The following is the transcript of a video to be released soon. Watch this space!
In this video we look at Foe by JM Coetzee in relation to Whose Reality. If you haven’t already watched our more general video on Whose Reality it’s probably a good idea to watch that first and then come back to this one.
We’re going to begin by looking at Coetzee’s writing style. If you’re hoping to use Coetzee as inspiration for creative writing or you want to analyse his style in a bit more depth, there are a couple of things we can consider:
Coetzee’s frequently uses metaphor and simile, like “…to live in silence is to live like the whales, great castles of flesh floating leagues apart one from another, or like the spiders, sitting each along at the heart of his web, which to him is the entire world.” Think about the effects that these have on the reader and, if you were going to write creatively, how you could replicate this yourself.
Foe is also notable for its shifting types of storytelling over the course of the novel, from Barton writing her story, to writing letters and finally, telling her story directly. These changes contribute towards the reader’s sense that truth is being filtered through the narrator: that we are not being told some objective narrative through the gaze of an omnipotent narrator, but from the mouth of a person who is often trying to persuade the first recipient of her words. The narration style further emphasises this sense: the novel totally adopts a first person narration from the perspective of Susan Barton. For all of her (and the reader’s) speculation about Friday’s truth, we never learn it.
The story also explicitly references the notion of truth. A great deal of this is explored through the extension debates between Foe and Barton over the nature of storytelling and the importance of truth in telling her story of the island.
Coetzee uses words with multiple meanings which emphasises the personal nature of truth. One clear example is that of the title. Foe can be taken as the name of the author within this story, an allusion to the name of the author who wrote Robinson Crusoe, or can of course be taken as it’s dictionary meaning: enemy or nemesis.
And finally, Adoption and transformation of an already existing story. Obviously Foe is an adaptive piece based on Robinson Crusoe. Make sure you take some time to get to know the original text. It plays off many of the existing facts from Crusoe, transforming them or giving them new meaning through the perspective of Barton.
Foe engages extensively with the ideas of Whose Reality?, particularly in relation to the notion of truth and the ways in which humans can create reality for others.
First, let’s consider the factors that contribute to an individual’s understanding of reality. The four individuals who play major roles in this story all have contrasting ideas about reality. While it is only Susan who gets to tell her story, the contrasting perspectives of Friday, Foe and Cruso are shown through their actions when held in comparison to the protagonist. There are innumerable factors that contribute to their different senses of reality, but there are a few significant ones worth considering.
Gender is an obvious difference between the protagonist and other main characters. This is something she comments on frequently as affecting her life; such as the captain advising her to pretend Cruso is her ailing husband and her inability to self-publish. Beyond that though, the differing attitudes her and Cruso have towards landscape paint a complex picture of gender relations. While on the island, Cruso demonstrates an interest in control; that he wishes to master the landscape and tame its wildness in his work with Friday. In contrast, Barton comments: “but privately I thought: Is bare earth, baked by the sun and walled about, to be preferred to pebbles and bushes and swarms of birds?”
How one views the landscape and relates to it also relates explicitly to nationality in this text. When they arrive back in England, Barton tells Friday:
“Here in England,” I say, “it is our custom to grow hedges to mark the limits of our property. Doubtless that would not be possible in the forests of Africa. But here we grow hedges, and then cut them straight, so that our gardens shall be neatly marked out.”
This demonstrates the fundamentally Colonial attitude from which Barton approaches life; that nature is better when tamed and controlled by human hand. This extends to her treatment of Friday in her imposing Western notions of happiness and freedom on to him, an act which the mute man can offer neither consent nor resentment towards. While on Bahia, these feelings creep through Barton’s description through frequent comparison between her current home and her old one:
“They say Britain is an island too, a great island. But that is a mere geographer’s notion. The earth under our feet is firm in Britain, as it never was on Cruso’s island.”
Past experience is an obvious determinant of how someone will react to a similar situation in the future. This is implied in the differing responses that Barton and Friday have to being rescued. Barton is at peace with the sailors who transport her back to what is familiar, but they awaken fear in Friday and make him restless. She presumes this is because of his experience with slave traders when he was younger.
On the other hand, lack of personal experience can result in differing perceptions of the world. Barton is critically aware of death and what it means for a person, but she is unsure if Friday has that same understanding when Cruso dies before their eyes. She wonders to herself:
“Did he know the meaning of death? No man had died on his island since the beginning of time. Did he know we were subject to death, like the beasts?
This leads us naturally on to thinking about how these factors culminate into differing interpretations of reality. These different factors culminate in characters holding very different interpretations of the world around them. Barton and Cruso differ significantly on their views of the island and rescue while Foe and her fail to see eye-to-eye on questions of truth versus storytelling.
On her arrival on Bahia, Barton is struck by Cruso’s differing attitude towards escape:
I used to think, when I saw Cruso in this evening posture, that, like me, he was searching the horizon for a sail. But I was mistaken. His visits to the Bluff belonging to a practice of losing himself in the contemplation of the wastes of water and sky.
She finds him difficult to reason with or talk to about his past. He seems entirely satisfied with the life that Friday and he lead on the island. In contrast, Barton is desperate to escape. Against the will of both Cruso and Friday, she takes them with her when she is rescued.
Another point on which the central characters hold very different perceptions of reality is the notion of freedom. For Barton, at first freedom means escape from Bahia, and later, telling the story she wants to tell as she wants to tell it. This is also a notion she frequently imposes on Friday: what would it mean for him to be free? Lastly, there is the opinion of Foe:
“There is not need for us to know what freedom means, Susan. Freedom is a word like any word. It is a puff of air, seven letters on a slate. It is but the name we give to the desire you speak of, the desire to be free.”
