Last night I watched the film of Disgrace, which I thought was good. I'd have to re-read the novel to be sure, but I think it was pretty faithful to the book. You can't fit everything into a two-hour film, though, so something must have been left out, and what remained was brought closer together. So we see David lecturing about Lucifer and immediately connect his description of Lucifer with his own nature: he does what he wants regardless of whether it is good or evil, and is insane not in the head but in the heart. This doing whatever he wants, being a creature of the will, makes him pretty much the opposite of characters like Lucy (his daughter) and Michael K. It also makes him similar to the men who attack him and Lucy, perhaps to men in general (as they are presented in the film/book at least), and presumably to the white people who originally took over South Africa (where the story is set). At one point he quotes Blake's "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires," which I have read (somewhere--in Disgrace?) is not about killing babies but about desires in their infancy: if you have a desire that is starting to grow, you should either act on it or snuff it out, not feed it if you have no intention of acting on it.
The snuffing out of desire comes up also in connection with dogs. David tells Lucy of a man who punished his dog whenever it got sexually excited, which was every time it saw a female dog. Through Pavlovian association the dog came to hate its own arousal, its own desire. (Nietzsche has a similar story about the effects of Christianity and the masochism of puritanism.) At this point, David says, it would have been better to kill the dog and put it out of its misery.
So dogs are something like symbols of desire (they are also just dogs) in the story. Lucy and another woman (Bev Shaw) care for them. David approaches something like salvation (but does not seem to be changed in any complete way) by helping with the killing of dogs (that, presumably, need to be killed). There is a danger here of presenting women as good, suffering nurses and men as bad predators whose nature needs to be denied or destroyed. There are also some suggestions that, while men are like dogs, women are like flowers. Lucy grows and sells flowers as well as running a kennel; a boy who attacks her then runs off and kicks at her garden saying "we will destroy you"; David tells a female student he is trying to seduce that women's beauty belongs not to them but should be shared. The idea seems to be in the air (whether we are meant to agree with it or not) that women give to the world, like harmless and pretty flowers, while men only take and destroy.
But it isn't quite so simple, thankfully. Redemption (grace?) does seem possible for David, even if he doesn't take full advantage of it (we see him picking up a prostitute near the end of the movie, and he never seems to fully accept Lucy's decision to live at peace with her neighbors, even those who raped her). And Bev has carnal desires too, although David's relationship with her is not exactly passionate. In the movie it seems almost as if he is doing penance by having antiseptic sex with a woman he does not find at all attractive. (I don't remember how it goes in the book, but I think it's along these lines.)
In the end the sense is that South Africa, having gone to the dogs, is now being reclaimed. Like the putting down of a hopeless dog, this is an unpleasant process, but the right thing all the same. So Lucy remains, however stoical she has to be in order to survive there, David withdraws, and the black Africans (should they be called Native Africans?) take over.
It would be easy to see some true but not very interesting political messages in the story, for instance that the end of apartheid is good but likely not to go completely smoothly, or that women are often treated badly by men but that it isn't always clear whether a given act should be regarded as an abuse of male power. (If a male professor seduces a female student is this sexual harassment or just the private business of two consenting adults? Could it somehow be both? Everyone involved treats it as wrong, except David, but I don't think every reader will see it this way.)
I find the ethical questions much more engaging: if our doggy nature is the root of all evil (which might be an exaggeration, but isn't far from what this story suggests), then what are we to do? Complete passivity seems to be one answer, but it is very unappealing and appears to require doing violence to the dog (Plato uses the image of a monster) in us.