What is the relationship between language, power, and colonialism in Coetzee’s novel Foe?

Beatrice Wedd

The novel Foe, published in 1986 and written by Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee, deals with issues of race and identity, hierarchy and, alongside these issues, the human condition.

In this novel, a character by the name of Susan Barton is cast ashore a desert island occupied by two men named Cruso and Friday (characters inspired by Daniel Defoe’s canonical novel Robinson Crusoe). On the island, Barton makes a role for herself amongst these two men that is subservient to Cruso but not to Friday — an African slave boy who, apparently, has no tongue with which to defend, express, or assert his identity. She is puzzled by their stagnant, somewhat futile way of living and she presses Cruso to attempt an escape. Eventually, they are rescued and they make their way home to England. She is replaced, Friday is displaced, and Cruso dies — reaching what could be called the ultimate place. From then on, Barton struggles to situate Friday within her culture. She assumes so much about Friday that she takes on the role of a God: manufacturing or redacting his personality at given times; reinforcing Cruso’s naming him as “Friday”; and teaching him how to use tools and to express himself. Barton’s aims in the novel reflect a greater trend within British colonial times, whereby people used the imagined absence of an identity or the “othering” of foreign peoples in order to justify cruelty and enslavement of them. Through assuming and casting various notions of identity upon Friday, Barton grants herself the fragile privilege of being superior to him, made all the more fragile by her intrinsic subaltern identity. This claim on superiority helps us to understand the wider social and political dynamics around issues of colonialism, feminism, and hierarchy.

In order to fully realize the fragile hierarchy within Foe it is important to note that, given the time, both Friday and Barton would have been placed under the umbrella term of “subaltern.” The term itself, which describes a person “‘of inferior rank’, is a term adopted by Antonio Gramsci to refer to those groups in society who are subject to the hegemony of the ruling classes. Subaltern classes may include peasants, workers, and other groups denied access to ‘hegemonic’ power.’” The term was used by Gayatri Spivak in her seminal essay Can the Subaltern Speak?(1) In this essay, Spivak writes about the myriad difficulties a subaltern faces while living on the periphery of capitalist society. These difficulties include representation, political subjectivity, state access, and voice. Touching on issues of both representation and of being represented, Spivak writes;

“Since theory is also only ‘action’, the theoretician does not represent (speak for) the oppressed group. Because ‘the person who speaks and acts…is always a multiplicity’, no ‘theorizing intellectual…[or] party or…union’ can represent ‘those who act and struggle’” (Spivak, 70).

Spivak’s concept helps us to understand the characterological dynamics between Friday and Barton within Foe; whereby Friday — a character with no voice and in a constant state of action and struggle — is analyzed and criticized by Barton, who is herself a subaltern, though of superior standing as she is a caucasian woman.

Having re-situated Friday in England, Barton explains her teaching process:

“Watch and do: those are my two principal words for Friday, and with them I accomplish much.” (Coetzee, 56)

Herself both a figure of displacement and a brief participant in the act of colonization, Barton here examines her struggle to resettle Friday in England, and the greater struggle of teaching him their ways. She claims that he is free, and on paper he is, nevertheless she is challenged by the character Foe — a ghostwriter.

“‘…May it not be a slaver’s stratagem to hold him in subjection while we cavil over words in a dispute we know to be endless?’” (Coetzee, 150)

Their so-called “cavil over words” references Barton’s desire to tell the narrative, and to tell it truthfully. It reflects a greater trend for the Western hegemony, though, whereby those in power represent those lacking power. Whether or not Barton sees Friday as a slave or not remains unanswered — most of the questions Foe’s novel asks are answered ambivalently at best — but it is undeniable that Friday is being used by her. Chiefly, she uses him as material for her narrative. Believing, throughout, that his inability or refusal to speak means that he must have an important contribution to the story of her and Cruso’s adventures. This supposed inability allows Barton to enact her superiority against Friday, eventually going so far as to (unsuccessfully) try to teach him to write. While imagining what Friday is thinking and what he wants to express, she is able to represent him however she desires. The potential for what could be said becomes more interesting than what would. And Barton’s need that Friday tell his narrative, and that he do so within the bounds of her culture and language, is shown as she tries to teach him.

Another important point of contention is the question of whether or not Friday has a tongue. This question is never entirely realized by Barton, nor the reader.

“‘He has no tongue,’ said Crusoe. Gripping Friday by the hair, he brought his face close to mine. ‘Do you see?’ He said. ‘It is too dark,’ said I.” (Coetzee, 22)

This ambiguity presents the reader with two options: either Friday indeed has no tongue, as Cruso claims, or he represents himself in a strange way — that is, he deliberately refuses to represent himself. It is entirely possible that Friday understands more than Barton thinks; that he refuses to represent himself through the English language because it is one operated and performed, as Spivak writes, by those existing precisely within the hegemonic power by which they are excluded.

