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The Persistence of Character

Character Adrift (on the Sea of Language): Robinson Crusoe, Foe, Elizabeth Costello, and the Shipwreck of Realism



Cet article porte les personnages dans Foe et Elizabeth Costello que J. M. Coetzee présente en employant la métaphore du “naufrage” pour dépeindre l’effondrement du réalisme traditionnel en littérature. Il examine comment les personnages “dérivent” dans l’étendue qui sépare la réalité matérielle de la représentation symbolique. Cette exploration repose sur la double interprétation du terme “personnage” – à la fois comme signe ou signifiant littéral et incarnation figurative de la personnalité. La discussion commence avec Robinson Crusoe, postulant que la “dérive” est une caractéristique inhérente des personnages littéraires depuis le début de la tradition romanesque. L’article explore ensuite le style narratif nuancé de Coetzee, démontrant comment ses personnages, à la dérive sur une mer de langage et de symbolisme, s’efforcent de maintenir leur existence authentique face à la marée montante de l’abstraction linguistique. Cette “dérive” et ce “naufrage” métaphoriques reflètent plus largement des changements philosophiques et culturels en littérature, où les personnages oscillent constamment entre leurs rôles d'entités tangibles et de constructions au sein des cadres narratifs. L’article postule que les œuvres de Coetzee illustrent cette tension, mettant en scène des personnages qui non seulement sont essentiels à l’intrigue mais également servent de métaphores pour la quête humaine permanente de sens et de réalité face à la fluidité du langage et de la fiction.

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… if I were like a bottle bobbing on the waves with a scrap of writing inside me […] if I were a mere receptacle ready to accommodate whatever story is stuffed in me, surely you would dismiss me, surely you would say to yourself, “This is no woman but a house of words, hollow, without substance?”
– Susan Barton in
Foe, by J. M. Coetzee (130)

I wouldn’t describe my work as structuralist … [b]ut obviously I have learned a lot from contemporary French thought about the mediations that systems of signs provide.
– J. M. Coetzee (Morphet 458-459)

1. Catching the Drift of “Character”

1For all the effort and artifice that writers put into affixing reality-testifying stability and solidity to their dramatis personae, it is in the nature of character to drift. Indeed, in a brutally abbreviated history of English literature, drift might be said to be the main characteristic of the story of “Character”, were character to be personified as a character. From Character’s origins as a broadly allegorical figure representing either vice or virtue in the epic poems and morality plays of the Middle Ages, via the lively realism and relative individualism conferred upon it by Chaucer, to the humanism of the Renaissance, where, in the hands of Shakespeare, it blossoms into a being of depth and complexity. Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear are not mere representations of ideas but are multi-faceted individuals with distinct personalities, their inner conflicts and moral dilemmas reflecting the human condition. From there, Character drifts into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where the rise of the novel gives it a new stage on which to perform. In the works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot, it becomes even more nuanced and detailed, mirroring the intricacies of social manners and the dynamics of an evolving society. Here, Character is no longer just a vehicle for a plot but an entity that could drive the story forward through its choices, changes, and growth. The twentieth century brings modernism, which sees Character undergoing yet another transformation. Now, Character often reflects the fragmented nature of modern existence, as seen in the works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf; and, influenced by new thinking about psychology and the emergence of the practice and theory of psychoanalysis, Character is cast adrift on streams of consciousness, exploring the richly complex inner workings of the mind. With the advent of postmodernism, Character turns self-saboteur, militating against its own histories of verisimilitude and its drive towards ever-greater psychological authenticity. It plays knowingly both with the expectations of the credulous reader and with the conventions of literary writing, laying bare the workings of writerly artifice and blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction. Today, the character of Character is legion, traversing a diverse landscape, embodying a multitude of experiences, identities, and realities. And it has drifted beyond the confines of the printed page to new and familiar storyworlds in other media in an expansive post-literary field (on the latter point, see Callus and Corby, v).

2Arguably, though, this drift is secondary to a more primal drift, one that becomes apparent if the different meanings that the term “character” carries are admitted for consideration. “Character” as it is understood in the context of literature is essentially figurative. In what follows I will, of course, be using the word in this sense. However, I will also be leaning quite heavily on the literal meaning of “character”, namely, “[a] distinctive mark impressed, engraved, or otherwise formed; a brand, stamp” and, by the merest of extensions, “a graphic sign or symbol” (OED). It is not hard to imagine how the literal (mark) might have become the figurative (fictional personage) in the case of character: a mark or stamp gradually took its place among the marks, signs, and symbols of written language, and the distinctiveness of those written signs became less about their graphic appearance and more about the tone and style that they conveyed, which, with the emergence of Renaissance humanism, came to be linked to the distinctiveness of the “mental or moral constitution” (OED) of the person holding the quill—“le style est l’homme même,” as Buffon would later declare (xvii; for more instances of this idea, see Corby 170-173). The stage was then set for that humanistic conception of character to be mirrored in art and literature, and for the literary drift of character to begin in earnest. And so, character in the literal sense becomes character in a more figurative sense. From its earliest imagined origins, therefore, character might be supposed to be inclined to drift, the localised fixity of the mark, anchored in its own materiality, giving rise to mobile and mutable signification.

3There exists an intricate if hidden interplay connecting these two connotations of the word “character”, between the materiality of the signifier and the various symbolic values it can sustain, troubling any simplified binarism that may be supposed to separate vehicle from tenor. The physical understanding of “character”, as a brand or stamp, holds a distinctiveness, a purposive singularity that sets it apart. Yet, this distinctiveness, precisely in so far as it is distinctive, means something, even if only through its difference from other marks that, lacking such distinction, do not qualify as “characters”. In its meaningful distinction, therefore, character understood as a brand, stamp, or mark, cannot be considered self-sufficient. This inherent differentiation imbues the material signifier with a sense of inadequacy, a markedness that stems from its relative nature, its existence defined by what it is not as much as by what it is.

