Janet Frame Essay - Critical Essays

Janet Frame Long Fiction Analysis

Janet Frame’s early books are somewhat autobiographical, concerned with poverty, illness, tragedy, and madness. Frame’s fictional world is peopled with outcasts and children, whose social alienation permits them to express themselves in a manner at odds with that of “normal” society. Frame’s first several books are preoccupied with the inward and outward worlds, and she sets forth dualities—treasures and rubbish heaps, lyrical poetry and mundane prose, enchantment and materialism, normal and abnormal—that form the framework of the books. Frame suggests that the outcasts—whether eccentric, deformed, or mad—are visionaries, whose insights into their own isolation render them superior to other members of society. Her later writings continue her stylistic experimentations but tend toward sharp criticisms of society’s repressive values; the later novels focus on the need to keep the mind alive in a sterile and deadening society. Furthermore, to a large degree, all of her books address the role of the artist in society.

Despite her impoverished childhood, Frame enjoyed an intensely literary home life that led her to believe in the “magical” potential of words to reflect imaginative truths that can exist beyond or outside the values of society. In depicting her characters’ experiences, Frame experiments with language by using image-filled word play, metaphor, and word combinations to communicate layers of meaning in these truths. Her characters, situated at the boundary of social interaction and annihilation by madness or death, are frequently represented through elements of magical realism and surrealism, as they imagine fantastic events; their imaginings are recounted through lyrical, poetical cadences.

Owls Do Cry

Written soon after leaving the mental hospital, Frame’s first novel, Owls Do Cry, describes the Withers family, whose life circumstances are similar to those of the Frame family. In part 1 of the novel, the four children, Toby, Francie, Daphne, and Teresa, prowl a rubbish heap in search of “treasures” discarded by adults, which, when viewed through the children’s eyes, become objects of wonder. During one visit, Francie—who must soon take a job in a woolen mill to help support the family—trips, falls into the heap’s fire, and burns to death.

Part 2 of the novel continues beyond Francie’s death. Devastated, the family disintegrates: The mother drifts deeper into illness; epileptic Toby supports himself by demolishing old buildings; Teresa marries, moves away, and becomes mired in materialism; and Daphne is sent to a mental hospital. Through her disturbed memory, Daphne poetically recollects the intensity of the three older children as they shared literary ecstasies, or as they clung together, much like small birds, attempting to survive the raw forces of nature. The heart of the novel, the sections narrated by Daphne, signify the status of imagination and vision in a materialistic world.

Daphne, coming from the institution’s “dead room,” the room in which she fears electrical shock treatments and awaits the...

(The entire section is 1282 words.)