Daniel Defoe's 'Robinson Crusoe' and J.M. Coetzee's 'Foe': Characters in Comparison

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 1998

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)



I. J.M. Coetzee's Foe: a literary parody with political attitude
[1] The spiderweb of fiction and reality
[2] Literature shaping cultural images - Robinson Crusoe and Colonialism
[3] Foe: the title as hints to the character of Coetzee's novel
[4] White South-African J.M. Coetzee writing on behalf of the 'voiceless'

II. Character alteration from Defoe to Foe
[1] Cruso: the anti-hero
[2] Introducing a female narrator - the character of Susan Barton
[3] Friday: the voiceless

III . Fiction and metafiction: how many layers does truth have?


I. J.M Coetzee's Foe: a literary parody with political attitude

[1] The spiderweb of fiction and reality

J. M. Coetzee's 1986 novel Foe leaves its reader in a tumble of a multi-layered reality, confused about literary original and copy, and, maybe most grave, confronted with the question: what is historical truth and how can it be recognised. The veils that unfold and reveal the facets of fiction and reality through the novel are many, and they are intricately woven into each other. We, the readers, however educated and experienced with fictional texts, may find ourselves slightly confused after a first reading.

Coetzee has written a parody[1] of a classic of world literature: Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719[2]. The simple fact that Coetzee's work of fiction was first published in 1986[3] makes it evident that it was based on the older classic. Yet the content of the novel claims the very opposite when the female protagonist Susan Barton tells how the story really was before Mr Foe sat down to turn it into a novel of his own intentions, altering and falsifying it. She tells her own story in the I-perspective, in terms of the 'plot' even before the writer Mr Foe would have completed his 'Robinson Crusoe'. Through this, Coetzee creates the illusion that Susan Barton's report might have indeed been the antecessor of the literary classic Robinson Crusoe.

Nevertheless, we are talking of a work of fiction here, so there is no doubt that Coetzee marvellously plays with the means of storytelling instead of telling the world 'how it all really was'. There is no such Robinson Crusoe as depicted both in Defoe's and Coetzee's novel - there is merely fiction, and one should not confuse fiction and reality, however many layers of both seem to be mingled into each other in Coetzee's novel.

[2] Literature shaping cultural images - Robinson Crusoe and Colonialism

Even if fictional elements in Coetzee's story do not have the purpose to shed light on reality, those kind of elements generally represent something outside of 'things that really happened' - which they do in Coetzee's novel. Coetzee does not intend to correct the actual story of Robinson Crusoe. His way of re-writing a story, which is so much part of national, or probably even global, literary heritage, is clearly a metaphor. Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe has shaped the minds of generations, especially in its widely-spread form as a youth book. With the alterations that Coetzee made in the story and characters of the original Robinson Crusoe when rewriting it, he forces us to think why he chose to retell the old story in this very way.

Why was Robinson Crusoe written that way and no other? And why does Coetzee decide that he has to write the old story anew? In a way, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe could be considered a perfect example for the spirit of the times it was written in. The way Robinson cultivates and reigns the island and the slave-master relationship between him and (coloured) Friday represent the attitude of colonialization: white European men come to a foreign, apparently uninhabited island and turn it into a fertile, liveable environment through their intelligence and hard labour. The occasional native is saved from great danger and, in gratitude to the white man, becomes his servant, whom the benevolent master even introduces to the realm of European language, culture, and Christian religion of course.

If this depiction of colonial attitude is of a rather ironic tone, that already indicates that today's reader will see Defoe's Robinson Crusoe in a critical light. Reading about Friday's 'domestication', the way Robinson Crusoe treats Friday seems rather racist in today's view

Coetzee rewrites the story of the 18th-century white castaway, introducing us to the complicated links between reality, fiction, and metafiction. He also makes us realise that an author writing a novel always has an intention that makes him depict a certain character in a certain way, and what impact this intention can have on culturally shaped images of (social and cultural) history.

Coetzee rewrites Robinson Crusoe, and he does so in the 20th century, being a white, critical South African writer. As we think about his intention in rewriting the story, we come upon the fact that Daniel Defoe had his intentions, too. That he was, although being a very liberal mind, a child of his times, and thus promoting a view on the encounter of Europeans with the 'savage' natives during colonial times that is indeed told from a very European, or even 'colonial', point of view.

We come to understand that all literature, and with it history and the like, was written with an intention and in favour of the social group writing it, and that with nothing that we read can we be careless believers.

So Coetzee's novel functions as an 'eye-opener' to the reader; when he rewrites the story of white European Robinson Crusoe and his fate in the Caribbean, it is an act of adding his own version of colonialisation to the culturally shaped view on history - he thus corrects the official accounts, of which Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is one, by adding the voice of a minority that was speechless before.