4This dynamic, where the material and the symbolic continuously oscillate, creating a tension between them, forms the silent but consequential undercurrent beneath what I would like to characterise as character’s drift. It is a fluid motion of back and forth, a constant interplay where neither pole is entirely self-sufficient or dominant. The materiality of the signifier, while essential, is perpetually incomplete without its symbolic counterpart, and vice versa. This interaction is not just a simple exchange but a complex, nuanced dance that blurs the lines between the tangible and the intangible, between what is and what is signified, between “reality” and “fiction”.

5But before we get carried away with all this blurring and drifting, let us return to character understood as a personage that dwells in fiction. Perhaps the point I am trying to make about the signifier, anchored in materiality, and the various figurative resonances and meanings that it can come to be associated with—and the relation between these two poles, which is a relation of tension—can thereby gradually emerge in a more concrete and easily graspable way. In the search for a surer footing for our discussion of character, one could certainly do worse than go back to the origins of character in the English novel to consider a figure who is surely a contender for being, next to Hamlet, the most important and influential character in all English literature, namely, Robinson Crusoe.

2. Robinson Crusoe and the Character of Realism

6Robinson Crusoe, an enduring literary figure, first appeared in Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Written by Himself. The immense popularity and influence of this initial narrative led to the publication of two sequels: The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, which continues Crusoe's voyages, and Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: With His Vision of the Angelic World. Over time, the original novel has eclipsed its sequels in popularity and cultural significance, to the extent that it is commonly referred to merely by its protagonist’s name, Robinson Crusoe. This abbreviation reflects not just the novel’s enduring appeal, but also the centrality of its main character, whose struggles and triumphs have resonated with—“hooked”, to use a term Rita Felski has recently breathed fresh critical life into—generations of readers. Crusoe’s story, often seen as the first English novel, represents a significant milestone in the development of literary realism and has been a defining influence in the adventure and survival genres.

7But before acquiescing to this shortening, let us mark the pretence of the original title of the original instalment of this fictional autobiography, which asserts Crusoe’s own authorship of the text: “Written by Himself.” The boldness of this artificial framing, which essentially becomes the opening gambit of the novelistic tradition in English, a bridge from the established autobiographical and epistolary traditions opening up a new literary form, has captivated readers ever since, beguiling them with the conviction and completeness of the artifice, and confronting them with the audacity of the literary sleight of hand. Unsurprisingly, the novel has left its mark on many subsequent writers, particularly those who engage consciously and deliberately with the form and history of the novel. Certainly not least among these is J. M. Coetzee, the Nobel-prize-winning South African and Australian novelist. So affected was Coetzee by an abridged version of Robinson Crusoe when he was eight or nine years old, that he recalled his first and, as it would prove, formative encounter with the character of Crusoe by way of an introduction to his Nobel Lecture, “He and His Man”, at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm in 2003. Coetzee scholar David Attwell takes up the story:

A few months later [i.e., after this childhood encounter with Robinson Crusoe], he came across an entry in The Children’s Encyclopaedia (it would have been the work by Arthur Mee mentioned in Boyhood) to the effect that Robinson Crusoe was written by a man called Daniel Defoe who wore a wig and lived in London. “The Encyclopedia referred to this man as the author of Robinson Crusoe,” Coetzee said, “but this made no sense, because it said on the very first page of Robinson Crusoe that Robinson Crusoe told the story himself.” So who was Daniel Defoe? Was the name perhaps an alias that Crusoe adopted when he returned from the island? (124)

8These questions, and others, confounded the young Coetzee, as they have done readers before and since. Coetzee famously returns to this character conundrum later in life in his celebrated 1986 novel Foe, as well as elsewhere, such as in his Nobel Lecture itself, and in his essay “Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe”, which first appeared as the Introduction to the 1999 Oxford World Classics edition of Robinson Crusoe. In the latter essay he observes:

In his Serious Reflections, the author of the earlier volumes finds it necessary to defend himself against charges that his life-story is made up, that it is simply a romance, that he is not even a real person. “I Robinson Crusoe,” he writes in his preface, “do affirm that the story, though allegorical, is also historical … Further, that there is a man alive, and well known too, the actions of whose life are the just subject of these three volumes, and to whom all or most part of the story most directly alludes … and to this I set my name.” And with a bravado worthy of Cervantes he signs his name: Robinson Crusoe. (Stranger Shores 20-21)

9Coetzee then records his continuing puzzlement at this provocation: “When the writer of these words says ‘Robinson Crusoe’ is a living person, what, beyond maintaining the by now tired autobiographical charade, might he mean?” (21).

10It is a tantalising question, but let us not pass over that “tired autobiographical charade” so quickly. Defoe deployed all his skills of deceptive artifice in order to try to convince readers that at the heart of the story of Robinson Crusoe there was someone who was not simply a literary character, and not a fictional character at all, but rather a real individual with a real existence beyond the book, beyond language—a character beyond the characters on the page. And those skills of deceptive artifice were already well-honed and deeply entrenched in his own character long before the invention of Crusoe. As Anthony Uhlmann puts it:

Daniel Defoe was himself a master of deception, a “master of fictions” as his biographer Maximillian Novak has it. Critics, such as Novak and Richetti, have argued that the role playing he understood in life (the shifting of positions and adoption of personas) would have helped him, perversely, to develop into a successful writer of fiction. He was already able to imagine himself in someone else’s shoes. He worked as a spy for the English government against the Scottish, and in performing his duties he wrote political pamphlets making use of personas, such as a “Quaker gentleman” (130).

11In a remarkable demonstration of the relationship between the signifying materiality of characters on a page and character as personage (fictional or otherwise), Defoe would even disguise or alter his handwriting to hide his own identity or to establish another (Novak 183). Even the act of signing his name, usually taken as a performative guarantee of identity, served to undermine and destabilise character. As Maximillian Novak puts it, “Not only did Defoe seldom sign with the same name, varying between his alias, ‘Claude Guilot’, and assorted versions of his own signature, but all of these varied so much that one might suspect considerable uncertainty about his own identity” (326). Whereas, therefore, a signature is meant to anchor identity in reality—a reality rooted beyond the symbolic realm of language—the characters of Defoe’s autography drift in a self-erasive gesture that served the elusive and contra-identificatory drift of his own character.

12In directing his chameleonic guile and craft to the creation and presentation of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe was so successful that even when one is under no illusions about the fictionality of Crusoe he remains no less compelling a character. In a passage also quoted by Coetzee in his essay on Defoe (Stranger Shores 21), Edgar Allan Poe makes a similar observation regarding the success of the Crusoe character and his putative account of himself:

Not one person in ten—nay, not one person in five hundred, has, during the perusal of Robinson Crusoe, the most remote conception that any particle of genius, or even of common talent, has been employed in its creation! Men do not look upon it in the light of a literary performance. Defoe has none of their thoughts—Robinson all. (547)

13In attempting to pass the Crusoe character off as a real person, Defoe accidentally helps to invent literary realism. Coetzee contrasts Defoe’s realism with that of fellow pioneer realists Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson, arguing that Defoe plies a more particular trade:

Properly speaking, Defoe is a realist only in that he is an empiricist, and empiricism is one of the tenets of the realist novel. Defoe is in fact something simpler: an impersonator, a ventriloquist, even a forger (his Journal of the Plague Year is as close to a forgery of an historical document as one can get without beginning to play with ink and old paper). The kind of “novel” he is writing (he did not, of course, use the term) is a more or less literal imitation of the kind of recital his hero or heroine would have given had he or she really existed. It is a fake autobiography heavily influenced by the genres of the deathbed confession and the spiritual autobiography. (Stranger Shores 22)

  • 1 Perhaps most notably by Marx, Engels, Ian Watt and Pierre Macherey. See also Sherman.

14Crusoe, then—despite the proto-realism that tries to persuade the reader that the castaway was a real person in a real place, with a material existence outside of language, outside of the characters on the page—is very much a character adrift in and upon the figurative, adrift in and upon the literary. One obvious example of that drift is in the way the story of Crusoe spawned the Robinsonade genre and, with it, countless other tales about shipwreck on a desert island. Coetzee’s own novel Foe, which I will say more about, may be considered a postmodern, and postcolonial, swerve in and from that tradition. But the various drifting afterlives of Crusoe are not by any means limited to the overtly fictional. For instance, Crusoe has come to be seen1 as a sort of emergent capitalist Everyman, a ‘homo economicus’ (Watt 69) embodying the new ideals, contradictions, and iniquities of economic individualism and purported self-reliance.

  • 2 However, see Severin for an exploration of other historical possibilities.
  • 3 As Novak puts it, Selkirk “was rescued on 31 January 1709 by Captain Woodes Rogers, whose account o (...)

15Crusoe, therefore, is a character adrift. If we are looking for a character (the “letter” that Jacques Lacan defines as “the material medium [support] that concrete discourse borrows from language” [413]) that anchors the realm of the symbolic, perhaps we ought to focus on the historical figure of Alexander Selkirk. If Crusoe is not the element of the story that has a material existence beyond the story, then Selkirk might be a contender for that position.2 He was indeed a real person who became a celebrated public figure, having been a castaway for five years on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific Ocean. It seems impossible to imagine that Defoe was not familiar with the story of Selkirk.3

  • 4 We might think of this as a more extreme version of Borges’ account of how a writer—he was thinking (...)

16Furthermore, not only can it not be claimed in any simple or straightforward sense that Selkirk is the character that lies behind and anchors the character of Crusoe, he—empirically “true” personage that he is—cannot escape Crusoe’s drift and the flow of the figurative and fictional that returns to and transforms the material realm that ostensibly might seem to exist beyond it. The best illustration of that, in this case, is the fact that the island upon which Selkirk was castaway is now officially called Isla Róbinson Crusoe.4 Not only can Robinson Crusoe retrospectively influence our perception of preceding fictional accounts of shipwreck, it can also transform our perception of material reality. The figurative inscribes itself upon the literal, thereby loosening the moorings of the latter—if not quite, or not always, casting it entirely adrift. What ultimately seems to make Robinson Crusoe such a compelling character is that he is simultaneously anchored in a real or feigned reality and that he is adrift in fiction. The literary character of Crusoe, therefore, embodies the same characteristics as a character understood in the literal sense, i.e. as a signifying mark—a letter or grapheme—on the page. Crusoe is both signifier and signified and is adrift, washing up on a plethora of different islands across time and space.

3. Character and (Dis)Embodiment–The Case of Elizabeth Costello

  • 5 Perhaps unsurprisingly, Elizabeth Costello herself drifts into other texts by Coetzee. She features (...)

17In the many years since the publication of Robinson Crusoe the reading public has generally become much more knowing with regard to the elisions of literary artifice. The constructedness of realism, indeed the constructedness of our sense of reality itself, is something that, at least in academic discourse, is taken—often too quickly and facilely—for granted. This change—the untethering and casting adrift of “reality”—is something that Coetzee meditates upon at length through the character of Elizabeth Costello, in his 2003 book of that name. The character Elizabeth Costello is an ageing Australian writer of international renown. Her most important book is her 1969 novel The House on Eccles Street, whose main character is Molly Bloom, who evidently has drifted out far beyond the shores of Joyce’s Ulysses.5

  • 6 An earlier version of this chapter had, in fact, been presented by Coetzee at Bennington College in (...)

