Span 37

Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 37, 1993
Yorga Wangi:
Postcolonialism and Feminism

Edited by Anne Brewster, Marion Campbell, Ann McGuire, Kathryn Trees

'Women's Words': A Reading of J.M. Coetzee's Women Narrators

Sue Kossew

The publication of J. M. Coetzee's novel, Age of Iron (1990), highlighted an aspect of his work which has not frequently been the focus of critical enquiry, that is, the question of his use of women narrators. Three of his seven novels to date have female narrators and the male writer's choice of female narrators necessarily raises issues of appropriation and colonisation. I wish to argue, though, that Coetzee is using female narration in a complex way which situates these texts in the intersections between feminist and postcolonial discourses. His white women narrators (and they are all white) are represented as ambiguous colonial figures whose voices are compromised by complicity, a complicity from which his own authorship is never excluded.

It has been pointed out by Robin Visel in her article "A Half-Colonization: The Problem of the White Colonial Woman Writer"1 that the notion of the "double colonization" of women in colonial and post-colonial countries does not distinguish between native colonised women and their settler "sisters".2 Visel states that the colonised woman occupies a very different position from that of the woman coloniser in that "although she [the woman colonizer] too is oppressed by white men and patriarchal structures, she shares in the power and guilt of the colonists" (Visel, 39). Thus, Visel describes her position as "half-colonized" rather than "doubly colonized,"3 a distinction which is vital to an understanding of the speaking position of Coetzee's women narrators. It is, I believe, a failure to come to terms with this half-colonisation that has led a number of commentators on Coetzee's work into what Kirsten Holst Petersen, in her analysis of Foe, admits to be "an elaborate dead end."4 This has resulted in her turning on Coetzee himself in order to conclude that "from the point of view of those of us who search for the place and role of a female view of literature and history the foe may well be Coetzee's (Holst Petersen 1989: 251). Rather than suggesting that Coetzee's use of women narrators is an assertion of appropriating male authorship, as this comment does, it may be more productive to examine carefully the position his women narrators occupy, as both colonised and colonising.5 Coetzee's women narrators are each, in their own way, concerned to find a "woman's voice" to set against patriarchal authority but their search is complicated by their complicity in that authority and in the language structures by which it is articulated. This double-bind in the speaking position is one which all Coetzee's texts inscribe so that the narrator's own awareness of possible bad faith is used to interrogate structures of power, language/voice and authorship/authority.

Magda as Miranda

Magda, the woman narrator of In the Heart of the Country,6 published in 1977, is both white and an Afrikaaner, whose text (in the form of a series of diary-like but undated fragments) is an attempt to overcome her role as coloniser in order to reach out to the colonised through what she calls the "language of the heart." The discourse of the text itself enacts Magda's own sense of her failure and sterility (her "spinster" status is something she continually refers to) and here one could argue for the male author's imposing sterility on the female narrator. However, the reading process enforces an undermining of the single narrator's discourse in order to expose the collusion between language and power and the self-mythologising nature of Magda's text, suggesting that Magda's sense of her own sterility is self-imposed and self-created. An example of her succumbing to stereotypical language to inscribe the female occurs when she describes herself as "aching to form the words that will translate me into the land of myth and hero" but continues, "here I am still my dowdy self in a dull summer heat that will not transcend itself" (HC, 1982: 4). It is important to note here that the text encourages a reading against its narrator's self-representation: Magda is caught up in "words" which she perceives as a vehicle for "translation" of her "real" self into a mythical, male self ("hero" not "heroine"), so her textual discourse is seen to be self-defeating, itself participating in the male supremacist language of imperialism. The reader is dependent on Magda's discourse as this is the only one offered in the text and yet is simultaneously warned by this narrating consciousness of her own tendency to self-mythologise - "Acting on myself I change the world. Where does this power end? Perhaps that is what I am trying to find out" (HC, 1982: 36) - and of her own dependency on male authority structures, despite her protestations of rebellion. The instability and implausibility of her text (where the boundaries between 'reality' and 'fictionalising' are deliberately blurred) and the provisional nature of her narrative (evidenced by the number of times the word "perhaps" is used and the number of unanswered questions she poses) represent Magda's ambiguous status as "colonial daughter of the colonies," caught as she is in the gap between coloniser and colonised.

