Analysis of J. M. Coetzee’s Novels

Although contemporary South Africa is seldom mentioned or referred to explicitly in most of J. M. Coetzee’s (born 9 February 1940) novels, the land and the concerns of that country permeate his works. One may see this indirect approach as an evasion of the censorship that was a factor for any writer in that state during the years of apartheid, but this necessary blurring of temporal and geographic actualities also endows each work with universal overtones. On one level, Coetzee’s novels deal with the suffering that human beings inflict on one another, whether as agents of the state or as the victims of their own obsessions. Colonialism and its legacy form the basis for much of his fiction. Also permeating his work is the issue of the treatment of animals and the perception of difference in the rights of humans and the rights of animals, a perception that Coetzee often challenges.



Coetzee’s first major work, Dusklands, is composed of two novellas, The Vietnam Project and The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee; the common thread that runs through the two seemingly unrelated pieces is the obsession of each protagonist with the personal dimension of colonization. Eugene Dawn, the narrator of The Vietnam Project, is a mythographer inquiring into the efficacy of American propaganda in Vietnam. His discoveries are disturbing and soul shattering to the point that Dawn is driven to kidnap his child from his estranged wife and use him as a hostage. In the course of his confrontation with the police, Dawn stabs his son, marveling at the ease with which the knife slips into the flesh. He is last seen in an insane asylum, his consciousness peopled with images of power and powerlessness.

The second novella purports to be a narrative of an eighteenth century Boer settler, translated from the Dutch by J. M. Coetzee, with an afterword by Coetzee’s father. The work relates a trek undertaken ostensibly to hunt elephants but really to see what lies beyond the narrator’s immediate environment. The decorous, antiquarian headings that break up the narrative—“Journey Beyond the Great River,” “Sojourn Among the Great Namaqua”—contrast strangely with the horrors endured by both the narrator and the tribespeople he meets. Stricken with illness, Jacobus remains with the not-yetcolonized Namaqua, whose relations with him are at times contemptuous, at times nurturing, but never the expected ones of respectful native to European explorer. Jacobus’s Hottentot servants desert him to stay with the Namaqua, and naked, unarmed, and alone, he returns to civilization after an arduous journey. He goes back to the land of the Namaqua with troops and takes his revenge on the tribes people, who have shown him less respect than he wanted.

Throughout, the narrator hints, almost unconsciously, at what he is seeking: a sense of limits, and therefore a definition of his self. This motif is introduced in the first novella by Dawn’s analysis of the hate felt by Americans toward the Vietnamese: “Our nightmare was that since whatever we reached for slipped like smoke through our fingers, we did not exist. . . . We landed on the shores of Vietnam clutching our arms and pleading for someone to stand up without flinching to these probes of reality . . . but like everything else they withered before us.”

This concern with boundaries seems to stem from the physical environment of the vast African plain, into which Jacobus expands endlessly but joylessly. There are no rules, and Jacobus is worried by the possibility of “exploding to the four corners of the universe.” There is an unmistakable grandeur in such a concept, one that reflects the position of the powerful in relation to the powerless, but it is a qualified grandeur. It is one that Coetzee’s protagonists reject, drawing back from the spurious apotheosis of limitless being, understanding that it is not worth the dreary awareness of the void. Transcendence cannot occur when there is nothing to transcend.

In the Heart of the Country

Indeed, transcendence is the object of the quest for all of Coetzee’s main characters, and what they seek is the obstinate, obdurate object that will resist them to the point that they know that they exist, and against which they may define themselves. This quest is an important factor in Coetzee’s second book, In the Heart of the Country, a novel written in the form of a diary kept by a young woman on a sheep farm. The farm is isolated in the featureless landscape, and Magda has recourse to fantasies, terrible and bloody, of revenge on her father, who to her has always remained an “absence.” Little by little, Magda peoples her life, writes variations on reasons that she wants to kill her father, imagines situations in which she becomes the servant of her father and his brown mistress, and ultimately kills him, more or less by accident, while he is making love to Anna, the wife of the servant Hendrik. The uncertainty of the act’s reality lingers after the occurrence; the father really has been shot, however, and takes several days to die.

At this point, the diary takes on a more straightforward tone, as if the difficulty of disposing of the body has finally focused Magda’s life. Hendrik and Anna are moved into the house, and Magda begins sleeping with Hendrik, who now seems to despise her and who treats her as if she were the servant. Eventually, worried that they will be blamed for the murder of Magda’s father, Hendrik and Anna disappear in the middle of the night, and Magda is left alone in the great house.

