A Review of J.M. Coetzee’s Foe (by Bethany)

I’ve never read Robinson Crusoe, although of course I know the basic outline of the story. It’s been on my to-read-soon list for a long time now, and I’d always planned on reading Coetzee’s Foe after I read Robinson Crusoe. But long story short, on Sunday I was having a bit of Madame Bovary overload and wanted something short and contemporary and not French, and Foe seemed to meet all of those qualifications. I read most of it while I was waiting on hold with Virgin America’s Special Hurricane Sandy Emergency Line to reschedule the flight I was supposed to take today from San Francisco to Boston. I was on hold for two hours and 45 minutes, which may be an all-time record for me. All of this took place in my dad’s kitchen, and the combination of the phone and the late hour gave me flashbacks to the time when Jill and I once talked on the phone for eight hours straight – back in 1996 or 1997 or so. But now that we are older we would never do anything so adolescent as talk on the phone all night; now, after all, we have a blog.

So anyway – Foe. Because I haven’t read Robinson Crusoe, I am not exactly sure which details in this novel are Coetzee’s invention and which are taken from DeFoe, although this did not at all stop me from enjoying this book. Like everything I’ve ever read of Coetzee’s, this novel is condensed, tightly wound, voice-driven, and very, very “meta.” There’s post-colonialism zigzagging all over the place in this book, and I like that. Here are the basics:

Susan Barton is a 17th-century British woman who sailed from England to Brazil in search of her adult (or possibly teenaged) daughter, who was kidnapped – although there is some suggestion that her daughter actually ran away and that Susan cannot accept this reality. She spends two years on the island of Bahia off the coast of Brazil, where she is assumed to be a whore because she is not chaperoned by a man. All of this is backstory, though, as the novel actually begins when she is trying to sail back to England and the crew of the ship decides to mutiny, and Susan and the captain (which whom Susan appears to have been sleeping – Coetzee is so painfully subtle in providing just the tiniest of hints that Susan is an unreliable narrator and may in fact be the whore that others say she is) are cast away in a lifeboat. The captain dies of his injuries almost immediately; Susan rows the rowboat until she is so painfully sunburned and blistered that she decides to swim for shore, where she meets Robinson Cruso and his servant Friday – the characters from Daniel DeFoe’s novel.

Susan spends a little over a year marooned with Cruso and Friday, after which they are rescued by a passing ship, on which Cruso dies of a fever. Susan spends that time trying to figure Cruso out – overall she finds him dull, boring, and maddeningly uninterested in documenting his experience as a castaway for posterity. She begs him to keep a journal and searches his hut everywhere for evidence that he has counted days or charted the phases of the moon or something to keep track of the time he has spent on the island. Cruso spends much of his time constructing a series of terraces, almost as if he were preparing the island for agriculture. He digs out rocks from the soil and builds stone walls, New England-style, smoothing the soil into a twelve-tiered terraced garden, in spite of the fact that, as he laments, he doesn’t have any seeds to plant. Friday assists with these labors and also spends time floating on a log and spearfishing. Susan is curious about Friday, who is docile and subservient toward Cruso in spite of the fact that he is physically bigger and stronger and Cruso doesn’t have a gun or any other weapon that traditionally have helped colonizers subdue native populations. Cruso reveals to Susan that Friday has no tongue – apparently it was cut out when he was first captured as a slave. Cruso has taught Friday to understand some basic English words but has made no effort to communicate with him beyond these basics – another fact that maddens and confuses Susan. It was obvious to me right away that Friday is intended as a Caliban figure – and I am very interested to read Robinson Crusoe to see to what extent – if at all – this allusion is present there.

Susan’s one sexual encounter with Cruso takes second to the rapes in Lolita as the most profoundly underwritten sex scene in literature: “I pushed his hand away and made to rise, but he held me. No doubt I might have freed myself, for I was stronger than he. But I thought, He has not known a woman for fifteen years, why should he not have his desire? So I resisted no more but let him do as he wished” (30). She does comment later in the paragraph that she was glad that Friday did not witness this encounter.

Later, after Cruso is dead and Susan has returned to England, she finds herself in sole charge of Friday. She identified herself to her rescuers (at least one of which she seems to have also slept with along the journey – again, the hints are very, very subtle) as Cruso’s widow, and as such she is the legal owner of Friday. She finds her way to Daniel Foe – later Daniel DeFoe – who is known for hearing the “confessions” of people who have had wild adventures and then writing them as novels – insofar as the “novel” even existed in the late 17th century (DeFoe is usually credited for having invented the novel in English only shortly after Cervantes invented it in Spanish). Shortly after she meets him, though, Foe goes into hiding to evade his creditors, and Susan writes him a series of letters – which comprise much of the book – that describe both her experiences on the island and the life she is living as she waits for Foe to return. Somehow or other she manages to move into his house, and she blithely informs him that she is slowly selling off his possessions in order to support herself and Friday. She writes manumission papers for Friday and tries to arrange for him to return to Africa by ship but always suspects – undoubtedly rightly – that the sailors she tries to hire to bring him to Africa intend to steal his papers and sell him back into slavery as soon as they are out of Susan’s earshot. She feels a strange protectiveness toward Friday, even though she is also repulsed (and fascinated) by him: “A woman may bear a child she does not want, and rear it without loving it, yet be ready to defend it with her life. Thus it has become, in a manner of speaking, between Friday and myself. I do not love him, but he is mine. That is why he remains in England. That is why he is here” (111).

