Janet Frame World Literature Analysis
Frame will be remembered not only for her novels, short stories, and poems but also for her autobiography, which has been called one of the greatest autobiographies of the twentieth century, and which was made into a film, An Angel at My Table (1990), directed by Jane Campion.
Although Frame’s work often deals with insanity, it would be simplistic to classify her novels as the literature of madness. Readers will discover in her work a continual resistance to enclosure in any such category. She evades classification. She has been called a surrealist, a magical realist, a postcolonial writer, and a postmodern feminist. Her writing encompasses much but takes no fixed point of view. She is a protean voice from the inner world of insanity which, as a refuge from an outer world of oppression, allows her to speak the truth about insanity and about the experience of those thought to be insane. She reflects this truth facet by facet, examining language in its relation to meaning and memory, being in relation to language and the self, and insanity from the standpoint of the self’s integrity. All this results in a manifestation of the spirit that is sometimes lyrical and poetic, sometimes strange and humorous, often apocalyptic and extraordinary.
Frame’s unusual thematic material is evident in her earliest works. Her first published novels, Owls Do Cry and Faces in the Water, are semiautobiographical accounts of her difficult early years. Frame said in her autobiography that when she wrote Faces in the Water she omitted a lot because she was afraid of appearing too dramatic. Even so, the book is a chilling rendition of life in a mental institution, including the nightmare of receiving shock treatment. Her description of these sessions with the so-called new electric treatment tells of being obliterated, of being ripped away from recognizable reality. Frame apparently received massive doses of electric shock two hundred times in eight years. Such treatment was given without anesthesia and to many it is more like legalized torture than medical science. These repeated traumas were perhaps the origins of Frame’s extended examination of the nature of language and reality. For example, in describing the shock treatment, she wrote in Faces in the Water: “It is time to leave the words themselves and parachute to their meaning in the dark earth and seas below.”
Faces in the Water is written as a straightforward narrative and is closest in tone to Frame’s autobiography. The style that is most characteristic of her subsequent novels first appears in Owls Do Cry, the title of which comes from William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623). The main characters in the novel are based indirectly on the author’s family and her own early experience. In the novel, Francie’s life has parallels to Frame’s older sister Myrtle; Toby is an epileptic, like her brother Bruddie; and Daphne is put in an asylum. Daphne represents an alternative life Frame might have had if her writing had not saved her. After her stay in the asylum Daphne goes to work in the wool mills and advances as a “normal person.” Before her “strange fancies” are taken from her, Daphne often speaks in a voice that is poetic and tragic, giving a good indication of what Frame’s inner world might have been like. At the opening of the novel are these lyrical and disturbing words: “But what use the green river, the gold place, if time and death pinned human in the pocket of my land not rest from taking underground the green all-willowed and white rose and bean flower and morning mist picnic of song in pepper-pot breast of thrush?” This style of writing is often encountered in Frame’s work and indicates the degree to which she presses at the limits of language.
In Owls Do Cry, Frame develops powerful and complex images that recur throughout her work. One of these is the image of fire, including electrical fire, reminiscent of shock treatment. In the novel, the children spend time playing at a rubbish dump where they find treasures. However, Francie, the eldest, is accidentally burned to death at the dump. Francie, like Frame’s own sister Myrtle, was sexually precocious and the image of fire recalls the Christian idea of burning in Hell for sin. As such images recur in Frame’s work, they begin to function like symbols that have many meanings and that are very suggestive poetically.
Owls Do Cry and Faces in the Water are a lasting and powerful testament to what Frame called “the brutality that lurks under a conspiracy of decency.” This theme is present in many of her subsequent novels and stories, and much of her literary career was spent in articulating an alternate vision of life, whereby the normal appears strange and even absurd, while the abnormal seems closer to the truth of authentic experience.
Another central theme in Frame’s work concerns the effects of colonialism and its aftermath. New Zealand was a colony of Britain from 1841 until 1947. For white New Zealanders, England represented the cultural and geographical center, while New Zealand was a mere colony at the extreme edge of the world. Frame examines this motif in many works, but most thoroughly in The Edge of the Alphabet (1962). The degree to which Frame succeeded in gaining a large international readership suggests that this colonial sense of cultural inferiority was unnecessary and outmoded. As her fame spread, and as she garnered prestigious prizes for her work, Frame became an increasingly important voice in the world of literature.
The Edge of the Alphabet
First published: 1962
Type of work: Novel
Toby Withers, an epileptic from New Zealand, travels to London to become a writer. On the way, he meets Zoe Bryce, a spinster schoolteacher, and Pat Keenan, an Irish bus driver, both of whom, in different ways, are also seeking a purpose for their lives.
The Edge of the Alphabet was written after Frame’s travels to England and, like her other novels, contains elements of autobiography. The novel is narrated by Thora Pattern, one of many elusive impostor narrators to be encountered in Frame’s novels. She tells the story of Toby Withers (the same name, but not the same character as in Owls Do Cry), who is an epileptic New Zealander traveling to London to find his “center.” Equally important are Zoe Bryce, an English spinster schoolteacher, and Pat Keenan, an Irish bus...
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