My essay done on storytelling in Foe by JM Coetzee.

Story telling and the truth behind the story go beyond the telling of the event as it happened. In JM Coetzee’s Foe, we are introduced into the story of a female castaway within the old aged story of Crusoe. This version can be seen as modern and feminist, judging by the context, which is postcolonial literature. The novel is a battle of narrative control between the characters. The obligation of the story being told before it is forgotten has Susan Barton filled with anxiety which is evident within her letters constructed to Daniel Foe and she constantly obsesses with him, the author she assigned the duty of writing out the story for her, and his lack of interest in her version of her castaway journey. The question posed is who has the literary authority to tell Susan’s story the way she wants it to be told? Who is able to tell Friday’s story the way he knows it happened when Friday is “silenced” by his inability to speak or write? The novel by Daniel Defoe was presented as a work of history, an autobiography, to capture the attention of its readers. What JM Coetzee does is create a similar world but base it on an obsession with finding out who is allowed to tell the story and whether the person who has the control is the one who should be telling the true account. Susan is left with this responsibility of recounting a tale she feels did not include her, as she was not the survivor like Cruso or even Friday, and deems herself unfit to tell the story herself, however, if we see the character of Susan as a postcolonial feminist, we can perhaps view her journey as a fight for her story to be told the way she wants it to against Foe’s changes to her story and look at Friday’s silence and what could happen if he were to gain the tools of writing to tell his story as he experienced it. It can be argued that perhaps Susan is merely a character within Daniel Foe’s mind that torments him to not let her go as he struggles to find a story with more adventure to gain the interest of the audience he sets out for. It goes beyond the nature of the narrative about a man who was cast away and a woman who joins them. It can be seen as a fight between who is the author of the story and who has the control. It is also about what this novel indirectly tells us about storytelling or even the telling of history.


Within the interview by Atwell and Coetzee, we read about the writing of fiction, “The feel of writing fiction is one of freedom, of irresponsibility, or better, of responsibility toward something that has not yet emerged, that lies somewhere at the end of the road” (Atwell 246). Susan Barton’s plight within the novel is considered postcolonial feminism due to her fight against Foe’s change of her story. Her story she desires so intensely to be told is about her female experience on the island whereas the man she entrusts to write the story, Daniel Foe, wants to have the island as only part of the book; the majority of it he wants focused on Susan’s quest to find her daughter, which is in his opinion as an author, a more enticing storyline. This is to do with the fact that on the island, she has had not many adventures worth telling in his opinion. But Susan’s reasoning for wanting Foe to write her story can be questioned because of how she constantly goes against what he is saying. As well, Susan began to think of her journey to and on the island as a storyline that people might have been interested in when the captain of the ship that rescued them mentioned it, “It is a story you should set out in writing and offer to the booksellers” (Coetzee 46) and thus creating in Susan’s mind, the story that she obsesses over during her return within civilization. This statement from the captain begins her plight with the truth of her story and the truth within fiction, because Susan states, “I will not have any lies told” (Coetzee 46) and the captain responds with, “their trade is in books, not in truth” (Coetzee 46) which opens the argument that people who write stories, even nonfiction, has some fiction within it to make the tale more enticing to readers.