Without money, without any visible means of support, she manages to live into an old age in which she hears voices from airplanes passing overhead. The voices say things that she takes to be comments on her condition: “Lacking all external enemies and resistances, confined within an oppressive narrowness and regularity, man at last has no choice but to turn himself into an adventure.” The solipsism that is evidenced in the earlier part of the diary (and that is a function of the diary form) is thus recalled to cast doubt on the truth of what Magda has been writing. Has all the foregoing been the product of a spinster’s fevered imagination? Every event surrounding the father’s murder and burial may have been so, and Magda herself wonders whether her father will come striding back into her life. Yet the one point in which Magda truly lives is the point where her father has ceased being an absence, when the weight and increasing rigidity of his corpse have lent reality to his dutiful daughter’s heretofore thwarted love.


Waiting for the Barbarians

This relationship between the violent act and the affirmation of one’s identity, along with the connection between hate and love, between master and slave, between the tortured and the torturer, forms the central theme of Waiting for the Barbarians (the title of which alludes to a poem by Constantine P. Cavafy). An unnamed, aging magistrate of a town on the far borders of “the Empire” narrates the story of an attempt by the Empire to consolidate its northern border against the depredations of “the barbarians,” nomads who had previously existed peacefully—with the exception of some dubious raids—in the face of increasing expansion by the agrarian settlers. The magistrate is far more interested in comfort, his books, and his antiquarian researches into the ancient sand-buried buildings near the town than he is in the expansion of empire. He is disturbed by the arrival of the sinister Colonel Joll of the “Third Bureau,” a police force given special powers for the duration of the “emergency.”

At first, the magistrate merely resents the intrusion of such affairs into the somnolent world that keeps him comfortable. He is severely shaken, however, by the torture of two obviously innocuous prisoners (and the killing of one of them) by Joll. As a result, the magistrate is compelled to place himself, quiet servant of the Empire, in opposition to the civilization to which he has been dedicated.

Joll has taken out an expedition to capture barbarians, some of whom he interrogates upon his return. The magistrate cannot simply ignore what is happening, but neither can he act. When Joll leaves, the barbarians are released and they depart; they have left behind a girl who has been tortured: Her eyes have been burned and her ankles broken in order to wring information from her father. The magistrate takes her into his house and enters into a bizarre relationship with her, one that consists of washing her swollen feet and badly healed ankles; the washing progresses to the other parts of her body, but there is no straightforward sexual act. During these ministrations, both the magistrate and the girl fall asleep, a normal sleep for the girl but a heavy, drugged torpor for the man. He cannot fathom his fascination with this girl who has been so cruelly marked, but he begins to understand that perhaps it is her damaged quality that so attracts him. She is unresponsive to him, accepting his tenderness as he imagines she accepted her torture, passive, impenetrable. He decides to take her back to her people after he realizes that to her, he and Colonel Joll are interchangeable, two sides of the same empire.

After an arduous journey, the magistrate and his small party come face-to-face with the barbarians in the mountains; he gives the girl back to them, since she expresses her desire to leave him and civilization. Upon his return, he is arrested by the occupying force of the Empire on charges of collaborating with the barbarians. A new policeman has installed himself in his office, and the magistrate goes to his cell almost gladly: “I had no duty to her save what it occurred to me to feel from moment to moment: from the oppression of such freedom who would not welcome the liberation of confinement?”

He manages to escape, but he returns, knowing that he cannot survive in the open spaces. Eventually he is released: The expedition against the barbarians has been a dismal failure, the town is emptying of soldiers and civilians, and the Empire is crumbling at the edges. He assumes his former responsibilities and tries to prepare the town for approaching winter. The novel ends with the same image that has haunted the magistrate’s dreams: children playing in the snow in the town square. The children are making a snowman, however, not a model of the empty town, and the faceless girl is not among them.

The Empire could be anywhere: Its geography encompasses Africa as well as Mongolia or Siberia. The townspeople are not described physically, and the description of the barbarians gives the impression that they are Mongols. Colonel Joll and the warrant officer—and their methods—evoke the Gestapo, the KGB, and, for that matter, the apartheid-era South African police. The time appears to be set in a future so distant that sand dunes have engulfed buildings of staggering antiquity. What does endure, Coetzee seems to be saying, are the sad constants of human history: the subjugation of the weak by the strong, the effects of slavery on masters as well as slaves, and the impotence of good intentions. If the magistrate has survived, it is because the Empire has considered his rebellion of no consequence.

