(Un-)Voicing the Empire: Coetzee's Re-Writing of "Robinson Crusoe"

Seminar Paper 2012 15 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature




I. Establishing Systems of Representation
I.l. Defoe's Empire
I.2. Coetzee Demolishes the Canon

II. Struggling with Author-ity: The Functions of Susan's Narration

III. In Search of His Voice: Friday's Muteness as the Core of the Story


Works Cited


“But this is not a place of words. Each syllable, as it comes out is caught and filled with water

and diffused. This is a place where bodies are their own signs. It is the home of Friday.”[l]

This passage from the last page of J. M. Coetzee's novel Foe, shows a reflection on the limits of language. It solves the puzzle of the story, of why it has previously failed to tell that of Friday. Although it seems to be the centre of Susan Barton's narration, she could only assume what the core of his story is. The reason for this blank space though is explained in that very quote: As a forcefully mutilated and silenced character, whose tongue has been removed, Friday is, in the end, revealed to not be in the power to express himself with the convention of words or in linguistic terms but embodies a different form of communication.

The novel Foe, written by the South African author J. M. Coetzee is a rewriting of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, first published in l7l9. It questions the colonial values embedded in the original and deconstructs the concept of Empire. He thus constructs a pseudo- biographical fiction to Defoe himself and the original text. As part of the canon it paints a nearly idealistic picture of first colonial settlement. Crusoe, a religious, vibrant and virtuous young man is shipwrecked on a lonely island and saves a “savage” from a community of cannibals, whom he makes his servant Friday. Willingly subordinating himself to his master, Friday is eager to adapt Robinson's language and beliefs and distancing himself from the past. With Foe Coetzee writes back to the canon in creating a prequel to Robinson Crusoe, telling a fictional story on how Defoe was inspired to the castaway's story. Even a fictional version of the author himself is featured in it. In doing so, he criticises the unvoicing of the Other. Being a victim of representation the colonized Other is silenced in its own way of expression and as in the case of Friday is forced into the Western narrative.

Coetzee thus gives the story of Friday and Crusoe an ironic turn. His characters – Cruso, Friday, the newly introduced female narrator Susan Barton, and the author himself, Foe – often have opposing trademarks to those of Defoe and his Robinson Crusoe. Instead though of having given Friday a voice, the story is told through the lens of a female character, which obviously intendedly “did not make it” into the version Defoe created. Coetzee chooses a way of rewriting by reflecting upon means of voicing and representation itself. Thus, not in letting the Other, here being Friday, speak but by consciously making Friday also physically unable to speak, Coetzee depicts the struggle of another oppressed subject, being the woman Susan

Barton, to tell the story of Friday through her own and failing in understanding his silence. Both texts though show different types of (mis-)representation of Friday, as he is not given an own voice through Western authority, but in the case of Defoe is “ventriloquised” and in the case of Coetzee, trying to be forced into the discourse of language.

The following should examine in what relation the empire stands to voice. Firstly, the basis of Defoe's Empire should be established and how Crusoe integrates Friday into his Western narrative. The island builds the ground for an idealistic depiction of the concept of empire and how the settler teaches, thus unvoices, the native subject. In the next step, Coetzee's ironic manipulation of these circumstances will be shown as he depicts Cruso as a confused and lethargic man, losing his memory and lays the grounds for the general Western misunderstanding of the Other.

Although the setting of the island seems to lose importance, the intertextual approach Coetzee follows is undeniable. The second step will analyse the reflection of voice by intertextual strategies that Coetzee uses. Intertextuality reflects upon literary history and, according to Canepari-Labib, “addresses the marginalisation and oppression inherent in the very concept of canon”[2]. Coetzee re-writes to deconstruct certain attitudes manifested in Crusoe towards colonialism and oppression. The most striking change Coetzee makes in his rewriting is by choosing a female narrator who tries to construct the story of herself, Friday and Cruso. It is to be shown, how the self-reflexivity of this fiction works. Through Susan's struggle with words and story-telling, the authority of the canon is deranged. The failure of language comes from its lack of hearing voices that do not consist of words.

The third and last part will concentrate on how Friday's silence in Foe works and how it itself reveals the mistakes of Western subordination and at the same time serves as a form of expressing his own memory as the Other, the one that is being oppressed and falsely represented.

I. Establishing Systems of Representation

I.1. Defoe's Empire

In the initial setting of Defoe's Crusoe, the island is encountered as the “other” space. It is described as a “wild miserable place”[3], barren and desolated. The seaman Crusoe is cast on this unknown and savage territory. The notion, that he actually is the coloniser of the island, is carried by the hard labour he puts into making the land fertile and creating a liveable environment to himself. However, the attitude of colonization is most of all manifested in the master-servant-dialectic he engages in with Friday.

After Crusoe saves the indigenous man from great danger, he willingly and full of thankfulness becomes his servant. Friday who had previously belonged to a cannibalistic community embodies all the stereotypical notions of the uncivilised savage, who must be domesticated by the “hard labouring and intelligent” white settler. Cruso gives Friday his name too: “I made him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life. I called him so for the memory of the time.”[4] The act of naming itself is that of claiming property. Eyeing him like a slave-master, about to choose himself a working hand, he reveals Friday to be “a comely, handsome fellow, perfectly well made, with straight, strong limbs, not too large, tall and well-shaped”[5]. Crusoe thinks it justifiable to claim property of the savage since he stands in his “debt” for having saved him and let him live.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Submission towards a master, or a superior collective seems pre-inscribed in Friday. As Sam Durrant writes, “Friday is passed over or lost as a subject”[6], so, after having been freed from the cannibals, he “sets [Robinson's] foot upon his head”[7]. An act serving Crusoe as the “token of swearing to be my slave forever”[8]. Since the two do not speak the language of the other, Crusoe starts to “teach him to speak to me […] [and] likewise teach him to say master”[9]. It is made clear by Crusoe though, that his caring for Friday is based solely on a purpose to himself. Crusoe's plan to “teach him everything that was proper to make him useful, handy and helpful”[lO], shows his motives of taking mainly use of him as a servant. Becoming to Crusoe the “the aptest scholar that ever was”[ll]. With the learning of the English language,


[l] John M. Coetzee, Foe, Secker & Warburg, London, l986, p. l57.

[2] Michela Canepari-Labib, Old Myths – Modern Empires. Power, Language and Identity in J. M. Coetzee's Work, Peter Lang, Oxford et al., 2OO5, p. lO7.

[3] Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, Wordsworth Classics, St. Ives, l993, p.99. 4 Defoe, p. 265.

[5] Ibid. p. 263f.

[6] Sam Durrant, Postcolonial Narrative and the Work of Mourning, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2OO4, p. 33.

[7] Defoe, p. 26l.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. p. 265. lO Ibid. p. 268. ll Ibid. p. 27O.


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Title: (Un-)Voicing the Empire: Coetzee's Re-Writing of "Robinson Crusoe"