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The Return of a Native: Rewriting ‘Robinson Crusoe’

Aloisia Sorop, University of Craiova

The paper explores some of the rewrites of ‘Robinson Crusoe’, with particular emphasis
on J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Foe’, trying to identify the ways that the rewrite reconstructs the
character, the novel and its enduring legacy. The ‘otherness’ quality of the new text and
its ‘writing back’ effect contribute to a refreshing of perspective on this now classic
narrative. ‘Foe’ both challenges and redefines Defoe’s text while being altogether a new
Key words: rewrite, opposition, story-telling

‘When I came to England I was as perfect a stranger to all the world as if I

had never been known there.’(Robinson Crusoe, Chapter XIX)
It is interesting how, after a thirty-five years’ absence and surprising
survival on a remote desert island, when he finally reached home, Robinson
Crusoe identified England with ‘all the world’. His first reaction was that he
found himself understandably excluded (‘I had never been known there’) by the
‘brave new world’ that awaited him at home. In the typical manner of the ‘perfect
stranger’ and ultimate seafarer, Crusoe is the ideal native who returns home too
late to turn this happy event into a celebration. In the literary tradition he follows
in the footsteps of Rip Van Winkle and Clym Yeobright, whose returns, though
different in nature, reflect the same difficulty of integration.
This is one of Crusoe’s several meaningful returns during his long and
eventful fictional life. The novel, just like its hero, also experienced several forms
of ‘return’. One of them was the sequel, The Farther Adventures of Robinson
Crusoe that Defoe published the same year, 1719, which was followed by
numerous rewrites, adaptations, graphic novels inspired by the first set of
adventures of the shipwrecked hero.
In his much reputed Palimpsests, Gérard Genette focuses on a variety of
transtextuality that he calls hypertextuality which involves a relationship of
causality between two texts, in the sense that a text A lies at the origin of a text B
without text B being a commentary on text A. He further mentions the ultimate
condition for text B to be a hypertext of the hypotext A: that the intertextuality be
intentional and overtly expressed. Genette further calls the type of text that relies
on pre-existing narratives ’literature in the second degree’ (Genette 5). And he
applies the metaphor of the ‘palimpsest’ to the on-going process of writing that is
always based on some previously written texts.
Rewriting is therefore very much indebted to Genette’s theories for the
conceptual framework. But rewriting is more than simply a retelling of a well-
known story. It initiates a chain of perpetual negotiations of stories and their
meanings, it suggests that, irrespective of the version told, there remains a long
series of stories untold, which, in due time and with due skill, may emerge and
further enhance the value of the hypotext.
After Michel Tournier published his Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique
in 1967 and Vendredi ou la Vie sauvage in 1971, J. M. Coetzee decided it was
about time the ‘strange surprising adventures’ of Robinson Crusoe were given a
fresh start and in 1986 published Foe. The title is significant in many ways. It first
signals that, as a rewrite, it opposes its hypotext only to bring to the fore the
marginalised aspects and characters in Robinson Crusoe. It is, in a way, an artistic
‘foe’ to Robinson Crusoe. By opposing it, Foe increases the virtues and amends
the drawbacks of Defoe’s novel. At the same time it adds its own list of failings
and achievements.
Certainly, postcolonial critics would have liked the novel to express a
more severe judgement of Crusoe-Friday relationship and they blamed Coetzee’s
questionable handling of the slave problem in a book that offered plenty of
opportunities for an overt attack on British colonialism. Friday is mute in the
novel and he is perpetually dependent on a white woman who feels responsible
for having brought him into her world.
