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A WOMANS TOUCH IN RESPECT OF FOE BY J. M.

COETZEE

SALAMON BORKA EMESE -

Reading Foe is a disturbing experience, as it breaks all the usual expectations a


reader would develop within the first few pages and presents itself as a heavy,
intellectually challenging and philosophical work, dealing with the issues of authorship,
the importance of language, both spoken and written, shown from different angles as seen
by each and every character.
My attention within this analysis is focused on the issues of language,
communication and authorship presented within the novel, with a special regard to the
following question: why is silence present in so many forms and what does it stand for?
Although Susan Barton appears to be the main character of the novel, she
constantly points to Friday, who she is obsessed with, whose silence is so disturbing and
so impenetrable that it makes her try and try to connect, through music, through reading
and writing, through dancing in a trance, but she fails all the time. On the other hand, who
is Fridays real enslaver? What prevents him from talking?
Authorship is given an interesting approach too, as Susan turns to Foe, a
professional writer, because she thinks her words are not enough to transmit her
experience: for though her story gives the truth, it does not give the substance of the
truth.(Coetzee,51). And again: why does Mr. Foe retreat in silence?
As we can see, the issue of language in J. M. Coetzees Foe points towards a
multi-layered analysis, which involves research into the critical reception of Foe, on the
one hand, and into the specialist literature on postmodernism and postcolonialism,
structuralist and post-structuralist views on language, communication and authorship, the
relationship between the signifier and the signified, on the other hand, pointing towards
Saussures, Foucaults and Derridas works.
The novel, instead of answering, raises a thousand questions. My goal with this
analysis is to reveal the role of a womans presence in this story and its link to the
connection between the shades of silence and layers of communication through
postmodernist approaches to the function of language and communication that determines
and distinguishes human existence.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION .......................................................................................................................................... 4
1.

THE NOVEL ......................................................................................................................................... 6

2.

THE FEMALE POINT OF VIEW: WHY IS SUSAN BARTON NEEDED? ............................... 10


2.1.
POSSIBLE ROLES OF SUSAN BARTON ............................................................................................ 10
2.1.1. Witty assistant......................................................................................................................... 10
2.1.2. Humanity and showing emotions ............................................................................................ 11
2.1.3. Sexuality ................................................................................................................................. 11
2.1.4. Motherhood ............................................................................................................................ 12
2.2.
DEFOES ROXANA ........................................................................................................................ 13
2.3.
CONCLUSION ................................................................................................................................ 14

3.
THE OPPRESSOR AND THE OPPRESSED. COLONIALISATION, SLAVERY, FREEDOM.
SILENCE AND LANGUAGE ..................................................................................................................... 16
4.

AUTHORSHIP ................................................................................................................................... 21

5.

CONCLUSION ................................................................................................................................... 24

REFERENCES ............................................................................................................................................. 29

1.

INTRODUCTION

J.M. Coetzees Foe is not a book to be read once. And it is not a book which shares
every detail, so the reader does not have any other task than to pay attention to the plot,
laugh, cry and feel with its characters. It is neither a book to forget after a few days pass. It
is a creation that raises the realm beneath average reading experiences, the one beneath
everydayness. It makes the reader captive, like a demon lover, teases him back all the
time, calls him like sirenes call men, who blinded by their voice, drift into their deadly
arms. It is also generous, every time one goes back admonished, the book offers them a
slight breeze of comprehension, of understanding, but never the whole picture. Foe is so
rich in themes to think about, that every lecture can offer some sort of closure for one of
the component parts.
For instance, one lecture could perceive the novel from the perspective of the
female castaway and interpret her endeavors in the context of female condition of the 18th
century, another one from the perspective of slavery, but there are a great deal of
philosophical questions too about islands of a person1, levels between people2, love,
creation, authorship, language, communication, Derridan silence in the light of nonutterance, oppression, the condition of the oppressor and the reason why the oppressed
surrender to an endless row of oppressors. At the point when the reader reaches the shores
of understanding of one of these issues, immediately pops up another one, closely related,
like a highlighted city neon glows and asks why? For instance, such a returning question is
the identity of the narrator in the last chapter of the novel, referring to whom there have
been numerous speculations, from Susan Barton herself, up to J.M. Coetzee.
On the other hand, the issues of authorship, fathering or mothering a story, point
towards metafiction. According to Patricia Waugh, the lowest common denominator of
metafiction is simultaneously to create a fiction and to make a statement about the creation
of that fiction. The two processes are held together in a formal tension which breaks down
the distinctions between creation and criticism and merges them into the concepts of
interpretation and deconstruction (Waugh, 6) This lowest common denominator makes
Foe such a controversial work: the reader slips in and out the story into another realm, of

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The world is full of islands (Coetzee, 71).


Shipwreck is a great leveler, and so is destitution, but we are not level enough yet. (Coetzee, 70).

Susan and an author who apparently discuss the process of creation and the story itself
too.
In my opinion, this is the reason why during the process of the lecture, the
questions one initially forms undergo a spectacular change, not to mention that they give
birth to more and more questions and issues to understand. It is amazing, how from a
simple quest for answers thought to be hidden in both Robinson Crusoe and Foe, I came to
read postcolonial views on authorship, relationship between the oppressor and the
oppressed and postmodernist approaches to language. And it is also amazing, how the last
chapter, absolutely impenetrable at the first sight, yields its secret at the fifth or sixth
reading and becomes absolutely obvious, sending back the reader almost by every word
into a hermeneutic circle of interpretation, making this way the reading of Foe a veritable
intellectual journey.

2.

