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GSerpi - Notes of September
[author: Gianluca Serpi - postdate: 2007-10-02]

Text: Foe

Task: September's lessons

OBJECTIVES Cultural: Intertextual: Linguistic:

Foe is a novel by J. M. Coetzee 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. It uses 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, and it is important to remember that Coetzee is a Nobel Prize winner.


We search the word Foe on different support and we found the following meaning:
THESAURUS = enemy, antagonist, opponent, and adversary;

WORDREFERENCE = (etymology: Middle English FO, from Old English fah) an armed adversary (especially a member of opposing military force), a personal enemy, foeman, opposition, something prejudicial or injurious.



But why did the author choose such a title for his book?

Usually the reader focuses the attention on short title makes because is easy to memorize and it enhances the reader’s curiosity. The title of a book is always important, and it’s one of the most important things to decide before publishing a book. As a matter of fact when you want to sell a product you have to keep in mind: production, reception and distribution. Usually the reader is attracted by something unknown. From reading a title the reader doesn’t see anything strange. But this title is a joke, since it reminds the name of the author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe. Words are not eternal and they are socially marked. Therefore the title explicates the connection between the masterwork “Robinson Crusoe” and the post-modern novel “Foe”. Foe belongs to the genre of meta-novels: it deals with the problem of writing novels. The problem is more and more widen if considered that "There are no novels that are sub sequentially re-written, but re-writing is part and parcel of the act of writing itself".


When we analyse a word we have to pay attention to the context. The meaning of a text is made by the reader and not by the author. For example if we have a look to the title of the novel “Foe”, we notice that is no longer use and that it’s a language of literary communication. This is in opposition to re-writing. As a matter of fact when a book is re-write, the language and the structure are simplify, and they are readapted to the language of the period. This type of language includes something that the architext don’t include.


The novel Foe has got different levels, and to understand them at all you have to consider all the possible links:

1)      Robinson Cruso (D.Deofoe);

2)      The play we saw last year (reinterpretation with a simpler story and language, and with additions of music, media…)

3)      Foe (J.M.Coetzee)

4)      Multimedia art craft


The title is short, as usually happened. Today books are short because people have no time, they are unusual and so they attract. Foe could be understood as a short form of Defoe. It’s an association that remind me the first book, as it happened in all post modern book, that are a re-writing of something. The concept of time is sliding. Post modern was born as a reaction against and beyond Modernism. It requires a multicultural audience.


Somehow the play of Robinson Cruso sent back to something consider an architext (Defoe “Robinson Crusoe”). The architext has been transform in term of:

a) It should be captured in mind;

b) It simplify, because the language use, includes something that the architext doesn’t include: songs, repetitions, cliché.

(Posy modern was born as a reaction against and beyond Modernism)

Post Modern books require a multicultural audience; the reader is an ideal reader, that is he or she who is able to “interligere” all that linguistic and stylistic choices make by the author.  As far as structure, it was reshaping. Language is just a vehicle. The space of Defoe’s modern is enormous, it imply different symbol, and language is mediation between the text and the mind. Post modernisms excluded and included modernism at the same time.

Foe becomes a tribute in negative to Robinson Crusoe. In this novel Coetzee describe a man, Robinson Crusoe, and a woman, Susan Barton. He wants to make the reader think how a man reacts to the shipwreck in comparison to the reaction of a woman. As a matter of fact men and women have got different ways of thinking. Men develop linear thinking instead of women that develop a reticular thinking. When writing the story himself he alters he alters it by representing is characters enterprising and depresses. Writing a story can be a method of oppressing because it is controlled by the person who write it.



The main difference that we can notice is that Coetzee’s novel starts in medias res, instead of Defoe’s novel that starts with a presentation of Robinson’s life since the shipwreck. In Foe the story of Robinson Crusoe is restricted in the space of a single chapter. Why did Foe decided to restrict the time line? Was he interested in events? There are no truth about the text, but probably he wasn’t interested in narrate a story of a shipwreck, but something deeper. Have a cultural background is important To read this book, because only with a cultural background the reader can interliger and understand the real meaning of the novel, and the different interpretation of it.

Susan Barton is the point of view from which the narration is made. So In Coetzee’s novel we have also a different protagonist, because he wants to provide a different vision. Defoe’s concentrate his narration on the description of nature and facts, instead of Coetzee that prefers describe feelings and reaction, to provide a deeper analyses of characters.


The main question posed by the novelist is: “how novelists can speaks about reality?”. But what is reality? It’s the way we live actions and facts. Coetzee re-write a book of the past. When an author decide to re-write is important to choose the correct style. So becomes important to choose the correct language, that appeal to senses.


To well understand the novel Foe by Coetzee, we have made a Powerpoint in which we have summarise one chapter of the book and we answer to some questions:

1) Shortly summarize the main points of the text.

2) Who is/are the narrator/s of the chapter?

3)How is the balance between showing (dialogues) and telling (narrators) dealt with?

4) How are the tone and the atmosphere of the chapter?

5)How the characters are involved and how are their characterization make up?

6) How much of the economy of the text it calls for and why?

7) What the function of the chapter is, in the economy of the novel?

8) What’s the position of the reader?

9) How was the part of the content the chapter deal with treated in:

    a)The classical novel;

    b)The performance during the previous year.

10) What makes of this chapter rendering of Robinson Crusoe?



During the English lessons we also read the present review:

Foe by J.M. Coetzee

Coetzee’s novel Foe eloquently addresses the politics of writing and rewriting, contextualizing both in the distances between speech and writing. Much of the critical literature on Foe addresses Coetzee’s affinities with the early work of Jacques Derrida when discussing this novel, but it is the work of storytelling, and how this storytelling interweaves with our cultural history, that most interests me in the novel.

Coetzee’s novel represents the writing of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Caruso. Told in the point of view of Susan Barton, a ruined woman whose daughter has been abducted, Foe documents her shipwreck on a deserted island, her brief relationship (and very brief love affair) with the man she calls Cruso, her rescue and subsequent search for an author of her and Cruso’s tale, and finally her struggle over the meaning of her story when Foe attempts to change it in order to sell more books. Since the novel was written in 1987, much of what might be now be considered post-modern clichés on the subjectivity of storytelling, writing and identity can be explained and understood according to the time in which they were written. The fact that Coetzee placed conversations on identity and subjectivity in a novel that contains a rewritten form of Defoe’s novel is brilliant. By doing this, Coetzee shows that there are no novels that are subsequently rewritten, but that rewriting is part and parcel of the act of writing itself. Still, those who are sick and tired of post-modern storytelling would obviously be put off by this novel.

The novel also gives much more background (or speculated background) to the character Friday who, in this novel, is a slave who cannot speak because slavers cut out his tongue when he was first captured. The novel ends with a hallucinatory dream scape in which the mute slave finally speaks. Coetzee’s novel shows that rewritten novels, like rewritten history, do not simply offer new versions of the past–but that they cause us to question what makes the past happen. The past, in Coetzee’s vision is not a given, not a natural actuality, but is something that has to be written and rewritten; it is a riverbed upon which deaf, mute, talking and writing subjects alike wrestle in the soft clay of forgotten and remembered existence.