The Young, the Old, and David Lurie
It is universally accepted that, at the age of fifty-two, men should be courting women of similar ages. However, David Lurie, the protagonist of J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, does not comply with these standards. He is absolutely infatuated with women in their twenties, his college students, and young schoolgirls as well. Not only is he attracted to young girls, a concerning idea in itself, but he is also repulsed by the thought of being with women his own age. These unsettling ideas that David Lurie has towards both young girls and older women stem from his insecurity and dissatisfaction of his own old age.
From the moment the novel begins, it is blatantly obvious that David Lurie has a very strong fondness for young girls. The most prominent example of this can be seen in his attraction to Melanie, one of his students in his Romantic Poets class at Cape Technical University. From the moment David begins his affair with her, he notices her many childlike characteristics, one of which is her hips being “as slim as a twelve-year-old’s” (19). Not only does David immediately notice her abundance of childlike characteristics, but also the fact that she, in comparison to his ripe age of fifty-two, is basically a child. After driving her home in the rain one afternoon, David’s thoughts plague him: “A child!” he thinks, “No more than a child!” but despite his sudden realization, his heart still “lurches with desire” (20). Most readers would already be appalled by David’s utter infatuation and obsession with this girl who is obviously much younger than he; however, his situation becomes much more concerning when he meets Melanie’s younger sister, Desiree. Not even five minutes into a conversation with this young schoolgirl, David cannot help but imagine both Melanie and Desiree “in the same bed: an experience fit for a king” (164). Although it is disturbing to think of a man fantasizing about his student who is barely above the age of legality, it is arguably even more frightening to think about that man fantasizing about that student’s younger sister, who has yet to reach the age of consent. However, the obvious fact that this is frightening behavior does not stop David Lurie, when, as he sees Desiree for the final time, “the current leaps, the current of desire” (173). Because David is so taken with girls at a much younger age, it is no surprise that he is seemingly repulsed by the thought of being with women his own age.
Similar to his infatuation with young girls, it is readily apparent from the beginning of the novel that David Lurie has a distaste for women his own age. The first example of this can be seen when he takes hid new secretary, Dawn, out for dinner. When they have sex later, he proclaims that it was a “failure” and proceeds to avoid her when he sees her on campus (9). However, the most prominent example of his aversion to women his own age can be seen in his views of Bev Shaw, his daughter’s friend and neighbor. When David first meets Bev he is “not taken” and describes her as a “dumpy, bustling little woman with black freckles, close-cropped, wiry hair, and no neck” (72). He has not even spoken to her yet and is already repulsed because of how she looks and presents herself. However, despite his initial distaste for Bev, David gives into his primal desires and begins to have an affair with her. Even so, he still has an aversion to the thought of being with Bev, musing, “After the sweet young flesh of Melanie Isaacs, this is what I have come to. This is what I will have to get used to, this and even less than this” (150). Even after realizing that Bev is more appropriate for his age than girls like Melanie and Desiree, David is still repelled by the idea of having an affair with her or anyone her age.
Why is David Lurie so attracted to young girls and repulsed by women from his generation? It probably stems from his dissatisfaction of his own age. Throughout the novel, David is constantly paranoid that people are judging him because of his age. This paranoia begins with Soraya, the prostitute that he has a standing appointment with every Thursday. One day, when she seems as if she is growing distant, David “has a shrewd idea of how prostitutes speak among themselves about the men who frequent them, the older men in particular” (8). However, David is not only concerned about his lovers’ perceptions of his age but his students as well. When lecturing about the Romantic poets and their concepts of love, David believes that his students are thinking, “What is he talking about? What does this old man know about love?” (23). The majority of people that David comes into contact during the day are his lovers and his students, who he believes all seem to think that he is a boring old man. Since he does not have any friends, the only other person with opinions about him is his daughter, and her thoughts seem to be just as concerning. When he visits her, he cannot help but notice that she is speaking to him “as if to a child- a child or an old man” (104). However, this is only the beginning. His fears of seeming old to his daughter grow even more when he realizes that she is pregnant and that he will become a grandfather. It dawns on him that this will not only affect the way his daughter views him but future lovers as well and he muses, “what pretty girl can [I] expect to be wooed into bed with a grandfather?” (217). Not many, and this is David Lurie’s problem. Without pretty girls to bed, students to teach, and a daughter to love, he has nothing, and with his old age, all of these are disappearing very rapidly.
David Lurie’s attraction to certain women is unconventional to say the least. He is infatuated and obsessed with young college girls and schoolgirls and absolutely repulsed and repelled by women of his generation. There may be a variety of reasons for David’s irregular desires; however, the most prominent may be that he is dissatisfied with his own age. He is constantly paranoid that others are judging him based on his age, and this paranoia leads him to distance himself from all he has: his lovers, his students, and his daughters. With these three aspects absent from his life, David is left alone and forced to confront the fact that he is old and, much to his dissatisfaction, will only grow older.
Defining David Lurie Through His Self-Assessment
The view that David Lurie is “not a bad man but not good either” is a reduction of a provocative character. Disgrace explores compelling political issues ranging from post-Apartheid South Africa to moral paternalism, and David’s placement in the ambiguous boundaries of this context makes him difficult to interpret. Critics condemned Coetzee for aggravating racial conflict by portraying the violent rape of a white woman by black Africans in the sensitive political climate at the end of Apartheid. Such reactions to the publication of the novel exemplify the fundamental issues addressed by Coetzee: the difficulty to justify a moral position in a postcolonial society. However, Coetzee places “his characters in extreme situations that compel them to explore what it means to be human,” which gives David more substance than the political context of South Africa. David seems ‘bad’ from the outset as “ninety minutes a week of a woman’s company are enough to make him happy,” and he shows a lack of emotional sensitivity with Melanie, thinking of her “as a quick little affair – quickly in, quickly out”. However, after being removed from the university in disgrace, he struggles with ageing and resolving his values with those of a shifting society. The reader follows David through his conflicts as he makes slow progress in self-improvement. His love for Lucy and his poignant reaction to the euthanising of dogs, where “tears flow down his face that he cannot stop,” show a different David to the thoughtless “intruder who thrusts himself upon” Melanie. Disgrace is written from David’s perspective and the narrative voice is undoubtedly his. The rejection of narrative realism and an omniscient narrator often leaves the reader uncertain of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Using the protagonist as narrator and speaking in the present-tense gives the reader an additional layer of understanding to consider when assessing David. The reader must not only interpret the events and actions in the novel but disambiguate the attitudes of the narrator. The present tense gives the impression of a lack of control, which creates an uneasy tone throughout the novel and contributes to an uncertain reaction to David. Coetzee presents David as ‘bad’ by suggesting that he raped Melanie, implying that his only interest in the relationship was sexual: “He asks her about her other courses. She is acting in a play, she says. It is one of her diploma requirements. It is taking up a lot of her time.” These thoughts are abrupt and David appears uninterested. The short and factual sentences reflect an impatience for the opportunity he seeks. In their sexual encounters, “she is passive throughout” and “decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration.” In their second encounter, David goes to Melanie’s flat for only one purpose, and “nothing will stop him.” which suggests that she was raped.Coetzee raises doubts about his narrator and the protagonist as David attempts to convince himself that it was not rape. As David recognises the consequences of his actions in powerful detail, his immediate response – “Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core” – implies that he must be a contradictory character. He recognises clearly, as stressed by the repetition of “undesired” and the pausing, unconfident syntax, that he is at fault yet continued to act in this way. From most perspectives, even if David’s view is accepted, he was in a position of responsibility, older and more experienced than Melanie and must be considered ‘bad’. These ‘bad’ actions are contrasted as David shows his principles and bravery during the tribunal. His general contempt for the university administration, which reduced literature to “Communications” as “part of the great rationalisation”, and his opposition to the superficial suggestion to “take a yellow card” and “minimise the damage” despite “the gravity of (his) situation” is significant. David’s response to the accusations is interpreted by Lucy Valerie Graham as showing “very clearly that Lurie is blind to the history of his own actions” and therefore ‘bad’ because he refuses to accept “the long history of exploitation of which [his treatment of Melanie] is a part” . Graham’s criticism is limited, for although David’s claim “I plead guilty. That is as far as I am prepared to go”, can be interpreted as arrogance, it may instead show his principles. David provides a coherent rebuttal: “I have said the words for you, now…you want me to demonstrate their sincerity. That is beyond the scope of the law.” There is a sense of nobility in his willingness to act “for his idea of the world” and his principles as also seen in his sensitive disposal of the bodies of the dogs.David’s character is detailed most significantly after he is attacked and Lucy is raped and it is in this context that his character is assessed. Coetzee develops a central theme through the attack; the state of morality in post-Apartheid South Africa as “it is a new world they live in, he and Lucy and Petrus”. The theme is controversial as Coetzee wrote only ten years after the end of Apartheid and amid continual violence over the rights of property ownership such as those of ‘District Six’ in Cape Town throughout the 1990s.South Africa is presented as violent throughout the novel. David reflects after the attack that “It happens every day, every hour, every minute…in every corner of the country. Count yourself lucky to have escaped with your life.” David and Lucy have conflicting attitudes towards the correct moral response to the violence they endure from the ‘black South African’ desire to undo “a history of wrong”. Lucy accepts that perhaps “that is the price on has to pay for staying on” whereas David can only see the situation as being “humiliating” and being reduced to living “like a dog.” David’s refusal to accept Lucy’s acquiescence towards the rapists (“I don’t agree. I don’t agree with what you are doing”) creates a variety of possible interpretations of if David is “not a bad man but not good either”. His beliefs may reflect his inadequacy as a father and lack of empathy which is suggested in Lucy’s claim that “you behave as I everything I do is part of the story of your life”. Alternatively, his stance could be interpreted as noble; “he is not prepared to abandon his daughter” despite her disrespect for his ‘good intentions,’ with her repeated criticism that “there are things that you just don’t know”. David’s response to the rape of Lucy may show he is ‘good’ as his intention is only to assist her. Some Feminist interpretations can be critical