Post-Apartheid South Africa, 1997
Like many of J.M. Coetzee's novels, Disgrace takes place in his native South Africa, a country that for many years was ruled under a system of racial segregation called Apartheid. Apartheid, which in Afrikaans means "separateness," was a system held in place from 1948 until 1994. It was official policy under which the rights of blacks were severely limited and under which whites, though the minority in terms of numbers, were in charge. Under Apartheid, blacks were not even considered to be legal citizens of South Africa, and they were forced to attend separate schools, go to separate hospitals, and receive separate public services. When blacks were deprived of their citizenship, they were divided into self-governing tribes called Bantustans.
Disgrace takes place only several years after the end of Apartheid, and as a result, knowing a little bit about the geography and systems of Apartheid are really helpful in understanding the undertones of this book. The novel begins in the far Western reaches of South Africa in Cape Town, where David is a professor at the University. Cape Town was generally considered to be part of "white" South Africa during Apartheid. In Disgrace, we see it as being more developed and cosmopolitan. When David leaves to go to live with Lucy in Salem, he's headed to a completely different part of the country: the Eastern Cape, which was long considered to be part of "black" South Africa and where the Bantustans were established.
When David goes from Cape Town to the Eastern Cape, he's not just leaving the city and entering the country (though the contrast between these regions, just in terms of lifestyle and setting, are also very important in the book); he's also traveling from a place that is secure for him, with fewer racial tensions, to a place where for decades systematized segregation has oppressed its inhabitants and informed their political views, their lifestyles, and perhaps most importantly, their opinions of others. While there are very few overt discussions of race in the novel, there is special attention paid to power dynamics – most especially between men and women rather than between whites and blacks – that echo the history of oppression and submission dictated by the setting.
Third Person (Limited)
The narrator of Disgrace isn't a character in the novel at all, but sometimes it can be pretty easy to forget. As a third person limited narrator, the voice telling our story doesn't participate in any of the action, but interestingly enough he or she also seems to exist directly in David's head. The narrator knows David's entire back story, what he's feeling at any given moment, his immediate desires, his worries, and his thoughts. Coetzee often denotes the difference between what the narrator says that David is thinking and what David is really thinking in a given moment by putting David's thoughts in italics. But even then, it doesn't really seem to make a difference – it feels like we're…