In the novel, Foe explores the narrative as a tool whereby we can tell both honest accounts as well as fictional ones. On top of that, the story’s main characters (Cruso and Barton) are unreliable narrators, which is exemplified with Cruso when Barton observes how;

“….age and isolation had taken their toll on his memory, and he no longer knew for sure what was truth, what fancy.” (Coetzee, 12)

And then later with Barton when she loses her grip on reality, exclaiming;

“I am doubt itself. Who is speaking me? Am I a phantom too? To what order do I belong? And you: who are you?” (Coetzee, 133)

Because of these reasons, the second and more fantastical reason, which is that Friday has a tongue but that the protagonist does not probe deeply enough to recognize it or its power, is more plausible.

In the first half of Foe, Barton struggles with the idea that Cruso’s story will not be told. This fear of a vanishing history has been explored by many post-colonial authors and historians. Time and again, colonists erased or warped truth, recreated fictional worlds of terror, and recast indigenous people. They erased people, after having made them less than people, and then burned or tinkered with the archive that recorded their atrocities. Barton exists outside of this in that she wants Friday’s story heard as much, or perhaps more, than Cruso’s. Even so, she considers herself inadequate to the task and all the while yearns for someone who is adequate.

“When I reflect on my story I seem to exist only as the one who came, the one who witnessed, the one who longed to be gone: a being without substance, a ghost beside the true body of Cruso. Is that the fate of all storytellers?” (Coetzee, 51)

Here, Barton reinstates the hopelessness that many women have felt throughout history as they stood beside great men, sometimes husbands, and found that they were “ghosts” besides “true bodies.” Historically, women have been put in positions where their power was formed only through association. Their access has been hindered and, as a result, greatness is unattainable and their stories are untold or insignificant. From this silence the webs of patriarchy flourish and grow, unhindered by rebellion from those they saw as lesser. Throughout the novel, Barton struggles with this issue. She tries, multiple times, to establish herself as a being of substance, and this struggle is largely attributed to her status as a subaltern figure. Barton queries;

“Do you think of me, Mr. Foe, as Mrs. Cruso or as a bold adventuress? Think what you may, it was I who shared Cruso’s bed and closed Cruso’s eyes, as it is I who have disposal of all that Cruso leaves behind, which is the story of his island.” (Coetzee, 45)

Here, Barton inscribes power onto her identity. Just as Crusoe gained capital from the ship in Robinson Crusoe, Barton sees Cruso’s story as something she has gained and, indeed, of which she now has “disposal.” And yet Barton is only powerful through association. Only as a teller of an adventurer’s journey does she consolidate a modicum of power as a refraction of Cruso’s former power. She remains confined to subalternity; her frustration drenches the novel.

Frustration is never felt more so than when the ghostwriter, Foe, refuses to write the story that she wants.

“‘The island is not a story in itself,’ said Foe gently…’we can bring it to life only by setting it within a larger story.’” His refusal does not satisfy Barton; her chief pursuit is the truth. She replies to his aim of fictionalizing the narrative by saying, “In my letters you did not read…‘I told you of my conviction that, if the story seems stupid, that is only because it so doggedly holds its silence. That shadow whose lack you feel is there: it is the loss of Friday’s tongue.” (Coetzee, 117)

Barton is convinced that the narrative does not need fictionalizing; that the only absence is Friday’s silence. Her chief aim in the novel is to have this narrative told. At first she lives in dread that the fantastic adventures that Cruso experienced will be lost. Later, and no less importantly, Barton shifts her focus to Friday’s narrative. In doing so, Barton places the responsibility of not sounding “stupid” on Friday. Her intentions seem pure until closer inspection but then you wonder, why does she cares so deeply that it is told? What are her motives in telling it? It is unclear whether she wants the personal power that comes through recounting the narrative, whether she fears losing the memory, or whether she wants to continue the enslavement of Friday, as Foe pointed out before.

