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Home >> The Fight for Land and Women...


by Gert Hans Wengel                                              German version

The 1999 novel by Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee is a story of racial conflicts in post-Apartheid South Africa, which continue to smoulder, even after the abolition of Apartheid in 1994, as a challenging legacy of colonialism. These conflicts particularly include the fight for power: Power over the land the white settlers stole from the black natives. And power over women – it was common for the white colonial master to take black girls and women and sexually exploit them. The novel’s main themes are that of reclaiming land robbed from the blacks after Apartheid, and avenging the sexual exploitation of black women through the rape and impregnation of a white woman. And there is a close correlation between the land and a woman, based on the age-old notion of Mother Earth. Because since time immemorial, a farmer who ploughs his fields and sows seeds in the trenches has felt like a man who lies with his wife and impregnates her with his sperm. The main protagonist is David Lurie, a professor of language and literature in Cape Town, who has an affair with his student, Melanie Isaacs. Having sex with the girl makes the 52-year-old feel young again – and this indeed is his motive. He seduces her using his powerful position as professor, veritably forces himself on her, and mentally traumatises her. The affair also has a political dimension: Lurie is white, Melanie is coloured, and Lurie believes he is entitled to have sex with her:

“ … a woman’s body does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.”

Smooth words, as old as seduction itself. Yet at this moment he believes in them. She does not own herself.              (1)                                                                   

This is the mentality of the white colonial rulers, who believe they have a right to non-white women and girls, and who frequently exploit them sexually (2). But Lurie’s sexual assault takes place after Apartheid has ended, and it has consequences: He is dismissed by the university. The unemployed, ageing ex-professor, who has become a nonperson in Cape Town, flees to his daughter, Lucy, who has a small farm in the Eastern Cape province. The farm is located in a region whose population has long been predominantly non-white, but which was dominated and exploited by whites during Apartheid. After Apartheid, the whites, like Lucy, have become an embattled minority, while many blacks are prospering. One of these is Lucy’s neighbour, Petrus, who is gaining influence, and eventually makes Lucy and her small estate economically dependent on him, becoming her patron; by the time Lucy’s father arrives from Cape Town, Petrus has already bought a hectare of her land.
Lucy and her father soon feel the hate of the blacks, who had been oppressed and exploited for so long: Three black youths attack the farm, rape and impregnate Lucy, and lock David Lurie in the toilet to prevent him from protecting his daughter. Later, Lucy and her father recognise one of the rapists: He is very young, is part of Petrus’ clan, and is called Pollux. To the great chagrin of her racist father, Lucy decides to keep the child.
As he thinks about his daughter’s odious impregnator, the jealous father sees an image in his mind comparing Lucy with fertile land:

Something about Pollux sends him into a rage: his ugly, opaque little eyes, his insolence, but also the thought that like a weed he has been allowed to tangle his roots with Lucy and Lucy’s existence.   (p. 209)

The seed Pollux has sown in Lucy will bear fruit; the “weed” germinating in Lucy is Pollux’s flesh and blood, his child.
Lurie’s comparison has a long tradition: “Attic religion clearly attests to the fact that the sowing and harvesting of fruit was equated with human procreation and birth, that is to say, they were seen as one,” writes Albrecht Dieterich in his essay Mutter Erde. Ein Versuch über Volksreligion (Mother Earth: an essay on folk-religion), still considered fundamental to this day. Of the many examples listed by Dieterich (3), one in particular is worth mentioning. In Sophocles’ drama The Women of Trachis, Deianira is the wife of Hercules, bearing his children but still feeling neglected by him, as the adventurous hero is rarely at home with her; she compares herself to a distant field, with him as the farmer:

And then children were born to us; whom he has seen only as the husbandman sees his distant field, which he visits at seed-time, and once again at harvest. (4)

The archetypal image of the field, which is female, and of ploughing, which symbolises procreation, also inspired Shakespeare, who, in his Sonnet 3, urges a handsome young man to father a son to perpetuate his own beauty, which fades with age:

Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
Forwhere is she so fair whose unear’d womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?