Life and Times of Michael K

It is difficult to present limited expectations as an affirmation of the value of life. This subject, touched on in Waiting for the Barbarians, is realized in Life and Times of Michael K, a novel set in a South Africa of the future. Coetzee had, until this novel, furnished his readers with introspective, articulate narrators who reveal their complicated thoughts in precise language. With Life and Times of Michael K, he departed from this pattern.

Michael K’s survival is precarious from the beginning of his life; born with a deformed lip, he must be painstakingly fed with a spoon by a mother repelled by his appearance. His mother, Anna K, a domestic worker, takes him with her when she works. When he reaches school age, he is put in an institution for the handicapped, where he learns a bit of reading and writing and the skills of the unskilled: “scrubbing, bedmaking, dishwashing, basket weaving, woodwork, and digging.” Eventually, at the age of fifteen, he joins the Parks and Gardens Service and becomes a gardener, a job to which he returns after an attempt at night work.

At the age of thirty-one,Kreceives a message to fetch his mother from the hospital. For a time, they live together in Anna’s old “servant’s room”—a windowless cubicle under a staircase, originally meant for airconditioning equipment that was never installed—but a riot in the vicinity of the apartment buildings convinces them to leave. Anna, as her dropsy gets worse, harbors a confused dream of returning to the farm where she spent her childhood. She has saved some money, and K attempts to buy a railroad ticket, but a bureaucratic nightmare of reservations and permits forces them to walk, the son pushing his mother on a two-wheeled cart that he has built through persistence and ingenuity.

They travel through a disquieting landscape: At times thronged with people leaving the city, at times ominously empty, the roads are the domain of enormous army convoys, the purpose and destination of which remain unknown, but that, along with the riots in the cities, indicate an ongoing civil war in the unnamed country. Towns still exist, however, and it is in one of these that Anna and K stop; exhaustion and exposure to the cold rain have aggravated the mother’s illness, and K takes her to a hospital, where, after a few days, she dies. A nurse hands K a box of ashes, tells him that these are his mother’s remains, and sends him on his way. He is robbed of his money by a soldier, but he keeps his mother’s ashes. He finally reaches an abandoned farm that might be the one mentioned by his mother. He decides to live there. The leaking of a windmill pump on the farm has formed an oasis in the barren land. K plants a garden and sprinkles his mother’s ashes over the soil.A grandson of the departed owners of the farm appears, seeking safety from what is happening in the cities. Dimly,Krealizes that if he stays, it will be as a servant to this boy; he therefore shuts off the pump so that everything will die, and he leaves.

K is subsequently interned in a work camp from which he escapes; he returns to the farm and again plants his garden. The boy is gone, and K builds himself a shelter with stones and a piece of corrugated iron. One day, he sees men approaching. From concealment, he is somehow aware that these men must be “the other side,” the antagonists to the dispirited government soldiers he has known. Although their donkeys destroy half his crop, K feels sympathy with these men. He makes plans to tend his garden so that there will be many crops and they will have more to eat when they come back. Ironically, the next soldiers are government soldiers, who appear months later, and they arrest K under suspicion of being connected to the rebels. They destroy the garden, explode the pump, and burn the farmhouse. K is again interned.

Up to this point, the third-person account has been from K’s point of view: a registering of random impressions by someone who has no language to impose a pattern on events, who seldom wonders how he must appear, and who periodically achieves states approaching the meditative or vegetative. The second section is a first-person narrative by the medical officer—a pharmacist in civilian life, but it seems that many old men have been called back to military service, indicating that the civil war has spread everywhere—of K’s new camp. An articulate, compassionate man, reminiscent of the magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians, he is by turns annoyed and inspired by K’s refusal to eat “the food of the camp.” When K escapes, the medical officer convinces the aged commandant of the camp to report him dead.

K returns to the city from which he set out, and there he falls in with others who live by scavenging; he undergoes a sexual initiation among these people, who mean him no harm but by whom he is repelled. At the end of the third section, K has gained self-consciousness. His thoughts are now phrased in the first person and told to the reader: “I am a gardener.” This burst of self-awareness does not cut his ties to what he has been before; the final image is an emulation of the slow, patient rhythms of the earth: “He would bend the handle of the teaspoon in a loop and tie the string to it, he would lower it down the shaft deep into the earth, and when he brought it up there would be water in the bowl of the spoon; and in that way, he would say, one can live.”

