Parts 3 and 4 of J.M. Coetzee's novel Foe begin the same but diverge after the first sentence. What does the parallel do to the sense of time? What is the effect of restarting 4 with the same words as 3?
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J.M. Coetzee’s novel Foe utilizes a thematic structure similar to other works of literature and film: he tells the same story from multiple perspectives. Unlike the other works of literature and film that employed this “Rashomon” methodology (so-called in reference to the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film of that name in which the same event is recalled by multiple people, with each individual perspective differing to greater or lesser degrees from the others), however, Foe tells the same story from one individual’s perspective according to the intended audience of that individual’s letters or prose. Susan Barton has, she claims, been rescued from a deserted island where she encountered Robinson Crusoe (spelling changed to “Cruso”) and his native assistant, Friday. She desperately wants her story to be told by an author named Daniel Foe (adapted from the real-life author of The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel DeFoe), and her correspondence to Foe provides the basis of the novel. In Coetzee’s own telling, the theme of this story is the relationship of an author to his or her prose and to the audience for whom that prose is intended:
“My novel Foe, if it is about any single subject, is about authorship: about what it means to be an author not only in the professional sense (the profession of author was just beginning to mean something in Daniel Defoe’s day) but also in a sense that verges, if not on the divine, then at least on the demiurgic: sole author, sole creator.” [Quoted in Radhika Jones, “Father Born: Mediating the Classics in J.M. Coetzee’s Foe,” http://english.illinoisstate.edu/digitaldefoe/archive/spring09/features/jones.pdf]
The key to understanding the divergent paths down which Coetzee’s story travels despite the identical prefaces, then, is the manner in which prose changes to reflect various perspectives and, as importantly, intentions. A letter to one’s parents will certainly differ in tone if not in substance from a letter covering the same subject matter to one’s closer friends. The latter letter will no doubt reflect a different type of familiarity and a different level of comfort than the letter intended for one’s parents. Susan Barton’s letters are intended for Daniel Foe, but she is also keen to manipulate Foe’s writing process to reflect what she wants stated in the way she wants it stated. She is more interested in telling a story and making some much-needed money than she is in providing a more objective and probably boring story that hinges closer to the truth. As the novel inches closer to its ending, Coetzee has his protagonist make her boldest effort at relating her wishes to Foe:
“The story I desire to be known by is the story of the island. You call it an episode, but I call it a story in its own right. It commences with my being cast away there and concludes with the death of Cruso and the return of Friday and myself to England, full of new hope. Within this larger story are inset the stories of how I came to be marooned (told by myself to Cruso) and of Cruso’s shipwreck and early years on the island (told by Cruso to myself), as well as the story of Friday, which is properly not a story but a puzzle or hole in the narrative … Taken in all, it is a narrative with a beginning and an end, and with pleasing digressions too, lacking only a substantial and varied middle, in the place where Cruso spent too much time tilling the terraces and I too much time tramping the shores.”
Barton is attempting to structure the narrative in a specific manner – an effort Foe, like most authors, disdains. She could be considered narcissistic in the sense of wanting the story to be all about her and less about the island, Cruso and Friday, but she is also acknowledging the reality that her perspective of the now-deceased Cruso would almost certainly diverge from what Cruso himself would say if he could. She insists on her story being told her way for that very same reason. Early in the novel, Coetzee has Barton write in a letter to Foe “Who but Cruso, who is no more, could truly tell you Cruso’s story? I should have said less about him; more about myself.” That, in a nutshell, is why the stories diverge between two sections of the book; the perspectives differ and command of the story is at stake. Who tells the tale writes the history.
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