Coetzee and Defoe Coetzee's Novels Like Foe Essay

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Coetzee and Defoe

Coetzee's novels like Foe and Dusklands are an explicit rejection of the old cultural and literary canons, of which Robinson Crusoe has always been part. Indeed, his stories reverse the standard narrative of white male narrators, adventurers and colonizers, who explore and conquer the 'savage' regions of the world and mold them in the image of Western-Christian civilization. White men literally tell these stories, while blacks, Asians, American Indians and other 'natives' are subjects under their control, in both the literary and physical sense. Needless to say, women are either absent from the stories or play relatively minor roles, and are always under patriarchal control. Coetzee's work completely rejects the ideology of this old canon and even reverses it, by attempting to give a voice to women and 'natives' who were voiceless in the past. If his work is part of a canon at all, even if contrary to his own intentions, then it would be the emerging postmodernist and post-colonialist canon of the past four decades, written as the age of empires was coming to an end. South Africa and its apartheid regime, from which Coetzee exiled himself as a young man, was one of the last remnants of the old racist colonial system. Crusoe may well be part of the wreck of the Western cultural, historical and literary canon as described by Adrienne Rich in her 1973 poem, in which she dives "back to this scene/carrying a knife, a camera, a book of myths/in which/our names do not appear" (Rich 1973). In this matter, Coetzee is attempting to correct the historical record and establish new cultural standards for the future in which women, their poor, slaves, servants and the oppressed will have their names and stories recorded.

Robinson Crusoe was part of the English literary canon from the late-18th Century, when it was praised by thinkers as diverse as Samuel Johnson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It achieved great popularity in the 19th Century with Romantics like Samuel Taylor Coleridge as well as evangelical Victorians who admired the novel's religious sentiments. Karl Marx thought it an early allegory of capitalist homo economicus, while 20th Century modernists and realists like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf regarded it as a precursor of their own literary movement. Defoe was far more popular after his death in 1731 than during his lifetime, when novels were still considered a "lowbrow" form of writing (Defoe, 2007, p. x). Like Coetzee's Foe, he was bankrupt, often on the run from his creditors or in jail for debt. His intention is writing Robinson Crusoe was not to glorify capitalism, imperialism or slavery, but more likely to satirize them, as Coetzee does far more openly and effectively. As a young man Defoe had taken part in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and always supported the Whig-Puritan cause against Tory absolutism. He wrote Robinson Crusoe as a metaphor for "the Puritan condition of jeopardy and alienation under Stuart rule" and a satire of Crusoe as a "burlesque of Stuart aristocracy" and pretensions to absolute rule (Defoe, 2007, p. xxxiv). Crusoe himself had taken part in the slave trade, and then been a slave to a Turkish master on the Barbary Coast for two years. He regarded this as "but a taste of the misery I was to go thro" during his twenty-eight years as a castaway on the island, which was his punishment for having been a slaver (Defoe, 2007, p. 18). Even so, he treats Friday as a slave and rules over him like an "absolute lord," in one of the many ironies that abound in the story (Defoe, 2007, p. 203).

Susan Barton is the narrator of Coetzee's postmodern version of Robinson Crusoe, with the reprobate writer Daniel Foe (DeFoe) continually attempting to appropriate and control her narrative. In this alternative reality, Cruso is not the hero or imperial conqueror engaged in the slave trade and the hording of gold, but a faintly ridiculous character who spends his time building terraces on the slopes of the island even though he literally has no seeds to plant. He is elderly, weak and toothless, lacking in tools or weapons, and is not even particularly eager to return home to 'civilization'. Women characters hardly existed in DeFoe's novel, but in Coetzee's the woman struggles to take control of the story, while Cruso simply dies on the return voyage to England before he can tell his. To be sure, she has prejudices of her own, since her first thought on seeing Friday is that he is a cannibal, while she imagined that Cruso was a mutineer of the same kind that had cast her adrift with only the body of the dead captain for company. Soon though, she comes to sympathize with Friday when he carries her on his back after she has injured her foot, even though his own feet are full of thorns and bleeding from burrowing insects. Almost at once, Susan also reveals that her father was a French Protestant who fled to England to escape persecution, and that she had been searching in Brazil for her kidnapped daughter for two years, before finally taking a ship back to England. Since she has been oppressed herself, she begins to identify to some degree with Friday's oppression, and wonders why he has not killed Cruso long ago. Obviously he had many chances to do it, since Cruso was alone and had to go to sleep sometime, and she speculates that Cruso cut out his tongue and kept him drugged.

Friday in Coetzee's story is African rather than Native American, and he has no tongue to speak with, which symbolizes the silencing of the oppressed in imperialist narratives. He has much in common with the Vietnamese, Bushman and other oppressed and powerless peoples in Coetzee's stories. Unlike the original novel, he does not call Cruso "Master," nor has he been taught Christianity and the English language, which Robinson Crusoe believed would make him a better and more useful servant. Coetzee's Cruso has only taught Friday enough English so he can obey simple commands. Certainly this island hardly represents a tropical paradise or utopia, while Cruso is no European hero who runs a rational and well-ordered colonial domain. He is a racist who thinks that blacks exist to "pick the cotton and cut the sugar cane" and that "the business of the world is to prosper." Even though he is far less prosperous than the original Robinson Crusoe, he still insists that he is a "lenient master" and that Friday is better off working for him than on a plantation in Brazil or Jamaica. He would be even worse of had white men not rescued him from the "cannibals" in Africa (Coetzee, 2010, p. 23). In this, Coetzee's Cruso has the exact same views as slave owners in the United States and many other countries, who regarded themselves as basically benevolent and paternalistic and thought that slavery was an institution ordained by God to 'civilize' and Christianize the Africans. Cruso also thinks of women as property and commands Susan in a patriarchal manner, stating that she cannot even go outside without his permission and that "while you live under my roof you will do as I instruct" (Cotztee, 2010, p. 20). His attitude toward women, children, servants and slaves is basically feudal, in that he is the master of the household and will direct its economic activities.

Foe is heavily in debt and not exactly at the top of the social pyramid in England, nor is he a particularly successful writer. Although the real Daniel Defoe was a liberal by the standards of the time, and went to prison several times for his criticism of the ruling oligarchy, opposition to the slave trade and advocacy of religious toleration, Coetzee's postmodern version Foe was more of an uncertain and insecure character. He admits that "I have often been lost in a mass of doubting" about his own writing or the meaning of words (Coetzee, 2010, p. 135). Foe would like to turn the tale into popular fiction, either into a men's adventure story or one about a damsel in distress searching for her daughter, but Susan Barton opposes his attempts to add, erase or edit the details of her own narrative. She also believes that "they must make Friday's silence speak," and even attempts to teach him writing, although she cannot understand what he is attempting to communicate (Coetzee, 2010, p. 142). This entire subject of the relationship between language and power is a key one for Coetzee, particularly the fact that women and oppressed people have almost never been able to tell their own stories. Friday dances, sings, hums and draws, but Susan and Foe do not grasp the meaning of his actions. They even consider paying for his passage back to Africa if they ever make enough money, although Susan wonders "how is Friday to recover his freedom, who has been a slave all his life" and whether…

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