The main themes of Coetzee’s prose are violence, brutality, suffering and injustice. The phrase from Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians “Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt” is, perhaps, the main principle of the writer. Nevertheless, this world would be too depressing and gloomy if Coetzee hadn’t added hope to his novels. The importance of such concepts as honor, integrity, good name is shown in one of his best novels – Disgrace.
The novel has complex and well-built plot: the protagonist, a 52-year-old professor at the University of Cape Town—European in origin—is accused of sexual harassment. Because of his affection professor destroys his career, status and good name. Affection becomes a destructive force. In Coetzee’s psychosexual drama a respected professor suddenly becomes an object of mockery, a pariah, an outcast, because “sexual harassment of his student represents, in itself and by the example it sets, a threat to the productive functioning of the university and its corporate vocabulary of efficiency, productivity and usefulness” (Lenta 1).
He is forced to leave home, work and seek refuge at a distant farm of his daughter. But Lurie brings misfortune to everyone. Soon after his arrival the farm is attacked by three black men, the professor is beaten and his daughter Lucy is raped. He works in the veterinary clinic where dogs are euthanized. Despite terrible moral suffering he nevertheless is forced to participate in the killings. He cannot help the animals. He lives in a country where whites are hated after many years of apartheid. His existence (in all forms) is a solid disgrace, dishonor and despair. Life is certainly unsuccessful. Even his lineage will be interrupted because his daughter conceived a child from the Africans. Nevertheless, taking all this for granted, though not directly opposing the mischiefs he does not allow himself to despair. In his spare time he writes an opera about Byron and his Italian lover, in a strange way identifying himself with this woman. Art—because of its irrationality—is the only solution to this desperate situation. It neutralizes sin and makes it insignificant, both the original (belonging to the white race, which became infamous) and knowingly committed (in the case of a student).
The critical mass of disasters changes the life of the professor and his daughter beyond recognition; they will never live like they had lived before. Father and daughter become the people with “no property, no rights, no dignity” (Coetzee 9). Lucy finds herself pregnant after being raped and decides to keep the baby. “I am a woman” she says, explaining why she doesn’t want an abortion (10). She is a woman – and therefore she must comply with the law of nature. Violence – is the concept of morality, and nature does not know the rules of morality. If in a civilized human society a rapist is a villain who has committed a crime; in nature he is one of the males who conceived an offspring, and he has contributed to the continuation of the living world. Things, which are an absolute evil, danger and confusion for Lurie, become for his daughter a kind of a system, an archaic system, inextricably linked to the habitat. According to this system, the mere presence of a white man on African soil is a disorder that should be eliminated. Lurie cannot find his place in this system.
Lucy made the choice that was dictated by her desire to live at the farm, outdoors, outside civilization. She can adapt to such life: “in order to survive on her land Lucy must be open to change, strength attributed to her by her friend Bev, who believes she is “adaptable” simply by virtue of being a woman” (Coleman 597). Townsman professor Lurie can hardly understand his daughter’s desire to give birth to a baby from a man who raped her. Civilization, as if chained by morality, is losing the battle with the forces of nature, with wild masculinity, which takes what it wants. Morality weakens the individual and society. And it turns out that a venerable professor, who had an ordinary affair with a student—an adult, who did it voluntarily—was brutally punished for his romantic feeling; and the rapist is not only unpunished, but he turns out to be a winner, because a child conceived will be born. The rapist marked the woman with his seed like a dog marks territory: “seed driven into the woman not in love but in hatred, mixed chaotically, meant to soil her, to mark her, like a dog’s urine” (199). The paradox lies in the fact that in a moral and conscientious man the sin can be seen much stronger, than in the one who is literally made of sins. It is always easier to smear something light than dark.
A civilized man shudders in disgust, turns away from the shameful scene and thus admits his helplessness. Civility is, obviously, not the “maturation” of society, but its senile weakness. Echo of Nietzsche’s philosophy is clearly heard in these Coetzee’s reflections, claiming that Christian morality is a human bondage. But, despite this, Coetzee does not hesitate to make the choice in favor of morality as one of the main values in life; he is even ready to accept the idea that his characters, who try to live according to good conscience, suffer from repeated failures; he forgives their weakness, although probably he would like to see them as brave fighters defending their honor and dignity.
The novel Disgrace is overtaken by overall fatalism: crushed by the shadows of apartheid and cruelty of existence of South African white Job keeps pottering around in the black soil of the black continent, paying the score for years of colonial policy, for the civilizing mission of the “white man”, for the optimism of European literature with its missionary blindness, complacency and self-reflection. Coetzee’s Disgrace is primarily a heavy nail in the coffin of “universal values” of the culture of double standards. This is some kind of cultivating of otherworldly stoicism – the last hope of the outsiders of the world.
But it is wrong to think that Coetzee justifies the defeatists, the outsiders, those who had lost the will to resist. On the contrary, he has special demands for them, because the people, who took the life catastrophe as inevitable, can be saved only by the strength of spirit, faith and moral fortitude. Because everything is already lost; being human is the only choice. Not every loser is a sufferer. But Coetzee is interested in those severe cases of life failures, when one realizes that the only value is dignity and good conscience. In Disgrace Coetzee tries to say that in every man there is a “moral law” that directs his actions. One can try to fool oneself, to stifle the voice of conscience, but one can never get rid of the idea that a committed evil will—like a boomerang—returns back, flying through its orbit over the sad fate of other people. Human archetypal consciousness carries—as one of the most important components—the idea of the inevitable retaliation.
Another conclusion, which can be drawn from the Coetzee’s novel, sounds disappointing for modern Europeans: the white race has lost its long battle for the “black continent”. In the poor and outcast Coetzee’s heroes, white man learns his fate. The “Iron Age” has undermined the power of those who had taken responsibility for rebuilding the world and thought themselves as creators of new life for all people, colonizers and educators, advocates and strict teachers. The oppressed have taken place of the oppressors. The story of black thugs raping Lucy is a vivid illustration of Frederik Willem de Klerk’s words about the desire of indigenous Africans to receive “compensation” for the policy of apartheid. Well, such is the fate of the defeated.