The purpose of studying English has been a topic widely explored and debated among literary scholars. Some scholars, such as Martha Nussbaum, believe that there is a public purpose in studying literature to bring about positive social change. They believe this change is achieved when a reader empathizes with the characters in a text and is then moved to act altruistically. Others like Suzanne Keen are more critical of this action-driven approach to reading, noting that there are many factors which influence a reader’s interpretation of a text and any actions that they take afterwards. Keen also distinguishes readers into different classes of readers from “low brow” to “high brow” based on their experience in the study of literature and how they approach a text.
David Lurie, the focalized character in J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Disgrace, provides an interesting analysis of what effect, if any, literature has on the reader. A professor of literature and scholar of the Romantic poets, Lurie would be considered a “high brow” reader who approaches texts with a critical eye. However, despite his professional study of poets such as Wordsworth and Byron, Lurie seems to struggle to keep a critical distance between his personal life and his studies. He generalizes the poet’s ideas into themes of passion and obsession which he uses in his personal exploits. He justifies his despicable actions, naming “Eros” and the power of beauty as the drive behind the sexual assault of one of his students. In this way, Lurie shows us a misreading of literature that leads not to altruism, but to the selfish exploitation of another human. Furthermore, Lurie does not experience any personal change until a traumatic event occurs in his life. It is after that event that he is able to better see from others’ points of view and experience feelings closer to empathy, feelings he did not apparently gain from his extensive reading. Overall, the character of David Lurie provides us with an interesting example of how theories of literature’s purpose play out in the life of a character whose main focus is the study of literature.
Carlotta Ruffalo, ’14
Majors: English – Creative Writing Concentration, Environmental Studies
Sponsor: Shannon Reed