The Purpose of Foe – Jonathan Burch

If you have ever read the book, Foe, you likely were left at the end wondering “what the heck did I just read?”.  Many try to comprehend what J. M. Coetzee’s purpose for this story was.  Could it be that he wrote it to demean the work of Daniel Defoe? Or may it be that Coetzee wanted to depict the pain and struggles individuals felt during the apartheid era of South Africa, his home country?  There is evidence for both possibilities.  However, due to the lack of motivation to defame Defoe and the clear importance of the apartheid on J. M. Coetzee’s life, this analysis of Foe will suggest the latter is true.

Throughout the novel, there are many details that can be linked towards the sufferings of apartheid in South Africa.  For instance, one scene from Foe describes Friday as “a slave who is now free” (100).  Although he is “freed,” Friday never is able to return to his home and is constantly living and serving the life of a slave (100).  In relation to the apartheid era, Friday symbolizes the many slaves that were slowly given more rights and so called “freed” in the early 19th century only to continue being oppressed by the unequal and rather terrible treatment from South Africa government officials.

In addition to the details embedded within the book, reasonably the most critical connection of Foe to the apartheid era in South Africa, is the symbolism of the main characters.  Friday, Susan, and Foe are vastly different and likewise can provide a different symbolic meaning.  Friday never being able to speak yet constantly having to serve others and live a lesser life symbolizes the slaves that were oppressed in South Africa.  None of these slaves had a voice.  Contrasting the majority of slaves during the slave trade, the oppressed in South Africa had no voice and even those that spoke for them were not acknowledged by leaders.  They had no say in politics and were never heard by the outside world.  Susan symbolizes the individuals not enslaved or oppressed yet are attempting to show the world the truth and push for a movement against the apartheid.  From the novel, this is seen through Susan continually trying to tell the actual account through her letters to Foe despite his little response.  She expresses her frustration by saying, “my life is drearily suspended till your writing is done” (63).  This is similar to the many individuals that were angered by the lack of acknowledgement from officials.

Consequently, Foe represents the rest of the world.  During the apartheid era, the rest of the world was ignorant of what exactly was going on in South Africa.  In  addition, the people, when finally shown the severity of the oppression, did not accept the truth and denied helping the struggling individuals.  Similarly, the few times Foe listened to Susan he tried to manipulate her story to be more appealing for the rest of the world rather than fact.

To further support this argument, it is essential to note the overall connotation of part IV in Foe.  I suggest, in context of comparing the apartheid era to this novel, that the meaning within part IV is actually irrelevant.  The true purpose of this section is to show the ambiguity of the suffering and struggles individuals faced in South Africa.  When reading this novel part IV changes the entire story and leaves an extreme number of questions unanswered.  Comparably, the majority of the world still question the facts of oppression in South Africa.

Although we can never know J. M. Coetzee’s exact intentions of Foe, from these arguments we can infer that he wanted to depict the challenges of apartheid and the struggles to end oppression.  However, since the novel relates so closely to the apartheid era and considering the significance of apartheid in the author’s life, it is very likely that this was the true purpose of the novel, Foe.