But Foe is centered elsewhere and brings to light the issues of authorship
and the narrator’s reliability. It is not by accident that it bears the real name of one
of the most prolific authors in the 18th century. Daniel Foe was a gentleman of
many abilities who, though rather old, found the necessary leisure and inspiration
to put down the story of a fictional British merchant shipwrecked on an
uninhabited island. The story enjoyed a success much beyond its author’s
expectations. But since the author has been known as Daniel Defoe to posterity, it
is quite sagacious to bring his real name under focus especially if one intends to
deal with the personae of the author and his/her multiple facets when author-izing
a narrative.
But Coetzee’s novel does not contain only one author. There are several
authors, as there are several stories. The narrator is a woman, Susan Barton, who
is left to drift at sea and finally reaches the shores of a rocky island where she
meets an old, weary and barely vocal Robinson Crusoe. He tells her several
contradictory stories about how he reached the island and who his black
companion is. He is very far from the Crusoe we are familiar with, he has been
working uselessly on terracing the island, has kept no diary or calendar and
spends his days in long contemplation. As if she knew the posterity of his story,
Susan exclaims ‘Crusoe rescued will be a deep disappointment’.(Foe 34)
Crusoe has shared his island and long spells of silence with mute black
Friday, a slave he saved from slave-traders or his fellow-cannibals, it is not very
clear. A year later a crew lands on the island and the woman brings her two
companions on board the ship against their will. Crusoe is nostalgic and
engrossed in his sterile reveries about the future castaways who will sow the
terraces he has built. He suffers from a serious syndrome of island-sickness and
cries like a boy when carried away. Old, grumpy Crusoe never actually ‘returns’
for he dies on their trip back to England.
Friday, on the other hand, is so aloof and Susan understands so little of
him, since he shares none of the western forms of communication, that he is a sort
of ‘black hole’ in the story. Friday only knows a few English words but he cannot
speak because his tongue was cut off. He lives in his unreachable world, he plays
his own music and dances his ritualistic dances when he chances on Mr. Foe’s
robes. Susan tries to teach him how to write, how to build bridges of
understanding with white people, but she never reaches the unfathomable recess
of his soul. He is the dark kernel at the core of every novel.
Moreover, free-spirited Susan tries to liberate Friday and hangs a note
signed Crusoe at the black man’s neck, only to realize that it does not serve him at
all. The instant he would set foot on a ship he would be reduced to a meaner state
and sold in the colonies. He is as hopeless as he is alien.
Back in England, Susan Barton develops strategies of telling her story. But
to have the story published she approaches Mr. Foe, a much renowned author.
And though she starts her return to civilization with a small lie, assuming the
identity of Mrs. Crusoe, for the sake of appearances, she is very intent on the truth
of the story being told. ’I would rather be the author of my own story than have
lies told about me.’(40). She is ready to renounce the aesthetic component of her
narrative only to give the world the true story of Crusoe’s island. She voices a
traditional approach to reality, and sincerely believes that fictional truth overlaps
life truth. She partakes none of the subtleties of a genuine story-teller who
falsifies only to please.
Foe, the writer-character who accepts to write Susan Barton’s story, is on
the other hand, a versatile man excelling in the art of plucking the most relevant
elements of life and transforming them into marketable produce. But creation
takes time, skill and inspiration. And he later answers Susan’s question on the
progress of his book based on her adventures as being a ‘slow story, a slow
history’ only to discourage her from hoping that the episode on Crusoe’s island
will prevail in the book:

