About Coetzee’s "Foe": islands and other aspects

Essay, 2010

16 Seiten


Course: Literature across cultures


Student: A. van der Steenhoven

Coetzee’s Foe: islands and other aspects

Foe is a novel by J.M. Coetzee published in 1986. It is an entire rewriting of Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, the canonical novel of British imperialism. It is a written challenge to recognise the colonial and imperial ideologies embedded in Defoe’s book and thus in our society. Foe is above all a novel about silence, the silence of Friday. Through Friday’s silence, the author shows us that language can be an instrument of colonisation.

The first difference in Foe is the eye-striking fact that this time the storyteller is a woman, who happens to come to Robinson’s island. This new narrative perspective, gives the author the possibility for a complete re-creation of the story. The new story is in dramatic contrast to the male dominated scene in Defoe’s novel in which no women exists. This change of perspective undermines the imperial ideologies embedded in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Coetzee disrupts the hierarchy of colonialism in Foe by focusing its tale on Susan Barton and the black slave Friday. Instead of letting Cruso[1] speak on behalf of them, Coetzee let the story to be told by Susan, who finds that to tell her story, and be silent on Friday’s tongue is no better than offering a book for sale with pages in it quietly left empty (Foe 67). Coetzee’s use of the feminine must be read in terms of the broader impact of the feminine as a textual strategy in the elucidation of settler postcoloniality[2].

The Character of Friday is another important difference with Robinson Crusoe: in Defoe’s novel, he was a handsome Caribbean with near-European features, yet in Foe, he is an African Negro. That gives Coetzee the possibility to demonstrate the European colonial view resulting in oppression and racism. The apparent inaccessibility of Friday's world to the Europeans in this story is an artist's devastating judgement of the crippling anti-humanist consequences of colonialism and racism on the self-confident white world[3].

The novel examines the creative process of storytelling, not only the content of the stories but also the problems of their production as well as issues of gender, race and colonialism.

All main characters in the book have some relation with stories. Cruso had no stories to tell (…) it was as though he wished his story to begin with his arrival on the island, and mine to begin with my arrival, and the story of us together to end on the island too (Foe 34). Susan claims to be the owner of the story of Cruso’s island and wants Foe to write a book based on her, Susan’s story, because she is not able to manage it herself. She only produced a list of important events and a title: The Female Castaway. Being a True Account of a Year Spent on a Desert Island. With Many Strange Circumstances Never Hitherto Related (Foe 67). After Susan’s book title, Coetzee reminds us of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe: How long before I am driven to invent new and stranger circumstances: the salvage of tools and muskets from Cruso's ship; the building of a boat, or at least a skiff, and a venture to sail to the mainland; a landing by cannibals on the island, followed by a skirmish and many bloody deaths; and, at last, the coming of a golden-haired stranger with a sack of corn, and the planting of the terraces? Alas, will the day ever arrive when we can make a story without strange circumstances? (Foe 67). The new and stranger circumstances refer to Defoe’s book. This book must be unknown to Susan and we can see this reference as an ironic intertextuality and maybe as an incitement of Coetzee to read Defoe’s book.

In a discussion with Foe, Susan says, the story I desire to be known by is the story of the island. You call it an episode, but I call it a story in its own right (Foe 121). Foe wants to use her story for his own interest. His book should have five parts in all but Susan dislikes his plot: All the joy I had felt in finding my way to Foe fled me (Foe 117). Susan accepts that she needs somebody else to write down her story; I was intended not to be the mother of my story, but to beget it. It is not I who am the intended, but you (Foe 126). Due to Foe’s frustrating and postponing actions, the book will never be published.

Susan observes that some people are born storytellers: I, it would seem, am not (Foe 81). According to Probyn, Coetzee’s adoption of the feminine narrative voice constitutes both a strategic evasion of a lack of an adequate vantage point from which to speak and a strategic encoding of that lack of authority in the figure of the white woman. The white women’s possession of the word is unstable, unauthorised and also outside recognised literary forms[4].

Susan’s way of telling the story informs us incidentally on the narrative process she uses: it is an oral story in which she simply reports the events as she has seen and experienced them and thus the first section shows us an abundant use of quotation marks. The reader has a feeling that she tells her story exclusively to him, since there are many sentences such as “I have told you”, “as you shall hear” showing an interactive situation of Susan as storyteller and a listener. However, during the reading it becomes clear that she is telling her story to the author Foe. Let me tell you my story (Foe 10) and there is more, much more, I could tell you about the life we lived (…) (Foe 26) points to the transactional drift of her narration. Susan is offering something of value to a potential buyer: an interesting tale, a unique business product in the shape of a desirable novel story for a broad public, which could make Susan and Foe rich. It was Captain Smith who led her to the idea that her story could be a commodity, which could be marketable: It is a story you should set down in writing and offer to the booksellers, (…) There has never before, to my knowledge, been a female castaway of our nation. It will cause a great stir. (…) the bookseller will hire a man to set your story to rights, and put in a dash of colour too, here and there (Foe 40).

Another interesting example of her narrative process is the comparison of the two descriptions of her arrival on the island. Telling the incident to Foe to whom Susan must relate her story as interestingly as possible, she chooses a sort of literary style: At last I could row no further. My hands were blistered, my back burned, my body ached. With a sigh, making barely a splash, I slipped overboard. With slow strokes, long hair floating about me, like a flower of the sea, like an anemone, like a jellyfish of the kind you see in the waters of Brazil, I swam towards the strange island, for a while swimming as I had rowed, against the current, then all at once free of its grip, carried by the waves into the bay and to the beach (Foe 5). To Cruso, Susan is only obliged to explain her presence on his island, there is no need to embellish her story: Then at last I could row no further. My hands were raw, my back was burned, my body ached. With a sigh, making barely a splash, I slipped overboard and began to swim towards your island. The waves took me and bore me on to the beach. The rest you know (Foe 11). Obviously, the situation and the purpose of the story determine the style or manner of telling. In the first quote, Susan is in the business of facilitating the making of literature, through extensive details and metaphors, to impress Foe and to mark the story as an interesting commodity. Susan thinks that the story is hers, because she means to be Cruso’s heiress. It has become an object, which is to her disposal to exchange it for money and fame.

The second section consists of a series of letters from Susan to Foe, dated and composed carefully, concerning the subject of producing a novel of her story. This section makes the reader think of an epistolary novel[5]. In the third section, Susan is in interaction with Foe, Friday, her supposed daughter and some subordinate characters. Apart from her cares and worries for Friday and her daughter, all her actions are useless attempts to control Foe in his interpretation of her story.


[1] Attwell, P. 107: Coetzee reverts to Cruso, the name of Defoe's long-standing friend Timothy Cruso.

[2] Probyn, §2

[3] Nevelli Alexander, cited in Attwell, P. 108

[4] Probyn, §3

[5] Klarer, P. 41

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About Coetzee’s "Foe": islands and other aspects
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Coetzee - Foe
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MA Ton van der Steenhoven (Autor:in), 2010, About Coetzee’s "Foe": islands and other aspects, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/152567


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