Disgrace and The Tempest

Read the following exam question and the student's response. Apply the assessment criteria and discuss the marks that you would award the script before reading the examiner's marks and comments. How different were your marks and comments from the examiner's marks and comments? What improvements could be made to this student's response, in order to achieve better results?

The struggle against injustice is a theme that speaks to readers. Compare the ways in which two authors of two literary works have depicted unjust worlds. 

Readers are often captured by stories that depict some kind of injustice. As much as people would like to live in a just world, we know that reality is different. People suffer unnecessarily from injustice all around the world all the time. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee and The Tempest by William Shakespeare both explore the theme of injustice and depict characters struggling to find justice. Although The Tempest is a play written in the early days of colonialism and Disgrace is a novel written in a post-colonial, post-Apartheid South Africa, the works explore the theme of injustice through point-of-view, symbolism and motif. The authors show the importance of reconciliation and love as means of overcoming injustices. 

In both Disgrace and The Tempest, the protagonists, David Lurie and Prospero, are powerful people who have become victims of some form of injustice. David Lurie, a white professor in South Africa, was fired from his university after having sex with a student. After he has ‘fallen from grace’ he moves to his daughter’s farm, where he becomes the victim of a violent attack which leaves him physically scarred. The black men who burn him also rape his daughter. Even though David and his daughter, Lucy, eventually learn the identity of the men, it seems impossible for them to be brought to justice because pressing charges could bring even more violence. Coetzee’s novel is told from third person point-of-view though it uses free indirect narration throughout the novel, telling readers his thoughts through a limited but omniscient narrator. This makes the reader somewhat sympathetic to him, despite that he is a perpetrator of injustice as well. While he refuses to say ‘sorry’ to the university, he eventually comes to accept that his new existence, in a post-colonial, post-Apartheid South Africa, means living modestly and working at an animal shelter. 

In a somewhat similar but also very different way, the protagonist in The Tempest, Prospero, is both a victim of one injustice and the perpetrator of another. Prospero and his daughter Miranda are stranded on an island after being usurped and banished by his brother, Antonio. Even though they seem to be the victim of power hungry people, they too are guilty of stealing the power away from their island’s rightful owner, Caliban. Through dramatic asides and dialogue, the audience learns that Caliban feels bitter about being enslaved by Prospero and Miranda. Nevertheless, the audience does not sympathise with him, because he is crass and savage in his ways. The perspective of the play favours Prospero, who seems to have a God-given, colonial right to bark orders at his servants Caliban and Ariel. Unlike David Lurie, Prospero does not end up a lowly outcast. Instead he returns to his dukedom as the rightful heir, because his brother sees the error of his ways and Prospero forgives him. While reconciliation is the answer to injustices of the past in both literary works, The Tempest suggests that some leaders are above apologising. 

Both The Tempest and Disgrace use symbolism to explore the theme of injustice and comment on the nature of power in their worlds. In Disgrace, dogs appear throughout the novel, representing servitude and low status. There are dogs on Lucy’s farm, which Petrus, her black farmhand, helps look after initially. In fact Petrus introduces himself to David as ‘the dog-man’, which suggests that he has a low status on the farm as well. Once the dogs are killed by the intruders, Petrus is relieved of his duties and acts more like an owner of the farm. He knows and protects the attackers, and he threatens to let them attack again, if he is not given land rights. Lucy agrees to marry Petrus for protection and her father is forced to accept there will be no justice. In fact, David Lurie becomes the new ‘dog-man’, as he volunteers at the animal shelter, putting dogs to sleep and disposing of their corpses. The symbol of the dog in Disgrace is Coetzee’s way of commenting on how the injustices of apartheid are starting to reverse, as white people concede power to black people. Dogs also symbolise David’s transition from detesting animals to loving them.  

Symbols in The Tempest are used to a different end, as they point toward the coloniser’s rightful power to inflict injustice on others. Prospero’s books symbolise his power, which lies in his knowledge of magic. While his love for books, knowledge and magic are what cost him his dukedom before the start of the play, books also symbolise his power to regain his dukedom. After Prospero’s brother, Antonio, and his shipwrecked crew come to Prospero’s island, Caliban naively thinks he can guide Antonio to Prospero’s books, steal his books and regain control of the island. However, Prospero’s use of magic and command of Ariel, his fairy servant, allow him to see and know all that happens on his island, and so he sets a trap for his enemies and regains his control over his dukedom. While Prospero and David Lurie are both powerful men of knowledge, they end up in very different places. The symbol of the dog in Disgrace is very different from they symbol of Prospero’s books in The Tempest. Coetzee employs the symbolism of dogs in Disgrace to show how knowledge does not lead to an inherent right to rule. While the injustice that Prospero inflicts on Caliban seems rightful in the colonial context of this play, the injustice that David Lurie inflicts on young women does not go unchecked in post-apartheid South Africa. 

