Using the 1719 English novel Robinson Crusoe
as a jumping-off point, South African author J.M. Coetzee’s novel Foe
(1986) tells the story of castaway Susan Barton who enlists the real-life author Daniel Defoe (referred to here by his birth name, "Daniel Foe") to help render her tale into a work of popular fiction. According to New York Times
journalist Patrick McGrath
, the book's major theme concerns the "linkage of language and power, the idea that those without voices cease to signify, figuratively and literally."
In the early eighteenth century, Susan Barton awakens to find herself washed up on the shore of an unknown island. When a man of African descent approaches her, Susan fears he is a cannibal intent on killing and eating her. Rather than causing her harm, the man—whose name, we learn, is Friday—carries Susan on his back up a hill. There, Susan meets Friday's companion, Cruso, a white man who speaks English. Though Friday seems to understand English, he does not speak at all.
Susan explains to the two men how she ended up on the island: She had been in Bahia in South America, searching for her daughter who had been kidnapped. After staying there for two years and working as a seamstress, Susan gave up her search and hitched a ride on a merchant ship headed to England. While on the ship, she had a sexual relationship with the captain. One day, the ship's crew staged a mutiny, killing their captain and assaulting Susan. After the mutineers have their way with Susan, they cast her off in a rowboat along with the captain's dead body. After rowing for some time until her hands were covered in blisters, she spotted the island and attempted to swim to it, eventually losing consciousness along the way.
On the island, Cruso and Friday share a small hut and subsist on lettuce and fish. They allow Susan to sleep in the hut with them, warning her not to wander off alone. The island, Cruso claims, is inhabited by wild, vicious apes. Cruso struggles to explain how he and Friday ended up on the island, and Susan suspects that the years of isolation have caused him to go mad. She also learns why Friday never speaks: He was a slave whose owners cut out his tongue when he was a child.
Over the next few months, the three survive amicably, though Susan is maddened by the fact that neither Cruso nor Friday seems to have any desire to leave the island. Susan is also frustrated by the pointless tasks Cruso busies himself with, like building terraces even though there is nothing to plant. One night, Cruso makes a half-hearted sexual advance toward Susan. At first, she is repulsed, reminded of the trauma she experienced on the ship. Later, she tells Cruso he can be with her sexually if he wishes. Cruso never makes another pass at Susan, and Susan doesn't press the issue. Meanwhile, Cruso suffers from recurring fevers.
About a year passes, and a ship finally comes to their rescue. At the advice of the captain, Susan pretends to be Cruso's wife and Friday their slave. Before the ship reaches England, Cruso's fever worsens, and he dies in a fit of depression, mourning his island home. Back in London, Susan contacts the famous writer, Daniel Foe, for help in writing her story, but the two sharply disagree over what to include in the book. Susan believes the story should focus on how she, Cruso, and Friday survived on the island. Foe thinks readers would be bored by such a story and insists that Susan tell him more about her time in Bahia, but she refuses.
One day, Susan arrives at Foe's house to find that he has abandoned it to avoid creditors. She and Friday move into Foe's house, grow their own food in his garden, and sell off many of his belongings. Over time, Susan begins to feel a great deal of empathy for Friday who, she later learns, was also castrated by slavers. Hoping to send Friday back to his home in Africa, Susan travels with him by foot from London to the port town of Bristol, sleeping in barns and living like "gypsies." By the time they reach Bristol, the two are filthy and haggard. Susan realizes her plan is deeply flawed and that Friday will just be sold back into slavery if he is found on a ship.
Back in London, Susan reconnects with Foe who has returned home. He continues to badger her about her time in Bahia, believing that the scandalous tale of her ruined womanhood will delight readers. Again, Susan refuses to tell this story, reiterating her position that the story should be about the island and, more specifically, Friday's experiences. She feels a strong responsibility to tell the story of Friday because he has no voice to tell it himself. Foe suggests teaching Friday to write, but when given a slate and a piece of chalk, Friday simply covers it with O’s. That night, Susan and Foe have sex.
The book ends with a dream-like passage revisiting events from the first chapter. Rather than swim to the shore of the island, Susan plummets to the bottom of the sea where she finds a wrecked ship. Next to the ship's stern, Friday's body is lodged in the sand and covered in chains. Susan opens his mouth, and he finally "speaks," emitting a stream of water, “Soft and cold, dark and unending, it beats against my eyelids, against the skin of my face.”Foe
is a powerful and philosophical tale about how stories are told, and who has the privilege of telling them.