by Katie DeBuck
Foe is a novel by J.M. Coetzee that was written in 1986, 267 years after the publication of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Foe was written in response to DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe and, through the words of J.M. Coetzee, the character of Susan Barton describes her life during and after her time on the desolate island with Cruso. The major difference between the two novels is that Foe assimilates a woman’s voice into the highly masculine story of Robinson Crusoe. Barton’s time on “Cruso’s island” is spent in preoccupation with Cruso’s way of life, and life after her rescue is spent in reflection of her relationships with Cruso, Friday, and Foe. This female voice is presented through the words of a male author, J.M. Coetzee, who presents Barton as a submissive supporting actress to the extremely dominant character of Robinson Crusoe. Coetzee’s Foe bestows a voice on the female castaway but fails to award her a voice of strength because Robinson Crusoe dominates not only the island they are both stranded on, but also the whole story itself.
Susan Barton, the narrator in Foe, finds herself shipwrecked on a desolate island with a man named Robinson Cruso. It does not take long for Barton to recognize her status on the island after she tells Cruso her story of being washed ashore. She says, “I presented myself to Cruso, in the days when he still ruled over the island, and became his second subject, the first being his manservant Friday” (Coetzee 11). Throughout the novel, even long after Cruso’s death, she describes the island as “Cruso’s island.” She finds herself as the mere female companion to the king and his manservant, Friday. Barton rationalizes Cruso’s role of king as she sees him “on the Bluff, with the sun behind him all red and purple, staring out to see…I thought: He is a truly kingly figure; he is the true king of the island” (37). Coetzee makes Barton the woman behind the man, defining her as a “free and autonomous being like all human creatures that finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the Other” (Dragunoiu 15). Barton is quick to assume the submissive role on the island as the assertive character of Robinson Cruso takes the lead on the island and in her story.
Barton’s role as a submissive supporting character to Cruso displays Coetzee’s formulation of Susan as a man’s woman. Susan is a sensual woman, and as the only female character in both Defoe’s novel as well as Coetzee’s novel, she is represented through her sexuality. Susan’s sexuality is first displayed in the beginning of the novel, when she is on the island and Cruso is alive. As she falls asleep one night, Cruso begins to make advances toward her. She describes the event by saying, “I pushed his hand away and made to rise, but he held me. No doubt I might have freed myself, for I was stronger than he” (30). Although she realizes she is stronger than him, she decides not to leave but to “let him do as he wished” (30). Barton’s reaction to Cruso’s unwarranted actions towards her identifies her as a character of meek subservience—she is easily overpowered by the male character of Cruso. She even rationalizes his unprovoked advances towards her by saying, “he has not known a woman for fifteen years, why should he not have his desires?” (30). The fact that she excuses his actions of degradation to an impulse of desire solidifies her role as an accessory in the novel; she not only lets Cruso use her, but excuses it as a right of his male desires.
Susan Barton also views her sexuality as therapy for Cruso at the end of his life when he suffers from a raging fever. She spends many nights with him while they are on board the ship that rescued them, holding him and using her body to cure him. She describes:
She uses every part of her body that defines her as a woman—tongue, cheeks, and thighs—in an attempt to alleviate Cruso of his sickness. She is not sexually or emotionally interested in Cruso, but still offers herself up to him. It is as if she is begging for him to survive by seducing him through senses. Her efforts fail because shortly thereafter, Cruso dies.
Susan Barton’s voice is projected through the words of the male author who created her. Using the text as evidence, it seems as though Coetzee purposefully creates a female character of weakness. She goes through a myriad of roles throughout the novel—each of which clearly point to her as a minor character in a book that is supposed to be about “the female castaway” (67). On “Cruso’s island” she is merely the “woman washed ashore,” and in England she is haunted with the question, “What life do I live but that of Cruso’s widow?” (99). In England, she searches to define her role, but ends up defining it through her gender; as Dana Dragunoiu notes, “she thinks of herself as Friday’s mistress, Foe’s housekeeper and muse, and after the journey to Bristol, even as a gypsy and stroller” (Dragunoiu 17). Barton’s inability to define her feminine nature leads her to broad conclusions about herself. She is unable to define herself as a singular unit and seems to most commonly view herself as a part to someone else—Cruso’s widow, Foe’s muse, and Friday’s companion.
Susan Barton is a man’s woman whose story is told through the words of a male author both from outside the text and inside the text. She is created by one man, J.M. Coetzee, as a woman of confusion and subtlety. Foe is not a story about her life, but seems to be a device to describe her male counterparts instead. The novel is a reflection of a man’s adaptation of a woman’s life, as Susan Barton implores Foe to write her story for her. She says to him, “Do you think of me, Mr. Foe, as Mrs. Cruso or as a bold adventuress? Think what you may, it was I who shared Cruso’s bed, closed Cruso’s eyes” (45). Ultimately, she believes that it is her responsibility to tell the “story of his island” (45). Susan has answered the question for herself, presenting herself as Cruso’s widow by describing her life through her interaction with Cruso. The subject matter of the book describes more of the adventures of Robinson Cruso than of the adventures of Susan Barton. The only questions Foe asks of her while she tells him her story are directed towards the mysterious Robinson Cruso. She notes that Foe “asked how it was that Cruso did not save a single musket from the wreck” and “asked also about Cruso’s apeskin clothes” (55). Similar to the concerns of J.M. Coetzee, Foe seems to be more interested in Robinson Cruso. Susan Barton serves as a tool to achieve a better insight on the deceased adventurer, Robinson Cruso.
Although Susan Barton is the voice of the novel, she is not the main character because she is most concerned with telling the story of “Cruso’s island.” J.M. Coetzee is a male author who uses the voice of Barton to convey a deeper understanding of Defoe’s male character, Robinson Crusoe. As a woman, she is used as an instrument to further define the characters and story of Robinson Crusoe. The beginning of the novel is focused on Cruso and his island, while the end of the novel is focused on Barton defining her relationship with Cruso and also her relationship with Friday. Through her meek subservience and her role as the supporting actress to the ever-present figure of Robinson Cruso, Susan Barton’s voice is lost. Coetzee uses her as merely a device to relay the stories of Cruso and Friday.
Coetzee, J.M. Foe. London: Penguin, 1986.
Dragunoiu, Dana. “Existential doubt and political responsibility in J.M. Coetzee’s Foe.” Washington: Spring 2001: 309-337. Academic Universe. Proquest. <http://proquest.umi.com/>.