The Koran also compares a wife with a field cultivated by her husband; although not expressly stated, the archetypal analogy insinuates that sex not only conduces to lust, but also procreation:

Your wives are a tilth for you; so approach your tilth when and how you like …

Lurie also becomes jealous when he catches Pollux secretly watching his daughter in the bathroom:

As they approach the house he notices the boy, the one whom Petrus called my people, standing with his face to the back wall. At first he thinks he is urinating; then he realizes he is peering in through the bathroom window, peeping at Lucy. (p. 206)

Pollux is not, as first thought by Lurie, urinating, but this idea which enters into the jealous father’s head is important for interpreting the novel. The youngster’s urine, which, in Lurie’s mind, trickles into the land belonging to Lucy, can be interpreted in a Freudian sense as ejaculation – a notion which incarnates Lurie’s traumatic memory of Pollux raping and impregnating Lucy.
But the image also symbolises something for readers in a non-Freudian sense: The urine moistens and fertilises the earth, i.e. makes it fertile – meaning, in Lurie’s imagination, Pollux plays the role of a farmer, who seizes and cultivates the land, just like he took and inseminated Lucy. And urine is what dogs and other animals use to mark out their territory; as a representative of Petrus’ clan, Pollux thus symbolically lays claim to Lucy and her land. This latter interpretation of peeing as a form of designation is supported elsewhere by the same symbolism, for example when Lurie reflects on his daughter’s pregnancy:

What kind of child can seed like that give life to, seed driven into the woman not in love but in hatred, mixed chaotically, meant to soil her, to mark her, like a dog’s urine? (p. 199)

And Lucy herself feels part of the land marked out by the three boys:

“I think I am in their territory. They have marked me. They will come back for me”     (p. 158)

The three blacks treated Lucy like a plot of land they are entitled to possess. The rape also symbolises how the blacks want to reclaim the land the white settlers took away from their ancestors – something they are given the opportunity to do once Apartheid ends; “for the black men who rape her, Lucy’s white female body symbolizes the land from which they have been dispossessed” (5). The dealings between Lucy and her black neighbour, Petrus, also revolve around the possession of land: She has already sold him a hectare of her land, and when this “land transfer” “goes through officially” (p. 124), this is “a big day for him”, which is why he organises a party to which Lucy and her father are also invited. It is at this very party that Lucy bumps into Pollux, and retreats in terror. This meeting is of course symbolic: Petrus and his clan, to which Pollux belongs, are celebrating their expansion at Lucy’s expense, and this expansion also includes Lucy’s rape, which is not only an act of revenge, but also a demonstration of power, forcing her to submit to Petrus as her patron.
Lurie calls the sperm impregnating the raped Lucy “seed”:

What kind of child can seed like that give life to …                     (p. 199)

The term “seed” re-emerges when Lurie denounces himself for seducing Melanie, saying he acted “contra naturam”, sinned, because it is against nature for old men to inseminate young girls with their used semen:

On trial for his way of life. For annatural acts: for broadcasting old seed, tired seed, seed that does not quicken, contra naturam. If the old men hog the young women, what will be the future of the species? That, at bottom, was the case for the prosecution.  (p. 190)

We note that the three black rapists impregnated Lucy, marking her body as their territory. Lurie displays the same mentality when, in his thoughts, he describes with relish the skin colour of Soraya, the non-white prostitute he sexually exploits:

He strokes her honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun                (p. 1)

Her skin’s brown colour does not come from the sun - so from whom does it come? From a white colonial master who sexually exploited her mother or grandmother, using them as his possession. Through her skin colour, her body is marked out as the white man’s territory, and Lurie, who sexually exploits her, feels he is the heir to this ownership right. He is similarly stimulated by the dark skin colour of his student, Melanie, whom he also takes advantage of sexually, leading us to agree with Laura Wright’s interpretation: “For David, Melanie’s biracial female body offers the opportunity to symbolically reclaim not only his youth, but also his authoritarian position at a university where the white male professor is marginalized by increasing demands of gender and racial diversification.” (6)

1) J. M. Coetzee: Disgrace (London: Vintage, 2000), p. 16

2) Many interpretations consider that Lurie’s assault of Melanie perpetuates the tradition of black women being sexually exploited by white men, cf. for example Margaret Herrick (The Burnt Offering: Confession and sacrifice in J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace”, in: Literature and Theology 2014, p. 5):
“The ‘love’ that Lurie offers Melanie, then, what he calls ‘eros’, is none other than the colonial impulse itself, a fact which Lurie’s infuriated colleague, Farodia Rassoul, points out during the hearing. She argues that he has resisted making the connection to ‘the long history of exploitation of which [his actions are a] part.”

3) Dieterich, p. 46

4) Translated by Richard C. Jebb

5) Laura Wright: “Does he have in him to be a woman?”: The Performance of Displacement in J.M.Coetzee’s Disgrace, in: Ariel. A review of International English Literature (37 (4), p. 89f.

6) loc. cit., p. 89f.