David Lurie is a South African professor of English who loses everything: his reputation, his job, his peace of mind, his dreams of artistic success, and finally even his ability to protect his own daughter. He is twice-divorced and dissatisfied with his job as a 'communications' lecturer, teaching one class in romantic literature at a technical university in Cape Town in post-apartheid South Africa. Lurie's sexual activities are all inherently risky. Before the sexual affair that will ruin him, he becomes attached to a prostitute and attempts to have a romantic relationship with her (despite her having a family), which she rebuffs. He then seduces a secretary at his university, only to completely ignore her afterwards. His "disgrace" comes when he seduces one of his more vulnerable students, a girl named Melanie Isaacs, plying her with alcohol and later, when she stops attending his class, falsifying her grades. Lurie refuses to stop the affair, even after being threatened by Melanie's erstwhile boyfriend, who knocks all the papers off Lurie's desk, and her father, who confronts him but whom David runs from. This affair is thereafter revealed to the school, amidst a climate of condemnation for his allegedly predatory acts, and a committee is convened to pass judgement on his actions. David refuses to read Melanie's statement, defend himself, or apologise in any sincere form and so is forced to resign from his post. Lurie is working on an opera concerning Lord Byron's final phase of life in Italy which mirrors his own life in that Byron is living a life of hedonism and excess and is having an affair with a married woman.
He is dismissed from his teaching position, after which he takes refuge on his lesbian daughter Lucy's farm in the Eastern Cape. For a time, his daughter's influence and natural rhythms of the farm promise to harmonise his discordant life, for example, in attending farmers markets where Lucy sells her wares, and in working with Petrus, a polygamously-married black African whose farm borders Lucy's and who nominally works for Lucy as a "dog-man" (Lucy boards dogs). But the balance of power in the country is shifting. Shortly after fitting comfortable with rural life, he's forced to come to terms with the aftermath of an attack on the farm. Three men, who claim to need Lucy's phone to call for aid for a sick sister, force their way into the farmhouse. The men are armed with firearms, rape Lucy, and attempt to kill David by setting him on fire. In addition to these actions, they additionally shoot a collection of caged dogs which Lucy is boarding, in an action which David later muses was done after black people in South Africa are taught to fear dogs as symbols of white power and oppression. The men drive off in David's car: it is never recovered and they're never caught, although police once contact David to come pick up "his" car, which is in fact evidently not his car (different colour and registration number). Newspapers spell Lurie's name inaccurately ("Lourie"), meaning nothing will tie his persona of disgraced academic to the attack.
Lucy becomes apathetic and agoraphobic after the attack. David presses her to report the full circumstances to the police, but she does not. She has become pregnant by one of the rapists, but ignores advice to terminate the pregnancy. She doesn't want to, and in fact does not, discuss the attack with David until much later. Meanwhile, David suspects Petrus of orchestrating the attack. This suspicion is apparently confirmed when one of the attackers, a young man named Pollux, attends one of Petrus's parties and is claimed by Petrus as a kinsman. Pollux ultimately comes to live with Petrus, and spies on Lucy bathing. When David catches Pollux doing this, Lucy forces David to desist from any retribution. David surmises that ultimately, Lucy will be forced into marrying Petrus and giving him her land, and it appears that Lucy is resigned to this contingency.
Returning home to his house in Cape Town, David finds that his house has been broken into in his long absence, by either looters or students protesting his affair with Melanie. Either way, his house is in shambles. He attempts to attend a theatre performance starring Melanie, but is harassed into leaving by the same boyfriend who had earlier threatened him. He additionally attempts to apologise to Melanie's father, leading to an awkward meeting with Melanie's little sister, and Melanie's father, who insists he stay for dinner. Melanie's father insists that his forgiveness is irrelevant: Lurie must follow his own path to redemption.
At novel's end, Lurie has returned to Lucy's farm. He works with Bev Shaw, a friend of Lucy's, who keeps an animal shelter and who frequently has to euthanize animals, which David then disposes of. Shaw has earlier had an affair with Lurie, notwithstanding David finding her physically unattractive. Lurie has been keeping a resilient stray from being euthanized, but at the end of the novel "gives him up" to Bev Shaw's euthanasia.
Reception and interpretation
According to Adam Mars-Jones, writing in The Guardian, "[a]ny novel set in post-apartheid South Africa is fated to be read as a political portrait, but the fascination of Disgrace is the way it both encourages and contests such a reading by holding extreme alternatives in tension. Salvation, ruin." In the new South Africa, violence is unleashed in new ways, and Lurie and his daughter become victims, yet the main character is no hero; on the contrary, he commits violence in his own way too. However this violence is clearly seen initially in Lurie's disregard for the feelings of his student. Here is the arrogant white man continuing to treat women, blacks, students, anyone over whom he has power, with contempt. This characterization of violence by both the 'white' and the 'black' man parallels feelings in post-apartheid South Africa where evil doesn't belong to the 'other' alone. By resisting the relegation of each group into positive and negative poles Coetzee portrays the whole range of human capabilities and emotions. The novel takes its inspiration from South Africa's contemporary social and political conflict, and offers a bleak look at a country in transition. This theme of transition is represented in various forms throughout the novel, in David's loss of authority, loss of sexuality and in the change in power dynamics of groups that were once solely dominate or subordinate.
As in all of his mature novels, Coetzee here deals with the theme of exploitation. His favourite approach has been to explore the innocuous-seeming use of another person to fill one's gentler emotional needs. This is a storey of both regional and universal significance. The central character is a confusing person, at once an intellectual snob who's contemptuous of others and additionally a person who commits outrageous mistakes. His storey is additionally local; he's a white South African male in a world where such men no longer hold the power they once did. He is forced to rethink his entire world at an age when he believes he's too old to change and, in fact, should have a right not to. This theme, about the challenges of ageing both on an individual and societal level, leads to a line, "No country, this, for old men," an ironic reference to the opening line of the W. B. Yeats poem, "Sailing to Byzantium". Furthermore, Lurie calls his preference for younger women a "right of desire", a quote taken up by South African writer André Brink for his novel "The Rights of Desire".
This is Coetzee's second book (after Life and Times of Michael K) where man is broken down almost to nothing before he finds a few tiny measure of redemption in his forced acceptance of the realities of life and death. Coetzee has always situated his characters in extreme situations that compel them to explore what it means to be human. Though the novel is sparse in style, it covers a number of topics: personal shame, the subjugation of women, a changing country, and romantic poetry and its allegory and symbolism.
Another important theme in the novel is the difficulty or impossibility of communication and the limits of language. Although Lurie teaches communications at Cape Town Technical University and is a scholar of poetry, language often fails him. Coetzee writes:
Although he devotes hours of each day to his new discipline, he finds its first premise, as enunciated in the Communications 101 handbook, preposterous: 'Human society has created language in order that we might communicate our thoughts, feelings, and intentions to each other.' His own opinion, which he doesn't air, is that the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul.
A 2006 poll of "literary luminaries" by The Observer newspaper named the work as the "greatest novel of the last 25 years" of British, Irish or Commonwealth origin in years between 1980 and 2005.