Her attempt to breach this distance is located by Coetzee at the level of language. She herself is painfully aware of the inadequacy of colonial language to communicate with "the brown folk": "Reading the brown folk I grope, as they grope reading me" (HC, 1982: 7) recalling her childhood when she "spoke like one of them before I learned to speak like this" (HC, 1982: 6). Her desire to find an "authentic" language is not just the desire for "a woman's sentence" (Virginia Woolf) which will subvert the patriarchal structure but is also a desire to communicate on a level of equality with "the downcast" colonised Others. What the text shows, however, is that all she can manage is an essentially private language which merely increases her marginalisation and leaves her, ultimately, alone in the barren desert landscape:

That is why my words are not words such as men use to men. Alone in my room . . . I creak into rhythms that are my own, stumble over the rocks of words that I have never heard on another tongue. I create myself in the words that create me, I who living among the downcast have never beheld myself in the equal regard of another's eye, have never held another in the equal regard of mine. (HC, 1982: 8)

There is, of course, irony in the male author's representation of the marginalised woman's voice. Yet Magda's exclusion from male-dominated discourse ("words such as men use to men") is exacerbated by the "rocks" of her own words7 which prevent her finding an alternative language in which to communicate. She is still too strongly pulled towards her "father-tongue" and the violation of it parallels her father's rape of the "servant-girl," as in the following:

. . . perhaps my rage at my father is simply rage at the violations of the old language, the correct language, that take place when he exchanges kisses and the pronouns of intimacy with a girl who yesterday scrubbed the floors and today ought to be cleaning the windows. (HC, 1982: 43)

The link between the semantic and the social is even clearer in the Afrikaans dialogue, where "pronouns of intimacy" are literally different from the more formal use of pronouns ("jy" for "you" is used familiarly, whereas "u" donates distance). If Magda sees this "language of hierarchy, of distance and perspective" (HC, 1982: 97) as "correct" and her father as having violated it, then she must still be dependent for her (settler woman) identity in maintaining this distance, despite her assertions that she wishes to close the gap. This is made clear, too, when she detects, after she has achieved physical intimacy with Hendrik, the "servant," his ironic use of the term "Mies" ("Mistress"):

I cannot carry on with these idiot dialogues. The language that should pass between myself and these people was subverted by my father and cannot be recovered. What passes between us now is a parody. I was born into a language of hierarchy, of distance and perspective. It was my father-tongue. I do not say it is the language my heart wants to speak. I feel too the pathos of its distances, but it is all we have . . . I have no words left to exchange whose value I trust. Hendrik is ducking and grinning secretly all the time he offers me the old locutions. (HC, 1982: 97)

Once Magda's colonial identity is threatened by transgressions of role, both physically and linguistically, she turns back to the author/ity of the father-tongue, enacting within her textual discourse the failure to achieve solidarity with the colonised. When Magda says: "We are the castaways of God as we are the castaways of history" (HC, 1982: 135) she is referring not just to the perceived marginalization of the Afrikaaners but also to her role as woman coloniser. Coetzee's use, then, of a settler woman narrator in this novel allows him to explore the complex nexus of identity, language and role expressed in Magda's speaking position.


