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Father-Born: Mediating the Classics in J.M. Coetzee's Foe


1 Of course, it is highly unlikely that of the number of “savages” Crusoe observes in the intervening decade it is actually Friday who left the footprint he discovers. Rather, the footprint and Friday are synecdochical figures, signifying the presence of a racial and social other on the island, and as such have come to be equated with one another.

2 Newman points to “key elements” in Foe—“mutilation, pollution, taboo, transgression, boundaries”—that “derive their significance from Douglas’s analysis” (97).

3 Even inside the academic sphere it is hit-or-miss. In a volume on approaches to teaching Robinson Crusoe, in which some dozen articles suggest using Coetzee’s text in tandem with the original, not one instructor mentions in passing the interplay of Roxana in Foe. (See Approaches to Teaching Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, eds. Maximillian E. Novak and Carl Fisher.) Nor does Linda Hutcheon in A Poetics of Postmodernism recognize the presence of Roxana as the prototype for Susan Barton: “Foe reveals that storytellers can certainly silence, exclude, and absent certain past events—and people—but it also suggests that historians have done the same: where are the women in the traditional histories of the eighteenth century? As we have seen, Coetzee offers the teasing fiction that Defoe did not write Robinson Crusoe from information from the male historical castaway, Alexander Selkirk, or from other travel accounts, but from information given him by a subsequently ‘silenced’ woman, Susan Barton, who had also been a castaway on ‘Cruso’s’ [sic] island” (Hutcheon 107).

4 Derek Attridge points out that the ambiguous and/or displaced settings of many of Coetzee’s novels, in conjunction with their often allegorical nature, in a certain sense primes them for canonicity beyond the immediate scope of his South African background, for “the high literary canon, in its most traditional form, is premised upon an assumption of universal moral and aesthetic values,” and Coetzee’s novels “are not about the South African situation per se, which would render them contingent and propagandist, but about the permanent human truths exemplified in that situation” (71).

5 Ian Watt writes that “All Defoe’s heroes pursue money”; moreover, “they pursue it very methodically according to the profit and loss book-keeping which Max Weber considered to be the distinctive technical feature of modern capitalism,” and they “keep us more fully informed of their present stocks of money and commodities than any other characters in fiction” (63).

6 Note that Friday in the original is almost certainly a Carib Indian (see Robinson Crusoe 206 for Defoe’s physical description of his tawny-skinned character), whereas Susan’s Friday is more obviously African, an identity which brings with it an entirely different set of associations about who might have been involved in his capture. In Defoe’s novel, the conflict between Friday and his original captors is described as a local dispute, and his relocation to Crusoe’s camp is not a radical geographical move; there are moments when he can actually see his homeland. For Coetzee’s Friday, on the other hand, there is implied capture or purchase by a European trader, a long journey at sea, and a true sense of foreignness on arriving in a strange land, as much as Cruso would have experienced himself in being marooned on the island.

7 This reversal calls to mind Franco Moretti’s remarks, in Atlas of the European Novel 1800–1900, on later novels set in colonial spaces (Heart of Darkness, Around the World in Eighty Days), in which the fact of imperial ownership and mastery is subverted or normalized by the imposition of a rescue narrative—rather than a conquest narrative—onto the place in question. In Jules Verne’s novel, for example, the role of the Englishman in India is represented by Phileas Fogg as Aouda’s savior, sparing her from the barbaric indigenous cultural rite of suttee and ultimately claiming her as his bride (a less politically charged version of conquering). Marlow, likewise, is on a rescue mission in the Congo; the man he seeks is another European, but he has gone native to the extent that he must be saved from himself. (Moretti 58–64.)

8 On this topic, Derek Attridge quotes an amusing interview exchange in which Coetzee, asked why Friday has no tongue, responds, “Nobody seems to have sufficient authority to say for sure how it is that Friday has no tongue” (“Two Interviews with J. M. Coetzee, 1983 and 1987.” With Tony Morphet. In Bunn and Taylor, From South Africa, 454–64. Qtd. in Attridge 89).

9 See “Of Mimicry and Man” in Bhabha’s Location of Culture: the mimic man “is the effect of a flawed colonial mimesis, in which to be Anglicized is emphatically not to be English” (87, Bhabha’s italics).

10 In the end, Thieme argues, “Foe’s dismantling of English canonical discourse adopts a particularly transgressive form, since it radically destabilizes any notion of definitive authority” (69). This includes removing Defoe from the center of the story, undermining the primacy of the source text by engaging the plots and characters of other Defoe stories, “confus[ing] the relationship between author and character” (69), and finally, through the mysterious ending, introducing a new unidentified narrator altogether, and concluding the text in great obscurity.

11 As to the question of why Coetzee gives pride of place to bankruptcy in the first place, it is the opinion of at least one biographer of Defoe, Paula Backschieder, that the episodes of financial struggle Defoe incurred and endured in the 1690s led, whether directly or indirectly, to his career in letters, changing him “forever from a prominent joiner of respected groups to a solitary with secrets, and from a tradesman to a writer” (61).

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