THE NOVEL

Generally speaking, the novel is structured into four chapters. The first reveals the
story of how Susan Barton has reached the shores of the island where she found Cruso and
Friday; the second and third describe the strange situations the heroine finds herself in
once she gets home in England and tries to free Friday, or the ones of convincing the
author to relate her story in a way suitable for the public. The fourth chapter instead of
offering some sort of closure, opens the end in thousand directions: everybody introduced
in the novel is dead and Friday starts to communicate.
The story begins as a desert island fiction, the element of otherness being located
in the gender of the castaway narrator, who is the heroine Susan Barton. The story itself
emerges quickly, the memories of Robinson Crusoes entrepreneur spirit, of the
domesticized island and the defeated cannibals fall like the pieces of domino. On the
island this Robinson is lonely, secretive, reticent, very much different from the Robinson
who saved the dog so he could talk to someone instead of peaceful goats there are
dangerous apes, instead of rich crop, obtained by hard work, rising from seeds bit by rats
on the ship, there are empty terraces, made by hard work, but for the ones who would
come and would have the wits to bring seeds with themselves. The Robinsonade which the
reader would have expected from the female point of view shuts down within the first 45
pages: the heroine gets to the island, meets Cruso and Friday, they start to learn to live
together, then a ship appears, Robinson dies, Susan and Friday arrive in England.
More interesting are the second and the third chapters of the book, the first
presenting Susans and Fridays struggle for everyday life in epistolary sequences. Susan
writes to Mr. Foe, the author, who is about to write the story of the female castaway, but
who for the time being is hiding from the bailiffs who wish to catch him and make him
pay his debts. She tells all her experiences, her feelings, thoughts related to events, people
and concepts that appear during her story, and expects that Foe mush them together in a
mixed but yet unadulterated shape that would attract readers and make her and Friday rich.
Despite Bartons efforts, Mr. Foe seems not to understand her struggles and tries to
conduct the story to her years spent in Bahia or to the real story of her daughters
kidnapping. He does not see the story in Susans experience on the island. The true story
lies in Fridays silence, and even Susan gets sometimes to the point where she thinks it is

useless to crack him up, telling his story is a waste of time. I am wasting my life on you
Friday, on you and your foolish story. () When I am an old woman I will look back on
this as a great waste of time, a time of being wasted by time. (Coetzee, 70).
The second part mostly consists of epistolary sequences, letters written by Susan
Barton to Mr. Foe, the third one, on the other hand, is about the meeting of these two
characters and their dialogues. Here takes place the sexual encounter between them in
which Susan wishes to serve as a Muse, and also the scenes in which Mr. Foe tries to
convince Susan to tell more about Bahia, and it has an exceptionally important part, which
may lead the reader onto postcolonial references. Susan explains to Foe: You are most
tellingly in failing to distinguish between my silences and the silences of a being such as
Friday. Friday has no command of words and therefore no defense against being reshaped 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 is he 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. Whereas the silence I keep regarding Bahia and
other matters is chosen and purposeful: it is my own silence.() I am not, do you see,
one of those thieves or highwaymen of yours who gabble a confession and are then
whipped off to Tyburn and eternal silence, leaving you to make of their stories whatever
you fancy. It is still in my power to guide and amend. Above all, to withhold. By such
means do I still endeavor to be father to my story. (Coetzee, 122-123, emphases by me,
B. Cs.).
I highlighted the key concepts, at least thought to be key concepts from my
perspective. First of all, Friday being a child of silence unborn, or waiting to be born but
cannot be born obviously leads to the condition of the oppressed whose shelter is silence,
whose voice is unborn yet, or cannot be born. Susans silence being chosen and purposeful
crayons another kind of silence, that of a person in control, who does have the power to
withhold information if that is in their interest or if that is their desire. It is a matter of
choice not one of defenselessness. She also keeps the parental control of the story, being
the father. This statement is one I find the most interesting, because being the father means
planting the seed, while development, growing, creating a whole, a body around the seed,
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is the job of the mother. In these conditions, the father is the pure idea and the mother
represents the receiving party who is responsible for the further development of the seed,
who is a husk in the first place, then a guide, a companion, a support. In these conditions
Mr. Foe has the obligation of receiving the idea, the essence of the story, and turn it into
substance.
The last chapter departs from the novel, presenting a sort of conclusion of the
addressee, the person of whom is not known, but guessed.
According to Marco Caracciolo, this last, five-page-long chapter of Coetzees Foe
poses a challenge to the reader3. Caracciolo goes after Ludomir Dolezel and states that
the first-person narrator of the last chapter cannot be Friday, although he is the only one
alive from all the characters seen throughout the novel, as he is seen three times and
always from the outside.
This last chapter is divided into three parts, the first two are separated by
punctuation marks, and they are both located in the house, the third one moves to the sea
by reading the first pages of a manuscript but there are no separating punctuation marks.
Within the first two there are two dead bodies lying on the bed, one a girl or a woman, and
a man, in the third part the dead bodies are of Susan Barton and her captain, floating in
their nightclothes. I disagree with Caracciolo, for he says the identification between
Susan Barton and the female body lying on the bed is straightforward. I find it really hard
to distinguish whether the corpse of the female is Susan or the girl who claims to be her
daughter, first of all because the one sharing Foes bed is Susan Barton, but the one
dressed in a long grey dress shows connection with her daughter who wore grey cloak and
cape. One more time, I do not agree with Caracciolo, regarding the identity of the male
corpse, which he finds ambiguous, cannot decide if it is Foe or the captain of the ship that
rescues Cruso, Friday and Susan. In my opinion, Susans only captain was Cruso, he was
the one she saw as a kingly figure, he was the one she formed or could have formed a
couple with, as she considered herself to be Mrs. Cruso, and Crusos rightful widow.
Id rather interpret this last scene from Fridays point of view and from that of the
oppressed. We are in Fridays world, where he can unleash the stream within him and all
the ones who enslaved Friday one way or another are dead. We are in Fridays world,
pictured by Foe with hundreds of his fellow-slaves or their skeletons still chained in