[3] Foe: the title as hints to the character of Coetzee's novel

Coetzee calls his novel Foe, referring to the author of Robinson Crusoe already in the title of his work, as Daniel Defoe was only a pseudonym or variant name for the writer whose birth name was Daniel Foe[4]. Moreover, this title Foe includes several connotations: a 'foe' as an enemy or opponent, and the French adjective 'faux' as a homophone to Foe, meaning 'false'. Thus the title gives an early hint to what the core problem of the novel is - the figure of the author Daniel (de)Foe and the role he played by creating a literary myth with an enormous cultural impact on generations of readers: the white castaway managing to rule and master a savage island due to his education and European 'supremacy'.

The pun with the title connects the author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, with the elements 'false' and 'opponent'[5]. Out of this connection come several possible interpretations: the parody as 'false', the false truth of the original Robinson novel, the false authorship of Defoe/Foe in opposition to the 'real' authorship of Susan Barton, Coetzee's / Susan Barton's version of the story as an opponent to the original novel, the character of Foe as a literal foe to Susan's 'real' story, etc

There does not have to be a definite interpretation of the title as a pun; all of those mentioned above are more or less an aspect or facet of Coetzee's novel and its relationship to the classic Robinson Crusoe. They all relate to the fact that historiography is always culturally influenced and in favour of the group who actually writes history: that the history of colonialisation, of ethnic groups in developing countries, has mostly been written by whites, i.e. the colonisers. What Coetzee tries in Foe is an anti-historiography by means of fiction; a view of the 'story' like the 'objects' - be it minorities, members of 'colonised' nations, or socially underprivileged groups - would write it. That is, if they have the possibility to do so - if they are able to phrase their own version of the story...

[4] White South-African J.M. Coetzee writing on behalf of the 'voiceless'

The new version of the story of Robinson Crusoe that J.M. Coetzee has written with his novel Foe is in so far problematic as Coetzee himself belongs to the dominant group, i.e. to the white minority in South Africa that ruled the country until the end of the Apartheid system in 1994.

Born in 1940 in Cape Town, South Africa, J.M. Coetzee never had the academic education of the 'typical' writer: he studied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and worked as a computer programmer for eight years after his graduation[6].

Coetzee's first works, Dusklands - two novels -, were published 1974[7]. His following novels all clearly have a political attitude, more or less concerned and critically dealing with topics such as colonialism, slavery, and the South African Apartheid, e.g. In the Heart of the Country (1977), Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), or Life and Time of Michael K. (1983). He is also the author of critical essays like White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa[8] .

Even if he did not agree with and wrote against Apartheid politics, he was raised and socialised as a member of a white minority ruling over a black, powerless majority. It is thus at least questionable if he is able to give voice to the minority, who, under oppression and kept away from proper education, apparently needs more time to learn how to express its own cultural perspective on history. The character Friday in Foe is completely unable to speak as he has got no tongue; how he lost it, however, is never really explained. In the novel, Cruso supposes that it has been cut out by slave traders[9], which is clearly a metaphor explaining why the oppressed minorities (like black South Africans) are not able to voice their own ideas. Slave trade, as a symbol for the colonial mis treatment of natives, has - in the metaphorical way that Coetzee puts it - turned those oppressed ethnic groups like South African blacks mute. But now there is the problem that Coetzee, a member of the formerly dominant group of 'colonisers', raises his literary voice on behalf of those who seem to be still unable to do that themselves. Surely every voice that speaks in favour of the formerly oppressed ones is valuable, but the pattern of a white European who is, in a way, telling the indigenous people how to feel, is indeed repeating the old structures of colonialism. Like male writers writing on behalf of women's emancipation, Coetzee will have to face the criticism that he will never be able to voice the true feelings of those on whose behalf he is writing.

II. Character alteration from Defoe to Foe

In his novel Foe, J.M. Coetzee bases his depiction of the characters on the common knowledge of the classic Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Indeed, his rewriting of the story would not work without the ever-present original characters, and only in comparison to the pretext are we able to see why Coetzee made those major changes. Our analysis will thus focus on the characters of both novels, Foe and Robinson Crusoe, and the alterations we find in Coetzee's work in contrast to his classic model.

[1] Cruso: the anti-hero

In the character of Robinson Crusoe, whose counterpart in Coetzee's novel is only called 'Cruso', we find the most evident and startling alterations of all characters. From the positive hero and master of even the most desperate situations in life, the former protagonist of Defoe's novel has turned into an anti-hero in Foe.

The actions of the original Robinson Crusoe are probably well known, so the behaviour of Cruso in Foe will mostly be contrasted to them[10].

Especially in his mode of living, Cruso differs enormously from his literary predecessor.

