Foe, by J.M. Coetzee: decolonizing the classics

This week’s topic for Our Daughter’s Daughter’s Society, on Instagram, (check this link if you want to see the posts and contact @sarahs89reads and @paperbacking if you want to join) was modern retellings of older tales and as Sarah chose to write about Wide Sargasso Sea, I decided to write my review, at long last, on Foe by J.M. Coetzee, which I re-read in March as part of the post-colonial literature class I was teaching.

So, my first emotional reaction to the book is that Foe is exactly this kind of books I hate to read. I find it tedious, too philosophical, hence too long. However, it’s also the kind of books I absolutely adore to study because each sentence is so laden with deep layers of meaning and the literary/philosophical aspect of the text becomes thoroughly fascinating when you dive into it.

So what about FoeFoe is a modern retelling of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. The narrative voice is that of Susan Barton, a woman (believe or not!) who, in search of her daughter who disappeared in Brazil, has the ill-fortune, on her way back to England, to be cast away on Cruso’s island. She spends more than a year on the island, with Cruso and Friday, before being saved and brought back to England. Once she’s back, she sets upon finding someone to write her story, because according to her (and despite the fact that the first part of the novel is Susan’s own account of her life on the island), she has no talent for writing. She addresses her draft, as well as many letters, to Foe, a public writer, and explains in one of her missives: “To tell the truth in all its substance, you must have quiet, and a comfortable chair away from all distraction, and a window to stare through; and then the knack of seeing waves when there are fields before your eyes, and of feeling the tropic sun when it is cold; and at your fingertips the words with which to capture the vision before it fades. I have none of these, while you have all.” (p51-52).

Susan’s constant doubts on her capacity to write, though she’s the author of three parts of the novel out of four, highlights even more the deranging result of her harassment of Foe. Indeed, if we consider Coetzee’s story as the prequel of Robinson Crusoe (which is what Foe intends to be) ,then the decision of (De)Foe, when he wrote Robinson Crusoe, was to erase altogether the existence of this woman – as well as considerably modifying Susan’s tale which was not at all about cannibals and building rafts and writing journals but depicts a tedious life on a lonely island where Cruso’s sole occupation is to build terraces that are doomed to remain barren. Coetzee’s novel suggests that Defoe lied to make his story more interesting (more likely to be sold, too), and gives another version of the facts. Seen from this point of view, Coetzee’s entreprise, some three centuries later, is designed to give voice to a voiceless subaltern: a woman.

With Susan’s narrative voice, Coetzee rewrites literary history. This idea is not from me, it is developed by Derek Attridge in J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Readingin which Attridge explains how the first part imitates how Defoe collected marginal stories to create his own narrative (which he presented as a real story, hiding his identity as a writer); the second part, which contains all the letters Susan sends to Foe who remains silent, represents epistolary novels; the third part reproduces XIX° century novels with dialogues, and descriptions and the fourth part, told by an unidentified narrator, is closer to postmodernist literature, with no noticeable coherence and all certitudes shattered. In about 150 pages, Coetzee symbolises, with each part, the development of the art of writing over the centuries, and adds this essential dimension, the point of view of a woman, who is everything but the literary type: her moral  status is often questioned and it is not clear whether she is a prostitute or not but we know for a fact that Cruso “uses” her (that’s her word); she’s illiterate, economically weak,  she has no family, no known origins, and (have I told you that already?) she’s a woman. Thus doing , Coetzee lets a subaltern speak in his retelling of a thoroughly masculine story. Susan was actually the Muse who inspired (De)Foe and the whole novel is about her story, to which she even gives a title, insisting on her gender and the truth: “The Female Castaway. Being a True Account of a Year Spent on a Desert Island. With Many Strange Circumstances Never Hitherto Related.” (p. 67)

Foe, by J.M. Coetzee, Penguin Books, and Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe, Penguin Books.

