Narrative Struggle Between Multiple Authors in Foe
“Hitherto I had given to Friday’s life as little thought as I would have a dog’s or any other dumb beast’s—less, indeed, for I had a horror of his mutilated state which made me shut him from my mind, and flinch away when he came near me.” ( Coetzee 32)
This passage was noteworthy because it brought forth a consistent characteristic between Susan’s narrative and Robinson Crusoe’s. Alongside, these few sentences included one of the main themes, and an implication of a larger problem pertinent to the time period of Foe. Based what was literally happening in the chosen paragraph, Susan was giving her personal view on Friday, their relationship, and interactions. However, her perspective of him could be skewed by fear of what his mutilation—the cut out tongue—represented, discussed later in the following paragraphs. Overall, this passage related to the themes of suppression and highlighted the struggles of narration between Crusoe and Susan.
Susan’s apathy towards Friday was only slightly colder than the way Crusoe perceived him. Although Crusoe mentioned, from his point of view in his narrative, that he was like a father to Friday. However, there was evidence from the way Friday was treated that proved the perspectives of Susan and Crusoe didn’t differ too much in Friday was second class to them, “[Crusoe speaking] [Friday] has known no other master. He follows me in all things.” (Coetzee 37). The significance of that example led to one of the main themes of the novel, and as discussed in lecture—narrative suppression— represented by how voices of racial minority and women were left out in the well-known tale of Robinson Crusoe. Friday’s mutilation, as described in the passage, was erased from Crusoe’s narrative, possibly because it wasn’t important to Crusoe. Susan, having privileges between Friday and Crusoe, took note of this detail because she was more sensitive to narrative rights, which Crusoe took for granted. Susan’s battle for her story to be heard along with Friday’s perpetual silence were symbolism of the suppressed voices during that period of time. This passage also implied a larger problem brought up within this novel. Susan’s coldness towards Friday could be representing a majority of European perspective towards racial minorities during that time frame. Friday’s cut out tongue could be symbolic of the societal pressure to shun those who had less power because of their unknown past or background; what Friday’s mutilation represented was something that terrified Susan, and that was the reason for her coldness towards him. Perhaps, Friday’s disability also reminded Susan of her own struggles and limited power in society.
Another theme included in this passage was the rare agreements between Susan’s and Crusoe’s narratives, especially involving Friday. Crusoe and Susan both saw Friday as a servant, not as an equal, as this passage implied, but their perspectives on him were very different. Susan regarded Friday as a victim who longed to tell the truth; she even suspected that Crusoe was the one who cut Friday’s tongue, ““[Susan speaking] Is that the truth, Friday?” I pressed him, looking deep into his eyes: “Master Crusoe cut out your tongue?”” (Coetzee 68). Crusoe, on the other hand, saw Friday as someone content, grateful even, to be under his rule, and that Friday was meant to work for him, ““If Providence were to watch over all of us,” said Crusoe, “who would be left to pick the cotton and cut the sugar-cane?”” (Coetzee 23). Based on what he claimed, one could understand why Crusoe would leave out Friday’s lack of a tongue in his narrative if that were true. He consistently insisted that Friday was meant to work for him—that Providence had decided on Friday’s fate. As he mentioned that Friday’s beginning would be marked from his arrival on the island, I also felt as though Crusoe didn’t see his companion as an actual person. Susan at least tried to retrieve Friday’s history and his side of the story, although at times her comments and beliefs about him, such as the passage above, were in line with Crusoe’s.
Lastly, this passage related to the entire novel because it brought light to one of the many discrepancies between Susan and Crusoe’s narrative, which constituted a major theme of this novel: narrative struggle between multiple authors. However, at times, Susan’s perspective of Friday was similar to Crusoe’s, and this was representative to a large majority of those who had more power. Further elaborating on that note, the unfairness to which voices were heard was also a significant message in Foe; although this passage only related to Friday’s silence, this novel was also served as a tribute to Susan’s under-representation.
Coetzee, J.M.. Foe. Penguin Books, 1987.
Cruso’s Island vs. Foe’s England
J.M. Coetzee’s 1986 novel Foe recounts the adventures and aspirations of Susan Barton, a fictional young woman who finds herself cast away on a most unusual island with the stolid Cruso and his tongueless slave Friday. The novel’s beginning takes place on the island, where Susan falls into a slow but steady rhythm of life with her new cohabitants, all the while developing a great deal of experiences and philosophies which she grows eager to share. The novel’s latter then details her rescue and return to England–a place quite immediately established as a sort of locational foil to the island. It is here that she turns her attentions to writing–or rather to convincing distinguished author Daniel (De)Foe to write for her–and in the process drives herself mad. Caught up in the throes of language, Susan ironically enough seems to lose hold of her story itself. Coetzee here adopts a somewhat unconventional perspective for an author: through the oppositional forces symbolized by the island and by England, he presents the idea that reality and occupational storytelling are perhaps destined to clash heads, that authorship might in fact rob one of his (or her) most real and substantial identity.
Cruso and his secluded home, in short, represent simplicity and truth. On the island, he and Friday are autonomous in an almost literal sense of the word, abiding not necessarily by their own laws but certainly by their own intuition, unrestrained by societal regulations and thus unpressured to be anything besides themselves. Upon arrival on the island, Susan serves as a sort of link between this simple, lawless establishment and the urbanized world. She immediately shakes things up a bit, playing devil’s advocate when she calls into question the primitive nature of island life, to which Cruso simply responds that “as long as [their] desires are moderate [they] have no need of laws” (36). Throughout her stay, she is continually impressed by Cruso’s remarkably simple lifestyle of building terraces and preparing food, but more notably by his indifference toward keeping records of any of it. She remarks that she “might have lived most happily on [the] island, but who, accustomed to the fullness of human speech, can be content with caws and chirps and screeches…and the moan of the wind” (8). It is evident here that her societal roots prevent her from truly connecting to life’s simplest pleasures; while Cruso is very much secure in his ability to find contentment without words, Susan remains somewhat burdened by her craving for deeper, language-driven meaning.
After arriving back in England, this burden only grows; the novel switches here from its mostly-narrative form to a more epistolary fashion, reflecting Susan’s shift from a very primitive experience to fabricated storytelling. As Susan becomes increasingly preoccupied with this author to whom she writes, she concedes more and more of herself and her story to Foe (whose literary vision does not quite match her own). And just as England foils the island, the character of Foe likewise seems to foil Cruso. While Cruso had lived in simplicity and truth, Foe presses her for details and urges her to alter the narrative. He also instructs her to teach Friday how to write–a gesture that, although it may be well-intentioned, only reinforces the notion that a human’s purpose is contingent on language. Towards the end of the novel, it is clear that Susan has lost a significant piece of herself in her attempt to turn an organic experience into a written story. She even remarks that “the life [she] lead[s] grows less and less distinct from the life led on Cruso’s island” and that she consequently “sometimes wakes up not knowing where [she is]” (96). Despite her initial discomfort on the island, she eventually seems to recognize the value behind its truth and self-sustainability.
By the end of the book, despite Susan Barton’s poignant self-doubt in her own writing ability, she has without question proven herself an author. But as Coetzee so cleverly establishes through her change of setting, company, and perspective, her authorship comes at the ultimate expense of substance in herself and in her story. Perhaps he is suggesting that every author–maybe even himself included–comes to a crossroads at which they must choose between truth and fabrication. “When I reflect on my story,” Susan muses, “I seem to exist only as…a being without substance” (98). She then wonders: “Is that the fate of all storytellers?” J.M. Coetzee, of course, leaves the answer ambiguous and his readers ever so curious.