While John Maxwell Coetzee’s Foe can be a bit confusing to any reader that attempts to decipher it, Coetzee’s use of story-framing elements can be vital in coming to terms with a better understanding of the story and especially a better understanding of Susan Barton’s character. Coetzee’s way of storytelling, by his use of Susan Barton as his narrator and her journals to Mr. Foe, create a look into Susan’s crazed mental state which give us a better sense of who she is and what is actually happening in the story. Through Susan’s unusual way of introducing people and names associated with them in her narration, we are given a clue as to how Susan is unreliable as a narrator.
In the beginning chapter of the story, we are introduced to a woman who has landed upon an island and is greeted by a black male whom we meet, but do not learn his name until later in the story. , “A dark shadow fell upon me, not of a cloud but of a man with a dazzling halo about him”(8). The narrator talks about this man as if she has already introduced us to him, “Even Friday’s hard skin was not proof against it: there were bleeding cracks in his feet, though he paid them no heed”(9). The narrator seems to already know the name of the black man yet chooses to forfeit this information to the reader which strikes the question of why. This notion is then even more jumbled when the narrator then refers back to Friday as “the Negro”(10), when she has already introduced his name. When introducing a person in a novel or in life, the name is usually introduced then used when referring back to that character as a way of identifying an unknown person to one another. This notion tells us we are not getting the entire story right from the start due to Susan’s mental instability. Furthermore, we are not introduced to the name of the narrator (which we know is the woman who landed upon the island through the use of first person narration) until page 10 where she introduces herself to Cruso. His name is also not mentioned to us, yet the narrator seems to think she has already introduced us to him, “…while the stranger (who was of course the Cruso I told you of)”(10). Susan’s forgetfulness is showing us that she is not quite sane and she mentions people as if they have already been talked about. She then finally reveals her name for the first time when she first meets with Cruso, “My name is Susan Barton”(10). The lack of introducing her name shows there is something not quite right with Susan’s character that Coetzee has created.
As we come to find out the first part of the story are letters being written by Susan to Mr. Foe in the second chapter, we think we understand why this backwards introduction of characters makes sense. However, it brings up the question of why Coetzee wouldn’t acknowledge at the beginning of the novel that the narrator is writing letters to another person. The second chapter actually serves better as an introductory chapter to this novel rather than the actual first chapter. This way of mixing up the story serves the purpose of giving a clue into the sanity of Susan due to her tragic life events. Her refusal to recognize her daughter and her constant obsession with Cruso and the island when actually asked about her life by Mr. Foe begins to make sense as we can see she is not mentally stable. And by framing the story in a confusing way while also using a backwards method of introducing characters, Coetzee gives us clues into the mentally unstable nature of Susan Barton.