Power and Sex in Disgrace: A Defense of Melanie
This essay is a delayed contribution to a discussion which took place on 5 May 2014 during a seminar on Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee. The point of contention between me and two fellow students was to what extent Melanie Isaacs was responsible for what had happened to her, i.e. her victimization by David Lurie. One student, L., was of the opinion that Melanie sealed her own fate by accepting the role of a victim without any struggle. Another student, T., was adamant that Melanie was already twenty years old and therefore fully responsible for her entering into a relationship with Lurie and its consequences. I insisted that no responsibility could be assigned to Melanie and I still hold this view. Since the discussion, I have come across a gender studies article which supports my view. In the following lines, I would like to present my arguments partly drawing on the theory proposed in the article.
T. based her argument on the adulthood of Melanie. However, adulthood is an abstract concept based on generalization. The fact that a country draws the line between minority and majority at a certain age – eighteen in South Africa as well as in most other countries – does not guarantee that every individual will be fully developed and responsible for themselves in all respects. The 32-year age gap between Melanie and Lurie constitutes a huge inequality with regard to experience and self-confidence. Lurie himself is aware of this inequality:
In the one word he hears all her uncertainty. Too young. She will not know how to deal with him; he ought to let her go. (18)
A child! he thinks: No more than a child! What am I doing? (20)
Almost he says, ‘Tell Daddy what is wrong.’ (26)
If he does not sense in her a fully sexual appetite, that is only because she is still young. (29)
She is too innocent for that, too ignorant of her power. (39)
Unequal: how can he deny that? (53)
Yet he exploits this inequality for his own gratification, using the legal age of majority as a defense: “‘Twenty. Of age. Old enough to know her own mind.’” (45). T. might have known her own mind at that age, but just like not all children learn to talk or walk at precisely the same age, not all adolescents mature on their eighteenth birthday. Melanie's immaturity is not her fault.
Another and even more important issue is the asymmetry of Lurie and Melanie's relationship in educational context: “[T]he girl he has brought home is not just thirty years his junior: she is a student, his student, under his tutelage. No matter what passes between them now, they will have to meet again as teacher and pupil” (12). In their article on sexual harassment in universities, Smetáčková and Pavlík describe how the power that teachers hold over their students influences the way the latter perceive the former: teachers' superiority adds to their attractiveness. This superiority is threefold: higher age, higher education, and higher formal position. In case of male teachers, a further aspect is the stereotypes of sexually dominant masculinity and sexually submissive femininity (39). This seems to be the case with Melanie too: “In her voice there is a hint of breathlessness. Exciting, always, to be courted: exciting, pleasurable” (16). Smetáčková and Pavlík suggest that as a consequence of these asymmetries, a student may perceive a teacher's advances as agreeable and interpret them as the mark of their own exceptionality. Ambivalent or negative feelings about the relationship appear later, for example when the teacher's advances grow stronger (39). This might be the case with Melanie too: when Lurie meets her outside class for the first time, he perceives her smiles as “sly” (11) and “perhaps even coquettish” (12), but later, when their affair gets serious, she is at a loss as to what to do – often she does not answer Lurie's questions (e.g. 19, 20, 21, 27). However, it is even more probable that she feels ambivalent from the beginning. She is described as “cautious” and “evasive” (12), she is repeatedly “confused” (18, 23), “[s]he does not withdraw, but does not yield either” (16). During sexual intercourse, “she is passive throughout” (19). Melanie's reluctance to commit herself and to take any initiative in the development of the affair suggests either that she is not attracted to Lurie or that she worries about their social roles as teacher and student, while this reluctance is mistakenly interpreted by Lurie as indifference: “So Melanie … takes things to heart. He would not have guessed it” (37). On the other hand, the absence of any categorical refusal on her part suggests that she is flattered by her teacher's attention and/or that she lacks the courage to refuse someone who holds power over her. Let us consider the latter possibility: Melanie may simply be used to obeying her superiors. This would be in line with her upbringing: Melanie's father is a religious man and a teacher who has probably imparted to his daughter respect for authorities. Before he finds out what Lurie has done, he assures him: “‘Melanie has such respect for you.’” (37). He himself seems to be in awe of university professors, otherwise he would not bother to mention degrees when accusing Lurie: “‘[Y]ou may be very educated and all that, but what you have done is not right.’ … ‘[Y]ou may be high and mighty and have all kinds of degrees, but if I was you I'd be very ashamed of myself, so help me God.’” (38).
It follows that Melanie as a student cannot be held responsible for entering into an asymmetrical relationship with her teacher. Smetáčková and Pavlík point out that responsibility presupposes full awareness of the consequences of power hierarchies that are inherent to organizational structures of educational institutions and the gender order, and a conscious decision about one's own movement within these structures. The influence of these structures, however, is mostly latent, and students cannot be expected to reflect on them. On the other hand, teachers, who are professionals and hold power over students, should reflect on their behavior and accept full responsibility for crossing the border of a standard pedagogical relationship (39–40). Mr Isaacs agrees: “‘We put our children in the hands of you people because we think we can trust you. If we can't trust the university, who can we trust? We never thought we were sending our daughter into a nest of vipers.’” (38). Lurie himself is certainly aware of his position of power: “To the extent that they are together, if they are together, he is the one who leads, she the one who follows. Let him not forget that” (28). Before the affair gets sexual, he promises Melanie: “‘I'll take care. I won't let it go too far.’” (19), but sadly does not intend to keep his word. The problem is that he does not care for his vocation as a teacher and acts without any consideration towards his ward. He abuses his position without any scruples: “On Sunday morning he drives to the empty campus and lets himself into the department office. From the filing cabinet he extracts Melanie Isaacs's enrolment card and copies down her personal details: home address, Cape Town address, telephone number” (18). This particular instance of abuse of power makes Melanie especially vulnerable because it enables Lurie to surprise her at her home where she feels safe and is therefore off guard: At first he calls her and asks her out for lunch without leaving her any time for thinking it over, later he visits her and forces her into sexual intercourse. In a case of symmetrical interaction, Melanie could herself decide whether to give her suitor her phone number and address.
After the scandal unfolds, Lurie is at least honest enough not to blame his victim: “‘She isn't responsible. Don't blame her.’” (45). I hope that those readers of Disgrace who do blame her will reconsider their opinion, for the sake of the real Melanies of this world.
Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace. Penguin Books, 2000. Print.
Smetáčková, Irena, and Petr Pavlík. “Sexuální a genderové obtěžování jako projev pedagogické ne-profesionality.” AULA 19.2 (2011): 35–46. Retrieved from www.csvs.cz/aula/clanky/2011-2-clanky-Smetackova-Pavlik.pdf, 8 June 2015.