Foe: A Novel

( 6 )


With the same electrical intensity of language and insight that he brought to Waiting for the Barbarians and The Master of Petersburg, J.M. Coetzee reinvents the story of Robinson Crusoe—and in so doing, directs our attention to the seduction and tyranny of storytelling itself

In 1720 the eminent man of letters Daniel Foe is approached by Susan Barton, lately a castaway on a desert island. She wants him to tell her story, and that of the enigmatic man who has become her rescuer,...

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With the same electrical intensity of language and insight that he brought to Waiting for the Barbarians and The Master of Petersburg, J.M. Coetzee reinvents the story of Robinson Crusoe—and in so doing, directs our attention to the seduction and tyranny of storytelling itself

In 1720 the eminent man of letters Daniel Foe is approached by Susan Barton, lately a castaway on a desert island. She wants him to tell her story, and that of the enigmatic man who has become her rescuer, companion, master and sometimes lover: Cruso. Cruso is dead, and his manservant, Friday, is incapable of speech. As she tries to relate the truth about him, the ambitious Barton cannot help turning Cruso into her invention. For as narrated by Foe—as by Coetzee himself—the stories we thought we knew acquire depths that are at once treacherous, elegant, and unexpectedly moving.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Foe is a finely honed testament to its author's intelligence, imagination, and skill … .The writing is lucid and precise, the landscape depicted mythic yet specific.
Michiku Kakutani
NY Times Sunday Book Review
In Foe J. M. Coetzee has written a superb novel by reconsidering the events of 'Robinson Crusoe and presenting them from a new point of view....The human image in Robinson Crusoe is unforgettable, but limited: it is a man's world; women appear only as terrified anonymities, domestic servants in Cape Verde, or the honest widow in London who holds Crusoe's money for him....What Mr. Coetzee's novels imply is that every colonial society is caught between a past so seemingly changeless that it may be conceived as beyond time and history, and a present moment entirely given over to power, empire, history and the systems that further those interests. — Dennis Donoghue
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Imaginatively conceived and richly orchestrated, this slim novel by the author of Waiting for the Barbarians is at once a variant of the immortal Robinson Crusoe and a complex parable of art and life. Englishwoman Susan Barton, having been cast away by Portuguese mutineers, reaches the remote island occupied by another castaway named Cruso (sic and his man Friday. She lives on the desolate rocky island for over a year before they are ``rescued'' by an English ship. Cruso dies en route, and she and Friday are transported to England. The world, she says, demands stories of its adventurers; but how is the story to be told? Indeed, what really happened and what are the facts of her life? What of the mute Friday, sole witness to the events, whose tongue was cut out by marauding slavers? Or did Cruso commit the savage act? In England, she beseeches author Daniel Foe (sic to take the raw material and make a convincing narrative. How does art give life to experience, enliven it, make it vivid, memorable? The truth is sly, evasive; but the novelist closes in upon it with poetic precision to create a small, enigmatic work of art. We are pressed to see in the characters' relationships an allegory of the evil social order that poisons the author's native South Africa. (February)
Library Journal
Cast adrift by a mutinous crew, Susan Barton washes ashore on an isle of classic fiction. For the next year, Robinson Cruso sculpts the land while Friday mutely watches Susan intrude upon their loneliness. Life is mere pattern for the two unquestioning castaways, but Susan is not of their story and she pushes Cruso for rationales that don't exist in a world of imagination. Finally rescued and returned to London, Susan leads Friday to Daniel Foe, the author who will write their tale. Foe, however, sees a different story and seeks ``to tell the truth in all its substance.'' Discovering such truth is Coetzee's aim in Foe, an intriguing novel strikingly different from his earlier works. Here he scrutinizes the gulf between a story and its telling, giving us a thought-provoking text wonderfully rich in meaning and design. Paul E. Hutchison, English Dept., Pennsylvania State Univ., University Park
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140096231
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 1/28/1988
  • Series: King Penguin Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 160
  • Sales rank: 207,150
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 7.75 (h) x 0.46 (d)

Meet the Author

J.M. Coetzee

Born in Cape Town, South Africa, on February 9, 1940, John Michael Coetzee studied first at Cape Town and later at the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned a Ph.D. degree in literature. In 1972 he returned to South Africa and joined the faculty of the University of Cape Town. His works of fiction include Dusklands, Waiting for the Barbarians, which won South Africa’s highest literary honor, the Central News Agency Literary Award, and the Life and Times of Michael K., for which Coetzee was awarded his first Booker Prize in 1983. He has also published a memoir, Boyhood: Scenes From a Provincial Life, and several essays collections. He has won many other literary prizes including the Lannan Award for Fiction, the Jerusalem Prize and The Irish Times International Fiction Prize. In 1999 he again won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for Disgrace, becoming the first author to win the award twice in its 31-year history. In 2003, Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.


