Metafiction in J.M. Coetzee's 'Foe'

Term Paper 2006 19 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of contents


2. Coetzee’s place in contemporary writing
2.1. the position of coetzee and his texts
2.2. the intersection of postcolonialism and postmodernism

3. metafiction
3.1. origins of the term and its function today
3.2. definition(s) and forms of metafiction

4. metafiction and the discourse of power in foe
4.1. an overview
4.2. part i
4.3. parts II and III
4.4. part IV



1. Introduction

The main aim of this paper is to discuss metafiction in J. M. Coetzee’s Foe (1986)[1], which is a rewriting of Daniel Defoe’s literary classic Robinson Crusoe (1719)[2]. As a fiction about the origins of Crusoe, Coetzee’s Foe addresses the problematic issues in Crusoe, in particular the absence of female characters and Friday’s inefficacy to represent an independent personality, by ‘exposing the silences in the original and giving them voice’ (James, 6). Defoe, obscured behind the persona of the narrator in Crusoe, is ‘[forced] […] out into the open and [exposed] […] for what he is, the “foe”, Mr Foe, the giver of false witness’ (Burnett, 244).[3]

As a discussion of Foe inevitably raises questions of how far Coetzee was using Crusoe to explore the South African context, I shall deal not only with the position of Coetzee and his texts as discussed by various critics, but also with the intersection of postcolonialism and postmodernism in his works and suggest that even though there might be a perception of the ‘marginalisation of ethical discourse […] [as] a result of the rise of poststructuralist theory’ (Yeoh, 1), Coetzee has made a counter-argument, ‘[insisting] on the inescapability of ethics’ (Yeoh, 2) despite his privileging of textuality. Subsequently this paper shall give (a) definition(s) of a dominant subject of postmodern fiction, namely metafiction, and consider the origins of this term and its general functions.[4] On the basis of my personal reading of Foe and several secondary sources drawn upon, I will finally take a rather detailed look at metafiction and, related to this, the discourse of power in Coetzee’s deconstruction of the Crusoe myth.

2. Coetzee ’s place in contemporary writing

2.1 The position of Coetzee and his texts

As a white South African, Coetzee writes from the position of a member of the dominant group and has thus access to a power which is denied to the majority of Native Americans. While some critics argue that his fiction evades its responsibility towards South Africa by eliding its immediate political reality during and in the wake of apartheid, others read his texts as allegories of the contemporary South African situation, dramatising ‘the complicity of colonial settler narratives with exploitative politico-historical processes’ (Wright, 118, quoted Egerer, 95). Others of a more deconstructive interest see Coetzee’s main concern in language, with his writing being one that ‘interrogates, challenges, casts into doubt’ (Olsen, 47, quoted in Egerer, 95). Yet another group of critics reconcile self-reflexive elements with a contextual reading, arguing that while texts like Foe can be read as an ‘allegory of the creative process’ (Splendore, 58), they also ‘[lay] bare the ambiguity of the social drama’ (Splendore, 60).

What emerges from these critical perspectives is that within a materialist agenda, Coetzee’s writing is seen as ‘marginal’ in the sense of not taking an explicit stand against South-African socio-historical conditions; seen as South-African postmodern writing, it is also ‘marginal’ to the tradition of postmodernism insofar as the majority of postmodern texts are associated with South- and Anglo-America.[5] Reading Attwell’s comments in Coetzee’s Doubling the Point confirms once more the impossibility of (self-)positioning. Distancing himself from a mode of thinking which constructs a new opposition between ‘exhausted metropolis and vigorous periphery’ (202), Coetzee rejects these classifications, privileging instead the tensions resulting from ‘a will to remain in crisis’ (337).

2.2 The intersection of postcolonialism and postmodernism

Coetzee’s novels occupy a special place not only in South African literature, but also in the development of the twentieth-century novel in general, because he is ‘the first South African writer to produce overtly self-conscious fictions drawing explicitly on international postmodernism’, importing ‘contemporary Western preoccupations which produce a stress on textuality to a degree not previously seen in his country’s literature’ (Head, 1). Newman proceeds upon the assumption that ‘postcolonial fictions are themselves “theoretical” in their counter-readings of master narratives’, and ‘have in themselves the interpretive power which dominant theoretical practice usually grants to the literary critic’ (193).

