Overview Summary

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

Told in four parts, Foe tells the story of Susan Barton, a woman stranded, then rescued, from a desert island and taken back to England where she attempts to contact Daniel Foe, a writer, and have her story documented for the world to read. A re-appropriation of The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Coetzee’s Foe is a work of psychological fiction with a thematic focus on the act of writing much like his novel Master of Petersburg, which features Fyodor Dostoyevsky as a central character. 

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The first three parts of Foe are narrated by Susan Barton, the first two through letters she writes to Mr. Foe (these sections appear in entirely quotation marks) and the last directly narrated. In her writing, Susan Barton tells the story of her time on the island where she lived with Cruso and Friday, two men shipwrecked and also stranded on the island.

Cruso, a taciturn Englishman, has been living for years on the island with an African servant whose past is a mystery with a single clue: his tongue has been cut out. The two survive easily on the island, if not comfortably, until the arrival of Susan Barton, who joins them for months until a ship comes ashore and rescues them.

In the next section of the book, Barton’s story is told through a series of letters written to Mr. Foe, a writer in England. In poverty and distress, Barton hopes to have her story written by Mr. Foe so that she may escape her reduced circumstances and live a normal life. Friday remains with Barton as Cruso has died en route to England. 

Taking a turn toward meta-fiction, Susan Barton’s letters offer an examination of the craft of storytelling as she questions the nature of Friday’s silence, the nature of Foe’s role as author of her story and Cruso’s reticence to render his experiences as a narrative. The action of the plot is counterbalanced from this section forward by the meta-fictional and non-narrative elements of the story as Barton’s letters describe her time in England and her pursuit of Mr. Foe while conducting an extended inquiry in the epistolary means of this pursuit.

Susan Barton’s past is as mysterious as Friday’s despite the fact that she narrates the first three sections of the novel. In the second and third sections of the novel, Barton encounters a young woman who claims to be Susan Barton’s daughter. The veracity of the claim of relation is denied by Barton, but this denial throws the truth of Barton’s entire story into doubt.

In the novel’s third section, Barton encounters Foe and the two challenge one another regarding the relation of an author to a written story. The final section of Foe is the briefest. It is narrated by an unnamed narrator who explores the shipwreck off Cruso’s island and broods once again on the puzzling relationships of source to text and text to author

Part 1 Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419

Part 1 of Coetzee’s Foe consists of a letter written from Susan Barton to Daniel Foe. In the letter Barton relates her experiences landing on a deserted island occupied by two people who, like her, were lost at sea and came to the island by chance. These two figures are Cruso and Friday.

In this section of the novel, there is no break from the context of the letter being written. Susan Barton presents the story of her time on the island in a voice that is embittered, musing, and distinct. Though her narrative here provides numerous details about life on the island—its flora, fauna, weather, and so on—the strongest idea she presents is one of anxious inquiry and incredulity.

Barton describes Cruso as a quiet, middle-aged Caucasian man who has no desire to be rescued from the island. He spends his time building stone walls, laying the groundwork for a terraced farm though he has no seeds to plant for a crop. Friday is an even quieter figure, a slave (or former slave) who has no tongue and who serves as Cruso’s servant, never uttering a word.

Barton spends months on the island with the two men, engaging in a very brief affair with Cruso, and for the most part living a life of few words. Much of this section is concerned with Barton’s desire to understand both Cruso and Friday. Troubled by Cruso’s apathy and lack of desire to escape and puzzled also by Friday’s silent history, she presses Cruso for information, for opinions, and for an emotional response, but rarely elicits the response she seeks. 

Barton’s own back story is presented as a vague series of misadventures: she has no husband and her one child, a daughter, is taken from her. She follows the child from England to Brazil, where she lives alone for some time, never finding her missing daughter. Sailing back across the Atlantic, a mutiny on the ship on which Barton is travelling leads to Barton being put aboard a small boat with the dead captain and told to row. Barton eventually reaches Cruso’s island.

After the musing on Barton’s past and the past of the two men sharing the island with her, as well as descriptions of the wind and weather of the island, a ship arrives and rescues Susan Barton, Cruso, and Friday when Cruso is in the midst of another dangerous fever. Cruso does not survive the journey back to England. 

Part 2 Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

Part 2 consists of a series of letters, most of them brief, which Susan Barton writes to Daniel Foe, the English writer. The novel’s first section is revealed here to have been a first letter from Barton to Foe wherein she tells the story of her time on the island with Cruso and Friday.