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)

Thus, the notion of the woman's subjection (women as subjects for and of men) is related directly to the patriarchal author/ity of male writers: "who is speaking me?" has obviously ironic implications for Coetzee's own authorship. Here, another reason for Coetzee's choosing to "write back" to Defoe is seen to relate to Defoe's tendency to exploit women's stories, so that many parallels are drawn between Susan and both Moll Flanders and Roxana. She even alludes to this appropriating authorship when she tells Foe:

I am not, do you see, one of those thieves or highwaymen of yours who gabble a confession and are then whipped off to Tyburn and eternal silence, leaving you to make of their stories whatever you fancy. It is still in my power to guide and amend. Above all, to withhold. By such means do I still endeavour to be father to my story. (Foe: 123)

Susan's attempt to be both "goddess and begetter" (Foe: 126), not just Muse or Mother but also "father" to her story, extends to her eventual sexual encounter with Foe, with Susan reversing the traditional position of subjection by "straddling the poet" to "beget" a story. The Muse, she explains, "must do whatever lies in her power to father her offspring" (Foe: 140). Her refusal to take on the subservient female role as Muse is evidenced by her continual reversing of sexual stereotypes in her relationship with Foe. She even says to him, "I think of you as a mistress, or even, if I dare speak the word, as a wife" (Foe: 152) to which Foe significantly replies, in his role as "mother" of the story, "Wait and see what fruit I bear" (Foe: 152). In fact, the fruit Foe bears is his total subjection and silencing of Susan: his masculine authority is asserted despite her attempts to subvert it and he retains his position as "master". That Coetzee himself seeks to avoid this same "mastery" will be discussed in relation to the novel's ending.

So far, this seems to be a fairly straightforward feminist-style rewriting of the Crusoe story. However, the complicating factor which Coetzee introduces into the equation is that of Friday and Susan's attitude towards him. Friday's silence is a central issue in the text and is seen, by Susan herself, as being different from her own:

. . . the silence of Friday is a helpless silence. He is a child of his silence, a child unborn, a child waiting to be born that cannot be born. Whereas the silence I keep regarding Bahia and other matters is chosen and purposeful: it is my own silence. (Foe: 122)

Susan's relationship with Friday is not unambiguous and her attitude towards him is a mixture of sympathy and revulsion, eluding the simple linking of the two of them as colonised Others within a patriarchal system. In fact, Susan is shown as a Miranda-figure, appropriately placed within an island narrative with its own Prospero and Caliban. Like Foe/Prospero, she too is shown to be prepared to exploit Friday's story and fill his silence for her own purposes: she explains to Friday that their island story will make them "famous" and "rich" and "live for ever, after a manner" (Foe: 58). Whereas Susan denies her role as coloniser11, she does admit of Friday: "If he was not a slave, was he nonetheless the helpless captive of my desire to have our story told?" (Foe: 150) and her Miranda-like role is echoed in her words about Friday/Caliban: "I do not love him but he is mine" (Foe: 111), which also inadvertently emphasise her sense of ownership. Although Susan's model of authorship is less authoritarian than Foe's12, she, too, wishes to fill the gap: "It is for us to descend into the mouth . . . It is for us to open Friday's mouth and hear what it holds: silence perhaps, or a roar, like the roar of a seashell held to the ear" (Foe: 142). She, unlike Foe, is less confident about the means of achieving speech for Friday, asking, "But who will do it? . . . who will dive into the wreck?" (Foe: 142). This echoes an answer given by Coetzee to an interviewer's question about Foe being a "retreat" from the "South African situation". He replies: "It is not a retreat from the subject of colonialism or from questions of power. What you call "the nature and processes of fiction" may also be called the question of who writes? Who takes up the position of power, pen in hand?" (Morphet 1987: 462).13 Despite Susan's questioning of authority and power, she still insists on the medium of "art" as a "means of giving voice to Friday" (Foe: 118) and thus puts herself, with Foe, on the side of the colonising activity implicit in the narrativizing practices of history and fiction. It is she, after all, who tries to teach Friday to write and respond to speech, even though she is aware of the ambivalence of her "educating" him:

I tell myself I talk to Friday to educate him out of darkness and silence. But is that the truth? There are times when benevolence deserts me and I use words only as the shortest way to subject him to my will. At such times I understand why Cruso preferred not to disturb his muteness. I understand, that is to say, why a man will choose to be a slaveowner. (Foe: 60-61)

