Foe is a novel by South African author J. M. Coetzee, first published in 1986. It is based on a re-imagining of Daniel Defoe's classic novel Robinson Crusoe with a woman, Susan Barton, cast away on the same island as Robinson Crusoe (here called Cruso) and Friday. The work is notable for its use of allegorical techniques and is considered by many critics as the archetypal post-modern novel, examining the creative process of storytelling, narrative, language, as well as issues of gender, race and colonialism.
Returning from Bahia, where she has been searching for her lost daughter, Susan Barton is cast off the ship in a rowboat after a mutiny; she is accompanied only by the dead body of the Portuguese captain, whose mistress she had been. She swims ashore and finds herself on the island with Cruso and Friday. Cruso, an Englishman in his mid-sixties, is master to Friday, a former African slave. Friday's mutilation (his tongue has been cut out and he is thus incapable of speech) is said by Cruso to have been performed by Moorish slavers. Cruso has little desire (or means) to leave the island, spending his days gathering food, building immense sets of stone terraces, and looking out to sea.
A year after Susan's arrival on the island, a merchantman passes by and takes the three on board (including Cruso, who is seriously ill with a fever at the time). Cruso dies before reaching England and is buried at sea, leaving Susan and Friday to make their way in England. After their arrival, Susan begins to draft a memoir as a means of support. Titled "The Female Castaway," she seeks out author Daniel Foe to serve as ghostwriter and publisher.
The novel continues with a series of letters from Susan addressed to Foe (many of which do not reach him because he is evading his creditors). It then proceeds to an account of Susan's relationship with Foe (which eventually becomes sexual) and her struggle to retain control over the story and its meaning. The novel's fourth and final part is related by an unnamed narrator (possibly standing for Coetzee himself) who revises the story as we know it and dissolves the narration in an act of authorial renunciation.
The main focus of the novel is on the art of storytelling. Primarily it examines the issue of narrative "voice", who is telling the story. Coetzee turns the story, characters, and subject positions of Defoe's novel on their heads to disrupt notions of truth, trust, and story. The major question asked throughout is 'Whose story is the right one?' Is there ever one right story?
Susan Barton begins as narrator of the novel. She battles the punningly-named Foe for the survival of her original conception of herself as Cruso's living successor, while Foe, becoming more authoritative than mere scribe of her exploits, posits such possibilities as her daughter's reunion with Susan, and those details which actually appear in Robinson Crusoe. The focus shifts from what is in Susan's mind, to what could be in Foe's. Susan is transformed from an actual character to merely the muse that drives Foe to write his book. In the end, what we get is the story of how a story changes into its final form and how its failed possibilities are no less alive than its successful ones. The novel dives into the wreck of Defoe's failed alternatives, examining the depths Robinson Crusoe did not cover.
In the novel, Foe is a parody of the English novelist Daniel Defoe. The name Foe is ambivalent: it was Defoe's real name before he gentrified it with a prefix and is also a synonym for "enemy". This word is specifically present in Protestant religious texts where it stands for the enemy, the Devil himself. In its historical use it was exploited by British colonists in order to define colonized peoples as "foes", a lexical attempt to justify their actions over "un-civilized" countries.
The text analyzes traditional canons of class, gender and race in the processes of cultural acceptance and exclusion. Written from the "marginal" position of South Africa, it questions marginality itself in an attempt to break the silence of post-colonial voices. Coetzee places his novel against the traditional British "master literature" and examines the historical and discursive conditions under which South African authorship must operate.
Throughout the novel Friday's silent and enigmatic presence gains in power until it overwhelms the narrator at the end: the silence of Friday "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." Friday's silence wins in the end on all narrative voices. His only weapon against cultural prepotence is to remain silent, to turn his back to the European attempt to have his story told. This may be seen as his intention throughout the story: he wants to counter domination, he cannot be penetrated by others and so his story will not be told by them. This leads to the interpretation that this is his only possible rebellious act against European historical and cultural domination.
In Foe Coetzee introduces a fundamental change by making the narrator a woman. Robinson Crusoe lacked female characters almost entirely; the only feminine element was the island, which was to be dominated and tamed by men. Susan Barton's narrative introduces the feminist self-affirmation, specifically by taking the island conditions of Robinson Crusoe and overlaying them with the narrative of Defoe's Roxana, whose hero's real name is of course Susan. Susan is in a struggle to get her story told by the novelist Foe: she wants to protect her vision of the island but needs Foe to write the story down for her, thus providing it access to tradition and institution of letters.
The character of Friday also stands in sharp contrast to his original portrayal: in Robinson Crusoe he was a handsome Carib youth with near-European features, yet in Foe he is made African. "He was black: a Negro with a head of fuzzy wool...flat face, the small dull eyes, the broad nose, the thick lips, the skin not black but dark grey, dry as if coated with dust." The inaccessibility of his world to the European world can be seen as a consequence of colonialist oppression and racism. The mutilation in his mouth is emblematic of African cultural castration performed by invaders.