Deciphering friday: the zero-image in Coetzee's Foe

Par Claudia Egerer
Publication en ligne le 28 mai 2013

Texte intégral

Nothing will come of nothing.
Shakespeare, King Lear

This is the world in which I move uninvited,
profane on sacred land, neither me nor mine,
but me nonetheless. The story began long ago… it is old.Trinh T. Minh-ha

1The cover of the hardback edition of Coetzee's Foe offers a brief summary of the story that runs as follows :

When Susan Barton is marooned on an island in the middle of the Atlantic she enters the world of two men. One is a mute negro called Friday ; the other is Robinson Cruso.

The island is a society already at work. Its rules are strict and simple : survival, industry and order. Cruso is master and Friday is slave. Susan watches the creation of a barren world – an architecture of stone terraces above bleak and empty beaches – and waits to be rescued.

Back in London, with Friday in tow as evidence of her strange adventure, she approaches the author Daniel Foe. But Foe is less interested in the history of the island than in the story of Susan herself, and battle lines are drawn between writer and subject. Sole witness to this contest, as he was to the mystery of Cruso's island, is the silent Friday. 1

2Interestingly, and in keeping with many critical readings, this account assigns Friday to a place in the wings – while simultaneously singling him out – as the silent witness to the drama enacted by Cruso, Susan Barton, and Foe. Friday is perceived as an empty vessel waiting to be filled and condemned to complete passivity. Friday is described as "mute" and "silent" yet from the very beginning the key to "the mystery of Cruso's island", as well as to the story of Foe itself, seems to be held – and withheld – by Friday's silence.

3Thus the story evolves from and revolves around Friday's silence. Traditionally silence has been perceived as a withdrawal or a withholding of meaning, hence the desire to break that silence in order to uncover its hidden significance. Friday's silence is enigmatic and the desire to "make Friday's silence speak" provides the energy from which the story arises (142). Writers have always known this and used it in their art. "Mystery, or unknowing," JohnFowles observes, "is energy. As soon as a mystery is explained, it ceases to be a source of energy".2

4But silence has also been seen as the manifestation of impotence, the fate of the oppressed, just as freedom of speech is the symbol of sovereignty. A reading of Foe confirms that all these interpretations of silence are accommodated within its covers, which explains why the novel so often is placed within the discursive frame of postcoloniality. Yet on closer inspection the complexity of Coetzee's imagery leaves an opening to an alternative understanding which goes beyond that framework. The alternative reading that emerges deconstructs the dichotomy between language and silence, demonstrating that the latter instead of being a consequence of subordination can also be seen as a source of empowerment. This interpretation of silence as a source of empowerment is closely linked to the profusion of zero-images in the novel. Brian Rotman states that the introduction of the meta-sign zero into Western consciousness sometime during the thirteenth century was a major signifying event, affecting changes in the codes of numbers, visual depiction and monetary exchange, and as such was partly responsible in bringing about the Renaissance. Discussing the shape of zero, Rotman notes that instead of

literal mimesis, copying a space by a space, one can depict an absence through a signifier that contains a gap, a space, an absence in its shape… an iconographic hole ; any simple enclosure, ring, circle, ovoid, loop, and the like, which surrounds an absence and divides space into an inside and an outside. Thus, presumably, the universal recognition of 'o', 'O', '0' as symbols of zero. And thus a circle of associations linking zero and "nothing". 3

5In Foe, these zero-images permeate the text, embroidering it with eloquent silences that function as a running commentary both on what is said and left unsaid. This uncanny doubling of text and silence invites an anti-reading, a listening, that ignores the text's own protocols of reading. These persistent zero-images assign originary status to the image in the same way that zero precedes numerals.

6Silence in Coetzee's novel has to be understood not as the absence of sound but rather as the absence of words. The island itself is described as "a barren and silent place" (59), yet we are told that it is inhabited by apes and all kinds of birds that flit "all day chirruping from bush to bush"(7). Marooned on the island yet safe, Susan's first sentiment is not relief but anguish : "who, accustomed to the fullness of human speech, can be content with caws and chirps and screeches, and the barking of seals, and the moan of the wind ?" (8, emphasis added). Cruso may not be mute but he is "tight-lipped and sullen"(35), a man with "no stories to tell" and "the morose silence which he impressed upon [their] lives would have driven [her] mad" (43, 36). Indeed, at times the discrepancy between the scarcity of human voices and the intensity of nonhuman sounds is so unbearable that Susan fashions herself "a cap with flaps to tie over [her] ears" as well as stopping them with plugs "to shut out the wind" (35).

7On the other hand, silence in Foe seems also inextricably tied up with the idea of emptiness, of nothing, and the text abounds in zero- images : images of an iconographic hole with an enclosure around an absence. First there is the island itself, walled in by oceans, where Cruso and Friday live in a hut void of furniture so that it is little more than "a circle of sticks" (54). On this island Cruso and Friday labour building meaningless walls around barren and empty terraces that will never be planted, stonewalls encircling emptiness, symbolizing the vacancy of the image of zero.

8This emblematic zero is a far cry from Robinson Crusoe's virginal island, waiting for man's labour to bring it to fruition. Foe's Cruso and Friday are not building a civilization and in "a year, in ten years, there will be nothing left standing but a circle of sticks to mark the place where the hut stood, and of the terraces only the walls" (54). Cruso's island is no Garden of Eden either, despite Susan's description of her first encounter with Cruso "in the days when he still ruled over his island, and [she] became his second subject, the first being his manservant Friday" in terms suggestive of Genesis, assigning a God-like role to Cruso (11). Instead this "hortus conclusus" is perversely devoid of civilization, the very image of an anti-garden preserving an empty nothingness.4

9The island's sterility is oddly reminiscent of Coetzee's discussion of African nineteenth century landscape writing where the "landscape remains alien, impenetrable, until a language is found in which to win it, speak it, represent it".5 This statement establishes a direct link between language and power : in order to penetrate, to control, one must discover a means of representation. Language, the word, is our principal means of affirmation as well as of representation. God is the Word. This implies, by extension, that one cannot appropriate what cannot be spoken, or, in Foe's words, until "we have spoken the unspoken we have not come to the heart of the story" (141).

10The heart of the story is also the most persistent zero-image of all, Friday himself with his "dazzling halo about him" and his empty, tongueless mouth and "vacant" gaze (69). This emptiness is accentuated by his name : "Friday" is not so much a name as the lack of a name. Friday is described not as a man but as a thing, as "an animal wrapt entirely in itself"(70), as an island in need of "a bridge of words" over which to cross to the world of people (60). For Susan, Friday is nothing but the "hole in the narrative" she yearns to fill (121). The story she so desperately wants to tell keeps eluding her, "doggedly holds its silence" because of "the loss of Friday's tongue" (117). This gaping emptiness is interpreted as the sign of Friday's slavery, his signature, and Susan wonders "whether the lost tongue might stand not only for itself but for a more atrocious mutilation ; whether by a dumb slave [she] was to understand a slave unmanned" (119). She interprets Friday's silence as "a helpless silence" and Friday as "the child of this silence, a child unborn, a child waiting to be born that cannot be bom" (122).

11Critics tend to agree with Susan's interpretation of Friday. Robert M. Post reads Foe as "an allegory of contemporary South Africa" where Friday symbolizes the plight of the South African "nonwhite majority".6 He asserts that Friday's "mutilated mouth is a major cause of his remaining a slave".7 Susan Barton is interpreted as "the liberal white South African" who fights for "nonwhite South Africans to be permitted speech so that their plight will be heard and recognized throughout the world".8

12Paul Williams, too, understands Friday as "the archetypal slave" where slavery is the cause of his silence.9 But, unlike Post, Williams's reading does not disregard Susan's self-interest in her desire to "speak" Friday. He realizes that "Susan's attempt to free Friday with writing is also an attempt to force him to submit to her will".10

13With Many Strange Circumstances Never Hitherto Related" (67). She is convinced that the "true story will not be heard till by art we have found a means of giving voice to Friday" (118). But, as Graham Huggan observes, Susan's objective is "not that of bringing Friday to speech but that of speaking Friday's silences : the voice she wishes to give him is her own".11 Susan's obsession to draw out his story by teaching him to write is clearly a manifestation of her own superiority. She attempts to appropriate his silence to turn it into words, and she uses words "as the shortest way to subject him to [her] will" (60). In Susan's universe, language signifies substance. She entreats Foe to write her story, to return to her "the substance" she has lost (51). Language is substance, presence, affirmation, and power. More than anything, Friday's silence threatens Susan's conviction that everything is knowable. Friday remains 'unknowable' as long as he maintains his silence, emphasizing her inability to know fully.