18Elizabeth Costello the book is divided up into eight “lessons” and a postscript. Lesson 1, titled “Realism”, recounts how Costello travels to a US university to receive a prize for her writing. As part of the prize-giving ceremony she must address the audience. She chooses as her subject the question “What is Realism?” (18).6 A brief description of Costello is given, and the narrator then reflects:

The blue costume, the greasy hair, are details, signs of a moderate realism. Supply the particulars, allow the significations to emerge of themselves. A procedure pioneered by Daniel Defoe. Robinson Crusoe, cast up on the beach, looks around for his shipmates. But there are none. “I never saw them afterwards, or any sign of them,” says he, “except three of their hats, one cap, and two shoes that were not fellows.” Two shoes, not fellows: by not being fellows, the shoes have ceased to be footwear and become proofs of death, torn by the foaming seas off the feet of drowning men and tossed ashore. No large words, no despair, just hats and caps and shoes. (Elizabeth Costello 4)

19Coetzee’s narrator, here, signals a subtle ambivalence regarding the realist literary tradition. As the philosopher Stephen Mulhall puts it:

On the one hand, Coetzee is associating his enterprise with that of Defoe’s plainly denotative realism: supply some small and plain particulars, and the significations will emerge by themselves […]. On the other hand, he is also dissociating himself from what will appear from the perspective of the text before us to be Defoe’s prolixity—his sense that an unending profusion of such plain particulars is essential if the illusion of reality is to be successfully created. (181)

20Mulhall assumes that the narrator is expressing Coetzee’s position, and there is perhaps some justification for this. Jarad Zimbler asserts that “he has often disavowed a realism premised on inventorizing reality” (5), and David Attwell argues that “suspicion of realism’s pretentions” is a “distinguishing feature” of Coetzee’s work (39). Coetzee himself, in a relatively early interview, stated “I don’t have much interest in, or can’t seriously engage myself with, the kind of realism that takes pride in copying the ‘real’ world” (Morphet 455). Yet, Attridge perceptively and no doubt correctly observes “that Coetzee, for all his experimentation, has always drawn on the stubborn power of realism, on the vivid representation of a world, external and internal, into which the reader is invited” (201). Perhaps the “moderate realism”, of the sort deployed to introduce the reader to Elizabeth Costello, is one that Coetzee can endorse. He may be uncomfortable with an item-by-item literary replication of reality (that is, a literalist approach), but he may be assumed to stand in admiration, like his narrator in Elizabeth Costello, of Defoe’s occasional economy of description that, through a forceful exiguity, elevates the barest of details— “characters”, as in material brands, stamps or marks—to the level of the symbolic, and therefore, one might say, to the literary. This can be seen in the way the footprints, the vestiges, Crusoe discovers on the beach of his island conjure a world of possibilities, or, as the above-quoted passage from Elizabeth Costello makes clear, the way the negated metonymy of the hats, caps and shoes, “that were not fellows,” bespeaks the sailors’ fate.

21“Meaning”, in the form of coherent blooms of signification that attest to a “reality”, to an animated and solid-seeming world, emerges, Coetzee seems to be implying, in and through the particular relationality of people and things in the world. This relationality is rendered most distinctively if it is outlined selectively and sparely, through a suggestive focus, rather than through the maximalism of a literary-realist bookkeeper, scrupulously piling detail upon detail. This method of representing reality by focusing on a few carefully selected details that, through literal or figurative relations, evoke a world, seems to reflect some of Coetzee’s own deeply held convictions about language and meaning, convictions that he had developed and articulated when, as a student, he wrote a PhD thesis called The English Fiction of Samuel Beckett: An Essay in Stylistic Analysis. In this thesis he states: “The opposition of structural linguists to a dualism of idea and word is too well known to need exposition. “Linguistic features do not reproduce … meaning,” writes one of them, “they produce it.” (156)

22The extreme implications of this line of thought—the then-fashionable orthodoxy—is the total collapse of form and content into one another, producing a sort of conceptual monism. Coetzee rejects this position. As Anthony Uhlmann puts it, “Coetzee’s own position maintains a dualistic distinction between content and form, though recognizing a nuanced and complex interaction between them” (35). Coetzee states that his stance implies that “there is in a literary work a content which exists in some sense prior to its expression, that the expression can be adequate or inadequate to the content, and that in the latter case one can perceive disjunction between expression and pre-existent content” (English Fiction 5). Coetzee also discusses the five possible ways of conceiving of the interaction between form and content that Morris Weitz sets out in Philosophy of the Arts, concluding that his position is “closest to (b) but not identical with it.” Weitz articulates position (b) thus: “Content is the aggregate of elements, form the relations among them.” Coetzee expands on what he takes this position to imply: “The form of a literary work is that conception of it which enables the reader to comprehend its entire structure of interrelationships and references. But not all elements of the work are parts of its content. (13)

23All of which is basically to say: the sum of the things in the world is not equal to the world. Literary realism creates the illusion of verisimilitude not through mere enumeration, but by selectively using details to conjure a worldly connectedness. This is a play of content and form that requires their interdependence but also their distinction. The relation between form and content also maps broadly onto other related dualisms to which Coetzee appears sympathetic, and which in part form the idea driving our current investigation, namely that between the mind and the world, that between the symbolic and the material, that between the signified and the materiality of the signifier, and that between character and character.

24Returning to Beckett much later in his life in “Eight Ways of Looking at Samuel Beckett”, Coetzee argues that Beckett is a dualist, despite the fact that he “finds the dualistic account of the self ludicrous”; so much so that “[t]his split attitude is the source of much of his comedy” (Late Essays 202). He imagines Beckett “might like to find relief in monism,” but that “his everyday experience is that he is a being that thinks, linked somehow to an insentient carcass that it must carry around with it and be carried around in” (203).

