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Comparative Analysis of Robinson Crusoe and Foe

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe has proven to be one of the most influential and
groundbreaking texts of early fictional writing, opening doors for discussion and
critique while introducing the writing world to the genre of the island narrative.
Defoe’s novel helps solidify the stereotypical roles of the late 17th century, as it
portrays the life of a middle-aged white man during colonization, and how issues of
race, gender, exploration, and independence are viewed through his eyes. It was one
of the first novels to leave the main character to his own devices, and showed direct
interaction between a white man and his black “slave,” Friday. Although Robinson
Crusoe was written hundreds of years ago, a newer look into his island life and social
views was created in 1986 when J.M. Coetzee wrote the novel Foe, a pastiche to
Defoe’s famous work. While the two texts have many similarities, Coetzee used his
piece to update the outlook of the story by throwing some changes into the mix.
With the added presence of a female voice, a setting away from the island, and more
modernized worldviews, Foe instantly made room for controversy, discussion, and
comparisons between the two texts. Critics have deconstructed both books to uncover
their similarities and differences, and Coetzee’s novel is viewed as the newage Robinson Crusoe.The biggest difference between the two novels is the main
characters: Robinson Crusoe is the defined character in Defoe’s book, while a woman,
Susan Barton, narrates Foe.
The character of Susan Barton is complex, exemplifying both strength and weakness,
while helping fill the void of women left from the earlier text. The moment Barton is
shipwrecked on the island with Crusoe, she tries to take charge of the situation, letting
her opinions be heard and often complaining about the way Crusoe manages his time
and life. While she fights to have situations work to her favor, she also expects Crusoe
and Friday to go out of their way to assist her and somewhat pamper her during her
stay on the island. She proves to be too weak-willed to help with certain chores, and
leaves many decisions up to Crusoe. Coetzee’s decision to add a female voice offers a
fresh twist to an old story, by morphing Crusoe’s character to fit the descriptions
Susan Barton offers. In Robinson Crusoe, we get first-hand knowledge of Crusoe’s
personality, beliefs, and feelings, as he’s the narrator and main focus of the book, but
in Foe, Barton gives specific physical descriptions that the reader didn’t receive from
the first novel:

“The stranger’s eyes were green, his hair burnt to a straw colour. I judged he was sixty
years of age. He wore…a jerkin, and drawers to below his knees, such as we see
watermen wear on the Thames, and a tall cap rising in a cone, all of these made of
pelts laced together, the fur outwards, and a stout pair of sandals. In his belt were a
short stick and a knife. A mutineer….yet another mutineer” (Coetzee 8).
It’s interesting to take a step back and think about how Foe reflect the views of
today’s society. Although Coetzee distinguishes the feminine perspective through
Susan Barton, her choices and ethics raise controversy in how they compare to women
living in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. Her representation throughout the
book varies, as she begins her story with one set of morals and then switches them by
the end. Her concept of companionship is skewed, as her only acquaintances, with the
exception of Friday, are men she later has sexual relations with. On the surface, it
appears that Coetzee wants his readers to view Barton as a strong female character,
one who’s survived on her own and written her own story. However, the farther into
the text, the more Susan Barton’s character reveals itself to be one of unclear morals
and occasional lunacy. Although several chapters are devoted solely to her writing and
opinions, she ultimately is waiting for the approval of her male counterparts to have
her writing accepted (Probyn).
Coetzee failed to create a parallelism between Susan Barton and today’s successful
woman, as he created a character filled with dependence, self-doubt, and fear to
question authority, rather than a strong, independent, self-assured modern woman.
Although Barton appears apprehensive about achieving approval from the men in her
life, she proves to be stronger than Crusoe when it comes to exploration and
adventure.
A main theme of Robinson Crusoe was the insecurities that came with moving away
from personal comfort zones, as well as the desire to be involved in good adventures.
Crusoe is admittedly unsure of his abilities to travel and be adventuresome on his
own, and Defoe foreshadows much of what’s to come in the beginning of his novel.
Before Crusoe is stranded on the island, he makes a point to note how difficult it is to
be middle class and still have experiences away from the norm. Defoe used this point
to strategically grasp readers from the middle-class, as few novels of the time were
focused around characters in their same circumstances. Appealing to his audience was
one way Defoe was able to become so popular, and Coetzee seemed to follow this
trend by creating characters and events that were more relatable to modern times.

