considered himself a "Joseph" whose contribution to Lucy’s existence is growing less and less till it may be forgotten (217).
 My grateful thanks to my teachers at VU in Amsterdam: Dr Diederik Oostdijk for his animated analysis of The Scarlet Letter during class, and Prof Dr Ena Jansen for her lectures on South African literature and her inspiring enthusiasm and support.
Coetzee, John M. 1999 Disgrace. London, Secker & Warburg.
—. 1992. Doubling the Point, Essays and Interviews, edited by David Atwell, Harvard University Press, 1992:361.
—. 1990. Age of Iron, Penguin Books, New York, USA.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel, 1986, The Scarlet Letter, with an introduction by Nina Baym and notes by Thomas E Conolly. USA, Penguin Classics.
Lowry, Elisabeth. 1999. "Like a Dog", in The London Review of Books online, vol 21, no 20 (cover date 14/10/1999).
Mertens, Anthony, 1990, "Intertekstualiteit", in A Mertens and K Beekman (eds), Intertekstualiteit in theorie en praktijk, Dordrecht: 1990:1-23.
Person, Leland S (ed). 2005. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings, a Norton Critical Edition, New York/London.
Samuelson, Meg. 2002. "The Rainbow womb: Rape and Race in South African Fiction of the Transition", in Kunapipi, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Post-Apartheid Issue: 24/01/2002: 88–99