A major Coetzee critic, Attwell’s assertion that Coetzee’s first six novels ‘constitute a form of postmodern metafiction’ (Politics, 1) has become a pioneering path taken by many other critics. Attwell, denying the general reading of postmodernism as anti-historical, describes Coetzee’s novels as ‘situational metafiction, with a particular relation to the cultural and political discourses of South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s’ (Politics, 3). In Coetzee’s most obviously metafictional text Foe, a ‘self-referential fiction that constantly highlights its own unreliability’[6] (Gallagher, 44), political and literary rewritings go hand in hand: the ‘imperialist’ author Foe appropriates the story of the colonial subject and, in a form of gender apartheid, eliminates the female from the adventure genre.[7] In Foe the postmodern and the postcolonial thus co-exist as ideological allies, enabling Coetzee to adopt ‘postmodern strategies […] for postcolonial purposes’ (Begam, 112, quoted in Lin, 123).

Paradoxically it is this self-consciousness which makes the political point. Whereas the British writer can merge with his or her society, since that society has, in a sense, appropriated reality, the postcolonial writer must avoid any loss of self-awareness. Postcolonial writers are therefore often at their politically sharpest, when they are also at their most ‘literary’. (Newman, 4)

3. Metafiction

3.1 Origins of the term and its function today

To begin with, the development of the term ‘metalanguage’ is commonly ascribed to the linguist Louis Hjelmslev, according to whom metalanguage, instead of referring to non-linguistic events, situations, or objects in the world, refers to another language[8]. Clearly Saussure’s distinction between a sign’s signifier and signified is relevant here: a metalanguage is a language which functions as a signifier to another language, which becomes its signified. The term ‘metafiction’ as a novel’s self-reflexive tendency itself is generally attributed to Fiction and the figures of life by the American critic and self-conscious novelist William Gass in 1970.[9]

Metafictional practice has become particularly prominent in the fiction of the last twenty years, reflecting on the breakdown of traditional values in a world consisting no longer of eternal verities (Waugh, 7). Attempting to defend twentieth century metafiction, theorists cite older classic works such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605), Shakespeare’s Hamlet (around 1600) and Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817) as demonstrating metafictional tendency. While critics suggest that metafiction illustrates the death or ‘exhaustion’ of the novel as a genre, its advocates regard it as signalling the novel’s rebirth:

[F]ar from ‘dying’, the novel has reached a mature recognition of its existence as writing, which can only ensure its continued viability in […] a contemporary world which is similarly beginning to gain awareness of precisely how its values and practices are constructed […]. (Waugh, 19)

Already in 1975, Federman called for ‘a fiction [trying] to explore the possibilities of fiction’ (7) and envisaged the future novel as ‘a kind of writing […] whose shape will be an interrogation […] of what it really is: an illusion (a fiction), just as life is an illusion (a fiction)’ (11). Similarly, for Quendler, ‘the plea for an innovation of fiction is preceded by a critically metafictional divestment of conventions of narrative fiction […] to re-describe the relations between […] fictions and reality’ (39).

3.2 Definition(s) and forms of metafiction

According to Hutcheon, metafiction is ‘fiction about fiction – that is, fiction that includes within itself a commentary on its own narrative and/or linguistic identity’ (1). Waugh sees metafiction as a ‘tendency inherent to all novels’ (2) and defines it as ‘a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact’ (2) in order to raise questions about the problematic relationship between fiction and reality. Writers whom one might refer to as broadly ‘metafictional’ are concerned with providing a critique of their own methods of constructing their literary fictional texts by ‘[exploring] a theory of fiction through the practice of writing fiction’ (2). These scholars thus emphasise the ways in which metafictional texts manifest their preoccupation with texts: the relationships between constructing, reading and interpreting texts and reality.


[1] All references to Foe (henceforth abbreviated as F) are to the Penguin edition (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987)

[2] Due to the limitations of a paper like this, ‘intertextuality’ can unfortunately not be addressed.

[3] By uncovering Defoe to be Foe, Coetzee reminds the reader that Daniel Defoe adopted the prefix ‘de’ in his middle age, obscuring his name’s signification in English. Cf. Burnett, 245.

[4] As a detailed discussion of these and various other aspects would go beyond the scope of a paper like this, the aim of the section entitled ‘Metafiction’ will be merely to provide an introduction to and outline of metafiction.

[5] Cf. Egerer, 96

[6] The effect of this self-consciousness should, however, not be overstated, as it does not present unreliability to disturb the surface reading experience in the way some postmodernist works do. Cf. Head, 9.

[7] Cf. Newman, 96

[8] Cf. Hjelmslev, Louis. Prolegomena to a Theory of Language. Madison: Wisconsin, 1961.

[9] Cf. Ommundsen, 14


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Metafiction Coetzee Introductory Seminar Literature



Title: Metafiction in J.M. Coetzee's 'Foe'