J.M.Coetzee”s Foe: Truth versus Fiction

Posted on March 25, 2010

Anushri Mondal:

A struggle to escape, a struggle to give voice, a struggle for acceptance and a struggle to make one’s account immemorial–the many “struggles” define tha plot of J.MCoetzee’s Foe.It starts with the plot of Susan Barton, a castaway lady–a lady tired of her efforts to find her lost daughter. The effort that made her embark on a ship resulting in a mutinous attack and her subsequent landing adrift on an alien island. Fortunately, the island is not devoid of human touch. It is the home and shelter of two beings, Robinson Crusoe and his manservant Friday. The names sound familiar. Don’t they? Of course, as they are the same characters on which Daniel Defoe composed his novel Robinson Crusoe, a late night bed tale of fantasy and adventure heard by children everywhere–stories that made those young people listen with rapt attention before they exhaust themselves with excitement and are forced to close their eyes.

The narrative of the island is given expression through the perception and voice of Susan Barton instead of Crusoe and this is where the spirit of innovation lies in the novel. Subsequent to the harsh conditions in which Susan along with Crusoe and his manservant survived on the beaches of the island followed by their recovery by a ship that happened to sail on the way that Crusoe loses his last breath, possibly as he realises that the rein of dictatorship has slipped from his grasp, Susan emerges as a character who strives to pen down the story of her life entwined with Crusoe and Friday in order to let the whole world know about the instincts of survival. And whom does she approach for the workmanship? None other than the person from whom the novel takes its name, Daniel Foe.

Known as the listener of tales and recorder of events, Susan thrusts all her hopes and desires on the shoulder of this man, believing him to make her immortal on the pages of history. The twist in the tale lies in the fact that this man, Foe turns out to be a man drowned in debt, incapable of reproducing anything constructive. However, even if when he regards the plot of Barton’s experiences, it is less of her own truth, the way she wants to portray the tale of hardships and struggle, of misery and loss and more of a work of fiction in front of the world, on a background of sea adventures and fantastic journeys.

The tragedy of the novel is inherent in the way that the exploits of Susan Barton remain unspoilt by the man whom she thrust her responsibilities onto.The novel ends with the development of an intimacy between Foe and Susan , a relationship made possible due to their shared misfortune and misadventures. For her, due to the loss of her identity and for him, due to the loss of his name and fame.

The plot regarding Friday is under covers in the entire series of incidents. We never really get to understand the twist and turns of his mental make up. This because Friday is rendered speechless by the removal of his tongue. The accused is unknown, of the probability that varies from the slave owners of Africa to Crusoe himself. It is Susan Barton who once again takes the task of giving him the weapons of expression, ranging from teaching lessons, to painting and drawing, in order to comprehend the objects and patterns of the world and making an effort to send him to the native land of Africa (which, however, stands cancelled at the end).

All these efforts to humanize Friday remain futile as Friday himself appear to be complacent in bringing himself to life. For him life equals voicelessness, equals blind obedience and equals a living death. An alive Friday is as good as the dead one. The spirit of life seems to be missing in him. Probably this is where the novel ends with the vision of Friday’s death in the deep of the ocean, among wrecks and disintegration.

The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz.