One has just been sent out as a biblical dove, has found nothing green, and slips back
into the darkness of the ark -- Kafka

Friday, August 5, 2011

Coetzee's Female "I"

I've noticed it in three of the novels I've read recently -- In the Heart of the Country (1977), Foe (1986), and Age of Iron (1990) -- and wondered (and sometimes thought Is it authentic?).

Here's one slant that I pulled from the Net:
But what are the feminist concerns of white South African women who, instead of finding themselves caught within two systems of patriarchal oppression, find themselves in between, stranded on literal and figurative islands as both colonial dominators (white) and subjected, second-class citizens (women)? I would argue that these two conflicting tensions serve, if not to effectively cancel each other out, to create a tension around the act of testimony that serves to silence a white South African feminist agenda -- and South African author JM Coetzee's female narrators, Magda in In the Heart of the Country (1977), Susan Barton in Foe (1986), and Elizabeth Curren in Age of Iron (1990), through the presentation of their continually self-negating narratives, serve to illustrate such a position.
Wright, Laura (2008), "Displacing the Voice: South African Feminism and JM Coetzee's Female Narrators"


Another interesting article I quickly pulled up is by Sue Kossew: "Women's Words": A Reading of J.M. Coetzee's Women Narrators (

This excerpt is from a section titled Authorship/Authority:

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the castaway image of his first female narrator should be taken up and developed by Coetzee, in a literalisation of the metaphor, in the person of his second female narrator, Susan Barton, whose first word of direct speech in her text is "Castaway" (Foe: 5).8 Susan is the narrating consciousness of all but the final section of Foe, in which Coetzee once more interrogates the questions of power, author/ity and colonialism. This text, as has been widely discussed, is a "writing back" to Defoe's Robinson Crusoe: by using a female narrator, Coetzee is inscribing difference.9 He is also introducing the notion of the woman silenced by both "history" and "fictions" written by men as Susan herself discovers "that the problems of writing history are not unlike those of writing fictions . . . that is, lies and fabrications" (Hutcheon 1987: 288).10 Both Susan and Friday are seen as colonised Others whose silence is filled by the male, patriarchal, colonising voice of the author, in this case, Foe (Defoe), the enemy. Susan's initial confidence in the power of her veto on the narrative: "If I cannot come forward, as author, and swear to the truth of my tale, what will be the worth of it?" (Foe: 40) is replaced, at the end, with increasing uncertainty as to what constitutes "reality" and "fiction" and the boundaries between substantial "self" and "character", so that, no longer trusting in her own authorship or authority, she says to Foe:
In the beginning I thought I would tell you the story of the island and, being done with that, return to my former life. But now all my life grows to be story and there is nothing of my own left to me. I thought I was myself ... but now I am full of doubt. Nothing is left to me but doubt. I am doubt itself. Who is speaking me? Am I a phantom too? To what order do I belong? And you: who are you? (Foe: 133)
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