Coetzee not only argues that when author’s add to a story in order for it to have more adventure but he also allows Susan to dwell on having substance to write a successful work of art. Her obsession with Foe relies on her belief that she does not have the “substance” (Coetzee 51) necessary to write the story herself. Susan depicts herself as merely a witness to the event than a fellow survivor, “I seem to exist only as the one who came, the one who witnessed, the one who longed to be gone;” (Coetzee 51) On the Island, she has not ever had the survival moment that Cruso and Friday have encountered on their time there, “for the apes, he said, would not be as wary of a woman as they were of him and Friday” (Coetzee 15) and instead of following her instincts, she obeys Cruso due to his experience, “was a woman, to an ape, a different species from a man? Nevertheless, I prudently obeyed” (Coetzee 15). She has to absently add Friday within the story even though his life has been nothing but a silent void. Friday can be seen as the character that could potentially be the narrator of the story but his lack of literary advances makes him inadequate and sadly, Susan knows this. She watches his every move and is fascinated by his silence. She seems to confuse the silence with substance that she is without because of her own insecurities. She sees Friday and Cruso as both more adequate of storytelling because of their life on the island. She does not understand their silent retreats alone because like she states, she has no substance or she has lost her substance; that is left open for interpretation. Susan could represent history by witnessing and experiencing the discrimination or the dehumanization of a certain group of people, who have been cast away from civilization, but cannot seem to fathom why they are the way they are or what she is supposed to do next. There is a fear that comes with Susan and her story. She does not entirely know why but she wants to tell the story of the Island and not the story she had initially set out for: finding her daughter. This entails that Susan lost her plot completely or perhaps never had one in the first place. This leads us to another interpretation of many critics that view Susan as not only the feminist story teller who fights for her narrative control in a patriarchal dominant role or as the Susan Barton fighting for her own narrative control with her self, but as the manifestation of Foe’s own struggles to gain control over his stories.


Daniel Foe within the novel represents or is the adaptation of Daniel D Foe, the author of the original Robinson Crusoe. As with the original story, the Foe character in JM Coetzee’s novel has authority complications. The argument claims that Susan is merely a manifestation of the character that Foe has conjured and it is his subconscious fight for control over the story, “Susan Barton is not a woman whose story is stolen or misinterpreted; she is the physical manifestation of Foe’s own ideas and she represents the battle between author and character for absolute narrative control; she is a muse who takes a life of her own” (Snead 1). If we look at the novel in this light, the entirety of it is fictional experiences that Foe has imagined and is subconsciously looking for what would make a great story. This sees the novel as a fight between fiction and fact; and Foe battles for his control of the story just as Susan Barton battles with her fading memories. As in Snead, “It is a battle only explained by the physical reification of a narrator and muse spun out of control. It is an example of an author’s struggle to control his characters and therefore to control his art.” (Snead 8) this argument changes the way we look at the novel and literary authority as a whole. Instead of seeing it as one person’s true account versus another’s fictional world, we view it as one person struggling to control his characters and the way his story is going. This looks back to what Coetzee states in his interview with Atwell, where he states that fiction is “irresponsible” (Atwell 246) and he continues to mention that “stories are defined by their irresponsibility” (Atwell 246) which entails that the this argument stating that Foe is struggling with his own characters is valid in that he is not following any structure but his own conscious mind when writing his fictional stories.


The art form of narration dwells on what the reader believes when reading the story. We can immediately tell that Daniel De Foe’s tale about the castaway was not a “true account” so why did he title it as such? He presented his character as real and as flawed as the reader and thus gaining relatable reviews. This sort of narrative is seen within the novel written by Coetzee as well. He claims that Susan is a real woman who has a full history and is on a quest, she enters the island as a castaway and is immediately in another world, a world of silenced history and no prospect for the future. The fact that Susan is uncomfortable with her history being silenced is the reason she is irked by not having her story told the way she wanted it to. She could be feeling as though her story might disappear from her mind if she does not get it told. There is also some historical readability to this: Within the history of slavery, and racial discrimination, the stories of the slaves are not told by their account (although here and there) and thus creating a sense of authorship struggle as to who the actual author is, or should be. Susan felt this way throughout her journey home without Cruso, who was the author she intended the book to have, yet he was gone and she was left with the responsibility, despite Friday’s potential.

There are many ways of interpreting the novel’s literary struggle. Many of which involve Susan and her quest to tell her own story. There is also the fact that Susan might not even be real and might be the manifestation of Foe’s imaginative mind, him dwelling on what his story could potentially be, and the character of Susan becoming so real that she escapes the island where her story climaxed and torments him with her story. Susan’s battle with the truth of her story is within the realm of fiction and nonfiction and which is more the successful one of the two



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s