Caracciolo,
Marco,
J.M.
Coetzees
Foe
and
the
Embodiment
of
http://www.academia.edu/757701/J._M._Coetzees_Foe_and_the_Embodiment_of_Meaning

Meaning.

the wreck, the gay little fish (that you spoke of) flitting through their eye-sockets and the
hollow cases that held their hearts. He pictures Friday above, staring down upon them,
casting buds and petals that float a brief while, then sink to settle among the bones of the
dead. () Does not it strike you, asks Foe, in these two accounts, how Friday is beckoned
from the deep beckoned or menaced, as the case may be? Yet Friday does not die. In his
puny boat he floats upon the very skin of death and he is safe. Why was Friday drawn into
such deadly peril, given that life on the island was without peril, and then saved?
(Coetzee, 141) Foe states that he said the heart of the story, but he should have said the
eye, the eye of the story. Friday rows his log of wood across the dark pupil or dead
socket of an eye staring up at him from the floor of the sea. He rows across it and it is
safe. To us he leaves the task of descending into that eye. (Coetzee, 141)
Foe had nothing to do with Fridays enslavement, more, he served him with the
robes and wigs that made him get into a trance and free himself from the world he was
forced into, a world of silence. I argue that, Foes death was not necessary, even more, he
might as well be the narrator, who enters Daniel Defoes house, finds there the husks of
Defoes characters, mushes them with Susan and her words: I begin to hear the faintest
faraway roar: as she said, the roar of waves in a seashell and who finally, reading
Susans manuscript, renders himself to the story, splashing into a place which is not a
place of words. Each syllable, as it comes out, is caught and filled with water and
diffused. This is a place where bodies are their own signs. It is the home of Friday.
(Coetzee, 157)
Furthermore, the reason I think Mr. Foe embodies the first-person narrator of this
last chapter is the idea according to which the stream that comes out from Fridays mouth
and flows up through Fridays body and out upon the narrator, it passes through the
cabin, through the wreck, washing the cliffs and shores of the island, it runs northward
and southward to the ends of the earth. Soft and cold, dark and unending, it beats against
my eyelids, against the skin of my face (Coetzee, 157). makes him understand why Susan
was so stubborn about telling the story of the island, which became more important than
that of the kidnapping of her daughter or the life she had been living in Bahia. The story of
the island indubitably relates to the story of Friday, which he could not set free until he got
home into his world, with all his enslavers lying dead around him.

3.

THE FEMALE POINT OF VIEW: WHY IS SUSAN BARTON NEEDED?

It is quite interesting how a male writer presents the point of view of a woman
caught in a situation that generally belongs to manhood: sailing, being shipwrecked,
castaway, being responsible for a person in his subordination, and the list could go on.
Why is she needed in this story? Why does she give such a spicy taste to this novel? And
why is she a she?

3.1. POSSIBLE ROLES OF SUSAN BARTON

At the first reading I have come up with a few possible reasons why Susan
Bartons character was given such an important job, that of linking two highly contrasted
worlds, the one of the island in the role of a saved castaway and the one of an author in
England.

3.1.1. Witty assistant

Susan Barton, this tall and dark-haired woman, starts her journey from England to
Brazil in search of her kidnapped daughter, and gets to be cast away on an island after
the mutiny of the crew of the ship she is travelling on. She possesses a strange sense of
humor and a great intelligence, because, as we will see, she is the one asking all the major
questions. For instance, she wants to know about laws on the island, which is turned down
by Cruso by a simple answer: Laws are made for one purpose only () to hold us in
check when our desires grow immoderate. As long as our desires are moderate we have
no need of laws. (Coetzee, 36). This leads us to the conclusion that Susan does not
resemble dr. John Watson, the witty assistant of Sherlock Holmes, to whom the master
explains, shows the connections, the correspondence of the facts which ultimately leads to
solving the mystery. Sherlock Holmes, being a genius, needs a common figure who he
could talk to in order to translate his ideas to the language of the average reader. But who
might be the genius here? Cruso cannot be, as he gives short answers, he doesnt explain
his ideas, nor does he tell his story and finally dies along the way home. Foe is a fugitive,

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who tries to escape from bailiffs and his role is completely other than transmitting genial
thoughts. As a matter of fact he should be the one translating Susans story. Might the
genius rely in Friday who apparently does not have anything to translate for he doesnt
communicate, or in the narrator of the last chapter, who actually made Friday open up and
unleash the stream inside of him?

3.1.2. Humanity and showing emotions

Another approach might have in focus the human features of the character of
Susan Barton, who appears like the one warm-blooded, warm-hearted creature on the
island in the conditions of an empty-souled population: a mute slave and a speechless
master. She is the one who seems to have emotions, particularly human manifestations, if
we think only of the scenes in which she nurses Cruso while the latter is shivering from
fever. The same situation is revealed in the scene where she tries to find a ship to take
Friday home to Africa and finally finding one, she talks to the captain and recognizes
instantaneously that her interlocutor is not truthful and probably will sell Friday as a slave
as soon as the ship sails out, so she decides not to let him go to experience horrors again.
But her warmth is not enough to allocate her this elegant position and important of a role
that she has within the novel.

