Elizabeth Costello

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Elizabeth Costello
AuthorJ. M. Coetzee
GenreFiction, Literature
PublisherSecker & Warburg
Publication date
30 September 2003
Media typePrint (Hardback), (Paperback)

Elizabeth Costello is a 2003 novel by South African-born Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee.

In this novel, Elizabeth Costello, a celebrated aging Australian writer, travels around the world and gives lectures on topics including the lives of animals and literary censorship. In her youth, Costello wrote The House on Eccles Street, a novel that re-tells James Joyce's Ulysses from the perspective of the protagonist's wife, Molly Bloom. Costello, becoming weary from old age, confronts her fame, which seems further and further removed from who she has become, and struggles with issues of belief, vegetarianism, sexuality, language and evil. Many of the lectures Costello gives are edited fragments that Coetzee had previously published. The lessons she delivers only tenuously speak to the work for which she is being honored.[1] Of note, Elizabeth Costello is the main character in Coetzee's academic novel, The Lives of Animals (1999). A character named Elizabeth Costello also appears in Coetzee's 2005 novel Slow Man and Coetzee's 2011 short story Lies is about a woman with the last name Costello.


A renowned writer, Elizabeth Costello has to put up with a large number of various inconveniences. First of all, she is a sixty-six-year-old woman who has committed all her life to writing, often neglecting not only her own needs but her children in order to give all her strengths to her work. Due to the fact that her first novel is about women's liberation, her interviewers – usually women who write books about her – expect that she will be an energetic fighter for equality, who eagerly discusses the importance of a woman's role in modern society. They are extremely disappointed to see an elderly woman, who is sick and tired of discussing her first book.

Accompanied by her son John, she comes to Pennsylvania to receive the Stowe Award. During her acceptance speech, she speaks about Kafka and the audience finds it difficult to follow her idea, for this kind of talk is not to their liking. It seems that there is a gap between her and her audience. Although public speaking becomes a challenge for her, she decides to take a cruise in which she is supposed to speak about realism. The applause she gets is unenthusiastic.

Not only does the public not understand what she wants them to realize, but neither does her own family. Elizabeth's vegetarianism often provokes quarrels between her and her daughter-in-law. Her son is torn between love for his mother and difficulties in accepting her point of view. More often than not, he asks himself why she can't be just like any other elderly woman. The truth is that she doesn't know the answer herself. She speaks about the things people don't want to know, because she feels the need to do it.

Elizabeth has a sister she hasn't seen for a long period of time. She lives in Africa and serves in the Marian Order. The sisters have a very little in common. During the graduation ceremony they both are invited to, Blanche criticizes the humanities. Their parting is bitter, for they know that they see each other for the last time. Blanche says that Elizabeth chooses the wrong Greeks, which means that she doesn't support philosophical ideas her sister is so fond of.

For now, Elizabeth is in a certain kind of limbo, where she is supposed to explain what she believes in, so that she could pass through the gate. She is supposed to do it in front of the court. Her first attempt is a complete failure, for she says the truth and claims that she doesn't believe in anything. She has another try, but the novel ends before she finds out whether she is going to pass through the gate or not.

Background philosophy[edit]

Elizabeth Costello frequently engages philosophers and their ideas. Among the philosophers mentioned by name are historical figures such as Aristotle, Porphyry, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, René Descartes and Jeremy Bentham, as well as contemporary figures such as Mary Midgley, Tom Regan and Thomas Nagel. In addition two minor characters, Elaine Marx and an academic named Arendt (whose first name is not mentioned) share surnames with the famous philosophers Karl Marx and Hannah Arendt. The frequent allusions to philosophers have caused critics to debate whether there are philosophical themes in Coetzee's work and, if so, what they might be.[2]

Part of the debate has focused on similarities between ideas expressed by Coetzee's protagonist and the philosophy of Mary Midgley. Coetzee's protagonist for example is concerned with the moral status of animals, a subject Midgley addressed in her 1983 book Animals and Why They Matter. Midgley has also criticized Marx and other philosophers for singling out one human attribute (in Marx's case, that of freely given labour) and proclaiming it to be the unique quality that elevates human life above that of animals. Midgley argues that this approach confuses a factual claim and a moral claim, and it has been suggested that Elizabeth Costello draws attention to the same shortcoming in Arendt. As one analysis of Elizabeth Costello puts it, “The problem with Marx’s view is that there are human activities in which people find considerable value, such as giving birth, that are capacities we share with animals. Similarly, there are some actions, such as committing suicide, that may be unique to human beings yet that we do not celebrate. Like Marx, Hannah Arendt lauds one particular human attribute, in her case our capacity to take part in a shared world of political speech and action, on the grounds that it is what separates us from animals. There is a certain casual brilliance in the way Coetzee extends Midgley’s critique of Marx to Arendt, whose philosophy is often thought to invert Marxism.” [3]



  1. ^ Gonzalez, Madelena (July 2014). "United States of Banana (2011), Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Fury (2001): Portrait of the Writer as the 'Bad Subject' of Globalisation". Études britanniques contemporaines. d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines. 46 (46 2014): 1–16. Retrieved 13 July 2014.
  2. ^ " J. M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature," Anton Leist and Peter Singer eds. (New York: Columbia University Press 2010).
  3. ^ Andy Lamey, "Sympathy and Scapegoating in J. M. Coetzee," in J. M. Coetzee and Ethics, p. 192. For similarities between Midgley and Coetzee, see pages 175-81.

External links[edit]

Reviews online[edit]