John Maxwell Coetzee was born in 1940 in Cape Town, South Africa. He is of both Boer and English descent. His parents sent him to an English school, and he grew up using English as his first language.

At the beginning of the 1960s he moved to England, where he worked initially as a computer programmer. He studied literature in the United States and has gone on to teach at several American universities, the University of Cape Town, and the University of Adelaide.

Coetzee made his debut as a writer of fiction in 1974. His first book, Dusklands was published in South Africa. His international breakthrough came in 1980 with the novel Waiting for the Barbarian. In 1983 he won the Booker Prize in the United Kingdom for Life and Times of Michael K. In 1999, he became the first author to be twice awarded the Booker Prize, this time for his novel, Disgrace. In 2003, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. The Academy cited the astonishing wealth of variety in Coetzee's stories, many of which are set against the backdrop of apartheid.

In addition to his novels, Coetzee has written numerous essays and interviews. His literary criticism has been published in journals and collected into anthologies.

Good To Know

Described by friends as a reclusive and private man, Coetzee did not make the trip to London in 1984 to receive the Booker Prize for Life and Times of Michael K, nor when he again won the prize for Disgrace in 1999.

His 1977 novel, In the Heart of the Country, was filmed as the motion picture Dust in 1985.

Coetzee has also been active as a translator of Dutch and Afrikaans literature.

In 2002, Coetzee emigrated to Australia.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John Maxwell Coetzee
    2. Hometown:
      Adelaide, Australia
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 9, 1940
    2. Place of Birth:
      Cape Town, South Africa
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of Cape Town, 1960; M.A., 1963; Ph.D. in Literature, University of Texas, Austin, 1969

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 10, 2011

    A Good Read

    "A woman alone must travel like a hare, one ear forever cocked for the hounds." An ideal start to a journey into Nobel Literature Laureate J.M. Coetzee's novel Foe as the author compares the perils of his solely travelling protagonist Susan Barton to the ease of a man journeying alone and being able "to enjoy hearty meals at roadside inns and diverting encounters with strangers from all walks of life". For indeed protagonist and narrator Susan Barton does set out alone in search of her abducted daughter in this story based on Daniel Defoe's (ca. 1659-1661 - 1731) novel Robinson Crusoe. Susan follows her daughter to Brazil, only to have her trail go cold in Bahia. She later sets sail for Lisbon and becomes the ship captain's lover. During the voyage, the sailors mutiny, kill the captain and set Susan adrift. She lands on an island, is found by Friday and taken to Cruso, his master. After a year, they are all rescued, but Cruso dies on the voyage back to England. Susan then struggles with a mute Friday at her side as she tries to persuade author Foe to turn her life on the island into a popular adventure novel. In Foe, Coetzee has managed to identify "which episodes of history hold promise of fullness, and tease from them their hidden meanings, braiding these together as one braids a rope", which is in keeping with the difficult task of a storyteller. While Foe has been criticized as lacking "the fierceness and moral resonance of his other books such as ''Waiting for the Barbarians'', it nevertheless demonstrates the skill, imagination and intelligence of this legendary author.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 6, 2006

    The Swan Drama, by Leah C. Hopkins

    The Swan Drama was created to be used while listening to the music of Peter Tchaikovsky¿s Swan Lake. However, the imaginative story line and pictures are also satisfying to children without the music. The story begins in the peaceful and tranquil surroundings of the swans playfully swimming in a warm and safe environment. As the music progresses with darker sounding chords, a conflict is revealed by the appearance of another bird. The bird appears and the swans become startled, the invading bird leaves and the swans regain their composure and continue to play. The invading bird again returns with a few other birds to battle the swans. The swans are beaten and discouraged, yet soon regain their strength and composure, and resume play. The story line is sequenced to the music of Swan Lake. This book promotes movement improvisation, listening, music appreciation, and imagination through the story line. In the classroom, the story is depicted with children using creative movement and scarves to represent the roles of the swans and the invading birds. By integrating music to the story and also using creative movement, children always have a resounding and delightful experience. The key to the success of the Swan Drama has been imagination. It is a book that children absolutely love! This book has been shared with children over and over and the response is: ¿can we do it again¿? The book is illustrated and centers on sound themes that offer ¿joy¿ as an objective goal to accomplish beyond the conflict.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2005

    a bit tedious

    Coetzee made some interesting comments about narrative voices and how different perpectives influence the telling of a story, but the text is, overall, rather boring. It is short and easy to read, but I wouldn't recommend it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 28, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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