14Obsessed with the idea of uncovering Friday's secret, Susan attempts to teach him to write but he thwarts her intentions by covering the slate with "eyes, open eyes, each set upon a human foot : row upon row of eyes upon feet : walking eyes" (147). These walking eyes are, as David Atwell recognizes, "Friday's trademark… the footprint of Robinson Crusoe and every Robinsonade" and interpreted as a "token of [Friday's] position as the 'wholly Other'".12 This otherness is emphasized by the fact that Friday's signature, walking eyes, is a potent zero-image where he identifies himself with a cipher on legs, a human zero. Far from nullifying himself, Friday's zero on feet is a rejection of Susan's system of letters in favour of his own mode of writing where absence is granted originary status.

15Unlike Susan, Foe is not threatened by silence but conceives it as a natural starting-point and asserts that "words form themselves on the paper de novo… out of the deepest of inner silences" (142-43). For Foe, the true story is born out of the void. Yet when Friday finally communicates by writing, Foe as well as Susan fail to understand the message at the heart of the story :

'Is Friday learning to write ?' asked Foe. 'He is writing, after afashion,' I said. He is writing the letter o.'

'It is a beginning,' said Foe. 'Tomorrow you must teach him a.'(152)

16Neither Susan nor Foe doubt that what Friday is writing is the letter o ; it does not strike them that instead Friday is beginning at the very beginning, with the sign for zero, 0. Both are too entrenched in the system of letters to realize that Friday might be using another system, that he might be writing numerals instead of letters. Thus they read o when Friday writes 0, missing the point completely. Friday is referring to a system of knowledge that is both anterior and different to their own. By writing zero instead of the letters expected of him, Friday is establishing a link to his past, affirming his own history instead of mimicking Susan's and Foe's.

17Rotman observes that the old Hindu numeral zero first reached Africa via Arab merchants before it was introduced into Europe13. With this in mind, Friday's attempt at writing, "rows and rows of the letter o tightly packed together," is meaningless in Susan's interpretation (152). But read as "rows and rows of the sign 0 tightly packed together" it is a statement made by Friday. On the one hand, Friday is voicing and affirming his silence ; on the other hand, Friday is asserting his right to his own history. As an African he rejects the Western mode of signification and the ambiguity of his 0 creates a tension between the two epistemes. It is indeed a beginning, but not of the kind Susan and Foe expected. Friday is going back to the very beginning, neatly sidestepping their increasingly escalating demands on his cooperation in the telling of their story.

18With Friday's assertion of his voice of silence and the ensuing ambiguity we have reached, in a way, the heart of the story as well as its beginning and end. The (hi)story that began with Susan's account of her arrival on Cruso's island, a monologue addressed to a silent, unidentified reader who seems as elusive as Susan's story itself, is saturated with Friday's silences which add up to an impressive display of potency. From the beginning it is not Susan's command of language that initiates the telling of the story but the enigma of silence and the desire to attain it. Susan describes how she "would hold [her] breath and dip [her] head under the water merely to know what it was to have silence" (15). Yet far from appropriating that silence for her own use it is Friday who is slowly taking her over :

'Mr Foe,' I proceeded, speaking with gathering difficulty, 'when I lived in your house I would sometimes lie awake upstairs listening to the pulse of blood in my ears and to the silence from Friday below, a silence that rose up the stairway like smoke, like a welling of black smoke. Before long I could not breathe, I would feel I was stifling in my bed. My lungs, my heart, my head were full of black smoke. '(118)

19Subjected to the black smoke of Friday's silences and the elusiveness of her own words, Susan begins to doubt the authority of language, questioning why and to whom she speaks "when there is no need to speak" (133). This scepticism leaves her a passive witness to her own self-doubt, a person no longer in control : "Who is speaking me ?" (133). More than a question, Susan's "who is speaking me" is an admission of the failure to "make Friday's silence speak, as well as the silence surrounding Friday" (142).

20This loss of authoritative voice accelerates until finally, towards the end of Coetzee's novel, a nameless narrator discovers the dead bodies of Susan and Foe. Friday is still alive but his pulse "is faint, as if his heart beat in a far-off place" (154). Turning over, the "sound his body makes is faint and dry, like leaves falling over leaves" (154). Listening to Friday's breathing, the narrator hears "the faintest faraway roar…the roar of waves in a seashell" and, finally, this roar intensifies until, from Friday's mouth, "without a breath, issue the sounds of the islands" (154). Friday is here described in terms of the island, emphasizing that of all the characters in the novel, he is the only one who can claim an affinity with the island. Unlike Cruso, Susan and Foe, who remain interlopers, Friday has access to the language that is needed to "speak" the island. At this instant the two potent zero-images in Foe merge : Friday is the island.

