by Leticia Zelaya
In all cultures, language is a system of communication that directly relates to elements of social identity. In literature, language is also used as a component that defines a character’s identity whether it is through dialogue or written word. Both Robinson Crusoe and Foe explore the voluminous power of voice in language as well as the ethics of translating one language into that of another. As writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o states in “Decolonizing the Mind,” the goal of colonialism “was to control the people’s wealth: what they produced, how they produced it, and how it was distributed; to control, in other words, the entire realm of the language of real life” (Ngugi 1135). Language is a part of life; it is the essence that differentiates human existence from animals, it is “an unseparated medium of life, and to live with it is precisely not to centrifuge it, but to use it: to breathe it” (Haines 19). Without language, the human culture would be just like any animal species. By assigning voices to a selected people, both texts limit language such that the only chance that an ‘other’ or minority has for obtaining a voice is through the translation of the dominant race, that is to say through the voice of the European. This essay will explore how these texts serve as voices that speak for those silenced. Coetzee rewrites Robinson Crusoe not to give voice to Friday but to question or critique our first world ability to speak on behalf of the ‘other.’
Authors intentionally construct characters in ways that, whether direct or indirectly, raise social concerns. In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe documents a “true” story about a man named Robinson Crusoe who was actually a castaway on a deserted island, where he survived for over twenty years. However, he leaves readers questioning authenticity in relation to language and the power of storytelling. Coetzee’s Foe responds to Defoe by exploring appearances of truth illustrating limits of storytelling and fiction through Friday’s character. It is no coincidence that Coetzee’s Foe incorporates many of the characters in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for it appears that Coetzee responds to Defoe’s text with the intent to introduce readers to the problematic links between the reality and fiction of storytelling, particularly in relation to the character of Friday.
In the process of stealing people’s wealth, Ngugi states, colonialism also destroys and “deliberate[ly] undervalue[es] a people’s culture, their art, dances, religions, history, geography, education, orature and literature” on one hand and “conscious[ly] elevat[es]…the language of the colonizer” (1135). In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe suggests that the colonized is completely disregarded and thus their language is lost. At no point in the narrative does Crusoe ask Friday about his native name or his language, nor does he show any interest in learning. Instead, Crusoe offers to teach Friday language, names him Friday because he discovers him on a Friday and teaches him that his own name is “Master.” From then on, these become the terms and conditions of their relationship and of the narrative. As a result, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe provides only the lens and perspective of the colonizer, the Europeans. Coetzee rewrites Robinson Crusoe in Foe responding to this colonization, by dramatizing the ethics of language and representing the colonized as language-less. In Foe, Friday is portrayed as a savage-like native who does not possess a tongue and cannot speak, therefore keeping him from telling his story. His humanity is taken from him and shaped by the way in which Susan Barton describes him. Coetzee raises questions underscored by authorial intentionality, responsibility of writing, and importance of authorship. Thus Coetzee suggests that if natives had the possibility of using language in terms of written word or vocal voice, then they would be able to tell their story, something that Robinson Crusoe simply undermines.
Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe is a fictional biography that attempts to provide a full account and complete history of the rebuilding of a civilization from European perspective. Crusoe divides his autobiography in three parts: adventures of exploration, life on a deserted island, and his escape. During his early years, Crusoe recounts the many times that his father insisted on conforming to a defined lifestyle that would guarantee him to be a member of the middle-class. However, Crusoe becomes invested in traveling and wants nothing more than to head out to sea. He daringly betrays his father’s desires and sets to sea in search of adventure. Throughout his journey, he learns about the trading business, the essence of surviving, and life as a slave. He eventually escapes and is rescued by a Portuguese sailing captain who assists him in establishing a life as a sugar plantation owner. Life as a sugar plantation owner goes fairly well until he finds himself on a mission to bring back slaves from Africa.
A storm interrupts his journey and results in a shipwreck. Robinson Crusoe discovers he is the only survivor and immediately begins to develop skills necessary to stay alive. His account suggests that the acquisition is immediate. In an effort to document his truth as a castaway, Crusoe begins to keep a journal. He eventually notices a footprint and fears cannibals on the island. Next, he heroically rescues a fleeing victim, he calls savage, from cannibals and names him Friday. He describes Friday as a:
Handsome fellow, perfectly well made, with straight strong limbs, not too large; tall and well shap’d …[with] all the sweetness and softness of an European in his countenance…His hair was long and black, not curl’d like wool; his forehead very high, and large, and a great vivacity and sparkling sharpness in his eyes. The colour of his skin was not quite black, but very tawny…His face was round and plump; his nose small, not flat like the Negroes, a very good mouth, thin lips and his fine teeth well set, and white as ivory. (162)
Crusoe nurtures him allowing him to “lay his head on flat upon the ground, close to [Crusoe’s] foot, and sets [Crusoe’s] other foot upon his head…[making] all the signs to [Crusoe] of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let [him] know how, he would serve [him] as long as he liv’d” (163). It is in this way that Defoe creates an ideological story. He shapes the narrative logically to normalize ideas to depict a particular perspective to readers. Defoe proposes two destinies for Friday: he could have been eaten or be Crusoe’s subservient companion. Defoe suggests, from the lens of a European, that the better option for Friday is to serve as a subservient companion, “the effect is to make Friday a part of the systematized world Crusoe has built around himself” (Cohen 11). Friday is portrayed as grateful to Crusoe and thus abides with treatment of enslavement.
