Is Foe really about language? Or about human sanity?

The story about Robinson Crusoe is world famous, but what if someone were to tell it a little bit differently? Foe gives a whole different spin to the classic tale, and shows different sides of humanity while doing it.

When reading about Foe, most I could find was about the use of language and the meaning of language in the story. However, quite quickly I noticed that the elaborate language did not seem to fit Susan Barton. Then again, you hardly get to know the woman, or any of the characters at all. They talk a lot, you will be able to draw a map based on all the descriptions given, but when asked a question about Susan, or Crusoe, or even Friday there will not be one straight answer to be given. Coetzee really tried to rewrite Defoe’s tale, and with that attacked the language instead of the story.

There is one other aspect Coetzee might have touched upon, that Defoe might have forgotten a little. While Defoe is made the antagonist of Coetzee’s Foe, there seems to be a twist in the story in which all sides and people are turned upside down. Halfway through Foe one is being led on, and strayed from the original story. Crusoe suddenly plays but a minor role, while Susan (and mostly Susan’s demons) are becoming the focus point. Because if one is always surrounded by a total silence, and one lacks normal daily interaction, how is one to stay sane?

This raises a question about not one, not two, but three of the stories characters. Are basic human abilities, such as speech and writing, needed to actually call one a human? And is desire, considered a vital part of human behaviour, truly that normal or is it manmade and can it therefore disappear as well as the ability to speak or the ability to form comprehensive thought? Because all of the characters in Foe seem to be lacking one or more things that would be considered necessary for humans to keep there sanity: language, purpose, desire, or comprehensive thought.

Foe is not a book that has to be read for the story, as there is not much of one. The red line is vague, the narrative sometimes extremely hard to untangle, and the characters lack depth. But it is interesting to look at the characters, as at the end you get to decide who tells the truth and who is lying all along the story. I have (partly) made up my mind on that, but I’ll let you get creative with human psychology as well.

In the early eighteenth century, Susan Barton finds herself adrift from a mutinous ship and cast ashore on a remote desert island. There she finds shelter with its only other inhabitants: a man named Cruso and his tongueless slave, Friday. In time, she builds a life for herself as Cruso’s companion and, eventually, his lover. At last they are rescued by a passing ship, but only she and Friday survive the journey back to London. Determined to have her story told, she pursues the eminent man of letters Daniel Foe in the hope that he will relate truthfully her memories to the world. But with Cruso dead, Friday incapable of speech and Foe himself intent on reshaping her narrative, Barton struggles to maintain her grip on the past, only to fall victim to the seduction of storytelling itself.

J.M. Coetzee. Foe / Penguin / 9780241973691


30/05/2019 at 02:23

Points explained perfectly! I love this post.

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