21Foe is not simply another master-slave history where the silenced black slave helplessly awaits his rescue from well-meaning white benefactors. If it were, it would be perpetuating the very cycle of tyranny and subjugation it seeks to expose. Instead Coetzee's compelling narrative illustrates how the very symbol of subjection, Friday's tongueless silence, is also the means to resist and undermine that subjection by usurping the story, gaining in potency until it finally overwhelms the narration :

From inside him comes a slow stream, without breath, without interruption. It flows up through his body and out upon me ; it passes through the cabin, through the wreck ; washing the cliffs and shores of the island, it runs northward and southward to the ends of the earth. Soft and cold, dark and unending, it beats against my eyelids, against the skin of my face. (157)

22Interestingly, this passage conjures up a sensation ofdéjà vu connected with definitions of freedom offered by Susan and Foe earlier in the text. Freedom, for Susan, is "a word, less than a word, a noise, one of the multitude of noises I make when I open my mouth" (100-101). Foe defines freedom as nothing but "a puff of air" (149). Thus Foe's very last passage, this mysterious flow emanating from Friday's mouth, engulfing all, is a declaration of freedom that brings the story full circle – with the novel itself a powerful zero-image – by taking the reader back to the beginning, sensitized to the double entendre of silence.


Attwell, David. J. M. Coetzee : South Africa and the Politics of Writing. Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1993.

Coetzee, J. M. Foe. London, Seeker and Warburg, 1986.

—. White Writing. New Haven, Yale UP, 1988.

Fowles, John. The Aristos. London, Triad Grafton, 1980.

Fowles, John, and Frank Horvat. The Tree. Boston, Little, Brown, 1979.

Huggan, Graham."Philomena's Story Retold : Silence, Music, and the Post-Colonial Text." Journal of Commonwealth Literature 25/1, 1990.

Post, Robert M. "The Noise of Freedom : J. M. Coetzee's Foe." Critique 30, 1989.

Rotman, Brian. Signifying Nothing : The Semiotics of Zero New York, St. Martin's, 1987.

Williams, Paul. "Foe ' : The Story of Silence." English Studies in Africa 31, 1988.


1  Quoted from the inside flap of the Hardback edition of J.M. Coetzee's Foe, London, Seeker and Warburg, 1986. All subsequent references are to this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text.

2  John Fowles, The Aristos, London, Triad Grafton, 1980, revised edition, p. 26.

3  Brian Rotman, Signifying Nothing : The Semiotics of Zero, New York, St. Martin's, 1987, p. 59.

4 I am here referring to the medieval notion of the "hortus conclusus" as the enclosed garden of civilization, as opposed to chaos and the unknown. For a fuller discussion of the hortus conclusus, see John Fowles, Frank Horvat, The Tree, Boston, Little, Brown, 1979, no pages.

5  J. M. Coetzee, White Writing, New Haven, Yale UP, 1988, p. 7.

6  Robert M. Post, "The Noise of Freedom : J. M. Coetzee's Foe" Critique1989, p. 145.

7  Post 147.

8  Post 145, 153.

9  Paul Williams, "'Foe' : The Story of Silence," English Studies in Africa

10  Williams 37.

11  Graham Huggan, "Philomena's Retold Story : Silence, Music, and the Post-Colonial Text," Journal of Commonwealth Literature 25/1, 1990, p. 18. Huggan does not discover the importance of the zero-sign but, like me, he interprets Friday's refusal to write as an "effective negation of the signifying systems of Western chirographic culture" (18).

12  David Attwell, J. M. Coetzee : South Africa and the Politics of Writing, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1993, p. 114. Attwell's quote "wholly Other" is from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Theory in the Margin : Coetzee's Foe Reading Defoe's Crusoe/Roxana," English in Africa 17, 1990, p. 157.

13  Rotman 59.

Pour citer ce document

Par Claudia Egerer, «Deciphering friday: the zero-image in Coetzee's Foe», Cahiers FoReLLIS - Formes et Représentations en Linguistique, Littérature et dans les arts de l'Image et de la Scène [En ligne], Archives (1993-2001), J. M. Coetzee, mis à jour le : 28/05/2013, URL :