In his article “Fashioning Friday,” Derek Cohen thoroughly investigates the character of Friday in Robinson Crusoe by exploring the ways in which Defoe defines him. Cohen compares Friday to an “infant, he arrives naked, nameless, and even in Crusoe’s mind, without speech. The language he already knows is mere gabble according to his surrogate father who believes he has literally brought him to life” (12). Crusoe states that he names him Friday to commemorate the “day [he] sav’d his life” (Defoe 163). Cohen compares the introduction of Friday’s character to childbirth and relates it to governing the power of the colonizers imposing power over the natives. Cohen focuses the ways in which Friday’s character illustrates European colonialism by exploring the master and slave relationship. Crusoe teaches Friday “to say Master and then let him know that was to be [his] name” (Defoe 163). This ultimately conveys the negative effects of colonialism on identity. For Cohen, Robinson Crusoe’s autobiography is nothing more than the European version of events. The European shelters, feeds, and teaches the ‘other’ “every thing that was proper to make him useful, handy, and helpful; but especially to make him speak and understand me when [he] spake” (Defoe 166). Eventually, as Cohen relates:
Friday, the savage, becomes Friday the contentedly Christianized slave. He is the colonizer’s dream subject. He is strong and hardworking, but he is also pacific, easily cowed and subdued, and wants no greater reward than his master’s good opinion. The only words that Friday utters once he can speak confirm his entire loss of original identity. He is without language, history, true religion, or social grace. (18)
Crusoe’s account implies that Friday has an original language but that he has no interest in learning it. Instead, he implies that Friday is knowledgeable of universal signs and it is in this way that they begin communicating. Though Friday learns a few words and is able to speak with Crusoe, it is not his real voice. It is not his language. Rather, it is the language and voice that the European gives him. Ultimately Defoe suggests that in relation to colonialism,
The primitive savage needed the European civilization to bring order, harmony, and morality to those parts of the world that had not fallen under the sway of Christianity. And the European cultures needed the savage to be universally imagined as he is in the novel in order to justify their adventures of self-enrichment through slavery and conquest in their scramble to enlarge the perimeters of their nations. (Cohen 19)
Thus, in a colonial context, Defoe uses Crusoe’s character to illustrate the European colonists as heroes by normalizing imperialist ideology therefore depicting him as the prototype of British colonists. If Defoe’s text gives Friday as an ‘other’ a voice, though limited and controlled, he seems to suggest that his existence is the result of heroic efforts and the result of power of the colonists or dominating race. As Ngugi states, “The choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to a people’s definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment” (1126). This raises a question of translation and truth. Is it possible to believe Crusoe’s autobiography if we have not heard Friday’s story? How can we ensure that the account that Crusoe documents is accurate if he doesn’t know Friday’s language? The answer is essentially in J.M. Coetzee’s response to Defoe in his reimagined novel, Foe.
J.M. Coetzee’s 1986 novel, Foe, is a rewriting of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Coetzee’s novel presents the same characters, Cruso and Friday with the addition of a female voice, Susan Barton. Coetzee divides the narrative into four parts, the first three narrated by Susan Barton. The first part of the narrative is addressed to a writer named Foe, where Susan tells her tale of losing her daughter in Brazil and arriving as a castaway to a deserted island. Susan describes the island as a “desert isle” (7). Eventually, Susan meets two more castaways, Cruso and his ‘tongueless’ African man servant named Friday. The castaways are later rescued from the desert island and taken back to England. All but Cruso survive the journey. In the second part of the novel, Susan adopts the name Mrs. Cruso, and writes a series of letters to Foe, in hopes of having him write of her adventures on the island as she has recorded them. In this second section, Susan finds herself stranded in England mourning Cruso’s death and seeks shelter in Foe’s home, a place that seems to have been abandoned by the writer and occupied by bailiffs (61). While sheltering in Foe’s home, Susan reflects on her story of the island, of Friday and the possibilities of having her story written…her way. When Susan eventually finds Foe, she is unhappy about the way he is going about narrating the content of her story. It seems that Foe’s mission is to publish a story that he is sure will sell. Her immediate apprehension and anxiety are further affected by Friday’s silence and the frustration in attempting to teach him to write his true story. She attempts to speculate his origins and the events that lead up to the loss of his tongue. The final part of the narrative shifts tone indicating the voice of an anonymous narrator. The final section appears unintelligible compared to the rest of the novel and it is here that Coetzee illustrates in nontraditional ways dimensions of storytelling.