of David as a father (based on the misogynistic reputation created through his promiscuity). These critics could suggest his affection is selfish as he laments that “I did nothing. I did not save you.” and not Lucy’s situation. However, these criticisms seem limited as his sadness for being unable to help his daughter appears sincere: it consumes him as illustrated when “he had a vision” in which “Lucy has spoken to him” and watches over Lucy sleeping, “guarding her from harm, warding off the bad spirits”. David’s opinions, such as “if they had been white you wouldn’t talk about them in this way” can be interpreted as racist. Similarly, his criticism of Petrus for defending Pollux because he is “My people” could appear prejudiced. However, these values seem to reflect his courage in confronting the issue of racial conflict in post-Apartheid South Africa. David is not racist; “he is prepared, however guardedly to even like” black South Africans such as Petrus and praises him for being “a man of his generation.” David is not concerned with ethnic origin but with morality. His criticism of Petrus is his threat to Lucy and the South African conflict that he embodies in this threat. Coetzee may imply David is courageous for breaking social taboos and criticising the superficial social etiquette that may have hidden an underlying racism in South Africa at the time of writing. Coetzee could also be exploring a more significant aspect of the postcolonial genre; the contemporary situation of the ‘post-post-colonial’ . He subverts the traditional postcolonial presentations of ‘native’ cultures such as those in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart where the arrival of ‘western’ colonisers is seen as destroying the Ibo way of life. That novel illustrates destruction via the tragic suicide of Okwonkwo, who epitomises the ‘noble’ values of Umuofia. The presentation of the ‘native’ Ibo is positive: rich in tradition and ceremony as illustrated by the meeting of the “egwugwu” with tribal dress and masks. Early postcolonial literature was written in a tone of lament for the loss of the ‘native’ tradition such as the sadness in Things Fall Apart that the missionaries have “put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” However, the modern ‘post-post-colonial’ genre also considers the difficulties for the subsequent generations of the former ‘coloniser’ (usually the ‘white Westerner’). Judith Wright explores this issue in her poem ‘At Cooloolah’ by describing her dislocation in Australia and the need to “quiet a heart accused by its own fear” as a descendant of the ‘coloniser’. The central conflict of Disgrace, the threat to Lucy in the Eastern-Cape and the tension between her attitudes and David’s, make it difficult to assess if he “is not a bad man but not good either.” Coetzee does not justify one perspective as more right than another. This raises the questions of the ‘post-post-colonial’; the difficulties of moral justice after colonialism. Many postcolonial texts consider these issues, such as the recognition in Things Fall Apart that “what is good among one people is an abomination with others”. Coetzee presents a similar ambiguity of morals in a postcolonial society to Achebe in Things Fall Apart, in which the ‘Western’ reader must grapple with the seeming incongruity of an Ibo culture with many positive values that nonetheless allows the killing of twins and the murder of Ikemefuna because “the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves has pronounced it”. However, Coetzee’s David overcomes the ambiguities of the conflicting cultural values by ignoring the issues from a perspective of colonialism by showing the courage to criticise the universal injustice of the violence in post-Apartheid South Africa. His criticism that “it is history speaking through them” and “Vengeance is like a fire” is a brave recognition of a socially uncomfortable truth without fear of being seen as prejudiced; this undermines the view he is “not a bad man but not good either.” Negative interpretations of David may regard his ignoring the ‘colonial’ perspective as a weakness as suggested by the subjective narrative view. Coetzee is ambiguous, providing the reader with little more than his or her perspective to assess David. The Byronic qualities of David make him difficult to interpret. His link to Byron is distinct, as they share similar physical qualities such as “olive skin” and “flowing hair”, and, the same fear of ageing (David’s lament of “the end of roving” unambiguously refers to Byron’s famous lyric, ‘So, We’ll Go No More A Roving’). David shares the typical characteristics of the Byronic hero of being sexually promiscuous and living in ‘social exile,’ as he loses his livelihood in Cape Town and was already isolated, living alone and frequently consorting with prostitutes. Some of the attitudes he holds under the premise of Romanticism (such as quoting Blake – “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires”) seem detestable to a modern society. His elevated, almost rhetorical, language such as, “I was the servant of Eros” can be interpreted as a feeble justification for relinquishing self-control. David’s Byronic qualities can also support an interpretation that he is ‘good’ as implied by his noble actions during his tribunal. His Byronic character also reflects the difficulty in defining a moral standard and may justify interpretations that he is ‘good’. The perspective of the Byronic hero on society is no more valid than another, making it unjust to conclude David is ‘bad’ simply because he is a ‘social exile’. David illustrates this in his Romantic interpretation of a character in Byron’s poetry: “we are not being asked to condemn this being with the mad heart, this being with whom there is something constitutionally wrong. On the contrary, we are invited to understand and sympathise.”Such justifications can also be used to criticise David as it may emphasise his refusal to control his desires. This is particularly emphasised when he understands the consequences of his actions (such as the encounter with Melanie being “undesired to the core”) yet fails to respond or take responsibility. Rosalind also makes the significant criticism that “you were always a great self-deceiver, David” which justifies a negative interpretation of his Romanticism.Coetzee’s presentation of the change in David as he becomes a ‘victim’ may suggest he is ‘good’ or, in less positive interpretations, pathetic. The change he fears most is ageing and is remorseful that “his pleasure for life is being snuffed out.” This personal conflict with age may justify David’s contradictory and