Islands and Colonial Mentality in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and J. M. Coetzee’s Foe

Published: 2023/07/05 Number of words: 1366

Robinson Crusoe’s Island is arguably a kind of generic prototype for colonised spaces and the encounters between Western and ‘exotic’ peoples, and perhaps one of the first texts with clear examples of myth in the form it was used to justify colonisation. In this essay I will explore how Crusoe uses his conception of the island as his enemy, embodied by the ‘savage’ danger that he encounters there, to build an identity for himself as natural dominator- variously father, king, and arguably God- of the island. I will then turn to Coetzee’s 1986 rewriting, Foe, and analyse the ways in which the postcolonial text exposes the workings of the same mentality, dismantling the original reassurance of colonial success and White superiority through attempts to semantically explore the is- land itself rather than simply in relation to Cruso(e).

In Robinson Crusoe, a “just history of fact” as its eponymous narrator claims, the island represents not only a semantic space for the colonial Master/Slave dichotomy to be played out, but also more specifically a mirror of the native bodies- in this case Friday and the more ‘dangerous’ natives he encounters- which he will dominate just as he does the island. This is well expressed in his fear at the first sign of other human life on the island: the discovery of a footprint in the sand, perhaps the most widely recognisable image from the novel. His fearful reaction immediately indicates his fear of the Other, as he does not register any hope for the “society”- human contact- he has so longed for, and curiously does not at first consider the possibility that it is his own footprint. The fact that he considers the Devil and savages before this reveals his pre-existing anxiety around sharing “his” island, and his view of natives as subhuman: only English speakers with the same culture as him can fulfil his need for company, otherwise they are necessarily an enemy. Most telling, however, in this passage is Crusoe’s subsequent fleeing “to my castle, for so I think I called it ever after this”. Up to this point Crusoe variously refers to his dwelling as “encampment”, “habitation”, “fortification”, “fortress”, and even “manor”; indeed, especially the latter three terms show Crusoe giving military or lordly status to his defences against natural threats. His use of “castle”, then, reveals how affected he is by the potential of other humans on the island, especially as this is apparently a conscious switch in his use of language. ‘Castle’, as with ‘manor’, brings the hierarchical schema of European society to this new one, Westernising the island and allowing Crusoe a more palatable entry into master/slave dichotomy: king/subject. The elevation from ‘lord’ to ‘king’ is very significant for two reasons. Firstly, ‘king’ assumes rule of an entire ‘kingdom’, i.e., the entire island, which Crusoe likely decides to regard as all his own in paranoid reaction to the unspoken possibility of the other humans (savages, but with ‘natural’ right to the island) having come to threaten his claim to the land. Secondly, the feudal role of King as an envoy of God is an undeniable element: although he does not overtly put himself into the role of God, he certainly enacts a microcosm of the way in which Christianity was used to justify colonialism.

It must be said of Foe that while Susan Barton is purportedly most interested in telling “the story of the island” and does expose the fallacy of Cruso’s self-identification as the master of the island, she nonetheless takes on her own colonial role as white subaltern, Friday’s alleged ‘protector’ (read: master), although she refuses to conceive it as such. This is most evident in her choice to remove Friday from the island against his will (as he tries to hide instead of boarding the ship), calling him “a slave and a child” whom it is “our duty to care for”. It could be argued that, like the original Crusoe, she sees Friday as an extension of the island, as the “key” to its true story, which she endeavours to convince Foe to aid her in telling. However, this is an undeniably fallacious conception, not least because Friday is mute and illiterate and this is never resolved, but mostly (and, I believe, not enough is made of this) because Friday is not even a native of the island- he is also a castaway, his native ‘country’ only (and maybe incorrectly) identified as “Africa” by Susan. Nonetheless, this representation of him as extension to the island can be analysed to help explain Susan’s own preoccupations with marginality, especially in relation to the ending of the novel, which totally dismantles the narrative voice and leaves the reader with a dream-like image of Susan and Friday underwater, focusing on Friday. This choice to end the text off the island, in the sunken wreckage of a sea vessel, is ambiguous. The ocean, devoid of human life and language, seems to finally give some outlet to Friday’s story, as the narrator claims, “This is the place where bodies are their own signs”, and in the closing lines his silence appears to flow out of him in a stream: “soft and cold, dark and unending, it beats against my eyelids, against the skin of my face”- finally something is expressed, if without words, and felt by the narrator. However, the narrator also claims that “this is Friday’s home”. While this could simply mean the space where speech is no longer required to tell a story, the image of his ‘home’ being nonetheless within a ship (conjuring images of slave trade), half-buried in stinking, muddy sand and with Susan’s chain still around his neck, suggests the irremediable nature of colonial trauma that even literature is unable to fully resolve. The gradual destabilisation of narratorial certainty and the simultaneous passage from solid ground to disconcerting fluidity aid in constructing the text’s questioning of authority and which stories deserve to be told.

Additionally, the role of agriculture in Foe is amplified to the point of irrationality, which begins to dismantle the myth of Crusoe’s legitimacy and rationality. The original novel is ostensibly based on Crusoe’s documentation of his travels and his time on the island, although the text quickly digresses from his journal. However, in Foe, Cruso is dismissive of the idea of documentation, and prefers to occupy himself by creating terraces (for planting seeds that he does not actually have), supposedly for the “future generations”- the colony which the original Crusoe succeeds in installing, but which Cruso is unable to. Thus, the colonial tradition of cultivating plantations on colonised land becomes a preoccupation for the otherwise despondent Cruso, also implicitly underlining his impotence which we are aware of thanks to Susan- there is perhaps even an ironic mirroring between his lack of useful seeds to plant and his own inability to fertilise. Also, part of Foe’s intention is to frame Robinson Crusoe as the novel resulting from Foe’s writing up of Susan’s story. We later learn that Susan’s description of Cruso and the island are part of her “letters to [Foe] that you never read”. Thus, retroactively, the original tale of European logic, potency, and superiority is exposed as wholly mythical.

In conclusion, while Susan Barton does indeed show similar symptoms of internalised White superiority and saviourhood as Crusoe in her attitudes to Friday, her role of addressing the island and Cruso in a feminine mode aids the text’s attempt to shift narratorial focus, particularly creating more of a tension between land and ocean to mirror human speech and natural ‘signage’ to try and find some outlet to the problem of silence and resulting incomprehension. In rewriting the text for the contemporary audience of South Africa in the final decades of apartheid, and writing Friday specifically as a Black man, a sense of the continuing tensions and misunderstanding- that all still result from the same colonial myth that had inspired Defoe two centuries earlier- is succinctly revealed.

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