Disgrace: Summary

Summary – Chapter One
Written in the third person, the novel begins with a description of how the main central character (who, we learn later, is called David Lurie) is a man of fifty-two, is divorced and has ‘to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well’. On Thursday afternoons, he visits Soraya at Windsor Mansions and has been ‘on her books’ for more than a year. He pays her 400 Rand for a 90 minute session and half of this goes to Discreet Escorts. This company owns the flat and ‘in a sense’ Soraya too.
It is described how he is ‘or has been’ a scholar and he believes he is happy, but also remember the last chorus of Oedipus, which states ‘call no man happy until he is dead’. With regard to sex, we are told his temperament has been intense if not passionate. Soraya knows facts about his life, but he knows nothing about hers.
He used to be a Professor of Modern Languages at Cape Technical University and since his department closed he is now an adjunct Professor of Communications. He is still allowed to teach a course of his choice, which is on the Romantic poets this year, and for the rest of his time he teaches Communications 101 and Communications 201. He works hard on these courses, but finds that the central premise that language has been created to communicate our ‘thoughts, feelings and intentions’ is ‘preposterous’.
He does not say it, but his opinion is that ‘the origins of speech lie in song and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul’. He has written three books, on opera, eros and Wordsworth ,and would now like to write music, that is, a chamber opera entitled Byron in Italy.
He fulfills his job requirements, but thinks he makes no impression on his students. He sees himself and other colleagues from ‘the old days’ as out of place.
The narrative switches again to the time he spends with Soraya and is surprised that 90 minutes a week of a woman’s company is enough to make him happy. He then thinks of Emma Bovary (of Madame Bovary) when she comes home after making love and marvels at herself in the mirror. In comparison, his is a ‘moderate bliss’ on a Thursday afternoon.
We are told that everything changes one Saturday morning, though, when he is in the city and notices Soraya with two children and thinks that they must be her sons. His eyes meet hers and although they do not mention this the next Thursday he meets with her, it hangs over them.
It is explained that he has no sons and was raised by women, which were replaced in time by mistresses, wives and a daughter. He lived as a lover of women and as a womanizer. He used to rely on ‘a degree of magnetism’ until this fled, and then had to learn to pursue women.
On the fourth Thursday, Soraya tells him what he has been expecting, which is that she cannot see him next week. He arranges to have sex with another prostitute, and then has sex with a new secretary in his department. He is happy with neither. He considers the thought of castration (only idly), and pays a detective agency to track Soraya down. After finding her, he rings her when he thinks she will be alone. She denies knowing him and demands that he leave her alone.
Analysis – Chapter One
This first chapter establishes the main character’s predilections as a self-described ‘womanizer’ and also suggests his (David’s) concerns with the ageing process. His work is also alluded to as his enforced shift from Professor of Modern Languages to Professor of Communications. Even at this early stage it is possible to see that he represents a past version of a white dominated South Africa.
His references to Oedipus and Madame Bovary are indications of his Western European influenced education, but also signpost the literary aspect of this novel. There is a self-reflexiveness to this work that reminds us occasionally that this is a fiction we are reading, and this is also highlighted at the times when references are made to the efficacy of language.