Coetzee adds a woman, Susan Barton, as a narrator to his novel to give place to characters that are not traditionally given agency. While Defoe concentrates on the heroism of Crusoe’s colonialism, Coetzee focuses on the absence of voice that the oppressed, or ‘other’ experiences as a result of colonialism. In Foe, Robinson Crusoe is depicted as a green-eyed, “dark-skinned and heavily bearded” European with “hair burnt to a straw colour” (8). Coetzee depicts Friday as a tongueless Negro with springy hair, head of fuzzy wool, and hard skin (6-7). Coetzee writes off Cruso by only featuring him in the beginning of Susan’s story, dying shortly after his introduction to emphasize that Crusoe’s story has already been told. Susan’s focus is not only to discover the origins of Friday’s tongueless-ness but “to present her experience on the island in a ‘factual’ account” (Jolly, 3). The remainder of the novel is Susan’s attempt at telling of her own story but also trying to understand and tell of Friday’s story “justifying narrative [by its] ability to convey ‘the truth’’(Jolly, 3). The conflict becomes Susan Barton’s challenge in discovering the meaning of storytelling.
Susan’s quest to get her story told begins as a desire for substantiality. As she reflects on her own story to Foe she states, “I seem to exist 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 true body of Cruso” (Coeztee 51). As she considers the power that Foe has in publishing her work she asks him to “return to [her] the substance [she has] lost…that is [her] entreaty” (51). She tells herself that the word “story” means “a storing-place of memories” (59) and that language creates a “correspondence between things as they are and the pictures we have of them in our minds” (65). Susan eventually finds herself lost in her own and her history, “is finally, a history of her inability tell the story she wants to tell; it is not the story she originally desires” (Jolly 4). Moreover she finally realizes that she doesn’t know how to account for Friday’s tounglessness, as she states “I should never learn how Friday lost his tongue…what we accept in life we cannot accept in history. To tell my story and be silent on Friday’s tongue is no better than offering a book for sale with pages in it quietly left empty. Yet the only tongue that can tell Friday’s secret is the tongue he has lost!” (Coetzee 67). Susan begins to understand that because of his silence, anyone might be able to unethically appropriate his story:
Friday has no command of words and therefore no defence against being re-shaped day by day in conformity with the desires of others. I say he is a cannibal and he becomes a cannibal; I say he is a laundryman and he becomes a laundryman. What is the truth of Friday? You will respond: he is neither cannibal, nor laundryman, these are mere names, they do not touch his essence, he is a substantial body, he is himself, Friday is Friday. But that is not so. No matter what he is to himself (is he anything to himself – how can he tell us?) What he is to the world is what I make of him. (121-22)
Susan accepts that it is not her position or responsibility to tell Friday’s story but rather that it is her ethical position to try to help him tell his own story. For Foe, Friday’s story is nothing but a riddle to solve: “In every story there is a silence, some sight concealed, some word unspoken, I believe. Till we have spoken the unspoken we have not come to the heart of the story” (141). The struggle within the narrative is not to give Friday a voice but rather to discover other avenues in which his story might be told. The point that Coetzee addresses is that Friday’s story cannot be told from Susan’s perspective or anyone else’s. It can only be told from Friday’s perspective. This then brings forth the ethical question of translation, the idea of who is telling whose story.
When thinking of the concept of translation, it is often associated with translating from one language to another. It is not necessarily thought of as translating someone’s story into one’s own or someone else’s. In her essay “Translation with No Original: Scandals of Textual Reproduction,” Emily Apter essentially argues that all translations are fallacies as the notion of translating a work performs as acts of pretend to possess a sense of truth. As Apter relates, something is always lost in the process of translation, stating that, “unless one knows the language of the original, the exact nature and substance of what is lost will be always impossible to ascertain” (106). Coetzee’s response to Defoe in Foe seems to question the effects of ethical translation by the characterization of Friday. Throughout the narrative of Foe, Sarah Barton shapes the character of Friday and attempts to tell his story. However, Friday’s story is one that is ambiguous and thus, the translation of his story in Sarah Barton’s words raises ethical problems of translation. Essentially, Coetzee must also remain silent in trying to shine light on Friday’s story. If he told Friday’s story through the narrative of Susan Barton, he would be committing the same crime as Robinson Crusoe, assuming to speak for the ‘other.’
