J. M. Coetzee retells a familiar story in Foe yet challenges that very familiarity. Even people who have never read the novel Robinson Crusoe are relatively well acquainted with its iconic portrait of survival after a shipwreck, as well as with Crusoe’s dependence upon Friday, his black companion. But what if there were another castaway who played a vital role in that island tale, but whose part in the drama was excised?
Coetzee introduces this fascinating and challenging theme by having his version narrated by a brand new addition to the deserted island, Susan Barton. Even more challenging and fascinating is the addition of the title character to a tale which in its very familiarity is transformed into an unfamiliar, postmodern metafiction. Eventually, this narrative forces those who actually have read Robinson Crusoe to want to go back and check it against Coetzee’s version.
It turns out that Daniel Defoe (Foe) bought the tale of Crusoe, Friday, and Barton from a Barton on the verge of desperation. Defoe betrays Barton by editing the tale to make it his own. Friday cannot provide a version because his tongue has been cut out. Barton decides to write the narrative, but has trouble communicating with the mute Friday.
Important for understanding the full context of this version is Coetzee’s standing as a white man in Africa. As such, the themes of a black person being unable to relate the narrative of his own experience, and the battle between commerce and art in the rush to get a story told, take on a new level of significance, thus making Foe far more than just another postmodern reinvention of a story told from a slightly different perspective.