The letters in this second part of the book are concerned with securing a promise from Foe to write and publish Barton’s story. The letters also include news on the conditions of her life in England, where she now lives with Friday in a state of destitution.

The two live a difficult life, relying on the charity of strangers, including the charity of Foe, who seems to have agreed to write Barton’s story. Though Mr. Foe is described in Barton’s letters and becomes a character through those letters, his own letters to Barton are not included in the text of the novel.

Foe has suggested that Susan Barton’s story is not entertaining enough to make for a good book. Barton resists the idea of altering her story to include cannibals in her tale of the island. Defending the integrity of the quiet Cruso, Barton’s letters are insistent, sometimes angry, and grow increasingly desperate as Mr. Foe seems to offer little reason for her to hope that he will write and publish her story.

Like Part 1, the action of this section of the novel is quite limited. Barton lives with Friday who cannot fend for himself in England. At one point she and Friday journey to the sea and attempt to secure passage on a ship to Africa, for Friday's sake, but she finds that she cannot trust the people running the ships. Fearing that Friday will be sold into slavery, Barton chooses to keep Friday with her.

The two make their way to Mr. Foe’s house, which Foe has abandoned, and they live there for a time, selling small items from the house for food. A young woman appears at the house claiming to be Barton’s lost daughter, sharing the name Susan Barton.

Susan Barton writes with suspicion of this girl in her letters to Foe, denying any relation to the girl, though the young woman is insistent.

A question of Susan Barton’s narrative reliability arises at this point. As the claims made by the girl serve to refute Barton’s authority over her own story, Barton’s letters to Mr. Foe also express questions on the nature of authorship. Her letters to Foe display a troubled doubt as to how much any one is in command of his or her own story.

Susan Barton sends the young woman away repeatedly but cannot rid herself of certain authorial doubts which coincide with the girl’s presence.

Parts 3-4 Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520

The final two sections of the novel are narrated directly (without the use of quotation marks). Further emphasizing the formal interests of the novel, these two sections are each formally different from the preceding sections and from one another, moving one step further from an interest in plot.

The action of Foe’s third section centers largely on a single evening. Susan Barton and Friday are invited to Mr. Foe’s new home where they are glad to eat a full meal and where they have the promise of shelter for the night. Mr. Foe inquires after Barton’s time in Brazil, where she went in search of her lost daughter and lived for a time. His inquiry is the continuation of a criticism mentioned earlier about the incompleteness of Barton’s story as it is told in the long letter that opens the novel (Part 1).

Barton resists and refuses to alter the substance of her story, insisting that the story she wishes to tell publicly concerns her time on the island and nothing more.

While in Foe’s house, the young woman claiming to be Barton’s daughter returns. Again denying any relation to the girl, Barton at this point defines her suspicions, pointing to the girl’s eye color as different from that of her own daughter.

Susan Barton’s authority over her own story is debated repeatedly as she and Mr. Foe conduct an extended exchange. Through anecdotes and metaphors, Foe and Barton outline their positions on authorship and the importance of “reality” in relation to story-telling, finding little common ground.

When the young woman departs, Friday is given a makeshift bed behind a curtain to sleep. Susan Barton and Foe discuss Friday and the nature of his silence, conjecturing on the narrative problems of this silence. Foe suggests that Susan Barton should attempt to teach Friday to write and, reluctantly, she agrees.

Though Friday fails to learn to write immediately, the cause of his failure is uncertain. Barton is implicated as owning some responsibility for this failure (due to a disbelief in Friday’s ability to learn). Friday grows into an increasingly unorthodox figure, apparently untouched by any of his experiences with Cruso and Susan Barton.

Closing the third section of the novel, Mr. Foe encourages Barton to continue teaching Friday to write.

The final section of Foe realizes the conjectural, authorial moment which Foe and Barton shared while in bed in Part 3. An unnamed narrator moves from Foe’s house, where the characters of the story are seen lying still, to the desert island with no comment made on the transition from setting to setting. At the island, the narrator examines a shipwreck off the shore where some of the story’s characters are again seen from a perspective identified as three hundred years after the action of the story.

This narrative shift is not predicted in any of the first three parts of Foe but seems to relate to novel’s central themes of authorship, the interaction of narrative and reality, narrative reliability and the relationships of source to text and text to author.

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