Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 788
Intensive Care, though divided into three official parts, actually consists of two stories which occur years apart and which are tenuously connected only by a pear tree on Tom Livingstone’s property in Waipori City, New Zealand. The first story, encompassing parts I and 2, chronicles the events experienced by three generations of the Livingstone family; the second part, which occurs sometime after a nuclear war (it is set during King Charles’s reign perhaps it is the not-so-distant future), describes the implementation of the Human Delineation Act, which involves the classification, for economic benefit, expediency, and convenience, of people as either Human (“normal”) or Animal (the old, weak, deformed, retarded, or even politically suspect), with the Animals being “deathed.”
Since Tom was born at the turn of the century, his life represents the twentieth century, with its illusory dreams, bitter disappointments, elevation of technology over humanity, and replacement of family by impersonal institutions. Through a disjunctive narrative, multiple narrators, and a mixture of prose and poetry, Janet Frame depicts a man whose dreams destroy him. While recovering in England from war wounds, Tom meets and falls in love with his nurse, Cissy Everest, and then returns, like a dutiful husband, to his wife in New Zealand, where he leads a dull life working in the furnace room of a factory. Because he cannot rid himself of his dream about Cissy (he never gives up the photograph of them at Stoke Poges), he “turns off his valve of feeling” for Eleanor, his wife, distances himself from his children, who leave the home as soon as possible, and finds meaning in tending the “Flame,” until his job is eliminated by progress in the shape of a machine. As soon as his wife dies, sixty year-old Tom travels to London to find his “dream girl”; after he breaks his leg, he is sent to Culin Hall, a “recovery unit,” where he finds her dying of cancer. When she fails to recognize him, thereby denying his existence (“his whole life had been built upon the memory of her”), he suffocates her and returns to New Zealand. He meets Peggy Warren, who resembles Cissy, and is about to marry her when he dies suddenly of a stomach ulcer.
Part 2 begins with an abortive relationship between Peggy and Leonard, Tom’s brother, who, like Tom, is sent to a “recovery unit,” where he does not belong. “The slender affirmation” of his existence is threatened when the “bond” between Peggy and him is broken, and he dies soon after being dismissed from the recovery unit. Leonard dies “rejected, negated, extinguished” the “extinguished” suggesting the fire which went out for Tom as well. Frame establishes a pattern that extends from Tom to his brother and then to Colin Torrance, Tom’s grandson, who repeats his grandfather’s pattern: Colin, the calculating accountant, leads a life like Tom’s before he, too, decides that his wife is not in his “dream” and forsakes his family for another woman. Pearl, his mother, asserts that Colin and her father were “the same”; like his grandfather, Colin has the “craze, the recklessness.” Unfortunately, Colin’s dreams (like Tom, he dreams that his wife is dead) lead him to duplicate his grandfather’s crime of killing his “dream woman,” but he also kills her parents and himself.
In part 3, Frame seems not only to tell a different story (while the setting is the same, the characters are different) but also to change from realism to science fiction. Colin Monk and Milly Galbraith narrate events that occur after the devastation of the North Island in a recent nuclear war, which has destroyed much of the world’s vegetation. For expediency and convenience, the Human Delineation Act is enacted to separate people into two groups, “normal” Humans and the “numerous freaks of humanity,” the Animals. Colin Monk, the computer professor, supervises the classification and must deal with those people who attempt to save their loved ones whom they suspect will be classified as Animals. Molly, who is “doll-normill” and a likely Animal, describes the approach of Classification Day by juxtaposing political events such as the use of American mercenaries to pacify the population and domestic scenes involving her cat and the Reconstructed Man, Sandy Monk, Colin’s twin brother. Finally, the symbolic pear tree on the neighboring Livingstone place is cut down, and that event is followed by Classification Day and, ironically, by her birthday. After Milly and the other Animals are “deathed,” Colin Monk resumes the narrative and recounts the “backlash,” as nostalgia for the Animals leads to a reversal in which “the deformed, the insane, and the defective” become “the new elite,” and he fears that he may himself be killed.
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