The Power of Language in Foe

Topics: Novels

Emory Wonham Professor Gogineni English 229C 25 October 2011 The Power of Language in Coetzee’s Foe: The Inevitable Power Struggle Between Character and Author for Narrative Control While directly questioning Western society’s unfaltering acceptance of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe through the postcolonial themes of patriarchy, feminism, and racism, Coetzee’s Foe centers on the power of language as its primary theme.

Issues of language and power arise out of the novel’s blurred relationship between literature and reality, which is vividly represented by the constant struggle between character and author to maintain control of the narrative.

Susan Barton and Foe both take extreme measures in their attempts to gain control of the island story, demonstrating the novel’s emphasis on the power struggle of author and character, and society’s unfaltering belief in language that fails to distinguish between fact and fiction, inevitably leading to the creation of a mythological text.

Manuel Jimenez, an English professor at the University of Seville, claims in his article, “Father to My story; Writing Foe, De-Authorizing De(Foe),” that Foe “presents us with a sort of ‘investigation’ of a possibly silenced origin of Defoe’s text, in an exercise not of science-fiction but of literature-fiction” (8).

He hints at the likelihood of Foe being a found manuscript of one of the original drafts of Robinson Crusoe. The absence of a female character in Robinson Crusoe can lead to the argument that Susan Barton’s fate as a character has been written in history since before she even reaches the island.

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Although she is unaware at the time, Susan’s escape from the island is also her sacrifice of narrative control. The moment she sets foot in England, she unintentionally gives up her place in history, becoming an active member in Foe’s gradual process of erasing her from the story, manipulating her memory, and extinguishing her identity and substantiality as a human. Susan’s journey from the island to England symbolizes her transformation from a character to a real person, and foreshadows her battle with Foe to maintain narrative control and her ultimate destruction by means of literature’s manipulation f reality into “mythological creation” (Jimenez 8). Susan remains oblivious to her dispensability as a character even after she returns to England and is convinced that her story is a unique example of the “good fortune we are always hoping for” (Coetzee 48). Barton’s inability to distinguish between fact and fiction is apparent from the beginning of the novel when she has trouble identifying the “truth” in Cruso’s stories and admits she “did not know what was truth, what was lies, and what was mere rambling” (Coetzee 12).

It is not until well after Cruso’s death and her return to England that Susan begins to understand Cruso’s “indifference to salvation” (Coetzee 13), and their inevitable fate as characters. Escape is Susan’s only desire when she resides on the island, and Cruso’s opposition towards rescue baffles her. Her unfaltering faith in the power of words sharply contrasts with Cruso’s, and she believes his life on the island is meaningless without a trace of written evidence to verify his experiences.

She is convinced that “Cruso rescued will be a deep disappointment to the world” (Coetzee 34), and she deems it her moral responsibility to take his story with her across seas. Susan’s incomprehension of Cruso’s desire to silence his story leads her to conclude that isolation has caused him to forget the value of language as a form memory. During her time on the island, Susan is aware of the repetitive nature of the castaway novel and understands that “All shipwrecks become the same shipwreck, all castaways the same castaway” (Coetzee 18).

Yet she still believes the power of language will make their story unique and immortalize them in history. Susan is conscious of the tedious and repetitive reality of their life on the island, and she is also conscious that, “The world expects stories from its adventurers” (Coetzee 34). It is with this knowledge that she confidently places the fate of their story in the hands of Foe, with the belief that he possesses the artistic ability to create the “liveliness [that] is lost in the writing down” (Coetzee 40).

Foe’s unhesitant manipulation of Susan’s memoir drives her to question the true nature of this so-called “liveliness” and marks a turning point in the novel, as Susan looses her initial faith in the power of language and begins to doubt the validity of literature’s portrayal of reality. It is after Cruso’s death, and after her encounters with Foe in England, that Susan understands why Cruso had no desire to escape or to record his memories; he knew that with or without their memories, their history was already written, and their destiny as characters already determined by society’s manipulation of reality through literature.

The first time Susan is confronted with the possibility that her story will be altered to fit the needs of the author, not herself, the character, is through conversation with Captain Smith on her voyage back to England. He agrees that her story is remarkable enough to be a part of history, and he confirms her belief that an author would bring the story to life, adding a “dash of color here and there” (Coetzee 40). Despite being in agreement about the need of an author’s creative touch, their understanding of the extent to which an author should manipulate a story from its original form to please society is not congruent.

Captain Smith explains to Susan that an author’s “trade is in books, not in truth (Coetzee 40)”. At this point in the novel Susan is still convinced that the truth of her story will be enough to receive fame and fortune, and there will be no need for it to be manipulated by her author. She claims she would “rather be the author of my own story than have lies told about me” (Coetzee 40). Susan’s awaited realization of Foe’s intentions to distort her narrative first appear when she attempts to recreate her life on the island in the form of a personal memoir.

While originally intended to serve as an aid to Foe in his authorship of her narrative, her memoir ironically opens her eyes to the seemingly impossible task of telling the truth while pleasing readers. Susan begins to “understand why Mr. Foe pricked up his ears when he heard the world cannibal, why he longed for Cruso to have a Musket and a carpenter’s chest” (Coetzee 83). At this point in the novel, Susan and Friday are living in a desperate state, awaiting Foe’s publication of their story that will make “them famous throughout the land, and rich too” (Coetzee 58).

