I’m still shaking my head about this one. Picture me now, re-reading this text that I studied in a Contemporary Feminist Literature class at Monash, and evaluating it as a part of the VCE text list. Sadly, we will probably do it as well, although the complexities are probably far beyond the average Year 12 mind. I’m not actually sure they are not beyond mine. But I will have a go.
The novel has a number of different sections with different foci. The first, is a retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story, told from a female narrator’s perspective. Susan Barton is a castaway, set adrift on the ocean by pirates to land at the shores of Crusoe’s (in this text, she calls him Cruso, so I will follow) island, peopled only by himself and Friday and the possibility of cannibals. Barton never quite settles into island life, unlike Friday and Cruso, and dreams of rescue. While she and Cruso eventually become lovers of a sort, Friday remains to her a figure of discomfort. This Friday has had his tongue removed at some point in the past, and Susan spends long hours pondering the circumstances in which this occurred, and whether or not Cruso himself was the perpetrator. In fact, Friday’s unknown story is one of the haunting concerns of this text.
Cruso has a strange illness which plagues him from time to time, and Susan nurses him. During one of his periods of illness, Susan is rescued and she convinces the sailors to take the ill Cruso with them. She also convinces them to capture and forcibly remove Friday, who she could not imagine leaving alone on the island, even though he appears to be in harmony with it. So again, Friday’s story is circumvented by another.
For modesty’s sake, Susan masquerades as ‘Mrs Cruso’, a title she believes she deserves and she continues to use throughout the text. Upon arriving home she finds herself destitute and bound to Friday, who clearly has no place in this alien world. Seeking fame and fortune, she attempts to sell her story to Daniel Foe (a bastardisation of Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe). This first part of the text is made up of her original conversation with him.
The rest of the story becomes more complex, as Coetzee continually questions the nature of storytelling. It is clear that Susan shapes her own reality – she is clearly an unreliable narrator. When Foe disappears, she continues to write him letters to tantalise him into taking an interest in her story again. She moves into his vacant home and makes herself known to his neighbours. All the while Friday hovers in the background – clearly with a story to tell, but no way of telling it. With no language, his uses 8 notes on his flute to express himself. But even this expression is incomprehensible to Susan, who is increasingly fearful of him. She tries to buy his passage back to Africa, but when it becomes clear she would be selling him back into slavery, she finds she cannot go through with it.
Eventually, after the reader progresses through long pages of letters from a madwoman, she finds Foe. Foe is still interested in her story, but pushes to shape it for his own purposes. It is Susan he is interested in rather than Cruso. Susan had left English to seek a missing daughter – and a young out woman has turned up claiming to be that daughter. Susan – rightly or wrongly – refutes this claim, whereas Foe wants to shape the entire story around it.
Susan and Foe become lovers, despite her trepidation about his treatment of her story. It appears to be Susan’s pattern in life, to use her body to placate the men in it. With the exclusion of Friday of course.
The final and shortest part of the novel involves an unknown and unnamed narrator wandering through Foe’s rooms, now the scene of Foe, Susan and Friday’s deaths. Indecipherably, this narrator closes by opening Friday’s dead mouth, which emits bubbles as if it were underwater.
Foe is an incredibly complex story about the interplay of language, storytelling and identity. Many of the characters willingly or unwillingly are silenced and for lack of a better term ‘colonised’ by the word and the deeds of others. This is particularly true for woman and for colonised nationals, represented here by the tongueless Friday, a clear device to show how unable they are to tell their story. Susan simply has her story appropriated – although she also contributes to appropriating Friday’s. Critics still argue about how to interpret this incredibly complex text, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for Sunday reading. I would however, go forth and read critical work on as, as the desire to comprehend it more fully outweighs my frustration with it.