Lots of thanks to fantasyecho, for getting me started; to fionnabhair_ii, for the loan of her Women's Studies texts; to cephiedvariable, for letting me emo at her; and meinarse, for getting me into the McMaster databases, where I found "Not Saying Sorry, Not Speaking Pain: Gender Implications in Disgrace", because you saved my ass with that one. Also, to atom0001, for the encouragement when I was being really, really emo and whiny; and to iamatwerp for all her help.
Um, but fair warning: lots of talk about rape. A lot, because that's pretty much how I make my point and it was a huge theme in the book. Yeah. Not fun. You have been warned.
The question of the relationship between power and gender in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace is one that has an obvious answer. Power and gender are inextricably linked in Disgrace due to the setting, which is the patriarchal, male-dominated South Africa. This link is made obvious by a number of events, most prominently the two rapes and the final resolution of Lucy Lurie's story, where she marries Petrus to protect herself from further attack.
Rape is a crime of power: it is when those who have power exert it over those who do not in the manner of forced, non-consensual sex. The first of the two rapes in Disgrace occurs when David Lurie forces himself on Melanie Isaacs. Yet Lurie does not call it rape, and tells himself that it was “not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core” (Coetzee 25). Even during the hearing after Melanie makes her complaint against him, Lurie refuses to admit that he committed an act of rape. He claims “Eros entered” and that he “became a servant or Eros,” and that he was not sorry about what he did, but that he was “enriched by the experience” (52, 56). Lurie does not believe that he has done anything wrong, saying later to Lucy that it was his “right of desire” and that that is where his “case rests” (Coetzee 89).
Sue Kossew argues that “it is through the exercise of his social power and authority, as a university professor having an affair with a young female student to satisfy his sexual desires, that David ‘falls from grace’” (156). As a member of the patriarchal South African society, Lurie believes that he in entitled to the “rights of desire” (Coetzee 89). Lurie believes that he “is free to realize his every desire even if this means violating the rights of other individuals” asserts Mike Marais (76). Lurie’s cavalier attitude towards Melanie’s rights is a clear indication of his feelings towards women as objects for him to use to satisfy his sexual desires, as expressed when he admits that “barely a term passes when he does not fall for one or other of his charges” (Coetzee 11, 12).
This attitude of Lurie’s of ‘women as objects’ can also been seen in the way his weekly meeting schedule with Soraya, the prostitute employed by Discreet Escorts, that he had been meeting at No. 113, Windsor Mansions dissolves (Coetzee 2). After seeing Soraya with her sons on St George’s Street, Lurie can no longer consider her simply a sexual object; she has become a mothering object to him. He begins to see her sons during his and Soraya’s afternoons together: “playing quietly as shadows in a corner of the room where their mother and the strange man couple” (Coetzee 6). After Soraya stops their meeting, Lurie pays a detective agency to track her down, as if she were a lost bicycle or a stolen car, then he calls her at her home when he knows that her husband and children will be out of the house. Soraya claims that she does not know who Lurie is and tells him to never call her again; Lurie is surprised, and then thinks, “what should a predator expect when he intrudes into the vixen’s nest, into the home of her cubs” (Coetzee 10). He admits to himself that he is a predator, though he does not reconcile with himself what that actually means, even later on after he has used his power as a professor and a man to force sex on Melanie.
Melanie, during the encounter with Lurie where he rapes her, attempts to exercise her authority as the person who lives in the flat, but Lurie simply overwhelms her authority his own. Melanie lets him do what he wants, and when Lurie is sitting in his car afterward, he realises that he has erred, and “he has no doubt, she, Melanie, is trying to cleanse herself of it, of him” (Coetzee 25). Despite all of his realisations, he does not admit to himself that that it was rape and at the hearing before his fellow staff members and the student observer from the Coalition Against Discrimination he will not admit that he did wrong.
Indeed, at the hearing there is another example of the power of the male gender: Desmond Swarts, the Dean of Engineering, asks Lurie to make a public statement of apology and admission of wrong-doing, and in return the committee will make a compromise. In return for this public statement, Swarts says that the committee would be able to make a compromise for Lurie to keep his job at the university. Lurie refuses, but he still gets another chance after the hearing. Manas Mathabane, a Professor of Religious Studies, calls Lurie at his home to ask once more that he subscribe to a statement. In the event that Lurie does, Mathabane says that “in all probability, [Lurie] will be requested to take a leave of absence” and that if Lurie is to “eventually return to teaching duties” it “will depend on [Lurie], and on the decision of [his] Dean and head of department” (Coetzee 57). “Lurie’s misuse of Melanie exposes power operating at the level of gender and at an institutional level” asserts Lucy Valerie Graham. The university, for all its posturing, is a boy’s club, and as such, Lurie has more chances to redeem or save himself than one would think he is strictly supposed to.
“In both halves of the narrative, therefore, a highly conventional patriarchal and colonial prerogative of the possession over the ‘silent body of the woman’ is exercised” argues Elleke Boehmer, who then goes on to add “in both cases the victims obtain no justice or confession of responsibility from their abusers” (344, Coetzee 110). Melanie herself never receives an apology from Lurie, though Lurie goes to see her parents and younger sister at their home in George and apologises to them. Similarly, Lucy is never apologised to by any of the three men who rape her, even after she marries Petrus and one of the three is related to him. Both Melanie and Lucy remain deprived of justice and acknowledgements of guilt from their attackers.
