Elizabeth Costello

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Elizabeth Costello
Author J. M. Coetzee
Country Australia
Language English
Genre Fiction, Literature
Publisher Secker & Warburg
Publication date
30 September 2003
Media type Print (Hardback), (Paperback)
Pages 224pp
ISBN 0-436-20616-1
OCLC 52456771

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.

Background fiction[edit]

The penultimate chapter, "At the Gate", is an overt reworking of several of Franz Kafka's stories and novels, principally "Before the Law" and The Trial. The last chapter consists of a letter from Lady Chandos to Francis Bacon. This is a fictitious intertext to the well-known Lord Chandos Letter by Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1902). The Chandos Letter, in which the narrator, Philip Lord Chandos, laments that language has begun to fail his need for self-expression, is often cited as a key text of literary modernism. Coetzee's fabrication of Lady Chandos's letter replicates what in the novel Elizabeth Costello herself is presented having done, namely adding a female voice (that of Molly Bloom) to a canonical modernist work (Ulysses).

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]


Reviews online[edit]


  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]