Robinson Crusoe and Foe
J. M. Coetzee’s Foe is the fictional account of a woman named Susan Barton who meets Robinson Crusoe after becoming stranded on his island, and following her rescue is responsible for Daniel Defoe’s writing of the Robinson Crusoe that we know today. Foe presents itself as the factual account of Crusoe’s time on the island and the subsequent writing of his story by Daniel Defoe; all from Barton’s perspective. Foe is a response to Robinson Crusoe in the sense that it sets itself up as the real story of Crusoe’s experience on the island, as opposed to the fictional account written by Defoe, and the reason behind Foe’s fictionalizing of Cruso/Crusoe’s experience on the island.
Coetzee is clearly drawing attention, through Barton’s narration upon landing, to the discrepancy between Defoe’s account of Crusoe’s island, and his own “factual” account of Cruso’s island:
"For readers reared on travelers’ tales, the words desert isle may conjure up a placeof soft sands and shady trees where brooks run to quench the castaway’s thirst and ripe fruit falls into his hand, where no more is asked of him than to drowse thedays away till a ship calls to fetch him home. But the island on which I was cast was quite another place."
In fact, Barton lands on a rocky thorny island with no apparent food or water sources at hand, which stands in direct contrast to the mere one eighth of a mile that Crusoe had to walk in order to find a tree to sleep in and water to drink upon landing on the island, as well as the variety of fruit he eventually finds in abundance, particularly grapes and melons. Furthermore, Barton contrasts her description of the romanticised desert isle with the harsh rocky terrain, rotting seaweed, and insect infestation that she actually discovers upon landing on Cruso’s island (Coetzee 7), none of which are mentioned in Defoe’s account of Crusoe’s island.
Defoe portrays Crusoe as highly industrious and innovative, crafting himself a chair and a table through meticulous problem-solving and labour, as well as having the foresight and good sense to keep a very detailed journal, but Coetzee’s Cruso does no such thing, even arguing with Barton about how there is no point in keeping a journal, that people will know enough of him based on the state in which he leaves the island. When Barton realizes that she may have to be the one to write the story of Cruso/Crusoe, she also realizes that there is not that much of intrigue to write: “But what shall I write? You know how dull our life was, in truth”. Upon this realization, Barton laments the fact that Cruso never made a table or chair, or crafted some sort of ink and paper to write a journal, which would have been enough for her to sell to a publisher. She concludes, based on the prospect of the most potential economic gain thereby, that she would have to fabricate a more interesting story: “Alas, we will never make our fortunes, Friday, by being merely what we are, or were”. Therefore, the reason that the story of Robinson Crusoe is a work of fiction rather than a primary historical document from the witness account of Susan Barton is the concession that she and Foe make for the sake of the enjoyment of the reading public, and the subsequent economic gains thereof.
Thus, Coetzee’s Foe is not as important in tandem with Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe for its presentation as the true story of Crusoe/Cruso, but for what it reveals of the work behind the scenes of the writing of Robinson Crusoe, and what the reasoning for the fictionalized account that we know of today reveals about the value our society places on truth.
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