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Overview Summary

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. 

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

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...

(The entire section is 1,911 words.)