An Essay On Robinson Crusoe And Foe

Compairing Man Friday Essay, Research Paper

inte‘To make the voice of Friday articulate would be to betray it sentimentally into… lligibility, for the comfort of the guilty self; but not to articulate its silencing would be an even worse treachery.’ Discuss the ways in which Defoe and Coetzee represent Friday.

By Clare Davies.

Friday’s character within both the texts is an important role in the plot and is used to explore themes within them. Within this essay I will be exploring the idea of Friday, what differences there are in Friday’s character and why these differences exist.

There is a large difference between the roles of the two Friday’s in the novels. One of these is the difference in importance to the plot and the narrator themselves. Coetzee’s Friday is the first character that Susan Barton meets when she is stranded on the island. He is quickly transformed from “a dull fellow” to an object of fascination when she discovers his mutilation. However Friday in Defoe’s novel is not as fascinating to the narrator and therefor does not become more interesting to the reader than Crusoe in the narration. This is not to say that the character of Friday is not important to the development of plot and central themes in Robinson Crusoe; as he is a vehicle which allows Defoe to present a view of a coloured man than would, at this point in history, be impossible to express, an idea that I expand upon later in my essay.

Both Friday’s lack and acquisition of speech in the novels is very important. In Robinson Crusoe Friday is described as a very fast learner and a good student (p213.) His character is used as a vehicle for important discussions and information on religious and moral issues; which adds a different type of narration to the novel.

Within Robinson Crusoe Friday not only learns English but can discuss theological ideas and theories. In drastic contrast to this Friday, within Foe, is incapable of speech to such an extent that he has had his tongue removed and is therefor permanently silenced.

I think that within the texts speech and communication represents the action of civilization and socialization. Through the teaching of speech, in Defoe’s novel, Friday is also taught the importance of religion and is made to think of his old way of living as inferior to the Christian way. To such an extent that when asked if he would return to his cannibalism, if he were to return to his home land, he replies that he would not and would in fact try to teach his countrymen the Christian way (page 226.) The effects of civilization is apparent in Friday’s behavior when compared to the actions of the Friday within Coetzee’s novel; Susan Barton observes Friday performing a ritual of scattering white petals on the sea, an action not mentioned within Robinson Crusoe. Also in the time that Friday lives in Britain he is observed to be acting in a way that is in keeping with his past; for example the tune he plays on the flute that he continues to play when he reaches England. This highlights the effect that speech and communication can have on an individuals beliefs and way of life; as Defoe’s Friday is “delivered from this type of behavior by his socialization by Crusoe.

Why do these differences in the same character exist? I believe that the differences are a reflection on the time that they were written and, of course, of the beliefs of the authors writing. To understand the differences we must first look at the authors and their history.

Daniel Defoe was a writer in the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth century he was a writer of papers that were both clever and controversial, these included a satirical attack on high church extremists. He wrote pamphlets and other pieces and was arrested several times for political and slanderous writing before publishing his novels. With this in mind it is hard to believe that Robinson Crusoe could have been written with no undertones of satire or critical observation.

In terms of Friday and his role on the island I think that Defoe is very clever in his use of his character. Friday is portrayed as an intelligent, deep thinker. He learns language quickly and in depth, so much so that he enters in to discussions involving subjects far removed from his situation. In his discussions with Crusoe he comes out with arguments that are thought provoking and intelligent. He calls in to question many things that Crusoe has taken for granted in terms of religion for example the relationship between the devil and God (p 220.). It is not only in intellect that he is seen to as good if not better than Crusoe; in battle and fighting Friday excels himself, much to Crusoe’s surprise. “Friday took his aim so much better than I did…” This portrayal of a Negro, in the time that Defoe was writing, was unheard of as at this point in history coloured people were being used as slaves: “slavery became of major economic importance after the 16th century” (Speake 1999.) This means that what Defoe was writing, to the contemporary audience was extremely controversial. He therefor disguises Friday’s triumphs by listing what Friday’s actions were and not allowing Cruse to comment on his skills in a preferential way. Defoe’s writing style is factual and, within this novel certainly, does not contain a lot of emotion. In fact in the times that this was written even commenting on Friday’s successes was controversial but by distancing the character of Crusoe from this controversy still allowed the contemporary audience to relate to the narrator.

Defoe’s use of the cannibals can also be interpreted as a subtle and clever, but highly acute and sharp, comment on the society that he lived in. Cannibalism, the eating of another man’s flesh for the nutritional gain of the individual, can be interpreted as a comment on the imperial civilization the Defoe was living in. He was often to write about the cost of imperial civilization “feeding off” other places. (Mckeon) An imperial civilization has a dependency on slavery, violence and death to expand. Indeed the irony that Crusoe retches when he is presented with the idea that he should eat man’s flesh when he himself was on a voyage to feed of another nation, in the enslavement of coloured me, to further himself in a monetary sense.

Coetzee was writing in a very different time and this is reflected in his treatment of the characters of Friday and Susan Barton. Coetzee was born in 1940 in South Africa and was an exile writer. Friday’s silences are as important in Foe as his speeches in Robinson Crusoe. The silences that fall speak volumes of Friday’s enslavement and mutilation and it is these that make him an important character in this novel. Susan Barton often can be seen to be speaking for Friday and putting words into his mouth and his head. She projects the feelings that she feels, and the conversations that she thinks, Friday should have. This is exploring an idea that when examining race issues is of paramount importance; does a white person have the right to speak for a black man who is silenced? Is this not just the white man second-guessing what the coloured man feels when in truth he should be allowed to speak for himself? These are important issues that are raised by Coetzee in this novel, ideas that were not considered in the time that Defoe was writing.

It is possible to see Foe as a more realistic version of Robinson Crusoe, portraying the “truth” behind the story. As it appears to me that Friday is more likely to react to his change in surroundings as in Foe that in Robinson Crusoe. This, however is a 21st century view and in the 16th century the story did not need to be particularly realistic as long as the audience could relate to it in fact Defoe himself might not know how Friday would react. The character of Friday can therefor be seen to reflect the time that the respective novel was written in. Both versions of this character were as thought provoking and controversial as each other for the time that they were written. They both reflect the attitudes and opinions of the novelists themselves. The idea of speaking or not speaking is of paramount importance when looking at these novels, as both states deal delicately with an issue which has been of importance for centuries; the treatment and “voice” of the coloured people throughout history.


J. M. Coetzee “Foe”. Penguin Publishing. (1986)

Defoe D.Robinson Crusoe. Penguin Publishing. (1985)

Ross A. intro to Robinson Crusoe.Penguin Publishing (1965)

Shinagel M. Robinson Crusoe. Norton Critical Edition. Norton and Company inc. (1994)

Hutchinson Dictionary of World History. Ed. Speake J. Helicon Publishing LTD (1998)


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