A Hidden Social Commentary on Storytelling in Foe

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. Coetzee also creates a parallel between Cruso and Susan that shows how they are in a similar crazed state of mind. Cruso is used as a foreshadowing element that gives us a clue as to how Susan is mentally unsound. By Susan’s reverse introductions, Coetzee’s jumbled story-framing techniques, and the parallel between Cruso and Susan, we can arguably state that Susan is not a reliable narrator and that she suffers the same fate as Cruso.

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. Even more so, Coetzee begins the second chapter with dates in which the letters were written beginning with “April 15th” which is actually the only chapter of the story that includes dates. By not including dates throughout the rest of the story, Coetzee is attempting to show us that Susan does not have a clear concept of time. She does not seem to know how much time has passed.

The second chapter is the only chapter where we can see that she is attempting to log dates and keep track of time. Susan makes a reference to her logs by saying, “I have set down the history of our time on the island as well as I can, and enclose it herewith” (36). By showing that Susan is losing track of time, Coetzee attempts to confuse the reader as well as a way for us to not trust Susan as the narrator. Coetzee, in fact, wants us to be confused with the story being told. He adds to this confusion by switching the point of view in each chapter. The second chapter begins with third-person narrative with a second-person address. The third chapter remains in third-person narrative, but the second-person address is not kept. Finally, the fourth chapter changes completely to first-person narrative and we enter a dream-like sequence. An example of the change in point of view is seen in the first sentence of the third and fourth chapter. In the third chapter, the first sentence is, “The staircase was dark and mean” (79). In the fourth chapter, the first sentence is, “The staircase is dark and mean” (107). This is meant to be a clear instance of changing the point of view in order to get us to notice the change in point of view. By constantly changing the point of view, Coetzee is creating a story that is confusing which leaves us feeling uncertain about Susan as a narrator.

As we notice the inconsistent narration, we are constantly being brought back to Susan’s time on the island with Cruso. Mr. Foe insists on wanting to know about Susan’s time in Bahia, but Susan refuses to tell that story insisting that “Bahia is not part of my story” (79).  Susan wants to tell Cruso’s story because she does not want to bring up her own past of losing her child and her own mind. Instead she insists on telling the story of her time on the island because she feels as though Cruso and the island represent a sane part of her life. Coetzee represents Susan in this light as a way to draw a parallel between her and Cruso. At the beginning of the story, Susan mentions Cruso and his stories by saying, “But the stories he told me were so various, and so hard to reconcile one with another, that I was more and more driven to conclude age and isolation had taken their toll on his memory, and he no longer knew for sure what was truth, what fancy” (12). Coetzee uses Susan’s description of Cruso as a way to foreshadow who Susan becomes at the end of the story and as a way to relate her to Cruso’s insanity. In the second chapter of the story, for example, Susan is greeted by a little girl claiming to be of her own name (Susan Barton). This is seen to be a figment of her own imagination as the girl claims to be Susan’s daughter. This scene shows the readers how Susan is starting to lose her mind and her story-telling is becoming unreliable. To further this parrallel between Susan and Cruso, Susan tells Mr. Foe to call her Mrs. Cruso as though the two were married. In this context, marriage can be seen as the unity of two people becoming one, meaning Susan and Cruso are one in the same person. By making this direct comparison between Susan and Cruso, the author shows us that Susan is an unreliable narrator.

Coetzee demonstrates Susan Barton as a story-teller that is not certain of what is true or false. Through his use of the narrator’s odd introduction of people, his jumbled story-framing, and his parallel between Susan and Cruso, Coetzee sheds light on the meaning of his story and the psyche of his narrator, Susan Barton. With that said, he does not simply make these story-telling techniques the true meaning of the story. Rather, he does this as a way to comment on story-telling in general. Coetzee is commenting on the nature of story-telling by means of questioning the sources from which the stories are being told. We often think stories that are written in books are considered to be great stories based on the author’s authenticity. However, stories are passed down from person to person and can be altered in many ways based on the perspective of the story-teller. Cruso’s story could be told in a completely different way if it were from his own perspective. However, we read his story through Susan’s lens and therefore only see one side of the story.