Coetzee's Foe, Behn's Oroonoko and Richardson's Pamela: Historical Context and Social Criticism

Only available on StudyMode
  • Topic: Novel, Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
  • Pages : 5 (1654 words )
  • Download(s) : 94
  • Published : March 7, 2013
Open Document
Text Preview
Historical context and social criticism are both crucial to the novels of the period but also inseparably intertwined. The influence of both these factors are especially clear in Coetzee’s Foe, Behn’s Oroonoko and Richardson’s Pamela, three very different novels from different times all of which rely on, and are clearly influenced by, their historical context in order to validate the relevance of their social criticisms.

Writing and living in Apartheid South Africa, it is evident in Foe Coetzee finds it very difficult to separate his own history and social context from the novel, however, it is his awareness of this that makes history and social criticism so interesting and significant. The character of Friday, a man whose background is unknown and whose tongue has been cut out, in many ways stands as a symbol of oppression and, contrasting to Cruso, highlights a racial barrier which was unavoidable at the time. Susan reflects they seems unwilling to change (“there was too little desire in Cruso and Friday...for a new life” [Foe, 88]). Susan is the only character who attempts to leave the island and tries to communicate with Friday, both through urging him to speak to her, despite Cruso’s determination that “Friday had no need of words” [Foe, 56], and through attempting to learn his form of communication. Susan plays the flute with Friday, following his tune and then erring from it, “sure Friday would follow” but he “persisted in the old tune” [Foe, 97]. Friday, like Cruso, has no wish to change his ways, something which may be seen as Coetzee’s social criticism of South Africa, expressing an opinion that in order for things to change both sides must want it. The ideas expressed in Foe seem to be more about social exploration than criticism and Coetzee is not as firm or clear in opinion as he is in his later novels such as Disgrace which demonstrate a greater grasp of the intricacies of Apartheid and post-Apartheid racial relations. Coetzee does, however, demonstrate an awareness of the building tensions taking place in South Africa at the time in his various endings of Foe. One thing they have in common is the silence of Susan and finally sound coming from Friday, whether they be sounds of the island or the “slow stream...soft and cold, dark and unending” [Foe, 157], they provide a sense of something building, leaving the novel with a sense of foreboding at the end and the feeling that the oppressed are finally given a voice.

Although Coetzee’s own situation has influenced the novel in a more exploratory than critical way, he also makes very clear social criticisms of the historical idea of the novel using the template of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe but turning it on its head. Unlike Defoe’s character, Cruso is portrayed as pathetic, narrow-minded and weak, unwilling to adjust to anything (“the simple truth was, Cruso would brook no change on his island” [Foe, 27]), making a statement directly against Ian Watt’s idea that “the society must value every individual highly enough to consider him the proper subject of its serious literature”. Coetzee’s most obvious social criticism is challenging Watt’s “formal realism” and the idea that it is “a full and authentic report of human experience” [The Rise of the Novel, 32]. This can be seen in the challenges Susan faces in sticking to the truth when recording her experience on the island. Her firm statement of “what I saw, I wrote” [Foe, 54] at the start soon falters and she begins to stray from memory, allowing imagination to cloud her thoughts. Coetzee also encourages readers to make their own social and historical criticisms by turning the story of Robinson Crusoe on its head and demonstrating the blurring which so easily occurs between reality and fiction during the writing process. This is highlighted in the endings of Foe where the novel is not neatly rounded off but confusing and challenging. Coetzee’s Foe explores personal social and historical criticisms and also...
tracking img