Coetzee ultimately challenges the appearance of truth on colonization that Defoe presents in Crusoe. When Robinson Crusoe tells his story incorporating Friday, he presents himself as a hero. Friday’s story becomes completely subordinate and essentially does not exist. When readers are invested in the story of heroism through a colonial lens, then there is no way that Friday’s story can be told. In his article “Post-Colonial African Literature as Counter- Discourse: J.M. Coetzee’s Foe and the Reworking of the Canon,” Ayobami Kehinde examines how African novelists have used their works to respond to the misrepresented portrayal of colonialism on Africans and Africa that has been previously illustrated in literary canonical texts. As Kehinde relates, Friday’s silence is not a disability per se, rather it is “a social condition imposed upon him by those in power. He therefore represents all human beings who have been silenced because of their race, gender or class” (112). When Susan realizes that she cannot tell Friday’s story it becomes apparent that “Friday possesses the history that Susan is unable to tell, and it will not be heard until there is a means of giving voice to Friday. Foe is suggesting that the world’s harmony and true progress will improve if there is mutual respect and cross fertilization of ideas” (114). Thus, the image of colonization is depicted in Foe’s absence of voice in Friday’s character. This image underpins the notion that “African history did not begin with the continent’s contact and subsequent destruction by the European colonists” (115). These natives, or savages as Robinson Crusoe might call them, had voices before colonization and it is texts like these by Coetzee that take on the task of “reclaim[ing] that which has been misappropriated and to reconstruct that which has been damaged, even destroyed” (115).
The last section of Foe is an image of narrative return to a story. The way that a story is traditionally understood is through the structure of Robinson Crusoe. In contrast, Coetzee’s final section in Foe is utterly unintelligible and does not function in the traditional way that we understand story. The narrative becomes non-linear through the image of water as a metaphorical representation of storytelling. Water is something that is so fluid, it cannot be held as its own and its taste is something that is almost impossible to describe. The image of water, thus, emphasizes what a story is. Water is itself in the same way that we are our own voice. Essentially, Coetzee uses the image of water to suggest a radical fluidity in Friday’s voice that is so different to the way that Susan tells the story that it doesn’t even look or sound like a story. If we imagine where Friday’s story comes from, it is quite simply only what comes out of his mouth:
“His mouth opens. From inside comes a slow stream, without breath, without interruption. It flows up through his body and out upon me; it passes through the cabin, through the wreck; washing the cliffs and shores of the island, it runs northward and southward to the ends of the earth.” (157).
Foe’s ending looks nothing like the narrative of heroism that is clearly depicted in Robinson Crusoe and it also looks nothing like, at least on the surface, the competing narrative of Susan Barton’s story. The fact that Friday’s tongue has been removed ties into the ability of his being able to tell his story literally being ripped out of him. Traditionally we may think that because of this, he cannot tell his story; the reality is that he can, just not in the Western preconception. Friday’s story may not look the way we would want it to and thus we deny its possibility: “Friday’s silence is indeed voiced but not by using words. Thus, language and story-writing about the formerly colonized are shown to lead up a blind alley” (Fries-Dieckmann 174). A story can be told in many ways. Susan believes that the only way to produce a work that gains recognition is “to transform her narrative into a popular travel adventure, because this has been used for stories such as hers” (Jolly 5). As readers, we privilege the kind of stories that make sense to us, in the same way that Robinson Crusoe’s seems to make sense to us. However, that style of storytelling carries the same amount of power that any traditional story carries.
As readers, we are doing a disservice in denying multiple modes of storytelling. It’s not a coincidence that we value stories like Robinson Crusoe over stories like the confusing stream that comes out of Friday’s mouth. Coetzee ultimately criticizes the naturalization we come to give to the understanding of storytelling. Over time, through power we come to value these styles of storytelling over Friday’s. And that poses ramifications in terms of whose story gets told, whose has power, and whose has meaning. As Ngugi states, “language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world” (1134). While reading and responding to novels such as Robinson Crusoe and Foe, we must pay close attention to the role that language plays within the narrative and how its absence seems to underscore the effects of what happens to a language when a society is colonized.
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Fries-Dieckman, Marion. “‘Castaways in the Very Heart of the City’: Island and Metropolis in J.M. Coetzee’s Foe” Local Natures, Global Responsibilities: Ecocritical Perspectives on the New English Literatures. Ed. Laurenz Volkmann. New York: Editions Rodolpi, 2010. 167-178. EBSCO. Web. 24 November 2015.
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Jolly, Rosemary Jane. Colonization, Violence, and Narration in White South African Writing: André Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, and J.M. Coetzee. Athens: Ohio UP, 1996. Print.
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