25In the absence of an all-consuming equivalence between the two poles of these various dualisms, a tension obtains, as productive as it is irreducible. All the while, the material remains embedded in the symbolic, and the symbolic remains embedded in the material. It would seem that writing—fictional writing in particular—feeds off this play of tension. As Attridge points out, what Coetzee’s Nobel Prize lecture, “He and His Man”, explores is “the strange process of fictional writing”:

the self-division it necessitates, the uncertain origins of the words that one finds oneself writing, the haunting illusion—captured in that image at the end of the piece—that there is an unbridgeable distance between the person who lives in the world and the person, or impersonal force, that produces the words. (200)

26However, what particularly seems to exercise Coetzee’s singularly philosophical and writerly mind are the circumstances and consequences of when these two poles, the material and the symbolic, come closer together, tending towards indistinction. In realism there is an inevitable move of the symbolic towards the material. As the narrator in Lesson 1 reflects, “[r]ealism has never been comfortable with ideas”:

It could not have been otherwise: realism is premised on the idea that ideas have no autonomous existence, can exist only in things. So when it needs to debate ideas, as here, realism is driven to invent situations—walks in the countryside, conversations—in which characters give voice to contending ideas and thereby in a certain sense embody them. The notion of embodying turns out to be pivotal. In such debates ideas do not and indeed cannot float free: they are tied to the speakers by whom they are enounced, and generated from the matrix of individual interests out of which their speakers act in the world […]. (9)

  • 7 Interestingly and relatedly, Costello remarks that “the Western novel […] has gone so far down the (...)

27What particularly animates Coetzee’s fiction, however, is not so much situations in which characters embody ideas, but, rather, situations in which ideas (dis)embody characters;7 that is to say, when there is a drift towards a monist indistinction resulting from the gradual assimilation of the physical by the symbolic, prompting crises of identity and a collapse of a stable sense of the real. Elizabeth Costello, in the lecture she gives at the prize-giving ceremony recounted in Lesson 1, approaches this concern by recalling the details of Kafka’s short story “A Report to an Academy”, in which an ape who has learnt to speak and behave as a human being gives an account of himself at a scientific conference. The ape, Red Peter, feels fully human—his material character remains the same, but in every other sense his character is no longer what it once was, if indeed it was anything much at all. Elsewhere, Costello describes Red Peter, and his creator, Kafka, “as hybrids, as monstrous thinking devices mounted inexplicably on suffering animal bodies” (75). Costello observes that the story of Red Peter’s report to the Academy is presented as a monologue by the ape, and because of that we cannot be sure that the ape supposedly speaking is indeed an ape, nor that his audience is human. Perhaps the audience are educated apes too, though that, concedes Costello, seems unlikely. She concludes: “We don’t know. We don’t know and will never know, with certainty, what is really going on in this story.” She continues:

There used to be a time when we knew. We used to believe that when the text said, ‘On the table stood a glass of water,’ there was indeed a table, and a glass of water on it, and we had only to look in the word-mirror of the text to see them.
But all that has ended. The word-mirror is broken, irreparably, it seems. (19)

28This leads Costello, still addressing the audience at the prize-giving ceremony, to reflect on how the fracturing of apparent reality might undermine her own character:

This is the situation in which I appear before you. I am not, I hope, abusing the privilege of this platform to make idle, nihilistic jokes about what I am, ape or woman, and what you are, my auditors. That is not the point of the story, say I, who am, however, in no position to dictate what the point of the story is. There used to be a time, we believe, when we could say who we were. Now we are just performers speaking our parts. The bottom has dropped out. (19)

  • 8 Mulhall comments: “One might say: where Costello sees embeddedness as pivotal for realism after the (...)

29Embodiment is, as she states, crucial for realism; it attests to a materiality that exists beyond language, ideas, and abstract identity concepts, yet accommodates the free and potentially transformative flow of these elements. However, while this dynamic interplay between the embedded signifier and the embodied signified has the power to create and sustain character, it can also disrupt or obliterate it, setting it adrift on the tempest-tossed sea of language and meaning, an uncertain survivor of the shipwreck of realism.8

30Coetzee’s fiction often shows characters in precisely this precarious state, but it also explores the notion that if there is anything of a person that resists full comprehension—that is, a translation in toto—thereby obviating the total assimilation into the realm of language where character is liable to drift and fragment, it is their physicality. As Mulhall puts it,

Coetzee takes the premise that ideas cannot float free from the individuals who articulate them […], and then he pushes it further, by emphasizing their rootedness in the animality of the human animal, its flesh and blood and all that it generates or engenders. (182)

31Which is not to say this embodied quality of all life establishes a separate (material) realm that is entirely unknowable and distant from us. Elizabeth Costello rejects Thomas Nagel’s famous argument that we are unable to know what it is like to be a bat:

Nagel strikes me as an intelligent and not unsympathetic man. He even has a sense of humour. But his denial that we can know what it is to be anything but one of ourselves seems to me tragically restrictive, restrictive and restricted. (76)

32Coetzee himself thinks similarly: “I disagree with Nagel. I think that by a strenuous effort of sympathetic projection one can reach a flickering intuition of what it is like for a bat to be a bat.” He goes on to clarify this position, however:

But this does not amount to the claim that one can have intuitions of what it is really like for a bat to be a bat. In Nagel’s terms, the only true, real knowledge one can have of what it is like to be anyone or anything in the world is a form of knowledge of what it is like to be oneself. Other such knowledge may be true, but its truth is the truth of fictions. (Good Story 135)

33This method of gaining a limited form of access to the lives of others, which Coetzee refers to here as “sympathetic projection”, and elsewhere in the same text as “sympathetic identification” (134), is not only at the heart of a reader’s relationship with a fictional character, but it also, in the way Coetzee presents it, establishes an ethical dimension that respects and preserves the fundamental alterity of the other, without disavowing relationality. Elizabeth Costello seems to share this view too, arguing in Lesson 3, “The Lives of Animals”, that “[t]he heart is the seat of a faculty, sympathy, that allows us to share at times the being of another” (79). She believes that “[t]here are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination” (for a constrasting perspective, see Baker). As Coetzee himself makes clear, however, “our sympathetic intuitions can be relied on only to yield fictional truths”:

Sympathetic identifications allow us to enter other lives and to live them from the inside. It goes without saying that the other lives we live at such times are not necessarily the true lives of the others to whom they belong. Even when the other life which we are (for the time being) living is not a real life but the kind of life we encounter when we read novels, it is not necessarily the true life of the other that we are living—witness the very different understandings readers have of characters in novels. (134)

34This invites us to rethink, as readers, how we identify with characters, and, as Felski puts it in Hooked: Art and Attachment, a book that in part explores the relationship between readers and fictional characters, “[t]o rethink identification is also to rethink character” (80). Sympathetic—that is, ethical—identification with another (person, character, animal) means, for Elizabeth Costello, attending to their materiality, imaginatively embodying it, recognising it as the anchoring physicality that it is. For Costello this attention to the material is also a way of defensively attempting to fend off characterly deracination, the disembodying translation from material to symbolic that collapses the former into the latter, threatening drift and disintegration:

  • 9 This notion of physicality acting as a counterweight, or an anchor, to the contending insubstantial (...)

To thinking, cogitation, I oppose fullness, embodiedness, the sensation of being—not a consciousness of yourself as a kind of ghostly reasoning machine thinking thoughts, but on the contrary the sensation—a heavily affective sensation—of being a body with limbs that have extension in space, of being alive to the world. (78)9

35In this regard, Costello’s true trial, both literally and figuratively, comes in Lesson 8, “At the Gate”, where she must give a statement of belief, as required by a panel of judges. Only if her statement meets their approval will she be allowed to pass through the gate. Costello, increasingly angry and bewildered, offers several statements of belief, each rejected in turn. The situation recalls Kafka’s short story, “Before the Law” and, indeed, Costello deems it “[e]xcessively literary” (208). “She cannot stand the literariness of it all” (204), we are told, and nor can she withstand the literariness of it all—it laps against her character, eroding it, weakening its moorings in the material realm so that it seems she might drift away, translated by language to an uncertain fate. As she starts to lose solidity and begins to fragment, she reflects that her books are “better put together than she is” (208). Commenting on this scene, Mulhall observes that “the eighth lesson is putting pressure on our sense of Costello’s coherence as a character, both internally and in relation to her creator” (223).

36Teetering on the edge of nervous exhaustion, Costello gives her final statement of belief, detailing the life cycle of frogs of the (fictitious) Dulgannon river. She acknowledges that this account “may sound allegorical, but to the frogs themselves it is no allegory, it is the thing itself, the only thing.” She believes in them because of their total “indifference” to her belief or disbelief (217). The frogs are their own sign—they are entirely self-sufficient characters. Their being cannot be co-opted by the relativising structures of signification; they remain immovably anchored in their materiality, ultimately resistant to the drifts of language, memory, belief, and interpretation. As Mulhall puts it, “[t]he resources of figurative language and thought might legitimately be directed towards them, but only with the aim of finding a way for author and reader to inhabit the concrete reality of their mode of being” (226). It is a belief in these Dulgannon frogs, when all else seems too literary, that Elizabeth Costello shores against her ruin.

4. Susan Barton, Friday, and Foe

37This susceptibility of character, caught as it is between material “reality” and the transforming power of “fiction”, is something that Coetzee explores at length in Foe. This book offers an alternative history of the story of Crusoe—spelt, now, without the “e”, as “Cruso”, featuring a character called Susan Barton. The blurb on the back cover of the Penguin edition outlines the premise deftly and enticingly:

Some time in the second decade of the eighteenth century one Susan Barton told Mr Daniel Foe of her hard and unusual life—most particularly the span of time she spent cast away on an island with a man called Cruso and his mutilated negro servant Friday. This is the story of her story and how it fared at the hands of Foe; distorter of truth and inventor of histories.

38Upon washing up on the desert island as a castaway, Barton encounters Friday, another of Defoe’s famous characters who has drifted out of his novelistic context to secure a place in broader culture and myth. However, Susan’s account of Friday immediately invites us to question the Friday we think we know. Let us recall Defoe’s description of Friday in Robinson Crusoe:

He was a comely, handsome fellow, perfectly well made, with straight strong limbs, not too large, tall and well-shaped, and, as I reckon, about twenty-six years of age. He had a very good countenance, not a fierce and surly aspect, but seemed to have something very manly in his face, and yet he had all the sweetness and softness of an European in his countenance too, especially when he smiled. His hair was long and black, not curled like wool; his forehead very high and large; and a great vivacity and sparkling sharpness in his eyes. The colour of his skin was not quite black, but very tawny; and yet not of an ugly yellow, nauseous tawny, as the Brazilians and Virginians, and other natives of America are; but of a bright kind of dun olive colour that had in it something very agreeable, though not very easy to describe. His face was round and plump; his nose small, not flat like the Negroes’, a very good mouth, thin lips, and his fine teeth well set, and white as ivory. (203)

39And contrast that with Susan’s account:

He was black: a Negro with a head of fuzzy wool, naked save for a pair of rough drawers. I lifted myself and studied the flat face, the small dull eyes, the broad nose, the thick lips, the skin not black but a dark grey, dry as if coated with dust. (5-6)

40What strikes the reader is how the materiality of Friday in Defoe’s account does nothing to trouble the various permutations of acceptable character permitted by the Western imperialist culture of the day. Friday slides effortlessly into the symbolic order. In Susan’s description, however, attention is very deliberately drawn to Friday’s non-white-European features, asserting a mute materiality that resists any easy co-option into the prevailing codes of signification and assimilation. The reader is therefore invited, from the very outset, to suspect the tricks of realism which would seem to portray, through language, people, things and situations that might be thought to exist (or to have existed) outside of language.

