Foe and the Narrative View of Self

As someone with a long standing interest in Marya Schechtman’s narrative view of self, I was fascinated by reading J.M. Coetzee’s novel Foe (a retelling of Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe) this term in Arts One. The book seems to me to be exploring (among other things) the challenges of establishing who one is in a narrative form when others seek to take control of one’s own story. It suggests that one’s self can never be entirely altered by another because a narrative is never able to entirely capture one’s self.

Schechtman, in her 1996 book The Constitution of Selves tells us that personhood is created through constructing a narrative that makes sense of one’s past experiences and memories. But the stories one tells in order to construct one’s self must be stories that can be understood by others. Schechtman says

“[p]ersonhood, it might be said, is an intrinsically social concept. To enter into the world of persons, an individual needs, roughly speaking, to grasp her culture’s concept of a person and apply it to herself.” (Schechtman, 94)

The idea that the stories one tells about oneself have to be intelligible to others is one that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. Whether or not this is all that persons are (as the narrative view of self maintains) the fact is, we do tell stories. In fact, with Twitter, and blogs, and Facebook and a host of other ways of sharing information, we are telling stories about ourselves to anyone who will listen (or to no one, as the case may be, but that’s another problem). What if others don’t find you to be intelligible? What if they want to tell another story about you? One they think makes more sense than your own does?

As I approached Foe I already had these questions in mind. And in the novel, I found some of the same themes being dealt with. Susan Barton, one of the main characters of the text, returns to England from having been shipwrecked upon an island, and sets out to have her story told. She approaches the famous author Foe and requests that he write her tale for her since she does not see herself as a writer capable of giving birth to this narrative. At first it seems that her aim in doing so is purely for fame and money. She wants to be recognized, and she wants the story to sell well.

But as Foe pushes her to spice the story up a bit (by including pirates and cannibals) Barton pushes back, adamant that the tale of being stranded by itself is enough, lamenting “[a]las, will the day ever arrive when we can make a story without strange circumstances?” (Coetzee, Pg. 67) But Foe is equally determined to see the shipwrecked story changed somehow. He responds that “‘The island is not a story itself,’”(Coetzee, Pg. 117).

The problem is that, generally in Western European culture, we expect certain things from stories. We expect them to be logically and causally connected, and we expect them to move in four parts: the intro, the rising action, the climax and the conclusion in which everything is wrapped up. But life doesn’t follow expectation. Barton’s experience on the island had no climax and many things were left unresolved. And so I wonder if our struggles to tell stories about ourselves that others find intelligible and interesting are struggles against a part of who we are. I wonder if Soren Kierkegaard was right when he claimed that something is always left unsaid or unexpressed in our speech.

This wondering leads me to the character of Friday. Friday, in Coetzee’s novel, does not speak. It is rumored that he cannot speak, because his tongue was cut out. In any case, he does not (and perhaps cannot) tell his own story to anyone else. In one sense, this leaves Friday open to the interpretation of others. He cannot push back as Barton pushes back against Foe’s re-framing of her narrative. As Barton tells us

“Friday has no command of words and therefore no defense against being reshaped day by day in conformity with the desires of others. I say he is a cannibal and he becomes a cannibal; I say he is a laundryman, and he becomes a laundryman.” (Coetzee, Pg. 121)

But Barton’s view of Friday’s lack of agency seems a bit too simplistic. For the last section of Coetzee’s novel leaves me with a paragraph that challenges Barton’s account of Fridays maleable identity.

“But this is not a place of words. . . This is a place where bodies are their own signs. It is the home of Friday.” (Coetzee, Pg. 157)

I am left wondering about this relationship of narratives to bodies. What does it mean to say bodies are their own signs? Friday is still interpreted by Barton in various ways, and yet at the same time seems untouched and unchanged by her interpretations. His inability to communicate renders him untouched by this re-framing of his story. And yet he doesn’t seem to have a robust individuality that is conveyed through the story. Instead, the suggestion arises again and again that Friday is a void. He is empty and hollow, signified by the gap in his mouth where his tongue should be. If he is not reinterpreted and remade by others, the suggestion exists in the text that part of the reason for this is because there is no substance to be remade. But there is a substance. He is a body.

If personhood is social, Friday is not a person. Yet his physical existence is a sign of his personhood, even if he does not participate in the social creation of his own stories. Schechtman argues that some individuals (babies and those in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease, for example) can fail to be persons because they cannot tell a coherent story about themselves. Friday cannot tell a coherent story either. However, the reason he cannot has less to do with his psychological organization and more to do with his physical body. He cannot speak. Much as Abraham, in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling cannot speak.

Perhaps, the suggestion in this work is that narratives leave something unspoken. A void. The self cannot be fully articulated. And if that is the case, it cannot be fully altered by those who seek to make our stories more intelligible, more exciting, and more to their liking. No matter how much we fill ourselves with stories, the silence will always emerge.