3.1.3. Sexuality
Coetzees approach to female sexuality is impregnated by obedience, submission
and servility. As seen in Coetzees Waiting for the Barbarians, it is not clear who serves
who until the point of the sexual encounter between the girl and the magistrate. While at
first the magistrate does not have any sexual desire for the girl, he even visits another
woman for sexual pleasure, the girl does not rest until her master makes love to her. And
yet, the master is the one who is submitted. That is not love. Susan Barton acts the same
way: she is not in love with the men she sleeps with, either with Cruso, or with Mr. Foe,
furthermore her laissez-faire principles make her use her sexuality as therapy, physical in
case of Cruso, psychological in that of Foe.
It may appear to the reader that there would be more sexual tension, as Cruso has
been living for a great deal of time on the island solitarily, yet, when the female castaway
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arrives wearing only a petticoat, she doesnt raise sexual desire in Cruso. The only one
who initiates a romantic approach is the captain of the ship named Hobard, Captain Smith
the name Smith shows that the average man would have romantic plans with a woman,
in this order neither Robinson, nor Friday are average.
The consumption of Susans and Crusos relationship happens from the initiative
of the woman, she is the one who lies near the man in order to comfort him with her body
during his illness. When his hands are exploring her body, she quickly analyzes the
situation and decides that he was so many years without female companionship, so why
should he not have his desire? (Coetzee, 30). There are no words spoken, either before or
right after this scene, or later. Although, one time she sees Cruso as a kingly figure, other
times Susan refers to Robinson as my Cruso, or she thinks of herself as Crusos rightful
widow, even under the circumstances of the existence of a Mrs. Cruso somewhere out
there in the world, which is the ultimate sign of a real or imagined but certainly wanted
relationship.
The sexual encounter with Mr. Foe is a quite interesting one, because Susan
compares him to Cruso, she closes her eyes, trying to find her way back to the island, to
the wind and wave-roar, but the island was lost, cut off from her by a thousand leagues of
watery waste (Coetzee, 139). When she realizes she cannot return to Cruso and his or
their island, she takes the role of a Muse and engages themselves in a bracing ride. Muses
are goddesses she says who visit poets in the night and beget stories upon them. Poets
say they come in their greatest despair and after their visit, their pens, which were dry,
flow (Coetzee, 126). Here she also points out that she was intended not to be the mother of
her story, but to beget it, planting the seed, fathering the idea.

3.1.4. Motherhood
Apparently, this womans role is not to raise feelings, be an intellectual or a sexual
partner, so why is she present? She has no fortune, she struggles for her everyday living,
and she cannot put into words the story she had lived on the island with Cruso and arriving
in England with Friday. She is not much of a mother, either. She represents a kind of
mother figure to Friday, because her behavior towards him is protective rather than sexual.
However, when a girl who presents herself as Susan Barton, her daughter, she does not

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believe her at all. She does not want to do anything with her, she sends her away, the
thought of the truth of her words doesnt even cross her mind.
Her motherly behavior can be questioned furthermore. A mother would repeat over
and over the circumstances of her childs kidnapping if there was a slight chance it might
help finding him or her. Yet Susan doesnt want to speak about her daughter at all. Taking
care of Friday seems to be more important for her than returning to her activity of
searching her lost child before she got to the island. This draws the possibility of the
inexistence of her daughter she claims to be kidnapped.

3.2. DEFOES ROXANA

In her work J. M. Coetzee and the Paradox of Postcolonial Authorship, Jane Poyne
argues that Susan Barton is derived from the heroine Roxana in another of Defoes works,
Roxana: The fortunate Mistress (1724), whose real name is Susan and whose daughter is
also named Susan (Poyne, 91).
Defoe tells the story of an enterprising woman, who, abandoned by her foolish
husband, abandons her children and becomes mistress to increasingly affluent men,
moving up and down on the social spectrum, but finally she invests her money wisely and
turns out to be a successful capitalist. It is also the story of a woman involved in
prostitution, murder, and unable to have motherly feelings.
Unlike Roxana, Bartons past as a prostitute is not so clear, as she fades her Bahian
life into silence. However, her motherly behaviour is questionable, as it was mentioned
before. She also uses her sexuality, she is not afraid to challenge both Foes authorial
and sexual authority. (Poyne, 95)
The intertextual references point indubitably to Roxana a.k.a. Susan de Beleau, in
whose person according to Helen Moglen Defoe attempted to represent a female
individualist, an equivalent to Crusoe, but he had never managed to get beyond the
question of sex vs. gender and that limited his power of representation. (Moglen, 20).
Analyzing this possibility, I think that Susan Barton coming from the twentieth century,
out of the pen of J. M. Coetzee, to be a counterpart for Cruso, found a totally different
Robinson on the island to whom she could have been neither a wife, nor a mistress, but
only a servant. Her role here is a feminist one, she is independent, strong, determined and
smart and she crosses over Crusos authority too, by telling his story. However, she is
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attached emotionally to Cruso, she is his rightful widow, an unofficial Mrs. Cruso and that
makes her his companion, his mate. The fact that this relationship is not recognized and it
mostly comes to fruition in Susans mind makes her not an equivalent, less than a man but
still more than Friday.