41This sense that the character of Friday in Foe constitutes a site of uncooperative material resistance to language is given unambiguous reinforcement by the fact of his muteness, a result of his tongue being cut out. This symbolic impotence is physically mirrored by the even “more atrocious mutilation” of castration, which has left him “a slave unmanned” (119). Both Susan Barton and Foe grow increasingly fixated on the idea that Friday must somehow occupy a central role in their narrative. Susan, with her propensity for realism, believes this can be achieved by “giving voice to Friday” (118), striving to “bring Friday to speech, or to bring speech to Friday” (142) so he might recount the story of his mutilation. She argues, “[t]o tell my story and be silent on Friday’s tongue is no better than offering a book for sale with pages in it quietly left empty” (67). However, Friday's mutilation, embodying both a physical and symbolic loss, defies the simplistic realist notion that language can be used as a tool for unaffected representation, and in doing so it stands as a bulwark against the broader threat of a collapse into monistic indifferentiation that untethers character from its physical moorings.

  • 10 There is surely an essay waiting to be written explicitly exploring the obvious affinities between (...)

42Grant Hamilton, drawing on the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, suggests that the absence of Friday’s tongue holds “potential energy” (133-134). It is a void that is eloquent in its emptiness, compelling in its quietude. This concept resonates with the thoughts of Kai Wiegandt, who suggests that Friday’s inability to speak renders him a “barbarian” in the eyes of Cruso and Susan Barton, yet simultaneously empowers him through his unassailability, his resistance to being easily interpreted or understood (80). Friday’s silence becomes a form of resistance, an unreadable grapheme in the narrative of Foe, challenging conventional interpretations and defying the coloniser’s tendency to overwrite. This notion aligns with Jan Wilm's perspective that “Friday’s silence should not be seen as a metaphor for something else” (139). Rather, it should be taken literally, in all of its stubborn unfathomability. Finally, then, as in the case of the indifferent materiality of the Dulgannon frogs in Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee appears to be calling forth the character of Friday to attest, minimally but unmistakably, to a mute, self-sufficient embodiedness, an impenetrable and opaque materiality that resists symbolic exchange. It is precisely this withholding quality of Friday and the frogs that allows them to function as anchoring characters that simultaneously fasten down and open up the symbolic world into which they self-secludingly obtrude.10

43Except for its enigmatic fourth section, Foe is an account given by Susan Barton of how she was castaway on a remote island where she encountered another castaway, Cruso, and his servant Friday, and also of how, once rescued, she came into contact with a certain Daniel Foe (the historical Defoe’s original name), who offers to turn her supposedly truthful account into a publishable story. During the course of this short novel, Susan’s story of her time on the island (which she swam to after having been “cast adrift” [9]), and with it her identity as a character, suffer a kind of catastrophic drift and dispersal. She is desperate for her remarkable story to be told, and she wants it to be told truthfully and accurately, though she is aware that a faithful recording of events often does not make for interesting reading. She regards her account as “a sorry, limping affair” (47) and hopes Foe will present her actual story but in a more compelling manner. Her inclination, therefore, is towards literary realism. She comments, for instance, that “[t]he truth that makes your story yours alone, that sets you apart from the old mariner by the fireside spinning yarns of sea-monsters and mermaids, resides in a thousand touches which today may seem of no importance” (18). But Susan is worried whether there are “enough strange circumstances” in her life “to make a story of” (67). This anxiety reflects her understanding that Foe, as a writer, employs criteria distinct from those of a historian in determining what is included in a narrative, often at the expense of truth. As she becomes increasingly aware of this, she realises her diminishing relevance as a character in the account of life on the island. Gradually, she loses any purchase she might have had on Foe's imagination, although she appears to re-emerge “later”—not as a castaway, but as the main character in Defoe’s novel Roxana. She writes to Foe:

When I reflect on my story I seem to exist only as the one who came, the one who witnessed, the one who longed to be gone: a being without substance, a ghost beside the true body of Cruso. Is that the fate of all storytellers? Yet I was as much a body as Cruso. I ate and drank, I woke and slept, I longed […]. Return me to the substance I have lost, Mr Foe: that is my entreaty. (51)

44This entreaty captures some of the tensions Susan Barton perceives between literature and life. She wants to be written into the story, but in such a way that returns to her the “substance”, the materiality, she feels she has lost. She does not want to be simply a ventriloquist’s dummy or, as she says later, a “mere receptacle ready to accommodate whatever story is stuffed in me” (130-1). She longs to regain that substance—that character, that essential nature—that seems to exist beyond the influence of the literary, and she wants a form of literary realism to bear witness to this in a way that reflects it and confirms it. As she says to Foe, “I am not a story, Mr Foe. […] I am a substantial being with a substantial history in the world” (131). Nevertheless, she feels that “now all my life grows to be story and there is nothing of my own left to me” (133). Susan’s fading substantiality, and the shattering of realism in Elizabeth Costello, are symptomatic of character’s drift in the wake of the shipwreck of realism.

45Barton’s struggle against becoming a “mere receptacle” for stories, and her longing for a genuine, material embodiment, reflect a deep-seated conflict at the heart of Coetzee's literary exploration—the tension between the immateriality of language and the materiality of existence. In Coetzee's narrative world, characters are not mere constructs of language; they are entities grappling for existence beyond the typographic confines of their textual realms. This struggle illuminates the complex interplay between the literal and the figurative meanings of “character”. Language, while being a vehicle for expressing character, also holds the power to dissolve its very substance, reducing it to a mere plaything of narrative structures. It is this paradox that Coetzee navigates with deft precision, often blurring the lines between the character as a literary device and as an existential entity.