Cruso does not save anything from the wreck except for a knife [F16]. Moreover, he says that there is no need for tools [F32], and the few tools he has made himself are a needle made of fishbone [F9f.], a wooden spade, a "sharp stone lashed to a stick" as mattock, and carved blocks of wood as bowls [all F15f.]. Those are only the most essential tools for survival, i.e. the tools to build a hut, sew clothes, and eat. Compared to the equipment of his 18th-century predecessor, Cruso's equipment is indeed relatively poor: Robinson Crusoe had gotten clothes, tools, and firearms from the wreck [RC39], also razors, scissors, knives, and forks [RC41ff.]. Later on, he manages to make baskets [RC80], earthenware [RC89], a mortar and pestle [RC90], candles [RC106], a canoe [RC100], a tobacco pipe [RC106], etc. While Robinson Crusoe puts a lot of effort into improving his equipment and is always eager to get new tools[11], Cruso is satisfied once he reaches the state when mere survival is guaranteed[12]. In a way, both Crusoe and Cruso represent different 'stages' of civilisation: whereas Crusoe is constantly progressing to reach the state of an early agricultural society, Cruso does not intend to 'develop' or even change his lifestyle[13] but stays 'hunter and collector'. He is in no way interested in progress, and he rationalises not making any candles in a rather philosophic way: "Which is easier: to learn to see in the dark, or to kill a whale and seeth it down for the sake of a candle?"[14]. His cryptic explanation is both a hint to human laziness and a critique of progress itself. Juxtaposed with the never-ending energy of the original Crusoe to better and enhance his daily life towards a state of higher civilisation, Coetzee's interpretation of the castaway's character doubts the ideal of man as master of all nature. Instead of being the innovative, self-made engineer like Crusoe, Cruso is very much indifferent to his environment, also to his fellow castaways[15]. He thus is the exact opposite of Robinson Crusoe as representative of humanism, who first saves Friday and then a Spanish prisoner of the 'savages' (later on also Friday's father, who is tied in a canoe) from being slaughtered [RC148;171] and frees the victims of a mutiny [RC187].


[1] A parody according to Linda Hutcheon is an: "imitation characterised by ironic inversion", or "repetition with critical distance, which marks difference rather than simularity";

in: Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. New York and London: Methuen, 1985, p.6

[2] See: Bibliographical Note; in: Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe. London: Dent, 1975, p. xiii

[3] First published in Great Britain by Martin Secker & Warburg 1986; here it will be referred to the Penguin paperback edition of 1987 when quoting passages from the text.

[4] Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd edition. Ed. by D. L. Kirkpatrick. Chicago & London: St. James Press, 1991; Vol. I, p. 458

[5] But wisely enough, Coetzee called the novel Foe instead of Defoe, so it is obvious that the character Foe is also fictional and just hinting to the historical person of Daniel Defoe.

[6] Contemporary Novelists (6th ed.). Ed. by Susan Windisch Brown. Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 1996

[7] J.M. Coetzee, Dusklands. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1974

[8] New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988

[9] J.M. Coetzee, Foe. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987; p. 23 [In the following it will be referred to this novel as Foe when quoting passages from the text]

[10] Pages on which the quoted passages or incidents are to be found in Robinson Crusoe and Foe will in the text be listed in the following matter: [RC26] for Robinson Crusoe, p. 26 (for example), and [F13] for Foe, p. 14, etc.

[11] For example he risks his life when going out to the wreck to save everything useful from there: Robinson Crusoe, p. 39 and 41ff. Then he laboriously tries to make earthenware, literally progressing only by trial and error: Robinson Crusoe, p. 89.

[12] Cruso: "We sleep, we eat, we live. We have no need of tools."Foe, p. 32

[13] [says Susan Barton as narrator:] "The simple truth was, Cruso would brook no change on his island"Foe, p. 27

[14] Foe, p. 27

[15] Foe, p. 13: [says Susan Barton as narrator:] "I would have told him more about myself too, about my quest for my stolen daughter, about the mutiny. But he asked nothing, gazing out instead into the setting sun, nodding to himself as though a voice spoke privately inside him that he was listening to." He also does not teach Friday more words than he needs to follow his commands: Foe, p. 21.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Daniel Defoe's 'Robinson Crusoe' and J.M. Coetzee's 'Foe': Characters in Comparison
University of Leipzig  (Institute for Anglistics)
Postcolonial Literatures
1,3 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
547 KB
Dichter Text - einzeiliger Zeilenabstand.
Daniel, Defoe, Robinson, Crusoe, Coetzee, Characters, Comparison, Postcolonial, Literatures
Quote paper
Luise A. Finke (Author), 1998, Daniel Defoe's 'Robinson Crusoe' and J.M. Coetzee's 'Foe': Characters in Comparison, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/21433


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