Writing from Within and Outside the Margins of Power and Language: J.M. Coetzee’s Foe

by Jeremy R. Strong

     Jonathan Culler wrote in his book On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism that deconstruction does not clarify texts or even make sense of them but that it rather illuminates the metaphysical oppositions in them; the ways in which they co-depend on one another and the intricacies of causal relationships in them. And Derrida wrote in Of Grammatology that one cannot begin writing about something and not expect it to give birth to more and more and more writing. Both of these ideas are insightful considerations and both of the utmost importance when studying a work like J.M. Coetzee’s Foe. But in order to do so, it is also imperative to understand Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

      One can certainly read Foe and be vastly pleasured by its author’s command of language and be drawn in by its compelling narrative style without having read Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The Susan Barton of the text assumes a depth within its first pages that will not soon release any reader; it is likely many have followed her through to her sad death in the final pages with no previous knowledge of Robinson Crusoe. And yet, to truly understand the complexities of what Coetzee is telling us about language and about power and especially about how the two are so interdependent, one should first read Robinson Crusoe

     In Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s Crusoe is a man willing to stop at nothing to have his freedom, throwing one of his companions in slavery overboard and threatening “I’ll shoot you through the head, for I am resolved to have my liberty” (Chapter 2). He refers to his fellow slaves as “moors” (Ibid) and speaks to them as inferiors although in his condition of slavery, he is subservient to the same master. In his treatment of the boy Xury, Crusoe goes from being willing to drown him to handing him over to the captain of the rescue ship on the condition that the boy serve ten years and become a Christian (Ibid). Here we see the power of language being enforced in Defoe’s work; for what does Crusoe do but take away the voice of the child by deciding on his behalf his future? Not only does Crusoe decide the boy’s physical fate, but takes assumed mastery over his spirit by forcing him into Christianity. We see these themes pulled from the margins of Robinson Crusoe and laid bare in Foe. We see Susan Barton emerge as the voice of all of the marginalized and silenced characters in Robinson Crusoe when she argues with Crusoe that he should have been keeping a diary, that the details of he and Friday’s time on the island surviving are important. She tries to convince him that he could write with “the bile of seabirds” (Page 18) and the “cuttlefish bones” and the gull’s quill’s” (Ibid). In response to this, Crusoe defends that he “will leave behind my terraces and walls” and that “they will be more than enough” (Ibid). This is Coetzee’s genius at work as the argument made by Barton is really an argument made for fleshing out the important lives of those that have no voice of their own (women, Friday, slaves and others). In Crusoe’s response we see a reflected commentary not just on Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe but on the entire of western colonial history; Coetzee is trying to tell us that for a character like Crusoe and what he represents, what he has built will immortalize him and him alone, silencing the voices under him, the oppressed ones.

     Turning again to Culler, who writes that deconstruction can be sustained as a kind of mediator (Page 91), we can begin to understand the importance of Coetzee’s writing and what he is trying to do in the text of Foe. He is not trying to discredit or destroy Robinson Crusoe, nor is he trying to prove that his text is better or the truth; far from it. Coetzee is trying to get deep within the complex interconnected system of language; his text examines the strengths, the weaknesses and the power struggle of voice in all writing; whether or not these voices are prominent or marginalized. This is made plain by the fact that Friday does speak in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, though perhaps not eloquently. In Chapter 16 we can see both Defoe’s attempt (perhaps unintentionally) to comment on the savage nature of non-Christians and the (likely intentional) commentary on the subservient nature of non-white or non-western peoples. He writes that Friday says:

“Wish we both there; no wish Friday there, no master there.” In a word, he would not think of going there without me. “I go there, Friday?” says I; “what shall I do there?” He turned very quick upon me at this. “You do great deal much good,” says he; “you teach wild mans be good, sober, tame mans; you tell them know God, pray God, and live new life” (Chapter 16).

This exchange between Friday and Crusoe is sharply contrasted in Foe by Coetzee, who is attempting to show us the nature of the power that language commands. In Foe, Susan Barton notices early on in the text Friday’s propensity for silence; and even though she has experience of slavery and its subservient nature, she questions why two men stranded together on an island might not pass the time in conversation: 

“How many words of English does Friday know?” I asked. “As many as he needs,” replied Cruso.  “This is not England, we have no need of a great stock of words.” “You speak as if language were one of the banes of life, like money or the pox,” said I (Page 22).

     Barton goes on to learn that Friday has had his tongue cut out; a further commentary by Coetzee on Defoe’s work and that being that the ability to speak does not always grant one the power to manipulate language.  Foe continues with Cruso going on to describe that Friday’s tongue was cut out by “The Slavers” (page 23) and that perhaps “they wanted to prevent him from ever telling his story” (Ibid).  These characters in Foe are speaking about the nature of language not because Coetzee is attacking Robinson Crusoe or its author, or even because he is attacking anything. Rather, they exist to the purpose of having marginalized voices speak or by showing which marginalized voices cannot speak, to finally let them do so. 