sometimes cynical character. Details such as his frustration of being vulnerable and having to “suffer the ignominy [for example] of being helped out of the bath” show he is strong and independent which are admirable qualities. His transformation from ‘victimiser’ (from his affair with Melanie) to ‘victim’ (through the attack) is lamentable as he is portrayed as defeated (such as the almost farcical collapse of his opera). The pathos of his situation and his acceptance of the change by finding refuge in helping at the clinic reflects his ‘good’, starkly contrasting the “vengeance” in South Africa.The burning imagery throughout the novel contributes to a positive presentation of David as it reflects his victimisation, conflicts with age and diminishing passion. Phrases such as “when I burn I don’t sing” and hoping for a “last leap of the flame” with Melanie show the conflict David endures as he ages and loses his passions. David can be viewed sympathetically as the image of fire suggests an uncontrollable and consuming force and he could be a victim like the Byronic hero that he asks the reader to “understand and sympathise” with. The setting of Salem has connotations of the historical ‘witch-hunts’ in America; Coetzee could be conjuring the image of David sharing the same injustice as those burned ‘at the stake’. Therefore, David could be interpreted as an innocent victim, despite his flaws. The presentation of the rapists as animals, influenced only by physical desire (implied by the animalistic connotations of, “I think I am in their territory. They have marked me” and, “no human evil, just a vast circulatory system”) is an indictment of their immorality. However, David uses similar language (blaming “complex proteins swirling in the blood” to justify his sexual promiscuity) in suggesting his actions were not immoral. This again reflects the contradictions of defining moral values; therefore, it may be regarded that Coetzee is showing David as “not a bad man but not good either”. With ambiguous moralities from Romantics to the seekers of “vengeance” in the ‘post-post-colonial’, it is not possible to define moral superiority. David’s inconsistency and lack of control are his significant flaws. His almost immediate infatuation with Melanie (“a last leap flame”) resonates with Juan in the second Canto of Don Juan where he passionately laments his loss of Donna Julia yet within one hundred stanzas becomes enthralled by Haidee (“As if their souls and lips each other beckon’d”) . Similarly, the failure of David’s two marriages with the recognition “he has never been given to lingering involvements” implies he is ‘bad’. Undoubtedly, his sexual attitudes are unacceptable in legal and modern ‘Western’ social perspectives. However, his intentions are not malicious and as he does not intend to subjugate or cause harm to others, but (as suggested by the connection with Don Juan) the product of his ‘Romanticism’. Even the rape of Melanie, when contrasted with the brutality towards Lucy, seems less horrific. David cannot be viewed simply as “not a bad man but not good either” as Coetzee places him in the context of such a complicated social conflict. Throughout the novel David is emotionally detached, “though intense, has never been passionate”. However, his final act of agreeing to euthanise his dog may reflect his personal change. David is unable to see other perspectives which is his greatest weakness as it distances him from his daughter and society; “he does understand; he can if he concentrate be there, be the men…The question is, does he have it in him to be the woman?” Relinquishing the dog, despite his feeling of “what he no longer has any difficulty in calling by its proper name: love.” may suggest an emerging ability to see other perspectives as he shows the compassion to make a self-sacrifice he would otherwise reject. In addition to this transformation, the central political conflicts of the novel leave David seeming ‘good’ as he “was standing up for a principle…Freedom of speech. Freedom to remain silent.” in a society towards which Coetzee seems critical. Coetzee may support Rosalind’s view that “whatever the principle was, it was too abstruse for your audience”. This epitomises the impossibility of justifying a moral standard for ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as every “audience” is subjective. However, David is presented more meaningfully than “not a bad man but not good either” because of his commitment to Lucy, and, his slow change as he begins to see other perspectives. He experiences the compassion needed for morality, to be human, not to be reduced to living “like a dog”. Bibliography:Barnard, R., (2003). J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and the South African Pastoral. Contemporary Literature. 44 (4), 200-224.Coetzee, J., (2004). Disgrace. London: Vintage.Everyman’s Poetry: Lord Byron ed. Jane StablerKochin, M., (2004). Postmetaphysical Literature: Reflections on J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. Perspectives on Political Sciences. Winter. 33 (1), 4-9.Lowry, E., (1999). Like a Dog. London Review of Books. 14th October.Moss, L., (2003). The Politics of Everyday Hybridity. Wasafiri. Summer. 39, (11-17). Tremaine, L., (2003). The Embodied Soul: Animal Being in the Work of J.M. Coetzee. Contemporary Literature. 44 (4), 587-612. Valerie Graham, L., (2003). Reading the Unspeakable: Rape in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. Journal of Southern African Studies. June. 29 (2), 433-444.Arendt. H., (2007). Re-reading J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. [Online]. Available from:
Family Relationships in White Teeth, Disgrace and Things Fall Apart
