The Truth in Silence

In the 1986 adaptation of Robinson Crusoe, J. M. Coetzee tells the “real” story of Cruso and Friday through Susan, the “female castaway.” Throughout the novel, Susan becomes immensely infatuated with finding the truth whether it is about Cruso, Friday, or her daughter. Susan finds that there is a need to tell the “real” story of the island castaways so much so that she wanted to have a book published. She approaches Foe claiming to be “seeking a new situation.” Then pitches her story insisting that he has never heard a story likes hers and that she was the “good fortune we are always hoping for” (48). So her story is more than just setting the record straight, it is to gain fortune in order to care for her and Friday.

From the very beginning, she is very determined whoever writes it will write the whole truth. “I will not have any lies told . . . I would rather be the author of my own story than have lies told about me . . . If I cannot come forward, as author, and swear to the truth of my tale, what be the worth of it?” (40).  However, her actions regarding Friday seem to contradict that. In Coetzee’s version, Friday’s tongue was cut out and he is not able to speak. Susan habitually speaks for Friday and presumes his thoughts and feelings without fully knowing if they are in fact true. For instance, when Cruso was dying Susan persuaded the ship’s captain to permit Friday to go into Cruso’s cabin because he “would rather sleep on the floor at his master’s feet than on the softest bed in Christendom” (41).  While she reiterates many times to Foe to write the whole truth and nothing but, it does not stop Susan from putting words in Friday’s mouth and telling “his” story. She later admits this to Foe when she refuses to tell him about the time she spent in Bahia.“Friday has no command of words… I say he is a cannibal and he becomes a cannibal; I say he is a laundryman and he becomes a laundryman . . . No matter what he is to himself… what he is to the world is what I make of him” (121-122). Susan claims she wants the story to be about the time they spent on the island. The only stories she is willing to tell Foe is how she came to be marooned, Cruso’s shipwreck, Cruso’s early years, and Friday’s story. She discloses the fact that Friday’s story is a “hole in the narrative”. Nevertheless, this does not stop her from trying to filling in the gaps in any way she can. Susan does attempt to find a way to establish some form of communication with Friday through art, dance, and music but Friday stays silent. Does he not understand or is he staying silent for the same reason as Susan? “I choose not to tell it because to no one, not even to you, do I owe proof that I am a substantial being with a substantial history in the world . . . for I am a free woman who asserts her freedom by telling her story according to her own desire” (131). So Susan’s choice of silence is her way of controlling how her story is told. She does not seem to realize that she is controlling Friday’s story. Perhaps she does not see him as a “substantial being” with a “substantial history.”

Coetzee, John M. Foe. Viking, 1987.