Lucy, who had been living alone since her roommate and implied lover moved out, is, as a single, white, lesbian, female, an anomaly in the Eastern Cape. Lucy is akin to the nail that sticks up and must be hammered down; the vehicle used for this hammering is the invasion of her home by three men who then raped her. Despite Lurie’s pleading, Lucy refuses to allow him to say anything about the rape to the police. “You tell what happened to you, I tell what happened to me,” Lucy tells Lurie, and no matter what he says she will not be swayed (Coetzee, 99). Lucy tells Lurie that he cannot know what happened to her because he was not there, but that does not stop him from asking her again and again to tell the police.
One of the reasons Lucy gives for her refusal to inform the police of her rape is that she thinks her rapists see her, personally, as owing them something. “They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors,” she says to Lurie after their failed attempt to retrieve Lurie’s car (Coetzee, 158). “Why should I be allowed to live here without paying?” Lucy adds, and this reinforces the patriarchy of where she lives in the Eastern Cape. Lucy is unmarried, so she cannot belong to her husband, and the gang rape was the price she had to pay for being single, and perhaps even being a lesbian. Lucy refuses to be forced away from her farm despite the best attempts of the rapists and continues living on the farm; she refuses to bend to the power of men and of the patriarchy in the Eastern Cape and leave. She acknowledges, however, that if she remains single the men will probably be back, and accepts Petrus’ offer of marriage so she will be protected from further attack and able to remain living in the Eastern Cape.
Pamela Cooper argues “the rape of Lucy, a lesbian, violently imposes heterosexual destiny within the novel’s overt political text, co-opting her into the patriarchal structures of South Africa’s materializing social order” (29). Because Lucy becomes pregnant from her rape and does not want to abort the pregnancy, she can no longer remain single, particularly because the child is going to be of mixed race. For her to be unmarried and to birth a child of mixed race would be a scandal in the Eastern Cape and would likely cause her to lose her business at the market. Lucy loses her story and becomes a part of Petrus’ story instead, part of the “neomasculinist narrative of futurity in democratic South Africa” (Cooper, 30).
In patriarchal South Africa, rape is one of the vehicles used to make sure that things remain patriarchal. Lucy’s rape is a means for Petrus, who is a representative of the patriarchy in South Africa, to overthrow Lucy as a woman and obtain what he wants—her farm—through his marriage to her. It is implied that Petrus knew of the plans to invade Lucy’s home, and that he removed himself from the situation to allow Lucy’s attackers to invade without running the risk of being called to aid Lucy against them. The revelation at Petrus’ party that he is related to one of Lucy’s rapists cements the idea that Petrus knew about the attack. For all Lurie’s attempts to get justice for Lucy, both Petrus and Lucy herself thwart these attempts.
Despite Lucy’s previous defiance of the patriarchal social order, she comes to realise that she must bend to society’s will and accept her place in a man’s home, especially once she discovers that she is pregnant with the child of one of her rapists. Lucy says that she does not love the baby: “No. How could I? But I will. Love will grow – one can trust Mother Nature for that” (Coetzee 216). Even though she doesn’t care for the child, at least not yet, she is sure that she will come to love it and she is determined to be a “good mother and a good person” (Coetzee 213). Lucy’s decision to be a good mother to her child, despite—or perhaps in spite of—the circumstances during which it was conceived shows her complete acknowledgement and acceptance of her perceived place in the South African social order.
“Disgrace points to a context where women are regarded as property only insofar as they belong to men” asserts Graham (436). As a single woman, Lucy belonged to no man and was therefore considered fair game. It is only through marrying Petrus and becoming part of his property that Lucy is no longer considered touchable. The fact that Petrus already had two wives—and thus, already ‘owned’ two women—seems to make no difference to the rest of society. As long as a woman is married, she is off-limits, even if the man she has married has already married two other women. It also does not matter that three other men had used Lucy before she married Petrus; the marriage negated any right to having their way with Lucy that the rapists perceived themselves as having. This right that the rapists had perceived is similar to the “rights of desire” that Lurie claimed when he spoke of his rape of Melanie (Coetzee 89).
Her rape has disgraced Lucy, in her own eyes, and while Lurie has been attempting to redeem himself through his work with the dogs and other animals at Bev Shaw’s clinic, Lucy has to recover from her disgrace in a different manner. She has decided to quietly accept her place in South African society and to be the best mother to her child that she can to redeem herself. Compromising herself and marrying Petrus is what “enables her to take tentative steps towards overcoming her disgrace and finding a way to live in a future South Africa that does not entail just guilt and punishment” argues Kossew (161).
Power and gender in Disgrace are tightly interwoven, as was shown in many events of the novel. Due to the male-dominated, patriarchal society of post-apartheid South Africa, all of the social power and authority was granted to the men, with the women left as objects to be possessed or controlled by the apparently superior male gender. The relationship between gender and power does not stop at the perception of women as objects to own or to be used to fulfill one’s desires does not stop there, however. The use of rape as a vehicle for the exertion of that power and control over the women, and for the acquisition of, in Lucy’s case, land, is also present.
First, one sees David Lurie, a respected professor, using his influence and his power to seduce and then rape one of his female students, the young Melanie Isaacs. Though he acknowledged that his sexual intrusion was unwanted, he did not see himself as having committed a wrong. Following this, Lucy, Lurie’s daughter, is attacked and gang raped by three black men on her smallholding in the Eastern Cape because of her status as a single woman, though Lucy’s lesbian status may have had a hand in provoking that attack. Finally, due to the pregnancy caused by her rape, it becomes necessary for Lucy to marry Petrus, a man she had thought of as an equal and who is related to one of her attackers, and to become his property. This she had to do to remain free from further assault and to raise her child, who would be of mixed race, without the threat of another attack hanging over her head or the disgrace that would come from having a child out of wedlock.
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