46Susan Barton’s fraught journey in Foe and Elizabeth Costello’s perilous intellectual odyssey in Elizabeth Costello serve as emblematic instances of Coetzee’s exploration of “character” adrift in the sea of language. Both characters, though in different narrative contexts, confront the existential crisis of being and meaning, each in their own way illustrating the struggle of the persistence of character in the wake of the metaphorical shipwreck of realism. Their narratives underscore the fragility of character when subjected to the whims of storytelling and the overarching power of language.

47The literary disembodiment of Elizabeth Costello and the dissolution of Susan Barton’s substance constitute a rigorous philosophical inquiry into the nature of being and representation through character. It is a preoccupation that mirrors a wider cultural and philosophical shift in the twentieth century, where language came to assume an increasingly central role in defining reality, often overshadowing tangible, embodied experience. This shift towards a linguistic conception of reality resonates throughout Coetzee’s works, where characters persistently navigate the treacherous waters between their existential reality and their linguistic representation.

48In conclusion, then, Coetzee’s characters, particularly in Foe and Elizabeth Costello, embody a profound philosophical quest—a quest, filled with anxiety and doubt—for an authentic existence within and beyond the narrative. They are not mere figments of literary imagination, but entities engaged in a ceaseless struggle for a “real” that persists despite the transformative and often eroding power of language. This quest, while deeply rooted in Coetzee’s narrative structures, transcends the literary realm, inviting readers to ponder the complex relationship between language, reality, and existence. Coetzee's characters, in their search for substance and meaning, thus become metaphors for the human condition itself, adrift in the ever-expansive sea of language, seeking an anchorage in the “real” that, much like Susan Barton’s Friday, speaks in its silent eloquence, resonating with the inarticulable truths of human existence.

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1 Perhaps most notably by Marx, Engels, Ian Watt and Pierre Macherey. See also Sherman.

2 However, see Severin for an exploration of other historical possibilities.

3 As Novak puts it, Selkirk “was rescued on 31 January 1709 by Captain Woodes Rogers, whose account of his voyage and of this event, A Cruising Voyage Round the World (1712), had been published in a second edition in 1718, just a year before the appearance of Defoe’s Surprizing Adventures” (539). In 1713, Richard Steele wrote an essay on Selkirk, “whose Name is familiar to Men of Curiosity, from the Fame of his having lived four Years and four Months alone in the Island of Juan Fernandez” (169-169). There were, in fact, rumours in the years following the publication of Defoe’s Crusoe books that he had stolen and plagiarised a manuscript that Selkirk had supposedly written documenting his time on the island. All untrue, of course, and as Novak argues, “it would be [a] mistake to believe that the character of Crusoe was merely modelled on Selkirk and Crusoe’s adventures a somewhat expanded version of those experienced by him” (539).

4 We might think of this as a more extreme version of Borges’ account of how a writer—he was thinking of Kafka—can influence his precursors (Other Inquisitions 106-108). Intriguingly, Borges in effect redresses the balance a little when he decides to rename his sonnet “Robinson Crusoe” as “Alexander Selkirk” (El otro, el Mismo 127; see Linares González 64).

5 Perhaps unsurprisingly, Elizabeth Costello herself drifts into other texts by Coetzee. She features prominently in Slow Man and “As a Woman Grows Older”. In “Lies” there is an enigmatic reference to “Madame Costello”.

6 An earlier version of this chapter had, in fact, been presented by Coetzee at Bennington College in 1996 in the form of a talk titled “What is Realism?”, which was subsequently published in 1997 in Salmagundi.

7 Interestingly and relatedly, Costello remarks that “the Western novel […] has gone so far down the road of disembodiment—think of Henry James, think of Marcel Proust […]” (45).

8 Mulhall comments: “One might say: where Costello sees embeddedness as pivotal for realism after the shipwreck of realism, Coetzee’s narrator sees embodiedness” (182).

9 This notion of physicality acting as a counterweight, or an anchor, to the contending insubstantialities of identity recurs, albeit figuratively, in Coetzee’s latest work, “The Pole”. The titular character, Witold Walczykiewicz, a Polish pianist, addressing Beatriz, the woman with whom he has fallen in love, remarks: “In Polish we talk of a person who is heavy, a person who is not made of air. You are a heavy person.” She laughs, responding: “In English they say solida solid person or a person of substance.” However, like many other characters in Coetzee’s fiction, she feels that she is “not a person of substance” (The Pole 69-70).

10 There is surely an essay waiting to be written explicitly exploring the obvious affinities between Heidegger’s aesthetic philosophy and Coetzee’s fiction. The Heideggerian play of “earth” and “world”, as set out in “The Origin of the Work of Art”, provides a compelling way of framing similar themes in Coetzee.

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University of Malta
James Corby is Professor and Head of the Department of English at the University of Malta, where he lectures on poetry, contemporary fiction, literary theory and drama. Together with Ivan Callus he is a founding editor of the journal CounterText: A Journal for the Study of the Post-Literary, which is published three times a year by Edinburgh University Press. He is also a founding member of the Futures of Literature Network, a research network based in Malta. He has published widely on literature, and philosophy, including work on romanticism, modernism, phenomenology, performance, politics, literary theory, and contemporary literature. In 2024 he was elected a Fellow of the English Association.
James Corby est Professeur et Directeur du Département d’anglais à l'Université de Malte, où il enseigne la poésie, la fiction contemporaine, la théorie littéraire et le théâtre. Avec Ivan Callus, il est le rédacteur fondateur de la revue CounterText: A Journal for the Study of the Post-Literary, qui est publié trois fois par an aux Presses Universitaires d’Édimbourg. Il est également membre fondateur du “Futures of Literature Network”, un réseau de recherche implanté à Malte. Il a publié de nombreux travaux sur la littérature et la philosophie, dont des études sur le romantisme, le modernisme, la phénoménologie, la performance, la politique, la théorie littéraire et la littérature contemporaine. En 2024, il a été élu Fellow of the English Association (Membre de l’Association des études anglaises).

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