The final section of the novel has been subjected to a number of different readings, many of them contradictory, and part of the reason for its instability, I would suggest, is that it is in this section that Coetzee moves away from Susan's narration, and, literally, "dives into the wreck" to "answer" Susan's earlier question about authorship.14 This author figure is neither identifiably male nor female, neither Foe nor Susan, who now allows Friday's voice to emerge not directly or in a mediated way, but metaphorically and still wordlessly: "this is not a place of words . . . bodies are their own signs" (Foe: 157) as a "slow stream" which "runs northward and southward to the ends of the earth" (Foe: 157).15 The white woman narrator is represented as being as complicit as Defoe in colonising the Other, despite her identification with Friday as subject, and her text is over-ridden (over-written?) in the final section (which seeks to release Friday's voice in a non-colonising way) just as it was "written out" by Defoe. The juxtaposition of Susan's own narration with Defoe's appropriation of the female voice and Coetzee's attempt to find an authorial "middle ground" enable Coetzee to explore the complexities of authorship, authority and narration, in which his own authorship is included. Here again the narrating voice of the woman coloniser provides a vehicle for ambivalence, as Susan is caught between her colonised and colonising selves.

Mothering the Text

Coetzee's most recent woman narrator, Elizabeth Curren, in Age of Iron16 (1990), is also a white coloniser, an English-speaking South African who lives in Cape Town. Her text is situated at the time of the State of Emergency of 1986 and she is dying of cancer, so that the trope of the body politic being destroyed from within is activated. This link is made specific by Elizabeth herself, introducing another important textual metaphor - that of motherhood. She describes her cancer as an image of "motherhood . . . parodying itself" and then relates this to the nation - "Monstrous growths, misbirths: a sign that one is beyond one's term. This country too: time for fire, time for an end, time for what grows out of ash to grow" (AI: 59). The idea of motherhood is inscribed in her narration, too, which is in the form of one long "letter" to her self-exiled daughter, now living in America, which Elizabeth hopes will reach her after her own death, what she calls a "message in a bottle" (AI: 28).

Both the text and the history of the nation are linked via parent/child metaphors. Elizabeth sees her letter as the only legacy she has to leave to her daughter. In this way, the text takes on significance as the progeny of the woman writer (as in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), forming an umbilical "rope of words" linking generations of mothers and daughters:

This is my life, these words, these tracings of the movements of crabbed digits over the page. These words, as you read them, if you read them, enter you and draw breath again. They are, if you like, my way of living on. Once upon a time you lived in me as once upon a time I lived in my mother; as she still lives in me, as I grow towards her, may I live in you. (AI: 12)

The notion of generation(s) is an important one in the text, applying as it does, too, to the political turmoil of the time, when black schoolchildren are involved in township violence. This is brought home, quite literally, to Elizabeth, despite State censorship of the media which have reported nothing of the township turmoil, when Bheki, the son of her black servant, Florence, takes refuge in Elizabeth's house. With the added intrusion of a vagrant, Vercueil, who "takes up residence," Elizabeth's previously cocooned, white suburban existence is disturbed. The presence of Bheki and his friend, and their subsequent hunting-down by the police, introduces the notion of parental control; Florence asserting that, "There are no more mothers and fathers" (AI: 36), implying that the (black) children are self-reliant and make their own rules. Elizabeth insists that "children cannot grow up without mothers and fathers . . . You wash your hands of them and they turn into the children of death" (AI: 46) and asks, "What kind of parents will they become who were taught that the time of parents is over? Can parents be recreated once the idea of parents has been destroyed within us?" (AI: 46). Florence is unmoved by Elizabeth's paternalistic fears for the future, affirming that "these are good children, they are like iron, we are proud of them" (AI: 46). The death of the old ways of parenting, both within the family and the nation, and the birth of the new becomes enacted within the text itself with Elizabeth representing the old, outdated middle-ground white liberal.