Both The Tempest and Disgrace explore the theme of injustice and they comment on the nature of power through the motifs of sex and love. In both works men attempt to exert power over women through sex. David Lurie, a middle-aged man sleeps with a young prostitute frequently and takes advantage of his student, Melanie. David struggles to see the parallels between his daughter’s rape and his own sexual prowess on the university campus. Nevertheless, something gradually changes in him as he works at the animal shelter. He begins to have sex with Bev Shaw, who is his age and unattractive. He sees a kind of nobility in loving her, just as he sees nobility in taking care of the dogs. Sex, for David, changes from a being means of exerting power over women to a means of means of loving someone. If there is any justice for Lucy’s rape, it is that her father has stopped being a sexual predator. Through this motif of sex, Coetzee seems to comment on power relations in South Africa, suggesting that the injustices of apartheid can only be reconciled by if the white ruling-class is willing to change their ways and accept the changes that come their way. 

Sex and love are motifs that can be found in The Tempest as well. Caliban tries to exert his power over Prospero by raping his daughter, Miranda. He regrets that his attempt was not successful, as he would have happily populated the island with little Calibans, as he says. Because Caliban behaves so savagely, Prospero feels entitled to take the island from him. He tries, in vain, to teach Caliban to be more civilised, but Caliban is a bad servant and not loyal to his master. In this colonial context, the audience senses that any Caliban deserves any injustice that Prospero inflicts on him. In contrast, the injustice that Antonio inflicted on his brother requires reconciliation. When Prospero discovers that his daughter has fallen in love with his enemy’s son, Ferdinand, it is easier to forgive his brother of any wrongdoings. The play ends with a moralistic soliloquy in which forgiveness is presented as the remedy for injustice. Similarly, David Lurie comes to realise this and drives to Melanie’s parents house to ask them for forgiveness for what he has done to their daughter. It is only through his love for dogs, Bev Shaw and his daughter, Lucy, that he realises that this step is necessary to right his wrongs and give Melanie’s parents some sense of justice. When this novel was written in 1999, only a few years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, showing remorse and asking for forgiveness were easily identifiable themes for South Africans. In both literary works, love is depicted as a solution for solving injustice.

In conclusion, the readers of The Tempest and Disgrace are taken on journeys to two very different worlds where characters struggle to overcome the injustices inflicted on them. Despite the one work being written hundreds of years after the other, and despite their different literary formats, both works employ point-of-view, symbolism and motif to show audiences that love and reconciliation are the solutions for overcoming injustice.   

Criterion A: Knowledge, understanding, interpretation and comparison – 10 out of 10

This essay shows excellent understanding of the novel and the play in relation to the essay question. The examples from the works are relevant to the question about injustice. Furthermore, the essay constantly compares and contrasts the works, pointing to key differences between Prospero and David Lurie with respect to the question about injustice. 


Criterion B: Analysis and evaluation – 10 out of 10

The essay is rather detailed about the use of literary features, such as free-indirect speech, motifs and soliloquys. The student evaluates the importance of these features in commenting on the themes of justice, colonialism and power. Even though works are two different literary forms (a play and a novel), the student is still able to make meaningful comparison of how the authors construct meaning in similar and different ways. This is possible because the student focuses on overarching techniques, such as point-of-view, symbols and motifs, and form-specific examples of these, such as dramatic asides or omniscient narration. 


Criterion C: Coherence, balance, focus and organisation - 5 out of 5

The essay develops the idea that reconciliation and love are needed to overcome the injustices caused by colonialism. It is coherent, because it gives examples from the works to support this claim. It is focused, because it explains the relevance of these examples in relation to the essay question. It is organised and balanced, as the paragraphs alternate between works and use connectives to compare and contrast them.


Criterion D: Language - 5 out of 5

The essay is very well written, using a range of vocabulary, literary terms and sentence structures. Complex ideas are expressed effectively through the use of concise and accurate language.

Last modified: Friday, 17 January 2020, 1:14 PM