3.3. CONCLUSION

Personally, I locate Barton somewhere between the two silent men of the island; in
the eyes of the master she appears as an annoying guest and for Friday she does not mean
anything, not even food, what she fears the most. But by taking Friday onto the ship with
her, she becomes his colonizer, his oppressor and takes on Crusos role. As the novel
emerges, there is a considerable number of references to colonialisation, that I will discuss
further on, but I considered needed to be mentioned here, because it molds substantially
the plot of the novel. Barton has to be a female so as not to represent any kind of threat
either for Curso, or for Friday when she arrives at the island. She is another embodiment
of the Other, the element of otherness relying on her gender. She is the one Cruso
communicates with, although he does not express his need for communication. She is the
one to discover the ship and to take their salvation in her hands. She also is the one who
puts Friday on the ship too, thinking with the imperialist mind, that he would miss his
master and be lost without him. It is not Crusos death that makes her responsible for
Fridays life, but her act, her decision of not letting him behind on the island. Her
oppressor features unfold through her numerous endeavors to make Friday speak, forcing
her English culture on him. On the other hand, her gentleness to Friday, her female
condition make her vulnerable too and not strong enough to use classic oppression
methods.
Nevertheless, Susan has her methods: art. She engaged into communication with
Friday by speaking, by drawing, by dancing and by writing. Susan draws black man
figures and the figure of Cruso, standing in front of a kneeling man with some kind of tool
in the formers hand, but she realizes that the picture can be interpreted both ways: she
drew a figure of a man clad in jerkin and drawers and a conical hat in his left hand
the whiskered figure gripped the living tongue of the other, in his right hand he held up a
knife but it could also show Cruso as a beneficent father putting a lump of fish into the
mouth of child Friday (Coetzee, 68).
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Susan, coming across some musical instruments in Foes house, encourages Friday
to play. She learns his tunes and plays along with him. She thinks at some point that if
there were any language accessible to Friday, it would be the language of music. She
learns Fridays tunes, she practices and she sing along with him, being convinced she has
reached through, but she was wrong: at last I could not restrain myself form varying
the tune, first making one note into half-notes, then changing two of the notes entirely,
turning it into a new tune and a pretty one too, so fresh to my ear that I was sure Friday
would follow me. But no, Friday persisted in the old tune, and the two tunes played
together formed no pleasing counterpoint, but on the contrary jangled and jarred. So
now I knew that all the time I had stood there playing to Fridays dancing, thinking he and
I made a consort, he had been insensible of me (Coetzee, 96-97).
At Foes request, Susan tries to teach Friday writing, although she is not convinced
of the success of this action. She doesnt believe Friday would manage to learn writing
because according to her letters are the mirror of words (Coetzee, 144). Finally she shows
him the word house - hous, she drills him to write it down, first copying, later from
memory, but she is not sure whether the four letters were truly the four letters and stood
truly for the word house and the picture she had drawn (Coetzee, 146). Then come the
words Africa, mother, ship, but finally Susan, tired, turns to Foe and says: Friday will not
learn. If there is a portal to his faculties, it is closed, or I cannot find it. (Coetzee, 147).
While they speak, Friday draws some figures on the slate, which Susan initially sees as
flowers and leaves, but they turn out to be open eyes set upon human feet, or as she states:
walking eyes.
Her female condition, the weakness of the gender, castaway itself in Defoes
lifetime, allows her to approach Friday. The famous feminine intuition shows her the way
what should be followed, but she, being obsessed with the safety of Friday and the birth of
her story disconsiders the most important issue: Friday does not belong to this world,
therefore he has nothing to give to this world. And thus all communication endeavors fail:
All my efforts to bring Friday to speech or to bring speech to Friday, have failed.
(Coetzee, 142) That statement leads to the next issue to be analyzed: the relationship
between the oppressor and the oppressed.

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4.

THE OPPRESSOR AND THE OPPRESSED. COLONIALISATION,


SLAVERY, FREEDOM. SILENCE AND LANGUAGE

Although some critics have considered that Foe belongs to feminist literature, or at
least bears features of it, it would be too much to put both feminine suppression and
colonialisation into one single novel. Therefore, Susan Barton is presented as a merely
strong woman, but also as one who accepts her limits in a patriarchal society, for instance
by taking Crusos name. The novel belongs more to anti-colonial fiction due to Susans
shift from a shipwrecked castaway to the oppressor of a black slave, no matter how fine
she treats him.
Seeing Susan Bartons hardship regarding communication with Friday, I quote
Neville Alexander, for whom Foe is testimony to oppression. The apparent
inaccessibility of Fridays world to the Europeans in this story is an artists devastating
judgement of the crippling anti-humanist consequences of colonialism and racism of the
self-confident white world. (qtd. in Poyne, 93). Friday is an African slave, different from
Robinson Crusoes Carribean Amerindian, Poyne argues, as he is depicted as a Negro
with a head of fuzzy wool (Coetzee, 1 ).
Foe is read typically as postmodernist, Poyne says, but this has been a thorny
subject for some postcolonial critics who have questioned the property of utilizing a
postmodern mode to address postcolonial problematics because postmodernism, though
its apparent preoccupation with surface and by destabilizing meaning, is premised
supposedly on a refusal to engage politically. (Poyne, 97)
As landmarks of colonialisation and obvious signs of oppression I would count
Crusos behavior towards his black companion, Susans endeavors to exercise authority
over him, although she is not aware of the position she has, and the number of signs
Friday gives to establish his being as an oppressed human being or nation or race:
muteness, physical and psychological, marks around his neck, his sessions of escape, on
the island he sails out and pours flowers on a specific location in the sea, in England he
hums and dances, he plays a flute but does not allow Susan to add any elements of novelty
into his pattern.
In order to establish Fridays position, of human or of beast, Barton sets the
difference between man and beast, drawing a comparison between tongue and heart,

