Of History and Herstory: Story-Telling in Coetzees 'Foe'

Term Paper 2008 12 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1 Introduction: Structure and Aims of this Paper

2 Story-Telling in Foe: An Analysis
2.1 The Level of Narrative Transmission: Narrators
2.2 The Level of the Characters: Perspectives and Stories

3 Conclusion

4 Bibliography

1 Introduction: Structure and Aims of this Paper

The analysis of narrative texts is one of the three main disciplines of literary stud­ies. What sets the novel apart from the poem and the dramatic text are its distinct features of how a novel's story is told. Bringing it down to a simple statement, one could say: A novel needs a narrator - of which many kinds exist and which can be identified amidst the bounds of literary terminology.

It is the aim of literary studies to analyse and identify literary themes, struc­tures and characteristics in a scientifically accurate way by reducing the vast vari­ety of features of the different genres to its most coherent and basic, yet distin­guishable elements. The communication model for narrative texts (cf. Nünning/ Nünning 2004) is one of these attempts to identify and further define the basic elements of how a narrative text is composed. The two intratextual levels of communication, the level of narrative transmission and the level of the characters and the story, are in focus when analysing a novel in order to answer the ques­tions: Who tells? Who experiences? To whom is the story being told?

The South African J.M. Coetzee's novel Foe, written in 1986, serves as an example of how established narrative conventions can be altered and twisted by adopting elements from different narrative approaches, which are combined into an interesting, unique and well-rounded novel.

In this term paper I would like to analyse the unconventional way in which the many stories of Coetzee's Foe are told. I will begin by closely examining the nar­rative situation, which - although it might appear so during the first reading - does not stay constant throughout the novel's discourse. In the second part of my analy­sis, I will concentrate on the level of the characters and the story, in which both a variety of stories are told as well as the perspectives are alternated perpetually. Finally, I will have a look at what I would call one of the novel's major storylines - the story about story telling itself. This 'meta-storytelling' (or 'meta-narration')1 is what binds all elements of Foe together to one cohesive piece of literature.

2 Story-Telling in Foe : An Analysis

2.1 The Level of Narrative Transmission: Narrators in Foe

Foe is composed of four untitled parts, which differ not only in their respective lengths and contents, but also in the way in which the story is presented, as every part has a slightly different narrative situation:

Parts one to three have one thing in common: They are narrated by the novel's main protagonist, Susan Barton. Therefore it seems obvious that the events of the story are presented in a first-person narrative situation - with Susan taking on the roles of both 'Narrating I' and 'Experiencing I', as she is clearly involved in the story on multiple levels. However, when examining the novel's parts more closely, it becomes evident that defining the narrative situation as a first-person one is not completely accurate.

The story opens with Susan Barton recounting the events on the island, be­ginning with her telling the fictive reader: "At last I could row no further" (5), which serves as a first indication for the first-person narrative situation as well as - through the use of the past tense - the assumption of an unknown temporal dis­tance between narration and actual experience. It is not until page three that the sentence "For readers reared on travellers' tales, the words desert isle may conjure up a place of soft sands and shady trees" shows that the narrator actually directly addresses the reader, indicating that certain elements of the authorial narrative situation are included in the recounting of the events - at least those of addressing and (as shall be seen later) the thematisation of the act of narrating itself.

The reader realises at a later point of the discourse that Susan Barton not only addresses an unknown reader (or readers), but someone in particular ("who was of course the Cruso I told you of" (9; emphasis added)), which, by the use of the second-person pronoun you, is a sign for the adequately titled second-person nar­ration (cf. Nünning/Nünning 2004) . It therefore seems that another, currently un­named character is somehow involved in the events. In the cause of this first part of the novel it actually becomes clear at numerous points that Susan Barton ad­dresses someone, indicated not only by the use of personal pronouns, but also by mentioning facts and information in a way as if this person knew more about them than both the (other) fictive as well as us, the real readers (ibid.).

