The Politics of Humiliation in the Novels of J.M. Coetzee

The Politics of Humiliation in the Novels of J.M. Coetzee

The Politics of Humiliation in the Novels of J.M. Coetzee

The Politics of Humiliation in the Novels of J.M. Coetzee


In this volume, Nashef looks at J.M. Coetzee's concern with universal suffering and the inevitable humiliation of the human being as manifest in his novels. Though several theorists have referred to the theme of human degradation in Coetzee's work, no detailed study has been made of this area of concern especially with respect to how pervasive it is across Coetzee's literary output to date. This study examines what J.M. Coetzee's novels portray as the circumstances that contribute to the humiliation of the individual--namely the abuse of language, master and slave interplay, aging and senseless waiting--and how these conditions can lead to the alienation and marginalization of the individual.


He has entered the zone of humiliation; it is his new home; he will
never leave it; best to shut up, best to accept (SM 61).

I think ‘humiliation’ is a very different condition of mind from humil
ity. ‘Humiliation’ no man can desire; it is shame and torture (Mac
donald IIX).

The OED defines humiliation as the “action of humiliating or condition of being humiliated; humbling, abasement” (OED). To feel humiliated is to lose one’s respect for oneself, to have one’s pride injured by an agent that is external to oneself. Humiliation is a condition imposed on the human being, a condition that at once humbles and shames. It brings with it a feeling that one is no longer in control. Humiliation is the theme that stealthily haunts J.M. Coetzee’s novels. In spite of the varied plots, periods, locales and nationalities of characters, it emerges to occupy center stage. Although numerous studies have been published on Coetzee’s work, the extent to which humiliation of the individual traverses his writings has not been researched in depth. In Coetzee’s earlier novels, the individual’s humiliation is primarily induced by a political situation or an external force generally larger than the person is, but in the later novels, the instigation becomes more personal, arising from a physical disability or the undesired process of aging. In this work, I examine the factors that contribute to the humiliation of the individual: namely, language as the site of oppression, the female’s relation to masculine language, the master and slave relationship, aspects of old age and the endless Godot-like wait for an eventuality that will never occur. I also argue how Coetzee’s concern with the alienation and emptiness of the individual reveals an excruciating and overwhelming sense of shame. I discuss how the various themes of his novels contribute to this overall sense of desolation and hollowness. Nearly all his characters at some point in their lives describe themselves as being hollow to the core. The word “hollow” at once resonates with the opening stanza of T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men” and the Beckettian characters’ cries of being metaphorically hollow inside. A number of critics have written on Coetzee’s stripping down of his characters to the bare minimum, a Beckettian tradition where only words remain.

In his essay “Commitment,” Theodor Adorno writes:

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