16

which is one of the important benefits Coetzee brings within the novel. She is obsessed
with Fridays cut tongue, she could not put out of mind the softness of the tongue, its
softness and wetness, and the fact that it does not live in the light; also how helpless it is
before the knife, once the barrier of teeth has been passed. The tongue is like the heart, in
that way, is it not? Save that we do not die when a knife pierces the tongue. To that degree
we may say the tongue belongs to the world of play, whereas the heart belong to the world
of earnest. Yet it is not the heart but the members of play that elevate us above the beasts:
the fingers with which we touch the clavichord or the flute, the tongue with which we just
and lie and seduce (Coetzee, 85). I think that all her attempts to make Friday
communicate are made in order to discover if there is any human left in Friday, after his
wholeness, both physical and psychological, was altered as he was thrown into slavery.
The more important aspect I am interested in is the psychological oppression, to
which Friday surrenders. I disagree with Albert Memmis argument in The Colonizer and
the Colonized (1965), qtd. in Poyne (102), according to whom in recognition of the
hegemony of the colonizer, the colonialist intellectual who refuses faces the moral
choice of quitting the colonies or remaining silent. Whether I consider it correctly or not,
placing a woman, a castaway of imperialist society by gender into the position of the
oppressor gives some sort of freedom of choice to Friday. He could easily escape from his
beholder, yet he chooses not to. Even Susan is aware of these circumstances, and she asks:
And then there is the mistery of your submission. Why, during all those years alone with
Cruso, did you submit to his rule, when you might easily have slain him or blinded him
and made him into your slave in turn? Is there something in the condition of slavehood
that invades the heart and makes a slave a slave for life, as the whiff of ink clings forever
to a schoolmaster? (Coetzee, 85)
Considering this situation, I come to the conclusion that Friday either has lost his
self-knowledge and also his identity as a nation or race over the years spent in slavery, and
has no choice but follow the ones who assure him his daily needs, or he indeed makes a
choice and he chooses to punish his oppressor with his silence, that he recognizes Susan
Barton is obsessed with. There are arguments to prove both hypotheses. If I think of the
scenes where Friday accepts the instruments of communication from Susan, but doesnt
allow her to join him, I strongly feel that he knows exactly what he is doing and he
deliberately shuts the woman out. In the grip of the dancing he is not himself. He is
beyond human reach, in other words, he is beyond Susans reach. (Coetzee, 92)

17

One source of my argument is the image of the walking eyes. Fridays first act of
free will and of taking control takes place when Susan tries to teach writing to Friday and
she falls into deception for not succeeding. Turning away from him, Friday begins to draw
on the slate, disgusting Susan with his drawing. Glancing over his shoulder I saw he was
filling it with a design of, as it seemed, leaves and flowers. But when I came closer I saw
the leaves were eyes, open eyes, each set upon a human foot: row upon row of eyes upon
feet: walking eyes(Coetzee, 147). This act is not first about which I could say it is only
Fridays, it comes from his initiative, because there is the dancing, humming, dressing up
in the robes, putting on the wig too. I strongly believe it is the first act of free will as
Susans command is not obeyed by him: I reached out to take the slate, to show it to Foe,
but Friday held tight to it. Give! Give me the slate, Friday! I commanded. Whereupon,
instead of obeying me, Friday put three fingers into his mouth and wet them with spittle
and rubbed the slate clean. (Coetzee, 147)
Poyne argues that deciphering Fridays inscriptions proves exacting. As subaltern
he is not only silenced by the colonial oppressor, but refuses the demands made of him to
divulge his core, his subjectivity. Perhaps his eyes represent watchfulness but also his
freedom to read his environment for, as the sadistic colonel Joll in Waiting for the
Barbarians says, Only the eyes have the power. The eyes are free, they reach out to the
horizon all around. Nothing is hidden from the eyes. (Poyne, 104). Barbara Eckstein, on
the other hand, suggests that the rows of eyes upon feet represent the vantage point of
slaves in a hold ... beneath the sailorsfeet (qtd. in. Poyne 104).
In Spivaks opinion Susan Bartons failure represents the failure of the nationalist
pedagogy of the imperial power, which, I might add, functioned perfectly in Robinson
Crusoe, in fact, in Defoes novel Friday learns very little English due to his lower capacity
of language aquisition not due to the failure of the teacher. Furthermore, Spivak says that
by erasing the slate, Friday witholds the meaning of the walking eyes from Susan and Foe,
and thus he withholds the possibility of his agency and cultural sovereignity. Regarding
this point of view, Fridays cultural sovereignity is encrypted in the rows of walking eyes
and it is impossible to determine whether these eyes represent rebuses, hieroglyphs or
idiograms or whether their secret is they hold no secret at all. Against Susan Bartons
attempt to construct the colonized subject as a victim who must be represented in order to
be saved, Friday withdraws to a place that may not be a secret but cannot be unlocked.
(Morton, 32).

18

From my perspective, the novel bears strong anti-colonial features as it


deconstructs the imperial ideology built up by Defoe in Robinson Crusoe. Coetzee shows
in his works the downside of colonialisation, the suffering and mourning of the people
subordinated. Successful mourning enables the past to be assimilated or digested; one
remembers in order to be consoled, ultimately in order to forget. By contrast, true
mourning confronts an indigestible past, a past that can never be fully remembered or
forgotten. (Durrant, 31)
In Defoes original narrative, Friday is passed over or lost as a subject from the
moment that, having been rescued from his fellow cannibals, he lays his head under
Crusoes foot and has this gesture interpreted by Crusoe as a token of swearing to be my
slave for ever (Defoe, 200). Coetzees text marks the violence of this act of ventriloquism
by representing Friday as always already silenced, as unable to speak because his tongue
has been ripped out of his mouth. Susan seems to never recover on the matter of Fridays
mutilated organ and desperately tries to access him, to find out the truth, because as we
have already seen, she suspects it was Cruso who cut out Fridays tongue. But because she
represents an ally of the imperial colonizer, Cruso, she can only be along with the reader
a belated witness to Fridays suffering. (Durrant, 33)
Coetzee denies the positive and successful image of the colonizer not only through
Foe, but also with his other works like Waiting for the Barbarians, because he is
interested in how this history has been occluded, in how it was possible to write a novel
such as Robinson Crusoe, to (re)write the barbarity of slavery as benevolent paternalism.
(Durrant, 33) And he succeeds by deconstructing the narrative of Defoe in order to the true
or the real history to unfold. For instance, no matter how obsessed Susan is with Fridays
missing tongue, she does not dare to look into his mouth when Cruso offers her this
possibility, for she couldnt cope with the sight and its consequences.
I also tried to understand Fridays silence from Derridas point of view. 4 Taking
after Saussure, Derrida states that the process by which meaning is constructed through
language is based on a system of differences or binary oppositions in which the meaning
of a word is defined in relation to what is it not. According to this theory, truth is defined
as something that is not falsity, sense is something that is not nonsense and structure is
4