However, Susan’s status as part of a marginalized and silenced minority doesn’t prevent her from being more colonialist than the colonizers, and this is seen in her attitude towards Friday. In this retelling , Friday is still present and is, of course, presented as a savage and a potential cannibal in the first scene. The noticeable difference between Defoe’s Friday and Coetzee’s Friday is the horrendous torture that has been imposed upon the latter: in Foe, Friday has had his tongue cut out. By whom? This is not clear either. According to Cruso, slave traders did it but it could just as well be Cruso himself. Where Shakespeare, in The Tempest, deprived Caliban of his mother-tongue (Caliban speaks English, good enough to swear at his master), Friday here is literally deprived of his tongue. We can see how this silencing of the Other goes further in a retelling written in the XX° century, after the ravages of the slave-trade, slavery, colonisation and apartheid (let us not forget that Coetzee is a South African writer). The Other is silenced, literally so, and is forever deprived of the possibility of telling his own story. Friday’s mouth is the black whole of the story in which truth has been swallowed and we’ll never access Friday’s subjectivity. This is what leads Susan to take care of Friday as if he were a child, a stupid beast or a raw savage (depending on her humor). She sometimes pities him, she’s often angry at him, she tries to come into contact with him by various means (playing music, speaking, explaining, showing, imitating, teaching him how to speak, how  to write… None of these tentatives bearing its fruits). Friday is only defined by the way Susan sees him and his identity is denied.

But in this retelling, all that matters, in this end, is what story was finally part of the canon. Though Coetzee’s story is more plausible than Defoe’s, Robinson Crusoe is part of the canon, and in this canonical text, Friday is still a savage that a white master elevated to civilisation out of the goodness of his heart, Susan Barton doesn’t exist anymore (or if she does, it’s in this other novel, Roxana, which is about, guess what, a prostitute), and her truth has vanished. Even though she knew that her story wasn’t very interesting, it was the truth of it that gave it value to her eyes, but the white male decided otherwise when he wrote Robinson Crusoe, because it is the white male who decides what makes a good story.

Now, all this is very interesting, and we’re glad that Coetzee rewrote and decolonized this classic, but this doesn’t change the fact that Coetzee is, just like Defoe, a white male… Will Susan Barton ever be able to write her story? Will we ever have a Female Castaway narrative to read?

I could keep on writing about Foe on many, many pages but I will stop here as this is not supposed to be a lecture but a blog article. If you liked this novel and would like to read more, I warmly suggest Derek Attridge’s book mentioned earlier, which is easy to read and absolutely fascinating. And if you have thoughts to share, press that “comment” button!

2 thoughts on “Foe, by J.M. Coetzee: decolonizing the classics

  1. Julia, that was so fascinating! Thank you for sharing your thoughts! The only Coetzee novel I’ve read so far was Life and Times of Michael K, which is beautifully written but it was a bit bleak for me. This sounds so different – I’m adding it to my TBR right away. Everything you’ve said about the novel’s comment on the representation of the Other, the stripping away of identity, the devaluation of the female voice…I’m already hooked. Do you think it’s necessary to have read Robinson Crusoe to be able to appreciate this fully?

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    • Awww thank you so much to you, Sophie, for taking the time to read such a long post! I think most of Coetzee’s books are bleak because Foe also has bleak moments, and so has Disgrace. But I think the fact that this is a re-writing definitely adds another dimension and it is SO dense, SO packed with ideas… Coetzee explores so many contradictions. There’s a whole dimension which I didn’t talk much about, on the art of writing: what is writing, what makes a good novel, is it the truth of the events or the art of telling? etc… It really is a good book to read but it needs a long digestion too! I don’t think you need to have read Robinson Crusoe before. I had began but didn’t have time to finish it so I just used SparkNotes to refresh my memory when necessary (#goodteacher ! haha). You might find it useful to read a summary of Roxana, too (whose real name, it’s interesting to know, is Susan Barton), because otherwise there’s a whole part of the novel that will absolutely not make sense and will be more annoying than anything else (I didn’t know about Roxana before reading Attridge’s book and I was so pissed off with this part but then everything became clearer! Haha!). So check Roxana and RC out on SparkNotes or Wikipedia and you’ll be good to fill the silences of Coetzee’s rewriting (OR, the silences of Defoe’s writing…). Thank you again for dropping by, I really, really appreciate it!

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