A Comparison Between Defoe and Coetzee’s Robinson Crusoe – Jennifer Hower

“I would gladly now recount to you the history of the singular Cruso, as I heard it from his own lips. But the stories he told me were so various, and so hard to reconcile one with another… age and isolation had taken their toll on his memory, and he no longer knew for sure what was truth” (Coetzee, 11-12)

This quote from Coetzee’s Foe is the readers first introduction to any aspect of Cruso’s character in the book. The beginning of Foe is told from the first-person point of view of Susan Barton, and because of this, the reader is aware of Susan’s inner thoughts as she arrives on the island. When Susan first lands on the island she has her first encounter with Friday. Susan first refers to Friday as “the Negro”, but then just one page later she references, to the reader, that his name is Friday. Since Friday is mute, Susan cannot know of his name unless she had previous knowledge of who he is, or the author assumes the reader knows who Friday is. This is when I first begin viewing Foe as an adaptation of Robinson Crusoe.

While Friday retains the same name in Foe as in Robinson Crusoe, Robinson Crusoe’s name is changed to “Cruso” which marks the first in a series of differences between the character of Cruso(e) in Foe and Robinson Crusoe. The Cruso that Susan describes in the quote is one who is completely disconnected from reality and confused about his own past. When Susan questions Cruso about his history on the island the details in his stories vary wildly each time they are told. When asked if Friday was a child when he came to the island Cruso would sometimes exclaim, “Aye, a child, a mere child” (Coetzee, 12), but other times Cruso would say, “Friday was a cannibal whom he had saved from being roasted” (Coetzee, 12). This uncertainty about events could stem from the fact that in Foe, Cruso is very against keeping written documentation of his days on the island; proclaiming, “Nothing I have forgotten is worth remembering” (Coetzee, 17).

Cruso’s lack of journaling is a stark contrast to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Robinson Crusoe is much less passive and senile in regards to his own development on the island. Crusoe kept a painfully detailed account of every action he does on the island in a journal he updates daily. In this journal, Crusoe meticulously records every step for all of the tools he crafts, and he writes about his own progress with his newly acquitted relationship with religion. This Robinson Crusoe is much more in tune with his own reality and interested in his own accomplishments than Foe’s Cruso. This is also evident in the number of tools and objects that Robinson Crusoe makes in comparison to Cruso. Robinson Crusoe fills his multiple homes with various types of pots, tables, chairs, fences, and even a canoe. All of these items Crusoe builds are to improve and aide in his growth on the island, and he must be mentally sharp in order to build these items. Cruso in Foe has not put any effort towards building tools, as he only has a bed when Susan arrives at the island, and from the quote, it seems like he may not have the mental capacity to build these tools. Although Cruso does builds many terraces, he exclaims that they are for the future generations and not himself.

One explanation for the difference in mindset and mental stability in the two Robinson Crusoe’s may be that in Robinson Crusoe, Crusoe felt that his island life had more value than Cruso did. Before becoming stranded on the island, religion wasn’t a focus in Robinson Crusoe’s life, and he frequently sinned; such as when he disobeyed his father. After becoming stranded on the island, Crusoe began to read the bible and incorporate God into his daily thoughts and actions. Crusoe expressed deep regret for his sinful past, and often attributed hardships to a lesson from God. This newfound life style gave significant meaning to Crusoe’s daily actions as they represented growth in his faith, and a positive change in character. For Cruso, the island did not lead him to make any significant changes in his character or ideals. Therefore, his daily actions had less significance to him, and when his reality and sense of self began to slip away from him he was not concerned.