The Master of Petersburg

For his novel Foe, Coetzee turned to Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe (1719) for setting and source. Foe is told by a female narrator washed ashore on the same island as Robinson Crusoe. With his novel Coetzee “writes back” to Defoe, challenging and expanding on the assumptions and themes of the earlier novel. In a similar vein, Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg draws on his novelist’s sensibilities and ideas about the modern world as well as his scholar’s knowledge of earlier literature.

The protagonist of The Master of Petersburg is the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevski (1821-1881); the novel begins in 1869, shortly after Dostoevski has completed his own great novel, Crime and Punishment (1866), and the less important The Idiot (1868). He is avoiding debtors’ prison by living in exile in Dresden, and there he has begun writing The Possessed (1871- 1872) when he learns that his stepson Pavel has died. He travels back to St. Petersburg using a false passport and moves into the rooming house where Pavel lived. This situation, which sets the story in motion, demonstrates an essential element of the novel: the combining of fact and fiction. Dostoevski did have a stepson named Pavel, and he did live with his second wife in Dresden during the years in question. The real Pavel lived until 1900, however, and there is no evidence that he was involved in many of the activities ascribed to him in the novel. Coetzee stays true to the record where it suits him but changes the facts freely and with no warning.

The fictional Dostoevski becomes obsessed with Pavel’s death and consumed by his grief and guilt over his failures as a parent. His grief is marked by sudden and dramatic changes, from sorrow to anger to lust. He begins a turbulent affair with Anna, Pavel’s landlady, hoping that it will keep Pavel somehow alive, at least in memory. Soon he learns that Pavel was involved with an underground revolutionary group, The People’s Vengeance, and may have died at their hands. As Dostoevski discovers the manuscripts of Pavel’s short stories and struggles to understand Pavel’s role as both a writer and a revolutionary, he expresses his own (and, perhaps, Coetzee’s own) ideas about the writer’s responsibility— not to take sides in political conflict overtly but to present accurately and dramatically the humans involved in the conflict. Dostoevski can do this only by abandoning his quest to bring Pavel back to life, by burying his own needs and feelings. The Master of Petersburg was published just as apartheid was ending in South Africa, and it has been read by several critics as Coetzee’s explanation for what has often been perceived as his failure to write more directly against apartheid.

Coetzee has been accused of being too political in his concerns; he has also been accused of not being political enough. To accuse him of either is to miss the point of his novels. He is concerned with humanity and with what it means to be human. In Waiting for the Barbarians, the magistrate says of his torturers, “They came tomycell to showmethe meaning of humanity, and in the space of an hour they showed me a great deal.” To be human is to suffer, but the one who causes the suffering also suffers and also is human. The torturer’s hatred is twisted love, a rage against the victim for not pushing back, not allowing the torturer humanity. This is the root of all evil in the world, and this is what Coetzee shows. Humanity’s history is one of suffering, and the only way to escape suffering is to live outside history.


Disgrace is set in postapartheid South Africa, where the shifting political landscape alters the personal lives of the characters. Protagonist David Lurie is fifty-two years old, white, divorced, and a professor at Cape Technical University.Ascholar of poetry and opera, he taught modern languages before being demoted to the position of adjunct professor of communications in deference to changing priorities at the university. Lurie constantly contemplates his advancing age while continually seeking erotic satisfaction. In this, he frequently misunderstands power relationships in respect to himself and women; he also confuses his urges with romance. His attempt to have a relationship with a prostitute, Soraya, strains their professional liaison, and Soraya discontinues her services. He then initiates a relationship with one of his students, Melanie, despite the vast differences in their ages and situations. Despite Melanie’s apparent reluctance, Lurie continues to pursue her, and, at one juncture, he forces himself on her in what is arguably a rape. Melanie files a harassment complaint against him with the university, and Lurie is charged before a committee of his peers. He resigns his post amid much publicity and humiliation.

Disgraced, Lurie departs for the rural Eastern Cape, where his grown daughter, Lucy, lives on a farm. Lucy runs a dog kennel and keeps a garden, selling the produce. Lurie settles in for a while, assisting Lucy and volunteering at an animal clinic, helping to euthanize many sick, old, or unwanted dogs. One day, Lurie and Lucy are approached by two men and a boy who then force their way into the house. The intruders shoot the dogs in their kennels, Lurie is knocked out and set on fire (briefly), Lucy is brutally raped, the house is ransacked, and Lurie’s car is stolen. In the aftermath of these horrific crimes, Lurie implores Lucy to press charges for the rape but she refuses, rejecting the legal process. Complicating this is the figure of Petrus, a black African who once worked for Lucy and now holds title to the land adjoining hers. Petrus’s relation to one of the perpetrators and his offer to protect Lucy by taking her as his third wife frustrate Lurie, who wants to see justice done. Lucy considers the offer of marriage seriously, as she has become pregnant as a result of the rape.