By comparing White Teeth with at least one other appropriate text, explore the presentation of family and family relationships in postcolonial literature.The ‘metanarrative’ of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth differs from the direct linear narrative of other postcolonial texts such as Things Fall Apart and Disgrace. The metanarrative of White Teeth presents the strains and fragmentation of families in the postcolonial setting with a gently humorous, unserious and possibly optimistic approach whereas these other texts are more ambiguous yet emotive. The serendipitous events of White Teeth can at times become unrealistic, and Smith has been accused of neglecting characterisation for plot; however, in her three central families (the Joneses, the Iqbals and the Chalfens) she develops a powerful expression of the postcolonial struggles for her characters. Family and history are two central relationships in the postcolonial genre. Things Fall Apart begins with an explanation of Okwonkwo’s history as the greatest wrestler in Umuofia and his attempts to move away from the reputation of his father as an unserious and unsuccessful Ibo man. Achebe develops the importance of family history and relationships throughout the novel and uses this to lament the destruction of the Ibo tradition with the arrival of the colonisers. The positive portrayal of Uchendu, a relatively distant relation for the extent of support he provides to Okwonkwo during his seven-year exile, is a central example of the family values celebrated in the traditional postcolonial novel from the perspective of the ‘colonised’. While the history of Okwonkwo’s father is not central to the narrative (beyond explaining some of the qualities possessed by Okwonkwo), Achebe uses the device to develop the understanding of the values of the Ibo and advance the more conventional postcolonial theme of the destruction of the livelihood of the ‘colonised’ by the arrival of the ‘colonisers’. White Teeth presents a less serious approach to family history as it is an inconvenience more than the burden it became for Okwonkwo. The meeting of Magid and Millat in a neutral room (a concept that in itself allows the author to develop several ideas of the hybridity of multicultural Britain in trying to find a place with no ‘history’), is presented with an unserious humour – “they take what was blank and smear it with the stinking shit of the past like excitable children”. The profanity and images of “smear” and “excitable children” creates an unserious undertone to the issue of history and the conflicts of the past. The innocence of “excitable children” prevents family histories being considered malicious burdens but merely an element of the dislocated existence of the immigrant in the postcolonial society. The presentation of the family has a different effect in White Teeth to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as the novel moves into the ‘post-post-colonial’ genre. The ‘post-post-colonial’ perspective and the conflicts of the “second generation” as recognised by Neena, “niece of Shame.” In her words “What are you afraid of, Alsi? He is second-generation,” she emphasises a different conflict in the family than the traditional postcolonial texts. Where Achebe uses the family as a central feature of the rich culture of the ‘colonised’ after a number of generations, Smith shows the conflicts of identity created by the family. Because of the different situations of the two novels in terms of the ‘coloniser-colonised’ dynamic, the presentations of the issues are inevitably different. However, the focus on the postcolonial theme is not specifically on the values of the family but on the consequences of the conflicting values between the family and the individual. This is shown as Achebe presents sometimes uncomfortable details of the Ibo family traditions, such as having more than one wife and Okwonkwo’s violence towards them, despite his generally positive perspective of the Ibo values. Similarly, Smith does not present a judgement of the families in her novel but shows the personal conflicts, particularly of her younger characters and Samad, as dislocated in the postcolonial society. In Disgrace, Coetzee presents abrasive attitudes by contrasting Lucy’s acquiescence to rape (accepting that “maybe this is the price you have to pay”) and David’s refusal to accept the situation (with his belief that their life in the Eastern Cape is “like a dog”). Issues of politics and morality underpin the conflict between David and Lucy, who are “so far, so bitterly apart,” whereas Smith does not address these themes. Instead, she focuses on the issues of identity and overcoming the dislocation and ‘double-consciousness’ of the second-generation immigrant. White Teeth presents the strains and fragmentation of families in the postcolonial setting through the contradiction of expectations and actions between generations. The Jones family has the least conflict; the connotations of the name itself as the stereotypical ‘average’ British family emphasises this expectation. The discord between Clara and Hortense is a major conflict in the family and as Clara successfully overcomes the burden of expectation of her mother, she may be interpreted as a successful embodiment of the transition from overbearing family expectations (due to her strict Jehovah’s Witness upbringing) to a sense of independence in her marriage to Archie. However, some critics have regarded Clara as a major flaw in the novel, saying Smith “privileges plot over characterisation”. Although Clara is not developed in detail and questions remain about the circumstances and satisfaction in her marriage, the conclusion – in which Irie marries Marcus because “you can only avoid you fate for so long” – may reflect a sense of optimism in the novel and not underdevelopment. Smith may be suggesting that the quarrels of family in the postcolonial confusion are not as significant as they may appear and that it may be more effective to accept the challenges with regret as shown by Clara because “they cannot escape their history any more than you yourself can lose your shadow.”The nature of the Chalfen family could reflect an important postcolonial theme. The detailed family tree, “an elaborate illustrated oak that stretched back to the 1600s” develops the contrasts of different families and histories in the postcolonial with the uncertain history of the Jones family. Although the Chalfens become figures of amusement in the novel, the way in which they “referred to themselves as nouns, verbs and occasionally adjectives” has a similar quality to the insular family and tribal values of the Ibo. The attention to family relationships from both examples emphasises the overbearing elements of cultural and social expectation of families. The Chalfens become ironic as their seeming purity is undermined by the explanation that they are “third generation [immigrants], by way of Germany and Poland, née Chalfenovsky”. Smith emphasises the eclecticism of most families in the postcolonial society through Alsana’s criticism that “you go back and back and it’s still easier to find the correct Hoover bag than to find one pure person […] Do you think anybody is English? Really English? It’s a fairytale.” The attempt of the Chalfens to claim “purity” and be aware of their history is ironic because their family seems most strange despite being the most ‘typical’ in terms of lineage. Therefore, the postcolonial view to the family in White Teeth is one that values variation and sees it as inescapable. The diversity of the family and the emphasis