Coetzee’s ideas on adventure and travel are rooted in Susan Barton, who seems to
defy Crusoe’s fear of independent travel and exploration. Barton left Europe singlehandedly to search for her lost daughter across the ocean in Brazil, and while this
shows insight to Barton’s strength and determination, it’s also an updated version of
the typical seventeenth-century woman. It’s interesting to compare the differences in
strength between Crusoe and Barton, specifically when considering the different
gender roles they fill.
The concept of having mixed genders on the island lets readers see the interaction
between Crusoe, who’s been stranded without women for decades, and Barton, a
somewhat demanding and promiscuous woman. Although Crusoe hasn’t seen a
woman in years, the sexual tension the reader expects with Barton’s presence seems
lost in translation; Crusoe originally views Barton as an annoyance and burden, rather
than a good time. While they eventually begin a relationship, it’s one of necessity, not
love. Robinson Crusoe lacked any type of romantic interaction, other than the subtle
homoerotic relationship between Crusoe and Friday. Foe, however, allows Crusoe to
be viewed in a completely different light, and shows the modernization of the original
text. Defoe may have purposely left women out of the picture to conform to more
conservative social views, while Coetzee was able to write freely for his readers of the
twentieth century. Although Crusoe didn’t have a woman in the first text, he did have
Friday. Both Foe and Robinson Crusoe kept Friday as a substantial character,
although he was viewed very differently in each text.
Crusoe’s relationship with Friday comes in several layers. At one point in Robinson
Crusoe, Crusoe refers to Friday’s people as, “blinded, ignorant pagans,” and is
condescending in the way he speaks to and treats Friday (Defoe 170). He doesn’t call
Friday by a real name, instead referring to him by the day they met, and Crusoe tells
Friday to call him “master.” Crusoe attempts to civilize Friday by teaching him
Christianity, and Crusoe says that through his teachings he (Crusoe) has become “a
much better scholar in the scripture knowledge” (Zuiderveen). However, later in the
novel, and in Coetzee’s interpretation of their relationship, Friday and Crusoe are
more friends than master-servant. They’re essentially the only companionship on the
island, and Crusoe depends of Friday for entertainment as well as help with building
shelter and finding food. In Robinson Crusoe, Friday can speak, and learns some
English and Portuguese from Crusoe; however, in Foe, Friday’s tongue has been cut
out, making him completely mute throughout the novel. InRobinson Crusoe, Friday’s

voice helps the reader understand how he communicated with Crusoe, and how he
expressed what he was feeling. In Foe, Friday’s silence is overwhelming. The reader
is never sure whether Friday physically can’t speak or simply chooses not to, but he
inevitably uses his silence as power over Susan Barton by keeping his past to himself
and refusing to let Barton into his life.
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is a novel that has transcended generations and
offers inspiration for writers separated by centuries of time. The first of its
kind, Robinson Crusoeshowed the writing world the genre of the island narrative, and
offered social, political, and aesthetic views of the seventeenth century. It prompted
J.M. Coetzee to write a response novel, Foe, which attempted to create a modernized
version of Defoe’s text, and gave critics textual evidence to compare to the original
novel. While both books have different story lines, they have similarities in style and
certain social views. Whether discussing gender, race, or exploration, both novels
show different viewpoints on the matter, and illustrate the progression of the island
narrative throughout the years. Defoe proves that good writing is good writing, and
gives today’s generation a distinct look into the past.