Finally, at the very end of the first part, the reader learns who the addressed person really is: The novel's title giving Foe ("Do you think of me, Mr. Foe, as Mrs. Cruso or as a bold adventuress?" (45; emphasis added)). This final piece of information leads directly to the novel's second part, in which the narrative situa­tion is slightly altered:

Part two begins where part one leaves off, both on the level of narrative transmission as well as on the level of the characters and the story. During part one, the reader learned about the events on the island and the fact that the whole recount of these events appears to be a letter or journal entry written afterwards and meant to be read by Mr. Foe ("I have set down the history of our time on the island as well as I can, and enclose it herewith." (47)). Part two takes this narrative strategy one step further and opens with one of the many letters of which the whole second part is composed - written by Susan and addressed to Mr. Foe, indi­cating that the higher narrative situation has not changed. What makes this part so different is the fact that the reader is now aware of the addressing of what could perhaps be called the novel's antagonist, Foe.2 The whole second part is character­ised by Susan's single-sided correspondence with him ("How I wish you could answer!" (82)).

Through these letters, several important actions take place: First, Susan tells Foe about present events and circumstances (marked by the use of the present tense as well as dates as her letters' headings; "We are now settled in the lodgings in Clock Lane off Long Acre" (47; emphasis added)). Secondly, she re tells him the story of the island and simultaneously imagines what Friday's true story could be ("Yet the only tongue that can tell Friday's secret is the tongue he has lost!" (67)). Thirdly, Susan refers to some kind of encounter she and Foe seemed to have had between the events of the novel's first and second part (which the novel's dis­course does not include; "It was raining (do you remember?)" (48)). Fourthly, she presents her own thoughts, feelings and consciousness and reflects on the art of story-telling ("It is all a matter of words and the number of words, is it not?" (94)) and her conscious role as narrator ("When I reflect on my story I seem to exist only as the one who came, the one who witnessed [...]: A being without sub­stance, a ghost [...] Is that the fate of all storytellers?", (51)) And, finally, she de fends herself against what seems to be Foe's constant passive influence on her story-telling ("What I saw, I wrote." (54)).

The first-person narrative situation therefore underlies part two as well as part one. Some further characteristics of the latter, however, have to be altered in order to precisely characterise the narrative situation of the former: First, elements of the authorial narrative situation are reduced to meta-storytelling only - although this turns out to be a major part of the plot itself, which means it should be treated as substantial for the level of the characters and the story rather than of the level of narrative transmission. Secondly, the idea of a second-person narrative situation can be attached more evidently to the second part, as it is now clear from the be­ginning that someone specific is addressed via the (unread) letters. Therefore Foe, although still not present physically, plays a role of growing importance in the novel's second part. Yet he does not become an active character until his appear­ance in the third part:

Part three's change of location marks a strong cut in the novel's discourse, accompanied by an evolving narrative situation. In the first part, Foe was merely mentioned at the very end (before that a fictive addressee was only hinted at). In the second part, he was directly addressed, but did not appear as an active charac­ter. In the third part, Foe finally becomes one of the novel's leading (and physi­cally present) characters. The second-person narrative situation can therefore not be applied to this part, as - with the physical appearance of Foe - there is no rea­son to use this narrative strategy, which combines both story and discourse. Inter­estingly, however, Susan Barton still narrates in the first-person perspective, which turns the narrative transmission truly into a first-person one. This seems confusing, as Susan - up to this point - has had a reason for writing (second in-tratextual level) and therefore narrating (first intratextual level), but still tells her story in this part, although it is unclear whom she is telling it ("Why do I speak, to whom do I speak, when there is no need to speak?" (133); "but to whom do I con­fess this?" (134)).3 This marks a kind of switch from the second to the first in-tratextual level of communication.


1 'meta' is used here as the Greek prefix for 'about': 'story-telling about story-telling'

2 This thesis shall further be discussed in the second part of this analysis.

3 What further supports this theory is the lack of the single quotation marks at the beginning of a new paragraph without direct speech.


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Bielefeld University – Linguistik und Literaturwissenschaft
Metafiction Coetzee Narrator Literature Story-Telling Robinson Crusoe



Title: Of History and Herstory: Story-Telling in Coetzees 'Foe'