     Culler’s argument from Chapter 2 – Writing and Logocentrism that writing can undervalue the very philosophy that it attempts to describe, discuss or impart (91) has a particularly useful application in this case of Foe and Robinson Crusoeand the question of whether Coetzee’s writing does in any way undervalue the particular point Coetzee is trying to make. Before that question is answered however, we have to ask why it is necessary to assume that Coetzee is trying to make any point at all. If after all, as Culler points out, literary criticism as an institution has attempted through its proponents to become a ‘true discipline’ (90) and failed in that any great piece of writing will only generate more and more and more writing – then we should praise works like Foe; the text functions not only as complex literary criticism and a brilliant piece of artistry in its own right, but more profoundly, Foe functions as a general commentary on the nature of the importance of voice, especially as it relates to power. What we learn from Foe, especially through our knowledge ofRobinson Crusoe is that characters (or people in general) who are not given voice, ultimately lose their signification. And as Culler discusses, the signified is a direct result of the signifier and if that signifier is language, then one must use it in order to signify anything.

     By utilizing Culler’s writing, which builds heavily on Derrida’s own work in Of Grammatology, we can delve deeper into Coetzee’s Foe to extract further examples of how the characters in Robinson Crusoe are marginalized, what they represent and what implications this has for understanding the importance of Coetzee’s work. In Foe, Susan Barton represents what is almost entirely lacking in Robinson Crusoe and that is the presence of a female character. In Foe, Barton does what she can to make herself signify something in the tale. She first begins by using her powers of logic and reason to argue with Cruso about how best to go about things on the island, such as when she asks him “whether there were laws on his island, and what such laws might be” (36) to which Cruso replies that laws are made “for one purpose only” (Ibid) and that the purpose is for holding “us in check when our desires become immoderate” (Ibid). The conversation then turns to argument when Barton expresses her “immoderate desire” (Ibid) to be saved and Cruso tries to silence her voice stating that he does “not wish to hear of your desire” (Ibid). These conversations that question Crusos right to authority on the island only enrage him and she is forced to abandon this methodology to keep peace. Cruso then eventually forces himself upon Barton sexually, which she allows, perhaps in the hope that her body can succeed to give her signification where her powers of speech and reason failed. Later in the novel, this becomes crucially important as Daniel Foe becomes an extension of Cruso and works to eliminate hers and Friday’s voices from the narrative, while at the same time using Barton for her body, completing the total rape of her individuality and indeed her very existence.

     Daniel Defoe created Robinson Crusoe and it enjoys its place in famous world literature for many reasons; but it took Coetzee’s Foe to highlight many of the most important reasons that the former text should be studied. However, Foe does not do so by clarifying any aspect of Defoe’s writing, nor does it do so by making sense of it in any certain way; what it does instead is to illuminate the intricacies of the importance of language, the subtleties of the nature of human voice and the power held by the one who wields that voice. Also, Foe in no way lays claim to being a “final say” on the subject of voice in literature or even specifically on themes present or lurking in the margins of Robinson Crusoe. What it does instead is to invite, as Derrida reminds us that worthwhile writing always does, more and more and more writing. It is instead the way that Coetzee’s work invites us to read and write that is significant – and that is with an eye not only for what is said in fiction, but what is not and the boundless stories both left untold and silenced under some form of oppressive power. 

     Susan Barton and Friday are both marginalized in Foe, less in the beginning but more and more as the story unfolds until eventually their voices are drowned out by those of others. By not being allowed to speak and therefore not being allowed to signify, the two literally and figuratively drown in London. This initially begins with Cruso dying aboard the rescue vessel causing Friday to lose his only voice in the “master” who spoke for him. Similarly, Barton is right away seen as Mrs. Cruso (43) and is urged by the ship’s captain to bring her story to the printers in London. Here, we are told, the booksellers ‘trade is in books, not in truth” (40). Once we have discovered the narrative is Barton writing to Foe, we sympathize with her plea that her voice not be removed from the story. Culler’s discussion of the importance of signification and the difference when it is written or spoken is important here; we see that Susan Barton’s diaries can be taken by Foe and because they are “stamped upon the page” invites “that it be criticised, evaluated and its meaning obscured, convoluted, confused and rebuked” (91). Foe does just this, re-writing the narrative as he sees fit, using his power over language to marginalize those he doesn’t see fitting with his idea of a good story. This instance is of course a stand in for Defoe’s own marginalization in Robinson Crusoe of certain voices and if Coetzee wants us to glean anything from his writing in Foe, it is the fact that those voices are marginalized that matters; and our understanding of the power language has to do that matters even more. 

Works Cited

Culler, Jonathan. (1982). On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Coetzee, J. M. (1986).  Foe. New York, Penguin Group Inc.

Defoe, Daniel. (1995) Robinson Crusoe. Wordsworth Editions Limited, Great Britain.

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