For Derrida the structure of differences that constitutes the relationship between linguistic signs is
simultaneously a structure of infinite deferral because the systematic play of linguistic signs never reaches
a fixed relation of identity with the referents they claim to denote. In Derridas essay Differnce (1968) he
uses the term differnce which means to differ and to defer in order to convey the double movement of
signification in space and time.

19

opposed to non-structure. May it be possible to see Fridays silence as non-utterance? I


tend to believe that if there is a positive point of Fridays silence, that is the one of the lack
of instruments of the Western culture to understand Firdays way of communication. May
Friday have withdrawn the freedom of understanding him from certain individuals? He
fights the theories according to which his silence is permanent, he can be born, but he
hasnt chosen to be born yet. That step is finally taken, when the narrator of the fourth
chapter dives into his world, risking a death by drowning or even the Kraken to open
Fridays mouth and receive the stream of his language, which is a language of the bodies.
Initially Susan sees language as the instrument to reproduce reality Mr. Foe has
not met you, but he knows of you, from what I have told him, using words and as a
vehicle for immortality Is writing not a fine thing, Friday? Are you not filled with joy to
know that you will live forever, after a manner? (Coetzee, 58). As more emphasis is laid
on the silence of Friday, Susans view changes and suddenly she realizes, regarding
Friday, that He does not understand that I am leading him to freedom. He does not know
what freedom is, freedom is a word, less than a word, a noise, one of the multitude of
noises I make when I open my mouth. (Coetzee, 100-101). To this utterance there comes
the response form Foe, according to whom freedom is a word like any other word. It is a
puff of air, seven letters on a slate. It is but the name we give to the desire you speak of,
the desire to be free. What concerns us is the desire, not the name. (Coetzee, 149).
This statement depicts another shade of Fridays silence, and Susan catches several
times the same essence, the freedom of choice to speak or to withhold: I am a free
woman who asserts her freedom by telling her story according to her own desire.
(Coetzee, 131);It is still in my power to guide and amend. Above all to withhold
(Coetzee, 122)

20

5.

AUTHORSHIP

Susan is convinced that Some people are born storytellers, I, it would seem, am
not. She also states that The storyteller, by contrast (to the painter) must divine which
episodes of his history hold promise of fullness, and tease from them their hidden
meanings, braiding these together as one braids a rope. Teasing and braiding can, like
any craft, be learned, but as to determining which episodes hold promise (as oysters hold
pearls) it is not without justice that this art is called divining. Here the writer can of
himself effect nothing: he must wait on the grace of illumination. (Coetzee, 88-89)
Nevertheless, the components of authorship are separated in the novel: there is the
father, the begetter and the mother, the realizer, the fulfiller. This is a known idea of
Coetzees. In his short preamble to his Nobel Prize lecture in 2003, Coetzee tells of his
first reading of Robinson Crusoe,5 and gives valuable details about his concepts of an
author. According to Coetzee, he read with the fullest attention The Adventures of
Robinson Crusoe at the age of eight or nine and Robinson Crusoe along with Friday
became a figure in his imagination. Later, he admits being puzzled by a statement in the
Childrens Encyclopedia, where someone else besides Robinson Crusoe and Friday is part
of the island story, a man with a wig: Daniel Defoe, presented as the author. It made no
sense for Coetzee, sithence Robinson Crusoe told the story himself. So, who was this
Daniel Defoe, what had he done to be included in the story, maybe it is another name for
Robinson Crusoe, a name he used when returned from the island?
Susan renders these questions as she turns to Foe, a professional writer, because
she thinks her words are not enough to transmit her experience, because though her story
gives the truth, it does not give the substance of the truth () 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 eye, 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.
(51). It might seem that this is the key sentence of defining authorship in this narrators
point of view: the words with which one captures the vision before it fades. Susan
recognizes her lack of talent or ambition to write the story of the island but she considers it
5

http://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/?id=555

21

is too important to be left to fade, hence she turns to the author who can find the words to
tell it.
Things are not so simple though. Coetzee gives the key himself within his work,
read at the Nobel Lecture in Stockholm in December 2003, which bears a title
characterized as catachresis6 by Foucault: He and His Man. I quote the final paragraph:
How are they to be figured, this man and he? As master and slave? As brothers, twin
brothers? As comrades in arms? Or as enemies, foes? What name shall he give this
nameless fellow with whom he shares his evenings and sometimes his nights too, who is
absent only in the daytime, when he, Robin, walks the quays inspecting the new arrivals
and his man gallops about the kingdom making his inspections Will this man, in the
course of his travels, ever come to Bristol? He yearns to meet the fellow in the flesh, shake
his hand, take a stroll with him along the quayside and hearken as he tells of his visit to
the dark north of the island, or of his adventures in the writing business. But he fears there
will be no meeting, not in this life. If he must settle on a likeness for the pair of them, his
man and he, he would write that they are like two ships sailing in contrary directions, one
west, the other east. Or better, that they are deckhands toiling in the rigging, the one on a
ship sailing west, the other on a ship sailing east. Their ships pass close, close enough to
hail. But the seas are rough, the weather is stormy: their eyes lashed by the spray, their
hands burned by the cordage, they pass each other by, too busy even to wave?7
This existential schism of the author and of the narrator, of the self that exists in
the world and whose name appears on the cover of the book is not the same self who
writes the book. (Auster, qtd. in Cornwell, 112). Susan also experiences this schism:
When I reflect on my story I seem to exist only as the one who came, the one who
witnessed, the one who longed to be gone: a being without substance, a ghost beside the
true body of Cruso. (Coetzee, 51).
Brenda Marshall argues that if it is the teller who determines what story gets told,
then the teller must write form some point of authority, but Barton, reflecting on her role
does not feel powerful. (Marshall, 53) It is the reason why it occurred to me to put Friday
in the position of the begetter, or father of the story of his silence. If Susan wants to retain
this position regarding her story, it is understandable how Friday does not let go of his and
so that the author to be able to reach him, must depart from Susans story. The story of

