On Rape and Responsibility
On Rape and Responsibility
Throughout the course of Disgrace, Coetzee attempts to juxtapose the rape of Melanie with that of Lucy. By analyzing the actions of David Lurie, Lucy and Petrus, it becomes apparent that there is a dynamometric sense of responsibility among victims and abusers. Coetzee attempts to demonstrate that rape is more than a gendered based crime, that social class, and ethnicity also play roles in determining what harm is committed.
It is because the rapes are not viewed through the eyes of the victim but primarily through Lurie, who sympathizes with Lucy and denies raping Melanie, that the readers are forced to determine who burdens responsibility and to what extent actions are repentant. Lurie’s attack on Melanie is more or less a date rape. He doesn’t take no for an answer and her passive means of refusal are not enough for him to take the hint. He truly believes that he is dating this woman, and that it is his right to engage in such relations with her.
This belief is wound up in his perpetual state of selfishness and his arrogance of self delusion. She ends up filing for grievances making the whole situation public. Lucy is not just attacked, she is punished. What is done to her is done for the sole intention of causing her harm, of scaring her as an individual. It is done because she is a white woman, because she is the epitome of what is wrong with her rapist’s world. Along with the rape she is robbed of her property, and her father is assaulted and badly burned. In the end they both have to live with the scars of what happened.
The attack on her is not personal; it is the way an oppressed social class is lashing out at the harsh mistreatment they have received for generations. What is ironic however is that the fact that the act in itself is the most personal it could have been. The society they are trying to punish is not going to be affected as a whole to what happened that day. It is a tragedy but one that would otherwise be swept under the rug, if Lucy had not swept it under herself Lucy. The hatred they had for society, they funneled into this woman. They made it personal once they had decided that Lucy was their victim.
Similarly the reason these women are harmed is not purely random. Yes Melanie as student put her into the pool of prey for David Lurie, but his attraction to her is personal, and her mild response to him in the beginning paves the path Lurie takes. Her response is what Lurie feeds his delusions with, and that causes him to make the decisions he makes. Lucy is chosen out of what seems like convenience, Pollux attacks close to home, victimizing the woman that oversees his brother-in-law. Lucy is the best representation for the oppressive white class that he has, since she is “oppressing” Petrus.
What theses essentially break down to is a crime of opportunity and a crime of restitution. The strongest underlying feeling that distinguishes the two is hate. It is not because Lurie hates Melanie that he does her injustice, it is because he is selfish and has no regard for her wants or feelings. Lurie finds Melanie alluring; he pursues his desires and treats what are blatant expressions of refusal as too subtle to actually mean “no”. The two rapes do however shed light on the misconception that rape is simply a gender based crime.
Rather race and class complicate the situation making the two incidents vary widely in their response. Lucy keeps quite while Melanie comes forward; Lurie denies his actions while the other men acknowledge what they did as it matched their motive. Lucy’s refusal to come forward stems from white guilt, believing that what happened to her she had coming to her. She analogizes her gang rapists to tax collectors and feels that she should be paying to them what they feel they deserve. Her white guilt and higher class both make her a target and victim distinct from Melanie.
Reporting such a rape would thereby align Lucy with the previous hierarchical white class of the apartheid period. She realizes that the crime would be used to “fuel the fires of racism” and knowing that her case would be used to represent “others” she does what she can to prevent the white class to rationalize future segregation. Melanie, who is a young black girl, is attacked by an older white man. Her response to his misdeeds is filled with want of restitutions. She does not accept what has happened to her as due to her, and she ultimately makes her attacker pay for the injustice he has committed.
Interestingly, Coetzee uses Lurie’s view to further illustrate the racial-social class effects on perspective. Lurie’s inability to acknowledge what he has done as rape sheds light on his sexist and racists ideology, as Mardorossian points out, Lurie can only see rape as something black men do to white women, and prevents him from doing earlier what he does with Lucy, “namely call rape ‘rape’”. In his disciplinary hearing, Lurie establishes an equivalence between “the ‘rights’ of desire and sexual violence’” demonstrating his belief in his personal superiority over Melanie.
The two rapes are diametrically opposed in their factors and responses, which demonstrates to the reader the “inextricable relation between incommensurable categories of identity such as gender, class, or ethnicity in the application of legal and moral authority”. When Coetzee introduces Lucy into the novel, she is sympathetic to her father’s situation. She leaves judgment aside as something that is his to deal with. She encourages him to make reparations but does nothing to make him feel ostracized for his previous misdeeds.