that there is no “purity” may be a more positive conclusion on the family than the distance that emerges between David and Lucy in Disgrace or the complete rejection of Nwoye by Okwonkwo in Things Fall Apart. The aspiration of Irie to be like the Chalfens (“she wanted their Englishness. Their Chalfishness. The purity of it”) is not only ironic but the essence of the struggle in the postcolonial theme to be “normal”. In Things Fall Apart, Nwoye’s conversion for the elements of Christianity that question the doubts of his native culture about the murdering of new-born twins and Ikemefuna’s death shows a similar conflict in determining a personal identity. The nature of the conflict is contextually different in the two novels because of the change in the postcolonial to the ‘post-post-colonial’ setting. Nwoye has a different challenge with his family in moving away from being ‘normal’ to values he finds more attractive. However, Irie struggles to resolve her family history as she moves from a temporary desire to travel to Jamaica with Hortense to wanting the ‘normal’ life of “how some families are all the time”. In both situations, the relationship strains are similar, the conflict of generations in families as social values change become more complicated with the addition of differences in cultural values. Things Fall Apart begins by addressing the fundamental aspect of the conflict of generations in the family as Okwonkwo endeavours to move away from the reputation of his father. This struggle in itself is significant but occurs in a more complicated form as Nwoye decides to convert to Christianity which not only is a denunciation of a family history but of the basis of past values. However, Achebe’s primary intention is unlikely to be an examination of the consequences of the family from the arrival of the colonisers. Things Fall Apart considers the postcolonial from the consequences of an entire society and the Ibo people (as represented by Okwonkwo and his personal struggle throughout the novel) which is in contrast to the family concerns that are so central to White Teeth.The central family conflict in White Teeth is based on the Iqbals and the difficulties of Samad in adjusting to British society as he laments, “You begin to give up the very idea of belonging. Suddenly this thing, this belonging, it seems like some long, dirty lie”. The decision to separate Magid and Millat emphasises the strains of the postcolonial setting on Samad and the ironies of the hybrid society as Magid returns as “more English than the English”. It is the affair with Poppy Burt-Jones and his recognition that he must make “a choice of morality” that leads him to his decision to send Magid to Bangladesh. The contrasts between Samad’s expectations of his children and his own actions are fundamental to the presentation of the family as dysfunctional and contradictory in postcolonial literature. The dislocation of Samad and his double-consciousness as he knowingly (such as his self-assurance “to the pure all things are pure”) and unknowingly (such as his uses of phrases such as “sometimes I don’t know why I bother” which has distinctly ‘English’ connotations) contradicts himself is the device that creates much of the drama and humour in the novel.The return of Magid as “more English than the English”, despite the attempts to give him traditional values with a Bangladeshi education, and the “trouble with Millat” throughout the novel extends the tension between family desire and the hybridity of the postcolonial context. Millat embodies the same flaws as his father as he struggles to define a sense of identity and is unable to relinquish his sexual desires while seeking the inclusive reassurance of KEVIN. However, the tension in the novel is largely created as Samad attempts to mould Magid and Millat in to “good Muslim boys”. The family is shown to be dysfunctional in White Teeth and the poignant criticism of Millat that Samad is a “hypocrite” is more moving than the generally humorous approach throughout the novel. Although the novel contains poignant reflections from Samad of his isolation and the situation of his children, there is little dialogue from either Magid or Millat. The lack of voice to these characters and the generally humorous tone which is often created by the absurdity of chance events such as the breaking of both twins’ noses may reflect the unserious and optimistic attitude of Smith to the strains of the postcolonial family. The conflicts endured by Samad and his conflicting values such as his willingness to drink alcohol but refusal to eat pork reflect the confusion of values that emanate from the immigrant family in the postcolonial setting. The description of Millat as “schizophrenic, one foot in Bengal and one in Willesden” emphasise the confusion and division created by the family. Although “in his mind he was as much there as he was here” the transformations and connotations of his “schizophrenic” character suggest an instability and uncertainty of his identity. A significant feature of the role of the family in the conflicts endured by the main protagonists is that Smith does not explicitly ‘blame’ the families for the contradictory characters of their children. Millat does not appear to be the victim of the ‘foreign’ values of his parents. Even actions such the burning of all his possessions because of his involvement in a protest in Bradford where, presumably, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses were publicly burned do not suggest a cultural dislocation in the family. (Some critics may use an example of where he claims to Joyce Chalfen that Samad had “kicked [him] out” to show the consequences of cultural differences on the family, although this statement appears to be part of the humour of his manipulation of Joyce for sympathy and). However, this presentation of discipline and the general treatment of Millat is not based on the cultural expectations of the family as might be suggested by the postcolonial genre but a disciplinary consequence of his actions, such as alcohol abuse, drug abuse and sexual promiscuity, which would be regarded as fair by most Eurocentric or other readings.The pragmatism of Lucy in Disgrace to accept the injustice of the Eastern Cape for her survival and the devastation of Okwonkwo at his perceived dishonour caused by Nwoye’s conversion have distinct links to the general presentation of the family in the postcolonial. These three texts embody the conflict of new generations with older generations as social and cultural values shift. Disgrace and Things Fall Apart are more austere presentations of the postcolonial genre and the conflicts