According to G Scott Bishop, it is important to read post-colonial literature in English, and see the reactions to the discussion of colonialism held by the English, as they reflect the way our historical actions created the world. Taking the plot of the ‘father’ of the novel (Judith Hawley, spoken, 7th October 2010), and a novel focussed around colonialism, Robinson Crusoe, the post-colonial Foe deconstructs it to expose the lies and injustices that are seen in Robinson Crusoe, but never challenged. The change in cultural norms, from Britain in 1719 to South Africa in 1986 has been vast, and the challenging differences between the two novels purported to tell the same story is shocking. The central point of these differences is not, as some would suggest, Susan Barton, the interloper character, and female narrator, but more Friday, a character who is the same across the books, and yet incredibly different. Defoe used Friday to explore themes of religion, slavery and subjugation, all of which were supposed to a natural state of being at that time in history, and Coetzee uses him to explore more strongly themes of slavery, black identity, and the voice of the oppressed. In neither book is Friday left simply to be a character, he is instead always used as a device through which the reader can explore other topics.
‘Your master says the slavers cut [your tongue] out; but I have never heard of such a practiceâ€¦ Is it the truth that your master cut it out himself and blamed the slavers?’ (Coetzee, J.M, ‘Foe’.)
The fact that this question is never answered, and that all attempts to force Friday to communicate fail drastically leave the reader wondering whether the slavers that captured Friday removed his tongue, or whether that was done by the colonialist Cruso, who felt there was ‘no need of a great stock of words’, (Coetzee, J.M, ‘Foe’). This contrasts vastly with Defoe’s Crusoe, who said
‘I began to keep my journal; of which I shall here give you the copy (though in it will be told all these particulars over again) as long as it lasted; for having no more ink, I was forced to leave it off.’
This implies clearly that Defoe’s Crusoe gave a lot more care and interest to language than Coetzee’s Cruso. Defoe’s Crusoe, much as he appreciated journaling in his own language whilst alone, also took pleasure in teaching Friday to speak,
‘In a little time I began to speak to him; and teach him to speak to meâ€¦ I likewise taught him to say Master; and then let him know that was to be my name: I likewise taught him to say Yes and No and to know the meaning of them’.
Defoe’s Crusoe was certainly concerned with language, but never investigated the language that was Friday’s own, erasing Friday’s history by naming him, and teaching him English. In this way, he could only voice the thoughts that Crusoe had given him language to speak. This was challenged by the voiceless Friday in Coetzee’s work, a character who literally couldn’t speak. In this, it could be argued that Coetzee was asserting that it was not his right to give voice to an oppressed black character, and let Friday stand for the victims of apartheid and slavery, where Defoe (due to the beliefs of society at his time) believed that it was right and natural for Crusoe to claim the position of Master to Friday, and to speak for him.
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Hearing the voice of the ‘ethnic minorities’ in both Foe and Robinson Crusoe is important, but so is acknowledging their different racial identities. Friday in Foe’s work, in standing for the victims of apartheid and slavery, is a black African character ‘he was black, negro, with a head of fuzzy wool’ (Coetzee’s Foe), whereas Crusoe’s Friday, not standing for those causes, is portrayed as being an anglicised version of a Caribbean man, who ‘had all the sweetness and softness of a European in his countenance’. This implies that Friday was somehow better than the ‘average’ Caribbean tribesman by dint of looking somewhat European, but at the same time, the first language Crusoe taught him was that he was his master. He was an improvement on the average savage, since his appearance was somewhat European, but still his race left him to be the natural servant of Crusoe. This Friday is very much a dramatic device used to portray Crusoe’s development as a religious man; ‘[Crusoe] began to instruct him [Friday] in the knowledge of the true God’. This allowed Defoe to expand on Crusoe’s earlier mentions of religion, in his conversion, and in the hegemony of the time, caused Crusoe to be seen as a good and moral character, who treated his slave well, and brought him up to be religious (McInelly ‘Colonialism, the novel and Robinson Crusoe’). In Coetzee’s work, Friday is allowed to be sullen and unpleasant, easy to see, but hard to like, he is created to be the embodiment of all the oppression experienced by a racial group, to only be able to take in, never to give out ideas or understanding, to be central to a story he can have no part in. The silence of Coetzee’s Friday could also be said to reflect the reader, who, like Friday can only react and respond to situations. Katherine Wagner however argues against this, saying that ‘criticism and silence are mutually exclusive terms’. Coetzee’s Friday can only be silenced, but Defoe’s Friday has no room to criticise, and no part in making decisions for Crusoe, because in that time, a slave wouldn’t have that option at all, Coetzee’s Friday can take no part, being unable to speak. His isolation and treatment as second class is made far more visible by his disability, a device Coetzee used to avoid speaking the black voice, as a privileged white man, whilst still drawing attention to the plight of slaves.
