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
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
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
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 novel, 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
Overview Summary 2
when Cruso is in the midst of another dangerous fever. Cruso does not survive the journey back to England.