they explore are not definitively concluded but are left ambiguous. Things Fall Apart summarises the conclusion of the postcolonial struggle in general and the cause of conflict within the postcolonial family, “what is good among one people is an abomination among others”. The difficulty of younger generations in overcoming these conflicting influences on their identity and character is a serious concern in both. The suicide of Okwonkwo is relatively unexpected and extremely ambiguous; Achebe leaves the reader to assess the impact of the colonisers on the Ibo. Similarly, David’s character disintegrates and his actions are often difficult to interpretation. In White Teeth, the family is a cause of frustration and confusion for the younger generations and they endure the difficulties of double-consciousness and dislocation in their attempt to determine their characters. In addition to the postcolonial conflicts of cultural identity, Smith includes adolescence and a series of unexpected, sometimes absurd, coincidences which gives the novel a humorous perspective. The optimism of Smith is epitomised in her development of the theme of chance and the attitudes of Archie, the least complicated character who allows his future to be determined by tossing a coin. Irie’s outburst before the denouement of the novel is the most coherent presentation of the family. Her plea for “quiet” and for “space” and wish for a family in which “every single fucking day is not this huge battle between who they are and who they should be, what they are and what they will be” reflects the strains of the family in the postcolonial. The innocent detail of the nine-year-old Magid telling his friends that his name was “Mark Smith” concludes the position of the family in postcolonial literature. It can be an awkward burden, a cause of difference and a lifestyle that is different to those of friends and peers but it is not detested and is not usually a malicious force. Despite the struggles with family, Millat still refuses to hear the criticism of his mother by Joyce and Irie answers the seemingly ridiculous musings of Archie about the reasons that new bus-tickets have so much “information” on them which shows the underlying affection in their relationships. The haphazard, almost ridiculous, connections between the narrative strands of the lives of the three central families, their eclectic qualities and the juxtaposition of their mutual absurdity is the essence of the novel. While it creates the conflicts for the individuals of the story, they also combine to show the universality of dislocation and confusion in the modern multicultural society which is often the conclusion of the post-post-colonial genre as poets such as Imtiaz Dharker invites in ‘Minority’ to see the confused and alien identities of others and “recognise it as your own.”
Redistribution of Wealth, Power, and Narrative Focus in Disgrace
Disgrace, by J.M Coetzee, is a deceivingly short book. On the surface it looks like a simple personal narrative, but it is much more complex than that. The novel not only deals with the delicate matter of rape, it also examines the intricate racial complexities of a new post-apartheid South Africa. Encompassing all these themes is another question: what is the nature of human-animal relationships? The three levels of the novel – personal, racial, and biological – each offer a different perspective on the dominant motif of the story: the issue of redistribution, whether of power or wealth. Although redistribution takes place on all three of these levels, the redistribution of power in the human-animal relationships is unique in that, unlike the others, the benefit is not unidirectional, but bidirectional. Both the humans and the animals gain from this exchange. To better understand this process of redistribution, we examine it from three different perspectives – personal, racial, and biological. First, we examine the redistribution that takes place on a personal level, namely, to David Lurie. At the beginning of the novel, David is a professor of communications at Cape Technical University. As a professor, he is assured the economic power and social status that comes with a position such as his. In fact, he takes full advantage of it and uses his money to pay prostitutes to sleep with him, as in the case of Soroya. David also uses his social status and power as a professor to cajole one of his students, Melanie, to bed, even when she tried to resist. Even he acknowledges that while it is “not rape, not quite that… [it was] undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core” (25). Coetzee uses words such as “intruder”, “heavy as clubs”, “crumple like a marionette’s” (24) to describe the sexual act, words that all carry a connotation of violence, as well as depicting David as a person with power. However, this power soon gets redistributed when David is charged with harassment and misconduct and loses his job. Without his job as a professor, David loses both his source of income and his social status. He becomes dependent on his daughter, admitting: “Who would have guessed, when his child was born, that in time he would come crawling to her asking to be taken in?” (179). Not only does he lose his economic and social status, however, he also loses his sexual potency throughout the course of the novel. Whereas before “with his height, his good bones, his olive skin, his flowing hair, he could always count on a degree of magnetism”, now people looks past him without noticing. “Overnight he became a ghost” and had to learn “to buy [women]” (7). His affair with Bev Shaw perhaps best demonstrates this loss of sexual potency. David reminds himself to “not forget this day…After the sweet young flesh of Melanie Isaacs, this [Bev] is what I have come to. This is what I will have to get used to, this and even less than this.” (150). He stops “calling her poor Bev Shaw [because] if she is poor, he is bankrupt” (150). It is evident that on a personal level, David Lurie’s wealth, status, and sexual power have shifted by the end of the novel. Where, though, has it been redistributed to?That question leads to a more complex analysis of this redistribution as a power struggle and situates it in a historical context. In analyzing this novel, we must bear in mind that it is set in a post-apartheid South Africa, a country with a complex racial and political history. It is against this backdrop that our story takes place. When David’s daughter, Lucy, gets raped by three black men, he describes it as “history speaking through them…A history of wrong” (156). Lucy recognizes rape as “the price one has to pay for staying on [the