Crusoe, Cruso and Barton were all seen to treat Friday very differently, but all see him as a possession in their own way. Crusoe did this most blatantly, in claiming, naming Friday and instructing him to call him ‘Master’, with Defoe’s Friday being portrayed as making signs of ‘subjection, servitude, and submission’ to Crusoe without even any bidding. This added to the moral message of Robinson Crusoe, because it showed the savage being tamed, and later taught religion. This contrasts strongly with the Cruso created by Coetzee, who was ‘sullen’ (J M Coetzee, Foe) in his service, who obeyed Cruso, but did not have the childish excitement or ‘comically expressed pidgin’ (Chris Boignes, Lost in a maze of doubtin’) portrayed in places by Defoe. Barton also claimed him, despite trying to treat him as an individual ‘if Friday is not mine to set free, whose is he’ (J M Coetzee, Foe), and on some level saw him clearly as her property, forgetting that maybe it was not her right to set him free either. (Chris Boignes, Lost in a maze of doubtin’).
The representation of Friday in these two texts is vastly different, and one could hardly believe that the two were in fact the same character. With different histories, and different personalities, in fact all both have in common is playing the role of the non-white slave in the text, to serve a literary purpose, in both reflecting the views of wider society towards non-white people, and in showing the development of other characters. This is not to say that either Friday was one-dimensional, in particular Coetzee’s Friday was multi-dimensional and complex, but more that despite the character complexity, despite his being ‘resistant to being interpreted’ (Bishop C Scott, ‘J. M. Coetzee’s ‘Foe’), and how central they were, both were created to serve only a purpose.
1. Bishop, C. Scott. ‘J. M. Coetzee’s ‘Foe’.’ World Literature Today 64.1 (1990): 54. Print.
2. Wagner, KM. ‘Dichter and Dichtung + ‘Foe’ by Coetzee, John – Susan Barton and the truth of autobiography.’ English studies in Africa 32.1 (1989): 1-11. Print.
3. Joanna Scott. ‘Voice and trajectory: An interview with J. M. Coetzee’ Salmagundi.114/115 (1997): 82.22. Print.
4. Bongie, Chris. ”Lost in the Maze of Doubtin’: J. M. Coetzee’s Foe and the Politics of (Un)Likeness.’ Modern Fiction Studies 39.2 (1993): 261-0. Print. http://pao.chadwyck.co.uk/PDF/1286892456412.pdf
5. Brett C McInelly. ‘Expanding Empires, Expanding Selves: Colonialism, the Novel, and Robinson Crusoe.’ Studies in the Novel 35.1 (2003): 1. Print.
6. Cohen, D. ‘Fashioning Friday (Robinson Crusoe).’ Queens Quarterly 115.1 (2008): 9-11. Print.
7. Wheeler, Roxann. ”My Savage,’ ‘My Man’: Racial Multiplicity in Robinson Crusoe.’ ELH 62.4 (1995): 821. Print.
8. Ritchie, DE. ‘Robinson Crusoe as Narrative Theologian.’ Renascence essays on values in literature 49.2 (1997): 94-17. Print.
9. Donoghue, Frank. ‘Inevitable Politics: Rulership and Identity in Robinson Crusoe.’ Studies in the Novel 27.1 (1995): 1-0. Print
10. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. ‘The language of African literature.’ Decolonising the Mind. London / Portsmouth N.H James Currey / Heinemann 1986
11. Judith Hawley ‘Robinson Crusoe’ (University Lecture) 7th October 2010
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