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SBufo - Foe. Chapter IV
[author: Sara Bufo - postdate: 2007-10-04]

Text:  J. M. Coetzee's Foe
Task: Analysis of Chapter 4

: reflecingt on postmodern writing
Intertextual: finding connections with other texts and media
Linguistic: improving writing skills



Foe: Analysis of Chapter 4


J.M.Coetzee's novel "Foe" is divided into four chapters. The objective of this work is to analyse the last chapter, referring  to its content,  meaning, ifunction and the language used.


First of all, chapter four starts in medias res. The narrator enters a room and finds the body of a woman or a girl, whose face is wrapped with a woollen scarf. He tries to unwrap it, but is unable to. So, he goes further on.  After entering another room, he finds two other corpses lying on a bed and man Friday, who has fainted. The narrator opens Friday's mouth and tries to listen to what is inside it. After a moment of silence, he recognizes the sounds of the island.


Here the first part of chapter 4 finishes. As a matter of fact, the text is followed by two center-aligned asterisks, which visibly divide the text into two sequences.

Before proceeding with the denotative analysis of part two, a brief analysis of the first part will now be provided.

The first element that strikes the reader's attention, is that there is a first person narrator.and

Even though this technique is used throughout the book, the identity of the narrator changes. The reader isn't provided with information about him, so he/she is a mysterious person.


The puzzling narrator seems confused. As a matter of fact, he asks himself a lot of questions concerning the concrete reality which surrounds him. Furthermore, the setting in which he moves is also mysterious: darkness, corpses and a mouse or a rat, elements typical of the Gothic, Noir novels inhabit the text. Probably, Coetzee wanted to create an atmosphere lacking clarity, due to the different prospective of seeing things. As a matter of fact, by adding a mysterious narrator, Coetzee changes the point of view from which the story is seen. Whereas in the first three chapters all the characters were alive except Friday, who remained silent till the end, now everyone's dead but him.

Susan Barton's daughter is covered with a scarf and Susan and Foe lie on the bed. Friday has just fainted: he's unable to speak, but his actual body is sound. This clearly shows that reality isn't a given, natural actuality, but changes with the perspective with which is seen. It's impossible to say what is real and what is not.


Another device used by Coetzee to underline the point, is the body of the girl. Her face is wrapped with a scarf, but the scarf is impossible to unwrap. This means, it's impossible to see her face, to unveil her identity. Her existence is a paradox, as her weight also reveals. Since it's impossible for  a body to weigh no more than a sack of straw, it follows that she can't exist.


Taking into consideration the other two bodies, those of Susan and Foe, the first element that strikes the attention of the intelligent reader is the use of words that are typical of T.S. Eliot's poetry (dry, dust and lilac) to describe them. Moreover, the description of the two bodies is full of gruesome details ("the skin, dry as paper, is stretched tight over their bones. Their lips have receded, uncovering their teeth, so that they seem to be smiling"). Probably, Coetzee wanted to create an atmosphere of contamination, mixing Gothic, the classical novel "Robinson Crusoe" and the Modernism of T.S. Eliot. This kind of atmosphere is typical of Postmodernism.


Last but not least, Coetzee focuses on language. As a matter of fact, the whole chapter is full of sounds. There are alliterations, such as "disturbance, dust, decay"). Furthermore, periods are short and have almost the same length. This creates a sort of rhythm, that can be perceived by the  reader.


After the previous brief analysis of the first part of chapter 4, the second one will be considered, starting from  denotative analysis.

At the beginning of the second part, the narrator sees some writing at one corner of a house saying "Daniel Defoe, Author". He enters  the building and finds the body of a woman or a girl. He lights a candle and sees the couple in the bed. Near them, there's Friday, who has a scar like a necklace. Opening a box, the narrator finds a script. He reads its first line, then slips overboard, in the sea, where the petals cast by Friday can be seen. After breaking a wall of water, the narrator enters a cabin, and finds Susan, her dead captain and Friday. The narrator tries to speak to Friday, but he doesn't manage. So, he opens his mouth and is completely surrounded by a flow, that invests the whole world.


But what does Coetzee want to communicate? What's hidden beyond the text?

The first piece of information is the writing "Daniel Defoe, Author". Authors are those who have total control over their books. As a consequence, Postmodernism excludes such possibility.  Coetzee would never define himself as an author. As a matter of fact, he believes stories and history change, and depend on they who read them. The higher the cultural background of the reader, the more cultural links can be seen and the higher the level of interpretation. "Foe" can be read on different levels: some readers will just focus on the story while others will go beyond it. Everyone has his own interests, his own truths. As a consequence, there isn't just one reality.


Another piece of information is the content of the script. It starts with "Dear Mr Foe, At last I could row no further". So, the script is a letter written by Susan to Foe. "At last I could row no further" is the beginning of the book "Foe", which should be written by Foe himself. It seems as if Foe finally decided to write Susan's story as she wanted. This explains the reason why the book starts with a quotation mark: the person Susan is speaking to at the beginning of the book is revealed as Foe.