Barton’s frustration evolves into understanding, traveling in an arch, as she begins to gain sympathy for Friday and to understand her own role within his life. After Cruso tells her about Friday’s missing tongue, Barton says,

“‘Hitherto I had found Friday a shadowy creature…it was no comfort that his mutilation was secret, closed behind his lips…Indeed, it was the very secretness of his loss that caused me to shrink from him.’” (Coetzee, 24)

This inability for Friday to represent himself frightens Barton, at first, but it later allows her to formulate broad assumptions about his identity. It seems that the shadows frighten her because they highlight her own access to the powers of Godliness. From then on, Barton makes claims on Friday’s identity, representing him in various ways. Like when she says, “Now he mopes about the passageways or stands at the door, longing to escape, afraid to venture out…” (Coetzee, 78). How could she know whether he’s “longing to escape,” or “afraid to venture out”? It is impossible that she could know. She later says,

“I do not…turn Friday out on the streets…because he is helpless…because he would be taken for a runaway, and sold, and transported to Jamaica.” Foe replies, “Might he not rather be taken in by his own kind, and cared for and fed?” (Coetzee, 128)

Calling Friday “helpless” brings to mind the “white savior complex” analyzed by historians, and it also shows us how Barton’s assumptions allow her to control Friday’s movements and encourage her attempts to assimilate him into her culture. Her frustration has evolved, we can see, in that she feels sympathy for him. It evolves further when she realizes his human complexity.

“I began to recognize that it might not be mere dullness that kept him shut up in himself, nor the accident of the loss of his tongue…but a disdain for intercourse with me. (Coetzee, 98)

In recognizing Friday’s complexity, Barton is able to see him as a human. This does not erase her racism, however, and it can be seen when she observes,

“Somewhere in the deepest recesses of those black pupils was there a spark of mockery? I could not see it. But if it were there, would it not be an African spark, dark to my English eye?” (Coetzee, 146)

This moment delineates Africa from England — culture from culture — and in othering Friday, Barton’s racism will live on.

Barton uses Friday’s inability to express himself (or to revolt) to her advantage. Whether this is done consciously or subconsciously is yet another point of contention. It is more likely to be subconsciously done, as most ingrained bias’ are thus performed. She also states, furthermore, that she feels protective of Friday. She attempts to explain these feelings in the second half of the novel, saying,

“A woman may bear a child she does not want, and rear it without loving it, yet be ready to defend it with her life. Thus it has become, in a manner of speaking, between Friday and myself.” (Coetzee, 111)

Those maternal feelings that Barton holds towards Friday help to chain him to herself. Throughout the novel, she keeps him at her side. And yet, as she queries earlier in the novel,

“I tell myself I talk to Friday to educate him out of darkness and silence. But is that the truth? There are times when benevolence deserts me and I use words only as the shortest way to subject him to my will. At such times I understand why Cruso preferred not to disturb his muteness. I understand, that is to say, why a man will choose to be a slave owner.” (Coetzee, 60–61)

Barton is a white, British woman torn between her natural sympathy towards Friday the boy — helplessly mute and largely incapable—and Friday the slave — uncivilized and, according to her, uneducated. Both of these identities are formed through her assumptions and they both render Friday powerless when it is possible that he actually is powerful but is unwilling to perform under British hegemony: a force that, to Friday and other Africans, has been used to mistreat and enslave.

Throughout Foe, language and the narrative are used as the machinery through which patriarchal and racializing structures operate and empower themselves. Barton is presented as a complex character in the novel; she finds herself torn between the role of the slaver and the more sympathetic role as a conduit through which Friday can tell his story. This tension reveals broad, historical concepts about colonialism and the narrative of the oppressed. Coetzee’s poetic ambiguities encourage the reader to consider undisclosed claims such as those made in Spivak’s essay, about whether the subaltern can speak and represent themselves within an intrinsically antagonistic structure. Furthermore, Barton’s own status as a female broadens our understanding of feminism and of the issues in female repression. Through casting Friday as “stupid,” “dull,” or other, Barton grants herself superiority and realizes her own power as a woman and a storyteller. The closing lines of the novel turn again to this concept of self and narrative.

“But this is not a place of words. Each syllable, as it comes out, is caught and filled with water and diffused. This is a place where bodies are their own signs. It is the home of Friday.” (Coetzee, 157)

Friday’s body — within it his race, his Africanness, and his identity as “other” — is his own sign. He is powerful enough to deny the symbols of the English language — what good can speech do against mass-prejudice, anyway? The power of his own body betrays him, though. The color of his skin and the loss of his tongue render him powerless within his environment, dictating again and again both his identity and his role within Coetzee’s astounding novel Foe.

Sources Cited:

Coetzee, J. M. Foe. New York, NY, USA: Penguin, 1987. Print.

Williams, Patrick, and Laura Chrisman. Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory: A Reader. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. N. Print.

(1: http://histheory.tripod.com/subaltern.html)

Rightdoing/wrongdoing | Learn more: @beatriceandthebook | Inquiries: beatrice.wedd@gmail.com | Do not reproduce content without written consent | 2021.

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