To Speak or Not to Speak

Speech…it’s one of the largest components for human interaction to date, but what are the drastic effects that occur in literature once this right is infringed upon in a work? Does a language barrier further perpetuate the incompletion of the world’s Tower of Babel, or in Crusoe’s case island of isolation? What entails when speech is taken away in essence completely from one of the characters in a book, does the reader ever get to truly dissect that character’s purpose? Furthermore, how stressful are the circumstances when a language barrier and the inability of speech coexist to suffocate any understanding from one of the characters completely? Does that character then still have a purpose or is their story lost behind the words of another character?

These are the circumstances that surround the character Friday in both Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and J.M. Coetzee’s Foe. It is apparent that the reader’s perception of both versions of Friday are impacted by the manner in which he is portrayed verbally and physically. Friday’s demeanor impacts the purpose he serves in each novel, how he is perceived by the readers, and the presentation of the story of Crusoe as a whole.

In Robinson Crusoe, Friday is presented as a rescued captive of the cannibals that frequent Crusoe’s island. After Crusoe rescues Friday, he realizes that they are initially unable to communicate due to a language barrier between them that hinders their interaction with one another. However, Crusoe was determined to teach Friday certain words and phrases to fill that void of loneliness that he felt after being deprived of human interaction for years. Once Friday learns how to say basic phrases to Crusoe, their relationship dynamic becomes more evident to the reader as Friday’s thoughts and emotions are more easily perceived. This further allows for the character development of Friday to surface to the forefront with regards to his religious journey and experience on the island with Crusoe. Over time, it is made clearer to the reader that Crusoe and Friday are able to be more productive on the island after Friday is taught the language essentials directed by Crusoe. Crusoe mainly focused on teaching Friday work phrases to make it easier to instruct him to complete certain tasks, however, this leaves one to wonder how different the novel would have been had Friday been able to speak Crusoe’s language completely from the beginning. The novel would attain a different aura as the two would have been able to divulge more information between one another, and not be limited to discussing trivial work tasks. It also poses the question concerning whether or not Crusoe would have viewed Friday as more of an equal and not provide him with a sense of inferiority on the island.

Foe’s Friday gives light to an entire different perception of the character since he is completely deprived of a vocal presence in the work, which drastically impacts how the reader classifies him in the novel. Friday is presented as a mutilated individual incapable of speech entirely, which is further substantiated with the cultural bridge and language barrier between him and Crusoe. Since this version of Friday eludes any communication with the main characters, a general opinion of him and his purpose by the reader is solely based from another character’s perception of him. This characteristic can be advantageous and disadvantageous depending on which way it is being deciphered. The author is able to use Friday’s silence to his advantage to further the purpose of another character and give rise to other questions in the novel (like the story behind Friday’s origins, who he was mutilated by, and other aspects of his life). This creates an ominous element to Friday’s character and enables for the creation of a sub-plot, along with effects to his relationship with Susan Barton. However, this can be a disadvantageous element for the reader since they are given a limited scope into Friday’s life and have to rely on the impression of another character to bridge the gap to better understanding his purpose in the novel which could be quite frustrating. In the end, it arises that Friday’s very being is the physical embodiment of the island, “His mouth opens. From inside him comes a slow stream….It flows up through his body and out upon me….Soft and cold, dark and unending…” (pg. 157, Coetzee).

Ultimately, the manner in which Friday’s character is portrayed in both novels significantly impacts how the audience perceives his purpose as a whole and dissect his relationships with the other characters that are prevalent within the work. Loneliness and seclusion was an abstract concept in both of these accounts of Crusoe, and Friday’s character addressed this element differently in each piece. In the original Robinson Crusoe, Friday helps Crusoe alleviate his sense of isolation from others since he provides human interaction despite it being limited. However, Foe’s Friday further intensifies the loneliness felt by the main character which affects the way the reader interprets the text as a whole. The juxtaposition of these two different texts allows for a breakdown of how important dialogue between characters in writings are and how it changes the functionality of a given work in general.