During the weeks that Susan and Friday are living in Foe’s house and waiting for him to come out of hiding, something very, very strange happens. A young woman shows up, announces that her name is Susan Barton, and insists that Susan Barton the protagonist is her mother. Susan assumes this woman was sent by Foe for some reason – either to taunt her or to scare her away, or perhaps simply as a coded message to indicate that Foe is still aware of Susan and interested in her story: “Who is she and why do you send her to me? Is she sent as a sign that you are alive? She is not my daughter. Do you think women drop children and forget them as snakes lay eggs? Only a man could entertain such a fancy. If you want me to quit the house, give me an order and I will obey. Why send a child in an old woman’s clothes, a child with a round face and a little O of a mouth and a story of a lost mother? She is more your daughter than she ever was mine” (75).

This novel manages to compress an entire college course in literary theory into 157 pages. It positively courses with isms. Friday is the Caliban figure, the noble savage, the naïf who, deprived of language, is kept forever innocent. Foe and Susan represent dueling paradigms of authorship – gendered paradigms of authorship that call to mind Anne Bradstreet’s “The Author to her Book” as well as all those theories about the connections between the physical, sexual conception of babies and the creative generation of written texts that come from Virginia Woolf and continue through Gilbert and Gubar and others. And Coetzee uses variations on the phrase “diving into the wreck” way too many times for the allusion to Adrienne Rich to be accidental.

This novel also does a great deal of playing with the question of language: spoken language and written language, language as an evolutionary advantage that distinguishes man from beast, the connection between language and sexuality as generative tools (at one point Susan considers the possibility that Cruso may have been speaking in metaphor when he told her that Friday had lost his tongue and that perhaps Friday had been castrated instead). Even “in the beginning was the Word” makes an appearance. Consider this: “I tell myself that I talk to Friday to educate him out of darkness and silence. But is that the truth? There are times when benevolence deserts me and I use words only as the shortest way to subject him to my will. At such times I understand why Cruso preferred not to disturb his muteness. I understand, that is to say, why a man will choose to be a slaveowner” (60-61); and this: “It is enough to hope that if I make the air around him thick with words, memories will be reborn in him which died under Cruso’s rule, and with them the recognition that to live in silence is to live like the whales, great castles of flesh floating leagues apart one from another, or like spiders, sitting each alone at the heart of his web, which to him is the entire world. Friday may have lost his tongue but he has not lost his ears – that is what I say to myself. Through his ears Friday may yet take in the wealth stored in stories and so learn that the world is not, as the island seemed to teach him, a barren and silent place (is that the secret meaning of the word story, do you think: a storing-place of memories?)” (59); and this: “Friday has no command of words and therefore no defense against being re-shaped day by day in conformity with the desires of others. I say he is a cannibal and he becomes a cannibal; I say he is a laundryman and he becomes a laundryman. What is the truth of Friday? You will respond: he is neither cannibal nor laundryman, these are mere names, they do not touch his essence, he is a substantial body, he is himself, Friday is Friday. But that is not so. No matter what he is to himself (is he anything to himself? – how can he tell us?), what he is to the world is what I make of him. Therefore the silence of Friday is a helpless silence. He is the child of his silence, a child unborn, a child waiting to be born that cannot be born” (121-22).

Excuse me for a minute while I go write my dissertation.

I think what I like best about this book is the way Coetzee refuses to explain away any of his enigmas. This is a gutsy thing for a writer to do, since most readers – even sophisticated ones – crave resolution. Cruso and Friday are just as mysterious to Susan at the end of the novel as they are at the beginning, and even Foe – whom she understands a bit better – never fully reveals all of his motivations either to Susan or to the reader. While it is clear that Coetzee wants us to ask the Big Questions when it comes to Cruso’s island (Metaphor for the ways all humans are isolated from one another? An example of an unattainable utopia? Representation of Eden? Locke’s tabula rasa? You know – pretty much all of the same questions we all asked when we were watching Lost.), it is never clear how he wants these questions to be answered. Susan raises the fascinating possibility that it was Cruso – not some nameless slave trader – who cut out Friday’s tongue, but when she rather painstakingly draws two pictures – one of Cruso cutting out Friday’s tongue and one of her vision of a “Moor” doing the same – and tries to get Friday to point to the one that represents the truth, he just stares at her and then looks away, and she tears the pictures up in frustration. And Coetzee comes nowhere near revealing any kind of “meaning” for the appearance of the second Susan Barton (oh, and did I mention that the two Susan Bartons make out at one point? Yes, really), although she is obviously a part of the larger motif of authorship and motherhood and fatherhood and the many, many kinds of creativity that are important in this novel.

I’m sure there is a lot that I’m missing in my interpretation of this novel that would have been obvious if I had read Robinson Crusoe – although I did not really feel deprived by that lack of background while I was reading. This novel is riveting in and of itself, although I look forward to reading Robinson Crusoe (soon! I promise!) and writing about it here. This novel is an impeccable example of what postcolonial fiction is supposed to do – it raises questions about received tradition, it establishes and then questions dichotomies, it points to ways that façades and stereotypes are inadequate ways to perceive the world – and then, just when we are convinced, it backpedals and points out the ways that façades and stereotypes are all that any of us really are, deep down.

I like it. I recommend it. Even if you’re not avoiding Madame Bovary – but especially if you are.


This entry was posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, J.M. Coetzee, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Review of J.M. Coetzee’s Foe (by Bethany)

  1. I really enjoyed this review of ‘Foe’, which I can across by chance. I will now be reading your other reviews – and no doubt reading some of the books you review because on the basis of this one, I trust you. And I’m a Madame Bovary fan too…

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