The parent-child metaphor is commonly used to describe the dependency of the coloniser-colonised relationship, but Elizabeth, while lamenting the death of the idea of parenthood, also concedes, in an inversion of this metaphor, the childlike nature of the white South African colonisers. She contrasts the black "children of iron" of 1986 with her own "childhood of sleep, prelude to what was meant to be a life without trouble and a smooth passage to Nirvana" (AI: 85); describing her generation as "we children of that bygone age." Another insistent image she uses for herself, linked with the child metaphor, is that of the doll. She asks herself: "A doll's life? Is that what I have lived?" (AI: 100), describes whites as "doll-folk" (AI: 103) implicating herself in the description: "I am hollow, I am a shell . . . Were I to be opened up they would find me hollow as a doll, a doll with a crab sitting inside licking its lips" (AI: 103). The implication is that by cutting themselves off from reality, the white colonisers have remained as children, asleep in a doll-like unreality.

Elizabeth's awareness of her own ambivalent position makes her text extremely poignant as she recognises her own "shame." As a white coloniser, she feels the powerlessness of her voice when pitted against the black voices of revolution: as she says to Vercueil:

Yet who am I, who am I to have a voice at all? . . . What am I entitled to do but sit in a corner with my mouth shut? I have no voice; I lost it long ago; perhaps I have never had one. I have no voice, and that is that. The rest should be silence. But with this - whatever it is - this voice that is no voice, I go on. On and on.17 (AI: 149)

While the voice of the colonised (wordlessly released at the end of Foe) has become a shout, a slogan, the voice of the coloniser has become less and less audible. The mother's voice has been silenced; the child no longer needs to be directed. Elizabeth says of her own voice, when trying to communicate with Bheki's injured friend, John, in hospital: "My words fell off him like dead leaves the moment they were uttered. The words of a woman, therefore negligible; of an old woman, therefore doubly negligible; but above all of a white" (AI: 72). It is in this awareness in the narrating consciousness of her own marginalisation, not in the context of old woman but in the role of woman coloniser, that the text acquires its ambivalence, an ambivalence to which Elizabeth constantly alludes, most significantly expressed in her image of her letter as a labyrinth. Again this sense of groping towards an outcome: "sightless, ignorant, I follow where the truth takes me" (AI: 126), as with the other two woman narrators (and, indeed, all Coetzee's narrators) underlines the instability of Elizabeth's narration, drawing attention to her own awareness of the complicity of the coloniser, as in the following warning to her daughter:

It is through my eyes that you see; the voice that speaks in your head is mine . . . To me your sympathies flow; your heart beats with mine.

Now, my child, flesh of my flesh, my best self, I ask you to draw back. I tell you this story not so that you will feel for me but so that you will learn how things are . . . So I ask you: attend to the writing, not to me. If lies and pleas and excuses weave among the words, listen for them. Do not pass them over, do not forgive them easily. Read all, even this abjuration, with a cold eye. (AI: 95-6)

While this recalls the narration of the magistrate in Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), a man who is also aware of his own complicity in imperial practices, its significance as a mother's voice is reinforced throughout the text, a mother who refers to her own discourse as "devious" (AI: 75) while at the same time making an eloquent plea for her words to be heard, as a bequest to her own child far away from this conflict and also to the "children of iron" who will inherit the nation. As she says to John when evaluating the relative value of actions against words:

It is like being on trial for your life and being allowed only two words, Yes and No . . .

You do not believe in words. You think only blows are real, blows and bullets. But listen to me: can't you hear that the words I speak are real? Listen! They may only be air but they come from my heart, from my womb. They are not Yes, they are not No. What is living inside me is something else, another word. And I am fighting for it, in my manner, fighting for it not to be stifled . . .