Lurie returns to working on an opera that he has envisioned on the life of Lord Byron. The opera, which began as a lushly imagined romance, is reduced to a song accompanied by a lone banjo. So, too, Lurie’s existence becomes increasingly stripped down, his former apartment ransacked, his possessions and job lost, his youth dissipated, and his ideas of justice meaningless in a new society.

Disgrace evokes the difficulty of life in a land riddled with violence and change. A motif of dogs in the novel calls up parallels between the treatment of animals and the treatment of blacks in South Africa and also alludes to the use of dogs against blacks in the apartheid era. Further, the discussions of notions of justice and revenge that weave through the novel allude to the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that took place after the dismantling of apartheid and the difficulty of achieving reconciliation when power structures shift.

Elizabeth Costello

The structure of Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello is unusual. The work comprises eight chapters, or “lessons,” each centered on a formal address or speech. The protagonist, Elizabeth Costello, is a sixty-six-year-old Australian writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her fame and reputation were established with a novel about Marion (Molly) Bloom, wife of the fictional Leopold Bloom of James Joyce’s famous novel Ulysses (1922).

Elizabeth Costello opens in 1995 as Costello is traveling to Pennsylvania to receive a prestigious award. There, she gives the first speech of the book, titled “What Is Realism?” Framing and interweaving the speech and all the chapters are Costello’s ongoing reflections about the events at hand and her life. In each chapter, her past, her relationships with her son John, an academic, her sister Blanche, a missionary, and others are integrated into the story.

Each chapter takes as its title the subject of a speech given at an event. The second chapter, or lesson 2, “The Novel in Africa,” takes place on a cruise ship, where Costello’s lecture “The Future of the Novel in Africa” is overshadowed by another lecture by a man who was once her lover. Lessons 3 and 4 both have the title “The Lives of Animals,” but with different subtitles: “One: The Philosophers and the Animals” and “Two: The Poets and the Animals.” In the first, Costello addresses an audience at Appleton College, where her son teaches. Tensions are high between mother and son and are exacerbated by her lecture, which discusses Kafka and employs parallels between the Nazi extermination camps and the treatment of animals in contemporary society. The discussion of animal rights continues in lesson 4, which refers to a seminar Costello holds at Appleton the day after her lecture and a debate later that day.

Lesson 5, “The Humanities in Africa,” presents a speech not by Costello but by her sister Blanche, who is receiving an honorary degree from a South African university. Lesson 6 takes place in Amsterdam, where Costello attends a conference titled “The Problem of Evil” and speaks to the issue, using as an example the work of a contemporary novelist who happens to be in attendance. Lesson 7, “Eros,” and lesson 8, “At the Gates,” find their richness in Costello’s self-exploration and assessment as she grows older.

Particularly unusual in this novel is that it incorporates six lectures previously published by Coetzee— often as nonfiction. The longest, The Lives of Animals, was published on its own in 1999; that volume was the product of a lecture Coetzee gave as part of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University in 1997. The lecture was presented at Princeton with the fictional setting, given as though Costello herself was speaking—including the narration of the dinner that followed the lecture. Elizabeth Costello has frequently been discussed as a view into Coetzee’s life, ideas, and beliefs. Such interpretation, however, may elide the skill of the author and divert attention from the ideas presented.

Other major works
Nonfiction: White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, 1988; Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, 1992 (David Attwell, editor); Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, 1996; Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, 1997; Stranger Shores: Literary Essays, 1986-1999, 2001; Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II, 2002; Inner Workings: Literary Essays, 2000-2005, 2007.
Translation: Landscape with Rowers: Poetry from the Netherlands, 2003.
Miscellaneous: The Lives of Animals, 1999 (with others; Amy Gutmann, editor).

Attridge, Derek. J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Attwell, David. J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Castillo, Debra A. “The Composition of the Self in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.” Critique 27 (Winter, 1986): 78-90.Gallagher, Susan VanZanten. A Story of South Africa: J. M. Coetzee’s Fiction in Context. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. Head, Dominic. J. M. Coetzee. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Huggan, Graham, and Stephen Watson, eds. Critical Perspectives on J. M. Coetzee. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Kossew, Sue, ed. Critical Essays on J. M. Coetzee. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998. Penner, Dick. Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J. M. Coetzee. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. Poyner, Jane, ed. J. M. Coetzee and the Idea of the Public Intellectual. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006.

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