Next, let’s examine the ways in which the text questions and challenges the nature of truth. From the very opening of the novel, the reader is made to question objective versus subjective truth, and what that concept means on an individual level. The first sentence is placed in parenthesis- immediately alerting the reader that the story they are being told is a personal one. This is furthered by the fact that the story has only one narrator: one individual shedding light on the events that take place. Barton herself draws attention to this. Once Cruso is dead she says: “who but Cruso, who is no more, could truly tell you Cruso’s story?”
Moreover, Barton almost goads Foe and the reader into questioning her authenticity. She frequently mentions what little proof she has of the island’s existence:
“I brought back not a feather, not a thimbleful of sand, from Cruso’s island. All I have is my sandals. 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…”
At several points, the reader is made to question whether or not Barton is a credible narrator. Her story of how she came to be on the island holds some notable gaps. Moreover, her interactions with the girl claiming to be her daughter introduce the prospect that she has become totally detached from reality: their stories are mutually contradictory so one of them must be incorrect. Barton herself says:
“For though my story gives the truth, it does not give the substance of the truth (I see that clearly, we need not pretend it is otherwise).”
Coetzee, through Barton, also plays on the idea that truth is in the eye of the beholder. Barton considers that even if she was right and Friday’s tongue was cut out by a black slave trader, the nature of that person is different to each of them:
…his Moor was likely an inch taller than mine, or an inch shorter; worse black or blue, not white; was bearded, not clean-shaven; had a straight knife, not a curved one; and so forth.
Friday is an interesting character, but an even more interesting literary device. Because his truth cannot be told, Barton is given great power to control his truth:
“I say he is a cannibal and he becomes a cannibal; I say he is a laundryman and he becomes a laundryman. What is the truth of Friday?”
If truth is subjective in these ways, that leads us on to thinking about the novel’s representation of a person’s capacity to exist in a false reality. It is unclear how many of the central characters create false realities for themselves, but it must be the case given the contradictions between and within individuals. Coetzee portrays the passing of time and pressures of life as reasons why the characters might move away from reality as it is and towards reality as they would rather it be.
Barton’s description of the island is one such portrayal of the harshness that might motivate one to create an alternative reality:
For readers reared on travellers’ tales, the words desert isle may conjure up a place of soft sands and shady trees where brooks run to quench the castaway’s thirst and ripe fruit falls into his hand, where no more is asked of him than to drowse the days away till a ship calls to etch him home. But the island on which I was cast away was quite another place…
Barton gives many different reasons why Cruso’s tales of the island and how him and Friday came to be there are so incongruous. Among them, she suggests that having no one else to speak to has allowed his notion of truth to stretch considerably. Alternatively, she points to his age and failing memory:
I would gladly now recount to you the history of this singular Cruso, as I heard it from his own lips. But the stories he told me were so various, and so hard to reconcile with anther, that I was more and more driven to conclude age and isolation had taken their toll on his memory, and he no longer knew for sure what was truth, what fancy.
Cruso himself does not seem particularly concerned by these disparate stories, or by any need for the truth of his story to be passed on. He says: “there is no shame in forgetting: it is or nature to forget as it is our nature to grow old and pass away.”
But it is not only Cruso who presents contradictory stories about their past. Barton herself is faced with the stories of a woman claiming to be her daughter. Their stories are so far from each other that one, or both, must be mistaken, and therefore living in a false reality. Barton herself comments to Foe:
“What can I do but protest it is not true? I am as familiar as you with the many, many ways in which we can deceive ourselves. But how can we live if we do not believe we know who we are, and who we have been?”
Foe does not only portray how people can fool themselves into accepting a false reality, but how one individual can create a reality for others. This concept is particularly interesting given the history of this story. Originally, Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe under the name of the title character, making it appear as if the novel was truly the autobiography of the castaway. Coetzee has clearly played off these ideas through allusions to Defoe himself, as the original creator of the story. This allusion to the “truth” of the story encircles the nature of storytelling in a Meta way for the reader to consider. Furthermore, the sources of inspiration for Robinson Crusoe have long been speculated, a consideration that Coetzee works in through the invention of Susan Barton and the alternative story of Bahia.
Within Foe these ideas are contemplated through the changing relationship between Barton and Foe. They hold differing perspectives on the importance of truth in bringing Barton’s tale to light. Eventually Barton comes to appreciate that Foe’s task is “not only to tell the truth about us but please its readers too,” but she originally expresses great opposition to this. Captain Smith advises her:
“But you may depend on it, the booksellers will hire a man to set your story to writers and put in a dash of colour too, here and there.” “I will not have any lies told,” said I. The captain smiled. “There I cannot vouch for them,” he said: “their trade is in books, not in truth.” “I would rather be the author of my own story than have lies told about me,” I persisted.
Barton constantly reminds Foe of how things really were on the island: the “truth” of the story. She pitches a title as “The Female Castaway. Being a True Account of a Year Spent on a Desert Island. With Many Strange Circumstances Never Hitherto Related,” but expresses that Foe would probably prefer to cut her out of the story for one in which only Cruso and Friday appear.
This idea is further complicated by the fact that the reader approaches this novel knowing the story of Robinson Crusoe, and therefore the effective “end point” of Foe. We are to assume that, indeed, Foe does cut Barton out of his story and invent one which is much more entertaining for the reader; with violence, pirates, cannibals and Cruso’s eventual escape.
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