. . . everything else, everything indefinite, everything that gives when you press it, is condemned unheard. I am arguing for that unheard. (AI: 133-4)

Her words go unheeded, however, as she rightly assesses that John is "tired of listening to old people" and perhaps her death at the end, represented by the final embrace with the mysterious Vercueil (her "messenger" - of death?), is also the end of this voice of the middle ground, the white liberal woman coloniser whose nurturing, mothering qualities are no longer needed by the children of iron. It is no coincidence that the language Elizabeth uses to describe her discourse relates to its coming from her "heart" and her "womb," for as well as focussing on her maternal role, it also emphasises the notion of the woman coloniser's voice as "something else, another word" that is neither "yes" nor "no" (the binarism represented by the black revolutionaries and the entrenched whites respectively) but the ambivalent space between. Elizabeth's own awareness of her bad faith, contradictory position and inability to escape either her coloniser's role or the inevitability of the historical process makes this alternative voice equally suspect and provisional, enacting the scepticism and avoidance of closure that is typical of Coetzee's texts. The voice of the white woman coloniser is the ideal vehicle for this speaking position, encapsulating as it does the ambivalence of the non-existent middle ground, in a situation where only "yes" and "no" are heard. It could also be argued that this is exactly the position in which any "liberal" white writer has found her/himself in apartheid South Africa.

University of New South Wales


1 Robin Visel, "A Half-Colonization: The Problem of the White Colonial Woman Writer", Kunapipi, Vol. X, No.3, 1988, 39-44.

2 This is, of course, by no means an unproblematic relationship.

3 This term was used in A Double Colonization: Colonial and Post-Colonial Women's Writing edited by Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford, 1986.

4 Kirsten Holst Petersen, "An Elaborate Dead End? A Feminist reading of Coetzee's Foe" in Hena Maes-Jelinek, Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford (eds.), A Shaping of Connections. Sydney: Dangaroo Press, 1989.

5 My examination of each text is necessarily brief and relates only to those aspects of the text which seem to me to be relevant to this particular discussion.

6 Henceforth referred to as HC. Page numbers refer to the 1982 Penguin edition.

7 These "rocks" become a literal attempt by Magda to form words from rocks to communicate with the "sky-gods" in an Esperanto-like universal language towards the end of her text.

8 Page numbers refer to the 1982 Penguin edition of Foe.

9 He inscribes difference in other ways, too, notably the spelling of Crusoe's name without the "e" and the description of Friday as being of African rather than Caribbean appearance and mute.

10 Linda Hutcheon, "The Pastime of Past Time: Fiction, History, Historiographic Metafiction", Genre XX, Fall/Winter 1987, 39-45.

11 Susan says: "I have never had a servant in my life . . . Friday was not my slave but Cruso's" (Foe: 76) and "I am no slave-owner, Mr. Foe" (Foe: 250). However, Foe points out to her the contradictions in this position: "Nevertheless, Friday follows you: you do not follow Friday. The words you have written and hung around his neck say he is set free; but who, looking at Friday, will believe them?" (Foe: 250).

12 He confidently states: "We must make Friday's silence speak, as well as the silence surrounding Friday" (Foe: 141).

13 Tony Morphet, "An Interview with J. M. Coetzee", Triquarterly 69, Spring/Summer 1987, 460-464.

14 There is an interesting correlation here with Adrienne Rich's poem, "Diving into the Wreck" which envisages a new non-patriarchal language and a dispensing with the "old myths".

15 The words used here echo those at the end of Conrad's Heart of Darkness which itself provides another colonial pre-text (with Robinson Crusoe and The Tempest) for Coetzee to "write back" to.

16 Page numbers refer to the 1990 Secker & Warburg (London) edition, henceforth referred to as AI.

17 While these words echo Beckett's ending of The Unnamable: ". . . in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on." (382), there are also echoes of Hamlet in the words, "The rest should be silence," an apt comparison in terms of Elizabeth's anguished self-examination and her questioning of the effectiveness of "words, words, words."

New: 13 December, 1996 | Now: 20 April, 2015