As doubts of Foe’s intentions and completion of their story swim through Susan’s head, she tries to convince herself that the publication is the missing link between their current dismal life and a happy free life. “Is writing not a fine thing, Friday? Are you not filled with joy to know that you will live forever, after a manner” (Coetzee 58)? This rhetorically phrased question to the silent Friday demonstrates Susan’s denial of the reality that Foe has complete narrative control at this point in the novel.

The already blurred line between literature and reality becomes even more undefined as the physical worlds of Foe and Susan collide. Susan’s resistance to Foe’s manipulation of her narrative shocks Foe and forces him to face his character in the real world, as she takes on the role as his Muse, trying to seduce him to live inside her story. Despite Susan’s unanswered letters to Foe, she still holds on to her belief that he would be nowhere “without the woman” (Coetzee 73).

Just as Foe thinks he has successfully silenced the voice of Susan Barton and gained complete narrative control, she physically appears in his world, refusing to be a forgotten character. During their physical encounters, Foe attempts to convince Susan that the “island is not a story in itself. It is a waterlogged boat drifting day after day in an empty ocean” (Coetzee 117). He tries to persuade her to tell him of her life before the island, of her search for her beloved daughter, but Susan does not approve of the addition of these experiences into her story.

Aware that she is losing her place in Foe’s story, she desperately attempts to defend herself to Foe as a person of substance, who deserves to be acknowledged. “I choose not to tell it because to no one, not even you, do I owe proof that I am a substantial being with a substantial history in the world” (Coetzee 131). Susan’s intentional silence can be directly compared to Cruso’s lack of motivation to escape or to record his memories. Susan finally understands that she has no control, as Cruso had no control, of the literature that will arise from their lives on the island.

Foe responds to Susan’s resistance by forcing her to acknowledge his power over her fate as a character by sending a young girl to her, claiming to be her daughter. The persistent and rehearsed act this young girl performs is believable to any outsider, demonstrating the ease with which Foe can alter perception and reality. Although Susan knows this girl is not her biological daughter, her interactions with her still cause her to question the validity of her own memories. As the island becomes a fading memory, her initial confidence in the value of truth in her story staggers.

Foe takes advantage of her insecurities and causes her to consider if “these are strange enough circumstances to make a story of” (Coetzee 67). Foe’s intentions with this fabricated daughter are to make Susan aware of her dispensability and lack of substance as a character. Susan is conscious of Foe’s intentions and understands that, from an outsider’s perspective, “we are as yet only a castaway and a dumb slave and now a madwoman” (Coetzee 77). When Susan continues to resist his manipulation of her narrative, Foe takes physical control over her by means of sex, dominating her physically and mentally.

Jimenez views Foe’s total domination of Susan as the novel’s representation of how “the creation of the mythos can only be done at the expense of sacrificing, at least partly, fidelity to the original experience of material” (8). The creation of Robinson Crusoe was made possible by the silencing of Susan’s story, sacrificing her role in history to the mythological hero of Crusoe. The last section of the novel symbolizes Susan’s final eradication from Foe’s story, as he has at last achieved complete narrative control, leaving Susan and her story to “sink to settle among the bones of the dead” (Coetzee 141).

With Susan’s character finally resting quietly at the bottom of the ocean, he takes advantage of the power of language, producing a novel that will forever breech the boundary of literature and reality. Perhaps either embarrassed by his difficulty dismissing Susan Barton as a character, or attempting to justify his manipulations of original content, Foe creates a new identity for himself, Defoe, from which he creates the famous Robinson Crusoe.

The recreation of Susan’s original story supports Edward Said’s notion, found in his book Culture and Imperialism, that “how we formulate or represent the past shapes our understanding and views of the present” (4). The ideal heroic figure that Robinson Crusoe still embodies in today’s society demonstrates literature’s unreliability as a source of history, and its tendency to create useful pasts that exclude unwanted elements, vestiges, and narratives (Said 15).

Susan’s reflection on the events that transpired and led to the publication of Robinson Crusoe are best illustrated in the beginning of the novel, when she reflects on her own participation in the elimination of her character. After literally being erased from her own story, she realizes that she existed on the island “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 body of Cruso” (Coetzee 53).

She finally understands that by leaving the fictional setting of her narrative, she consequently sacrificed her place in history, and by resisting Foe’s manipulation of her story, she was inevitably removed. She considers different hypothetical situations that could have prevented the publication of Robinson Crusoe, and thinks to herself, if only she had “said less about him, more about myself” (Coetzee 51). Her once intense desire to escape the island is forever haunted by her realization that when Cruso was forcefully removed from his island, “he was a prisoner, and I, despite myself, his gaoler” (Coetzee 43).

Jimenez demonstrates how Foe addresses “the way in which language is used to generate a fabulation that can be offered and accepted as real, as an objective representation of an unquestionable reality” (8). At the end of the novel Susan comprehends Foe’s reasons for writing her out of the story, and she realizes that the relationship between literature and reality rests in the hands of authors alone, and that society is susceptible to believe anything and everything they write.

She failed to see “what we can accept in life, we [society] cannot accept in history” (Coetzee 67), and in turn she becomes a victim to the power of the “tongue in which we jest and lie and seduce” (Coetzee 85). Works Cited Jimenez, M. “’Father to my story’: Writing Foe, De-Authorizing (De)Foe. ” Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses. 8. 3 (2005): 7-24. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf/Random House, 1993. Print.

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The Power of Language in Foe. (2017, Nov 27). Retrieved from

The Power of Language in Foe
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