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Women’s Influence on the Development of David Lurie’s Character (Coetzee, 1999) Essay

Lurie’s own conclusion motivated this examination of the influence of women on his character: “The truth is, he had never had much of an eye for rural life, despite all his reading of Wordsworth.  Not much of an eye for anything except pretty girls, and where has that got him?” (p. 218). Of course, the question of “where” is rhetorical, but the question of why the persona of the scholar no longer allowed him to indulge his “eye for…pretty girls” was the central question in a novel focusing  on changes in South Africa since 1994, when Apartheid ended.

The “scholar” with an Eye for Pretty Girls

As the only boy in a house of loving women, whom he, in turn, loved, Lurie recognized that becoming a handsome young man made it easy for him to find responsive women (p. 7).  Based on his age in 1999, 52 years, his age for choosing a career was in the late 1960s, when South African white society was similar to societies in the United States and Western European democracies at an earlier time.

Consider the kind of career which would not only permit an obviously well-educated and intelligent young man to pursue his main interest in pretty girls,” but also would enhance his ability to do so.  Lurie probably would not have been consciously aware of such a goal.  However, there are decisions that are influenced by unconscious motives (Hunt & Ellis, 2004).

In South Africa, when Lurie chose a career, the persona of a “scholar” at universities and colleges was esteemed and brought a life of privilege.  In a satire on academia that unintentionally mirrored Lurie’s approach, anthropologist Ashley Montagu (1959) advised young academics in the United States to “remember that your progress in Academe will depend not so much on your intellectual abilities than upon your skill as a personality – that is, in the skill of displaying few assets in a convincing manner” (p. 10), where “a want of original ideas constitutes not the least impediment to productive publication” (p. 23).

Lurie, after “a career stretching back a quarter of a century…published three books” (Coetzee, 1999, p. 4) he knew were uninspired and recognized he had “never been much of a teacher” (p. 4).  However, until Apartheid ended in 1994, the persona of a “scholar” was perfect for one who actually had only an interest in “pretty girls” (p. 218).  As an attractive man in an esteemed profession, “for decades … the backbone of his life” was a result of a “magnetism … [where looking] at a woman in a certain way, with a certain intent, she would return his look” (p. 7).

The Women in Lurie’s Life

The little we know of Lurie’s first wife was revealed only in response to a question about her, a brief response that she was Dutch and returned to Holland after her divorce.  We don’t know how he felt when he married her, but what seemed a genuine indifference and lack of interest suggested she was not an important influence on the development of his character.

We know that he and his second wife, Rosalind, experienced passion: “His best memories … [were of] Rosalind’s long, pale body thrashing this way and that in the throes of a pleasure that was hard to tell from pain” (p. 187).  He believed that “what held them together [was only that they were] two sensualists” (p. 187).

However, regardless of her sensuality and of how old she might have been, she clearly would not have been described as a “pretty girl” but as a confident and independent woman who both had a mind and did not hesitate to express her thoughts.  Her influence on David’s character might have been in his developing the ability to have non-sexual relationships with adult women, as evidenced by his post-divorce relationship with her.

Regarding Lurie’s own belief about the influence of women on his character, he concluded that he was “enriched” by each of the hundreds of women in a life consisting of sex with “women he has known on two continents, some from far away in time that he barely recognizes them” (p. 192).  Readers cannot know how each or any of the women “enriched” his life, but his choices were varied.  Before Apartheid, “pretty girls” who were his students were easily seduced because “scholars” still were held in awe.

When black African students gained access to college educations, their experiences had not led them to idolize any white males, an attitude that spread to other students. When the demand for courses that could be applied in jobs after college was met, Lurie’s institution, Cape Town University College, became “Cape Technical University,” and instead of being “a professor of modern languages,” he became “a professor of communications” (p. 7).  With less access to young students, his “women” ranged from prostitutes to the unattractive, middle-aged country woman Bev, he described as “almost waistless, like a squat little tub” (p. 149).

If one uses imagery in reading this novel, such scenes take on a comic tone.  Another example of visualization resulting in a scene turning comic occurred while Lurie actually was demonstrating a passion in creating a work of art as he wrote an opera about Teresa, the beautiful young countess who had been in love with Lord Byron.

In the opera, he depicted Teresa years after Byron’s death when she had become unattractive, looking “more like a peasant . . . than an aristocrat” (p. 181), relentlessly singing “mio Byron” (p. 183), resulting in comic imagery.  The comic element was enhanced because While Lurie did know that Byron did not feel about Teresa as she thought he did, Coetzee did not write what he must have known Byron wrote to a friend about his embarrassment when Teresa called “out to me ‘mio Byron’ in an audible key” (1819/2009).  Sadly, Lurie himself came to realize that the opera was “going nowhere.

There is no action, no development … [and he] has not the musical resources, the resources of energy to raise [the opera] off the monotonous track on which it has been running since the start” (p. 214).

Despite the comic imagery elicited when Lurie had sex with Bev, his relationship with her did influence his character.  In working with Bev (at first to satisfy his daughter) at the clinic where there was no choice but to kill pathetic, unwanted animals, he became able to form unselfish relationships with the animals.

Earlier in his life, one event clearly did influence the development of Lurie’s character, the event of becoming a father.  The first interactions in the novel between Lurie and his daughter, Lucy, made one conclude that the one unselfish relationship he had as a young man was the father/daughter one that began with Lucy’s birth.  (It was not possible to find a reason for Coetzee’s obviously non-coincidental decision to have Lurie choose the name used in a series of rustic, romantic poems by the poet of Lurie’s academic specialty, Wordsworth, 1798-1801/2009.)

Her brutal rape by black men (representing not racism, but Coetzee’s depiction of the after-effects of ending Apartheid) most certainly shook him out of his lassitude, but did not influence his character in the sense that his obviously unselfish concern for her well-being and his efforts to protect her after the rape were not unexpected.

In general, however, Lurie’s character did not seem to change very much since the time he was a young man.  Toward the end of the novel, after he was not permitted to watch Melanie in a performance, his behavior demonstrated the character he had from the beginning.  After having sex with a young prostitute, he feels “contented”:  “So this is all it takes, he thinks.  How could I ever have forgotten it?” (p. 194).  Perhaps the most interesting question about the novel was how Coetzee was able to make an essentially superficial man into a complex, absorbing, and sympathetic anti-hero.

References

Byron, G. G. (1819).  Lord Byron’s letters and journals.

     Jeffrey D. Hoeper (Ed.).  Retrieved March 17, 2009,

     from www.engphil.astate.edu/gallery/byron.html.

Coetzee, J. M. (1999).  Disgrace.  New York: Penguin.

Hunt, R. R., & Reed, H. C. (2004).  Fundamentals of

     cognitive psychology.  New York: McGraw-Hill.

Montagu, A. (1959).  Up the ivy.  New York: Hawthorn.

Wordsworth, W. (1798-1801).  Lucy.  Retrieved March 17,

     2009, from www.poetry.archive.com/w/lucy/html.


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