Sidharth Vardhan

Coetzee’s retelling of Foe’s Robinson Crusoe

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“We must make Friday’s silence speak, as well as the silence surrounding Friday.”

Foe, book cover, a novel by Coetzee, retlling story of Robinson Crusoe
Foe, a novel by Coetzee

Defoe /Daniel Foe’s novel Robinson Crusoe was Coetzee’s childhood favorite novel. At first, he had thought it was a memoir of the title character. In fact, Foe published the book as an account of a real castaway. The realization that the character was fictional, this intermixing of real and fictional, had a huge impact on him. Besides this novel, Coetzee also visited the Robinson Crusoe in the short story he read as Nobel prize acceptance speech, ‘He and His Man’. The theme of which can be summed up in the following quote (from ‘Foe’):

“Cruso rescued will be a deep disappointment to the world; the idea of a Cruso on his island is a better thing than the true Cruso tight-lipped and sullen in an alien England.”

That is the case here as well. Besides being an adventure novel, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (I haven’t read the book) is a symbol of British Nationalism in its worst form “He is the true prototype of the British colonist. … The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity.” (James Joyce)

Robinson crusoe
Robinson Crusoe

Of course, the ideal of an intellectual living an isolated life in Britain with no or little experience of sea and seamen is going to be nowhere near the actual people who might be cast away. The Crusoe as Coetzee presented him is not adventurous, not at all persistent in his effort to escape, doesn’t try to start a civilisation, had no offers from cannibals for him to refuse and thus prove his nationalism, didn’t rescue Friday, rather bought him, was pretty happy in living on an island and doesn’t make half as good a story.

However, the book is far more than a retelling – we have only talked one-third of the book. The book later goes meta-fictional, creating a new conversation between real and fiction and fills itself with reflections on the art of story-telling:

‘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. Is that the fate of all storytellers?’

And then the most important theme, the silent ones.

Coetzee's 'Foe' being rehearsed. From left to right - Friday, Crusoe and Susan
Coetzee’s ‘Foe’ being rehearsed. From left to right – Friday, Crusoe and Susan

The narrator, for the most part, is Susan Barton. In Coetzee’s alternative version, it is Susan who brought Crusoe’s story to Foe (who is present as a character), for him to write. A voice that disappeared in Foe’s book, just as the female voices usually disappeared from narratives written by men at that time. And she herself lacks the confidence, rather choosing to take the passive position of muse, who must speak through others.

“Do you know the story of the Muse, Mr. Foe? The Muse is a woman, a goddess, who visits poets in the night and begets stories upon them. In the accounts they give afterwards, the poets say that she comes in the hour of their deepest despair and touches them with sacred fire, after which their pens, that have been dry, flow. When I wrote my memoir for you and saw how like the island it was, under my pen, dull and vacant and without life, I wished that there were such a being as a man-Muse, a youthful god who visited authoresses in the night and made their pens flow. But now I know better. The Muse is both goddess and begetter. I was intended not to be the mother of my story, but to beget it. It is not I who am the intended, but you.”


Hers, though, is not the only silenced voice. Another silenced voice is that of Friday. Probably most remarkable feature of the Foe’s book was Crusoe’s slave Friday whom he named after the day he was found. The lack of a name in itself is symbolic. To drive the point home, Coetzee made Friday’s silence physical by making him tongueless. Now, a real tribesman wouldn’t probably won’t be as submissive as Foe will have us believe, so much that’Man-Friday’ the proverbial phrase, is derived from the name of this character, for a perfectly submissive servant but:

Friday being saved by Crusoe
Friday being saved by Crusoe

“Friday has no command of words and therefore no defense against being re-shaped day by day in
conformity with the desires of others.”

Susan, a mother who has lost her daughter, adopts Friday.

“A woman may bear a child she does not want and rear it without loving it, yet be ready to defend it with her life.”

In her compassion for Friday, she is able to see through the hypocrisy of Western Colonialism. Were Westerns really trying to civilize people or did they just wanted slaves:

“There are times when benevolence deserts me and I use words only as the shortest way to subject him to my will. At such times I understand why Cruso preferred not to disturb his muteness.”


“How did he differ from one of the wild Indians whom explorers bring back with them, in a cargo of
parakeets and golden idols and indigo and skins of panthers, to show they have truly been to the Americas?”

Daneil Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe
Daneil Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe

And thus, Coetzee starts talking about the conditions of underdogs – women, Africans:

“How dismal a fate it would be to go through life unkissed! Yet if you remain in England, Friday, will that not become your fate? Where are you to meet a woman of your own people? We are not a nation rich in slaves.”

Susan frequently compares Friday and at times herself to a dog, not to belittle Friday or herself but:

“Rather I wish to point to how• unnatural a lot it is for a dog or any other creature to be kept from its kind; also to how the impulse of love, which urges us toward our own kind, perishes during
confinement or loses its way.”

Coetzee is very particular about animal rights, he has said something similar in ‘Disgrace’ as well.

Probably, talking about his own literary ambitions, Coetzee say, we must make the underdogs speak, must help them where they need help. Susan wants Friday to be able to speak, feeling the inhumanity and loneliness of the power she


will otherwise have on Foe.

“I say that the desire for answering speech is the desire for the embrace of, the embrace by, another being. Do I make my meaning clear? You are very likely a virgin, Friday. Perhaps you are even unacquainted with the parts of generation. Yet surely you feel, however obscurely, something within you that draws you toward a woman of your own kind, and not toward an ape or a fish. And what you want to achieve with that woman, though you might puzzle forever over the means were she not to assist you, is what I too want to achieve, and compared in my similitude to an
answering kiss.”


But she doesn’t have high hopes:

“Nature did not intend me for a teacher, I lack patience.”

The Foe of the story though is optimistic:

“The waterskater, that is an insect and dumb, traces the name of God on the surfaces of ponds, or so the Arabians say. None is so deprived that he cannot write.”

Note- I haven’t read Robinson Crusoe, all information about that book I used here is Wiki-sourced.

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