farm]…[The rapists] see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors” (158). When David’s house gets burgled, he describes it as “No ordinary burglary. A raiding party moving in, cleaning out the site, retreating laden with bags, boxes, suitcases. Booty; war reparations; another incident in the great campaign of redistribution” (176).This redistribution of wealth and power from the white colonialists to the indigenous group is perhaps best represented by Lucy’s soon-to-be born baby. In a way, it can be seen as a form of genetic redistribution – a mixing of genes from two different races. However, the fashion in which the child was conceived best illustrates the nature of these redistributions – often as violent and coerced. They benefit only one group at the expense of another. In each of the above cases, there is a strong sense of winners and losers. There is a unidirectional flow of money and power. It is clear in the case of David Lurie, who loses and never regains his wealth and social status. It is also clear in the struggle between the two different racial and social classes: power is inexorably leaving the hands of the white colonialists and into the hands of people like Petrus. One striking similarity between the two cases of redistribution – personal and racial – is the use of economic language. Rape is portrayed as a form of tax collection. David’s sexual impotency is described as him being “bankrupt”. Even marriage is represented as a business transaction. Petrus offers Lucy marriage because he wants her to “become part of his establishment” (203). Lucy recognizes that “Petrus is not offering a church wedding…He is offering an alliance, a deal. I contribute the land, in return for which I am allowed to creep in under his wing” (203). This element of economic utility in describing marriage, sex, and rape is troubling and dehumanizing. This observation leads us to another form of redistribution in the novel, a slightly more subtle one. Throughout the novel, Coetzee strips humanity away from his human subjects and gives it to the animals instead. He does so by giving the animals individualized attention. One obvious example is the rape scene. One would expect him to describe the violence done to Lucy; instead, Coetzee never describes the rape. Instead, he describes, in vivid detail, the violence done to Lucy’s dogs. By displacing the narrative focus from Lucy to the dogs, Coetzee is transferring humanity unto the animals. This undeniable parallel made between animals and humans is also evident in much of the imagery Coetzee uses. For example, when David forces himself on Melanie, she is described as “a mole burrowing, [turning] her back on him” (25). She goes “slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck” (25). When David sends dead animals’ bodies to the incinerator, he wishes to give them a proper burial, which is a human ritual. Throughout the novel, he talks of dignified death, but honor and dignity are both human attributes. In his attempt at giving animals these human rituals and attributes, David is also transferring humanity to these animals.Unlike other forms of redistribution, however, this shift of narrative focus from humans to animals has benefits in both directions. While animals gain humanity from Coetzee’s individualized attention towards them, the main character, David also gains from his interactions with the animals – he gains empathy. In the beginning of the novel, David Lurie is portrayed as a cold, cynical main character, someone lacking in warmth and generosity of spirit. However, through his encounters with the animals on the farm and from working at the animal shelter with Bev, he takes on the role of “dog-man”, someone who brings dead bodies from the clinic to the nearby hospital’s incinerator. Why does he do this? It would be easier to leave the corpses by the incinerator for the workmen to dispose of, but that would mean dropping the bodies alongside other wastes, and “he is not prepared to inflict such dishonour upon them” (144). Here, we see the first rejection of economic utility in favor of higher moral principles. David admits that there are “more productive ways of giving oneself to the world…One could for instance work longer hours at the clinic” (146). But he is not interested in utility. Instead, he does this for “himself…For his idea of the world, a world in which men do not use shovels to beat corpses into a more convenient form of processing” (146). By the end of the novel, David has reconciled himself with his true feelings toward these animals and gives them “what he no longer has difficulty in calling by its proper name: love” (219). This is a radically different David who, at the beginning of the novel, is cold and cynical, driven by lust rather than love. In his meticulous care of the animals, he also regains the reader’s sympathy.In a way, the third redistribution is not really redistribution so much as a form of exchange. Redistribution implies charity. One redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor, the privileged to the disadvantaged. However, in the case of animal-human redistribution, both parties gain humanity. The animals in the novel gain humanity through Coetzee’s use of imagery and language; David, the main character, gains sympathy from the readers through his treatment of the animals. He rejects economic utility for higher moral ideas, such as a sense of honor and disgrace, and in doing so, regains some humanity. In this exchange, there is no winner or loser. The benefits are bidirectional. Coetzee once said in an interview that he writes about animals not for the purpose of challenging laws and giving animals legal rights, but his interest is “in a change of heart towards animals”. He believes that “it is not inherently easier to close off our sympathies as we wring the neck of a chicken we are going to eat than it is to close off our sympathies to the man we send to the electric chair”. In Disgrace, Coetzee accomplishes this aim by displacing the narrative focus from human subjects to animals and in doing so, gives the animals some humanity. In addition, though, the main human character also benefits from this redistribution, because through his care of the animals, he is able to regain readers’ sympathies and his own humanity. However, this is only one of many examples of other forms of redistribution that takes place in the novel, including personal and racial redistributions. The redistribution of narrative focus in the human-animal relationships is unique in that, unlike the others, the benefit is not unidirectional, but bidirectional. Both the animals and human subjects benefit.