Gareth Cornwell. He and His Man. Allegory and Catachresis in J.M. Coetzee;s Nobel Lecture.English in
Africa 33 No. 2, October 2006, p. 97-114
7
http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2003/coetzee-lecture-e.html

22

Susan and the one of Friday however merge in the story of the island. Fridays story is
begun within the story of Susan, but there is a hole, an empty space in it which can only be
filled if Friday takes the position of the Father, the Begetter, Muse of his own history.
Susan, when she proclaims herself as Foes Muse she hopes to be a Muse to herself in
finding the button for the bubble in her story, but that is impossible because Muse and
Author never meet. In this order of ideas, the question of the owner of the story
indubitably moves to Friday. Mr. Foe catches the essence and directs Barton towards her
real story, of her Bahian experiences and the loss of her daughter, and correctly states that
the island is only a chapter within this story. However he becomes more and more
interested in Fridays silence and because he, unlike Susan, does not want the privilege of
fathering it and passes the barriers and boundaries of language, earns the right to see the
child unborn, the child that cannot be born finally brought to life.

23

6.

CONCLUSION

I can hardly say I found all the answers I was searching for at the beginning, but in
the case of a novel like Coetzees Foe, obtaining or getting closure could not be the main
goal in the first place, and I cannot say that all aspects of the proposed topic are considered
on these pages, as I have ideas rushing through at this very moment. So, without the
pretention of completeness of the answers, I was trying to draw my conclusions on the
pages of this paper. There was a problem though.the more I read from Coetzee, the less
I agreed with my previous statements, and I rewrote the whole paper over and over again.
During the process of my lecture, the questions that I had initially formed went through a
spectacular change, not to mention that they gave birth to more and more questions and
issues to understand. The problems of the female character, authorship and silence still
remain the principal ones but they are put in a whole new light as compared to the way
they appeared at the first lecture. It is amazing, how from a simple quest for answers
thought to be hidden in both Robinson Crusoe and Foe, I came to read postcolonial views,
relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed and deconstructionist approaches to
language and authorship. And it is also amazing, how the last chapter, absolutely
impenetrable at first sight, yields its secret at the fifth or sixth reading and becomes
absolutely obvious, sending back the reader almost by every word into a hermeneutic
circle of interpretation.
From all the reading experience regarding Fridays silence I can say that is widely
accepted that it stands for the silence of the oppressed African nation and it has antiapartheid connotations. Fridays silence is overwhelming. The reader is never sure
whether Friday physically cant 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 her
into his life.
Isnt that obvious?
Man thinks he is the rightful ruler over all creatures.
White men thought they are more valuable than colored ones and have the right to
submit them to their will.
Men thought women are less valuable, created only for the task of giving birth to
more men.

24

But these men never know what lies beneath, and what lies beneath is usually
impenetrable, they have no access to it, it is covered in silence up to the point where they
earn the right to look into it.
I argued at a point of my analysis that Foe is a postcolonial work rather than a
feminist one, but the truth is these two are combined in such a manner that it is impossible
to detach them. Just as Susans presence and Fridays silence are inseparable. Cruso did
not seek to find Friday, he settled for the surface. He taught him some key words in so that
Friday could serve him. Susan, on the other hand, tries to connect with the abyss of
Fridays life and in order to do so she uses various tools, most importantly, art and at some
point she succeeds at least in waking up Fridays will to not let her look at his drawing.
Susan is about to earn her right to get access to Friday, but she misses the point: in order
to see, to really see Friday, she has to go into his world, she has to dive in, risking death,
not physically, but death of her culture, her beliefs, of her whole perception of life, of
European and white supremacy.
Introducing Susan Barton into a heavy and uncomfortable issue like the
deconstruction of the imperial halo regarding colonialisation was a laudable choice of
Coetzees. I have presented above the aspects of her role, about which I start to form my
final opinion now: Susan Bartons role is to embody a kneaded mass of vulnerability,
strength, despair, hope, determination, the ability of self-questioning, intelligence and
sacrifice. In fact that is an average woman, and being a woman offers unlimited
possibilities in our case.
For instance, being a woman means vulnerability, which puts in a whole new light
the fact that Friday doesnt try to escape at all. At the same time, being a woman means
strength without physical strength and a large arsenal at hand to achieve the goals set.
Being a woman means possessing the necessary amount of sensibility and, at the same
time, determination in order to be interested, to question, to quest, to find out the
impossible, or at least to try. Being a woman and sticking to the role of the father, the
begetter of the story puts authorship in a whole new light. Being a woman and
representing a castaway category of mankind in the position of the beholder of the power
shows the possibility of triumph of the oppressed.
SALAMON BORKA EMESE
SAPIENTIA UNIVERSITY
MIERCUREA-CIUC, ROMANIA

25

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II