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Discuss Coetzee's Presentation of Sex and Gender Roles in Disgrace

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English Literature

Discuss Coetzee's presentation of Sex and gender roles in Disgrace.

This essay discusses Coetzee's presentation of sex and gender roles in Disgrace through an analysis of David's attitudes and actions in relation to sex, his relationships with women and the rape of his daughter. David's views on sex and gender roles are major themes in the book and are seen entirely from David's perspective. Although the book is written in the third person it's David's thoughts and perspectives that dominate the book. I will explore the contradictions in the way that David behaves towards and views women and his inability to reconcile himself to his daughter's passive acceptance of her rape.

Disgrace is set in the post apartheid period in South Africa, which as well as giving equal rights in respect of race, also introduced equal rights in respect of gender and sexual orientation in law. Violence increased in South Africa during this period and sexual violence was prevalent with young South African women likely to be raped twice in her lifetime. (Classic Notes on Disgrace - 2006). Disgrace illustrates, through David Lurie's attitudes and actions and the rape of his daughter, that the reality for sex and gender relations was a long way from equality for women in South Africa.

In the very first line of Disgrace David refers to sex as a 'problem that he has solved rather well'. This statement at the very beginning of the book shows that "sex" is going to be a major theme. The referral of 'solved' and 'problem' suggests he views sex as a function alongside eating, sleeping etc almost as if it's mechanical and not linked to any kind of emotion. (Coetzee-1999 1:1) He is a 52 year old man who has had two divorces. He cannot sustain a long term relationship, uses prostitutes and has been promiscuous throughout his adult life. He treats and views women as objects who are to be used for his pleasure. This is reinforced in his statement that 'a women's beauty does not belong to her alone, she has a duty to share it'. (Coetzee-1999 1:16) He describes himself as a 'womanizer' ... to an extent' (Coetzee-1999 1:34) saying his childhood was surrounded by women, he expects women to provide for his needs as he experienced as a child. He likes women to be passive and this is displayed in the relationships he has with women in the book. He also judges women by their appearance and has a preference of having sexual relationships with younger women.

The whole book is dominated by Lurie's inability to sustain a long term relationship with a woman. The first relationship that is explored in the book is with Soraya who works as a prostitute who he meets for 90 minutes every Thursday . He does not connect with Soraya and describes her as 'entirely satisfactory' as if she was a commodity not a person. This is a contrast to the language used straight afterwards stating that "Thursday has become an oasis of luxe et volupte" , the literal meaning of this is 'luxury' and 'pleasure", but he is talking about his pleasure and he has no concern for Soraya's feelings.(Coetzee-1999 1:1).

Soraya is very passive during sex which Lurie prefers as he enjoys having power and authority over women, a position that white men had in South African society pre-Apartheid. Lurie description of "intercourse with Soraya and himself ...... rather like the copulation of snakes" uses a simile of a cold blooded animal the snake, emphasising the lack of passion in the relationship.

His view of her changes when they accidently see each other whilst she is shopping with her two sons and he follows her (Coetzee-1999: (1:6). It is at this point that he is faced with the fact that Soraya has another life outside of their relationship and when she ends the arrangement he employs a private detective to find her. He then rings her and is rebuffed - "what should a predator expect when he intrudes into the vixen's nest, into the home of her cubs". (Coetzee - 1999: (1:10) Coetzee uses the metaphor of animal behaviour to describe Lurie's predatory behaviour.

Following Soraya he has a brief sexual liaison with his secretary. He does not like the fact she is enjoying sex 'bucking and clawing, she works herself in to a froth of excitement' yet again reinforcing the point that he wishes women to be passive. Coetzee again has used reference to animal behaviour to describe sexual intercourse.

David Lurie uses his status and gender to get what he pleases and we can see this when he abuses his position of power at the University with his affair with and rape of Melanie. He continues to pursue and manipulate her for purely selfish reasons. He acts as a sexual predator and knows what he is doing is wrong, but choose to ignore this. He takes from women but does not give. We can see this from when he questions his relationship with Melanie 'Mistress? Daughter? What, in her heart is she trying to be? What is she offering him?' (Coetzee-1999 3:27).

He also knows ethically that the relationship between him as a teacher and Melanie as a student is wrong, but he still he continues to pursue her not having any remorse and knowing he is unwanted and undesired. This is a parallel for the lack of remorse many white people have in South Africa in respect of their attitudes and treatment of black people during Apartheid. He was aware of the disapproval of the University authorities, her boyfriend and parents, but he still did not modify his behaviour, again a parallel to the condemnation of Apartheid by many nations throughout the world.

He shows no remorse for the relationship and rape of Melanie so he is fired; when given opportunity to seek treatment he refuses saying instead that he is 'enriched'. He describes the rape in his own 'slippery' language justifying his actions he ignores all the signs that Melanie does not want it. "She does not resist. All she does is avert herself: avert her lips, avert her eyes...Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core (Coetzee 1999 3 :25) He never calls it what it is 'rape' by using his own language he describe the act as not 'rape' but 'undesired to the core'. (Coetzee-1999 3: 25). Coetzee again uses language that refers to animals to describe the rape "like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck" (Coetzee - 1999 3:25).

He thinks that sex is for young women and his self image is altered when he has his affair with Bev Shaw which is feels 'after the sweet young flesh of Melanie Isaacs, this is what I've come to'.



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