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.
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