Janet Frame 1924-
New Zealand novelist, autobiographer, short story writer, poet, and essayist.
One of New Zealand's best-known contemporary fiction writers, Frame is the author of numerous novels and stories that demonstrate a strong autobiographical influence. Her fiction is marked by a concern with death, poverty, and madness—matters with which Frame became familiar while growing up during the Great Depression, and later when she spent several years in a mental institution after being erroneously diagnosed as schizophrenic. In addition, Frame's works play with language, using anagrams, rhymes, puns, disrupted syntax, and other word games in order to highlight ways in which people communicate—or fail to do so.
Frame was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1924. As a child she began writing in an effort to liberate herself from what she has described "a background of poverty, drunkeness, attempted murder, and near-madness." During the Depression, her large family eked out a living in a rural region and endured adversity: two of her sisters drowned in separate incidents, and her younger brother suffered many epileptic seizures. Although she wanted to be a writer, Frame studied at a teacher's training college. While a student, she suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. During her subsequent hospitalization she was forced to submit to hundreds of sessions of electroshock therapy. Frame would later detail her family life and the eight years she spent in and out of mental hospitals in three volumes of autobiography. Despite her difficulties Frame continued to write, and she published her first book of short stories while still a patient. This collection, The Lagoon, received the Hubert Church award as New Zealand's finest prose work of 1951. After the publication of the novel Owls Do Cry (1957), Frame spent several years abroad, living for periods in England, Spain, and France. She returned to New Zealand upon the death of her father in 1963 and now lives near Levin. Filmmaker Jane Campion brought the story of Frame's life to the cinema in the award-winning film An Angel at My Table (1989).
Major WorksFrame's short stories can be grouped loosely into two categories: realistic narratives dealing with childhood or the lives of lonely and alienated adults; and symbolic tales that employ fantastic and mythic elements in order to explore philosophical ideas and concepts. A story of the first type, "The Reservoir" is about a rite of passage from childhood. It revolves around the desire of several youths to visit a distant water reservoir that has been declared dangerous and off limits by their parents. "The Bath" treats a different phase of life, and depicts the hardships faced by a nearly invalided elderly woman for whom basic tasks such as bathing pose great challenges. She finds little joy in life except to visit the cemetery where her loved ones rest. In contrast to these stories that explore issues of everyday life, "Snowman, Snowman" is a highly fanciful piece, featuring a conversation between a snowman and a snowflake about existence and mortality. Similarly, "Two Sheep," which centers on a discussion among sheep on the way to the slaughterhouse, raises questions about death, fate, and the unexamined life.
Commentators have as a rule favored Frame's more naturalistic stories over her symbolic tales. Representing the views of many critics who have found the latter to be heavy-handed, Dorothy Nyren has stated that Frame "writes her symbols large, circles around them two or three times, and, then, just to make sure, explains them." However, Judith Dell Panny, writing on "Snowman, Snowman," has applauded Frame's use of symbolism. In this story, Panny has asserted, Frame "has shaped a story of considerable complexity. Instead of endorsing a body of knowledge in the manner of traditional allegories, 'Snowman, Snowman' questions old certainties. The tale subverts our expectations, making the allegory ironical." The author's literary style has also been faulted as occasionally affected and obtrusive. Yet H. Winston Rhodes has praised "the distinctive way of seeing, the double vision, the combination of inward and outward look" that Frame demonstrates in her most successful short stories, such as "Swans," "The Reservoir," and "Keel and Kool."