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. 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 of 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,...