All of this changes once Lucy is victimized. With Lurie’s inability to empathize with the situation, at least to the extent that Lucy wants, Lucy refuses to confide in him. She feels what has happened to her is a private matter and because he is not a woman, he could not understand the way she feels, and so she feels no obligation to share her experience with him. In addition to his male-handicap Lucy also starts to view Lurie as a predator, seeing only subtle differences between what he did to Melanie and what those men did to her.
It made it harder to sympathize with his experiences, and she ultimately becomes distant. When Lucy does finally go into detail about what happened. Rather than offering solace to his daughter’s grief he instead attempts to give her another outlook on the situation. Her confession that the worst part of it was how personal the action was, and her inability to understand it. “Why did they hate me so? ” is met with “It was history speaking through them… A history of wrong. Think of it that way if it helps. It may have seemed personal but it wasn’t.
While what Lurie is saying may have truth to it, this is not what Lucy is looking to hear when she confides in him. Lurie suffers from what Stember calls sexual racism- having a right to claim a “colonized woman’s” body, and to project his guilt onto the colonized man imagining him wanting revenge and thereby desires “the white woman”. In this light Glenn suggest that Coetzee uses Disgrace as a sociological and cultural statement, as “symptomatic- part of the traumatized white reaction to living in the Black Republic.
Demonstrating that Lucy’s refusal to report the rape, taking responsibility for it, and even keeping the rape-child is central to South African politics and the use of women as objects in a kinship economy. In Addition, Petrus embodies the “black claims for restitution of farm land” essentially getting through violence, what black South Africans felt they were due. The rapes also introduce the idea of responsibility. The intertwining elements of ethnicity, gender, and social class also incorporate a sense of responsibility, both to self and community.
Rebecca Saunders uses Nietzsche’s position of justice and responsibility as an economic manner to illustrate how characters shun responsibility off of themselves, or accept unwarranted responsibility. Lurie’s inability to confess, but rather simply plead guilty is a great example of such. He feels that his plea is what is necessary for the hearing, but sincerely apologizing is more valuable to him that he feels is warranted by the committee. Likewise Petrus’ solutions to Lurie and Lucy are compensation as if they appropriately equate to the emotional and physical harm done.
Saunders explores this logic in the frame of “visceral” versus “reason”. How responsibility should be dealt in relation to the justifications behind the actions. He feels undercompensated, because he stands behind “reason” he understands that Petrus’ offers do not actually equate to the needs at hand. Also standing behind “reason,” Lucy equates the values of the harms done to her and to her aggressors, and feels as though a debt has been paid. This merely serves to illustrate that every character feels their side is the rational one, and their opponents’ are acting out of visceral.
Rosemary Nagy, also explores the idea of responsibility, but in relation to the language of justification. How things are worded greatly impact the level of responsibility each character takes on for the actions they have committed, or have had done to them. The three figures centered around responsibility are Petrus, Lucy and Lurie. Petrus is of course playing surrogate for the men who attacked Lucy. She suggests that Disgrace establishes that there is no easy formula to decide where the middle ground falls between reconciliation and responsibility.
David Lurie’s rape of Melanie is always met with a lack of culpability, despite Gal’s reasoning, that Lurie cleanses himself through his treatment of the dogs. However by the end of the novel he still refuses to believe that what he did constituted rape. The idea of repentance and responsibility stems from an expectation of transformation. That those committing such crimes become “new” men, but by the end of the novel we do not see this change in Lurie. In fact he nearly comes full circle, satisfying his sexual appetite with prostitutes and solving “the problem of sex rather well.
Lucy on the other hand takes responsibility for what the white class in South Africa did for decades, a burden much bigger than warranted. She sacrifices herself, leaves herself with nothing “no cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity. ” She completely switches roles with Petrus, who onces was dog-man, now she is “like a dog. ” Petrus while not obligated, still accepts no responsibility for what happened to Lucy. Instead he reaps the benefits of her misfortune, gaining land, and a third wife because Lucy no longer feels capable of protecting herself.
Through the act of (or lack of) accepting responsibility, Coetzee forces the readers to analyze the extent to which acknowledgement dictates reconciliation. Coetzee uses Disgrace, to make a statement about race and culture in a post-apartheid South Africa. That rape is more than a gendered- crime, that it crosses through socio-ethnic barriers to express something more harmful. That the feelings on reconciliation vary widely depending on who feels victimized and who feels responsible, which is a reflection of how Coetzee feels about the future of the white middle class in the years after the apartheid state.