’We therefore have five parts in all: the loss of the daughter: the quest for the
daughter in Brazil; abandonment of the quest, and the adventure of the island; assumption
of the quest by the daughter; and reunion of the daughter with her mother. It is thus that
we make up a book: loss, then quest, then recovery; beginning, then middle, then

But Susan is not an easy contender. When she first sees Foe she introduces
herself:’ I am a figure of fortune, Mr. Foe. I am the good fortune we are always
hoping for.’(48) And she is right in a historical way since her story has made him
eternal and stirs controversies and appreciation to this day.
She further explains her wish that the episode of the island be the central
if not unique part of the narrative by the fact that she has gone through a
pernicious loss of substance with the loss of the island. Tedious and hopeless as
her stay on the island was, she wishes that the narrative reassures her that the
whole range of events and feelings she experienced there are genuine. Writing this
book would recuperate her identity for her. ’Return to me the substance I have
lost, Mr. Foe’. (51) Nay, it will liberate her as she feels suspended until the story
is written.
A weird shift of persona is perceived at this moment. With Foe living in
hiding from the bailiffs and his house left uninhabited, like Crusoe’s island, Susan
and her childlike companion, Friday, move in. She gradually takes possession of
the house, just as Crusoe took of the island. She feels that a transfer of substance
between Foe and herself is under way and she will sit at Foe’s writing desk, with
his quill in her hand, acting like a ghostwriter. She continues to tell her story in
the letters she sends to Foe but eventually hands over to herself. She draws a plan
for the book describing her exploits and conforming to the truth of her experience.
She will fill in pages and toss them in the box where he keeps his manuscripts or
will simply throw them out of the window to whomever they may concern.
But she already feels the pressure of the ‘strange circumstances’ Foe is
talking about, the pressure of adding thrilling elements that should spice up the
book (the quest of her lost daughter, guns and cannibals). She complains ‘There
was too little desire in Crusoe and Friday: too little desire to escape, too little
desire for a new life.’(88) She resents the lack of the acts of heart and of courage
in the linear discourse of her narrative.
When she later finds Foe’s hiding place and resumes her pressure on him
to write the book for her she confesses she conceives of herself as his Muse, a
goddess who visits writers over the night and ‘begets’ stories upon them. Their
subsequent intercourse is the telling proof that books, like children, need a true
kernel of desire to be conceived and born into the world.
The plot is further complicated by the appearance of a stalking girl who
claims to bear the same name as Susan Barton and be her lost child. But Susan is
no more convinced than the readers about the substantiality of the girl: is she sent
by Foe, or is she one of his characters, or is she the outer projection of Susan’s
wishes? Susan takes her out of town and there she tries to convince the girl about
her incorporeality. She tells her she is a figment of Foe’s imagination or literary
skill, a father-born daughter. The girl’s desire to impose motherhood on Susan is
the reflection of her frustration, a literary induced feeling. ‘The pain you feel is
the pain of lack, not the pain of loss.’(91)
But the girl will reappear at the final reunion in Foe’s small retreat, telling
her story and bringing a nanny that does not belong to Susan Barton’s
acknowledged story. They may be part of another plot, they may have changed
literary direction and intersected with Susan’s story.
The ending of the book is surreal. Susan is no longer the avid story-teller
who gracefully told her story of story-telling. Another ‘I’ narrator who speaks
exactly her words splashes into the water just as she did, but instead of heading to
the sands of Crusoe’s island, dives into the abyss where ‘it’ finds a submerged
cabin with the bodies of Susan Barton and the captain floating inside. Friday is
there as well, a true companion to the end, and through his open mouth a stream
gushes out that spreads into the water and the air. The sound of unspoken grief
that cannot find a voice even in fiction.
The novel brings forth the motif of salvation only in connection to telling.
Or narrative writing. The genuine struggle in Foe is Susan’s with Foe over the
question of mow much fiction is to be brought into a narrative to make it
marketable. Both agent and author, Crusoe and Foe, are decrepit, almost helpless
men who live under the terror of their circumstances: Crusoe fears he might be
saved and brought home and Foe resists by all means, legal and illegal, the reality
that overcomes him. They are both exposed to the vicissitudes of being old males
in a world of masculine power. Their only chance to be saved is literature. And, of
course, the woman.

‘”Better without the woman”. Yet where would you be without the woman?
Would Crusoe have come to you of his own accord? Could you have made up Crusoe and
Friday and the island with its fleas and apes and lizards? I think not. Many strengths you
have, but invention is not one of them.’(72)

The issue of the author and his/her reliability in fiction is deliberately

deferred in Foe. Susan complains the only persons who could tell the right story
of the island are Crusoe and Friday. But Crusoe is now dead and Friday is unable
to speak physically and psychically. The next in line is Susan herself, but she does
not possess the necessary skills. And the next is Foe, a total stranger, who is to tell
a story he only heard fragments of. But since he is a master of words, situations,
circumstances, he will tell the one and only story of Robinson Crusoe. The story
that has survived.

Coetzee, J.M. (1987), Foe, Penguin Books, London

Genette, Gérard, (1997), Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, University of Nebraska
Press, Lincoln NE and London
Allen, Graham, (2000), Intertextuality, The New Critical Idiom, Routledge, London and New York