Janet Frame Frame, Janet - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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 Works

Frame'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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

The Lagoon 1951; revised as The Lagoon and Other Stories, 1961

*The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches 1963

*Snowman, Snowman: Fables and Fantasies 1963

You Are Now Entering the Human Heart 1984

Other Major Works

Owls Do Cry (novel) 1957

The Edge of the Alphabet (novel) 1962

Scented Gardens for the Blind (novel) 1963

The Adaptable Man (novel) 1965

A State of Siege (novel) 1966

The Pocket Mirror (poetry) 1967

The Rainbirds (novel) 1968; also published as Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room, 1969

Daughter Buffalo (novel) 1972

To the Is-land (autobiography) 1982

An Angel at My Table (autobiography) 1984

The Envoy from Mirror City (autobiography) 1985

The Carpathians (novel) 1988

*Selections from these two volumes comprise The Reservoir and Other Stories, 1966.

†This volume contains eleven stories: seven reprinted from Frame's earlier collections and four previously published in periodicals.

Orville Prescott (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lamentations for the Woes of Life," in The New York Times, August 21, 1963, p. 31.

[In the following review, Prescott finds the stories of The Reservoir tiringly depressing, while those of Snowman, Snowman he perceives to be generally unremarkable.]

Collections of short stories proverbially sell badly. Publishers flinch and worry when novelists insist on publication of their short stories in book form. But what is a publisher to do if he admires the novelist and is betting on his future? Usually all he can do is print a small first edition and hope that the novelist's next book will be a popular smash. George Braziller, a courageous publisher who has often backed writers that he admires but the public doesn't has thought of a new approach to the problem of the novelist with a lot of short stories ready for publication. He has put them into two handsomely printed volumes enclosed in an attractive box. Surely so impressive a package must be deserved! The stories are those of Janet Frame, a New Zealand writer, whose three novels have won wide critical applause. The two volumes are called The Reservoir and Snowman Snowman.

Janet Frame has been praised by one enthusiastic critic as "the most talented writer to come out of New Zealand since Katherine Mansfield." That her talent, particularly her poetic power with words, is genuine is beyond...

(The entire section is 577 words.)

Richard M. Elman (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Sense of Place," in New York Herald Tribune, August 25, 1963, p. 10.

[In the following review, Elman assesses the strengths and weaknesses of Frame's writing in The Reservoir and Snowman, Snowman.]

These short prose works by the New Zealand writer Janet Frame are curious mixtures of memoirs, parable, and nearly uninhibited fantasy.

In the pieces she has labelled stories [The Reservoir], Janet Frame uses a variety of characters to bring to our attention the private aches, fantasies and self-doubts of a particular young girl coming to maturity in rural Southern New Zealand.

In a separate volume [Snowman,...

(The entire section is 611 words.)

Eve Auchincloss (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Needles & Pins," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 453, October 17, 1963, pp. 5-6.

[In the following excerpt, Auchincloss provides a mixed review of the collections The Reservoir and Snowman, Snowman.]

Janet Frame's anomalous stories and fables, thirty-eight of them, come boxed and showily bound in two volumes, [The Reservoir and Snowman, Snowman], urgently suggesting that should demurrers be raised as to just what they are, they are at any rate Art. Leaving aside labels, what are they on their own highly individual terms? Their author is a richly gifted writer in shaky control of her gifts; in fact, the gifts have the upper...

(The entire section is 552 words.)

Donald Hannah (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Janet Frame," in Commonwealth Short Stories, edited by Anna Rutherford and Donald Hannah, Edward Arnold, Ltd., 1971, pp. 148-50.

[In the following essay, Hannah finds that "Two Sheep" and A Boy's Will" are ostensibly very different but similarly convey a sense of the world as a menacing place.]

Janet Frame, a New Zealand writer, has probably more compelling personal reasons for writing than any other author in this anthology. Having spent eight years of her life in a mental hospital she consulted yet another doctor, and 'was astonished and grateful to hear him refute all previous commandments—"Why mix, why conform? I think you need to write to...

(The entire section is 898 words.)

H. Winston Rhodes (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Janet Frame: A Way of Seeing in The Lagoon and Other Stories," in Critical Essays on the New Zealand Short Story, edited by Cherry Hankin, Heinemann Publishers, 1982, pp. 112-31.

[In the following survey, Rhodes contends that Frame's early short stories are distinguished by her treatment of perception, both of the external world and of the inner lives of characters.]

'Yes I have a pair of eyes', replied Sam, 'and that's just it. If they wos a pair o' patent double million magnifyin' gas microscopes of hextra power, p'raps I might be able to see through a flight o' stairs and a deal door; but bein' only eyes, you see, my wision's limited.' When Janet...

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Fleur Adcock (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Road to Independence," in The Times Literary Supplement, November 9, 1984, p. 1281.

[In the following review, Adcock observes that Frame's collection You Are Now Entering the Human Heart mixes realism with "bizarre fantasy and semi-didactic allegory."]

The first volume of Janet Frame's absorbing autobiography, To the Is-Land, told of her childhood in the South Island of New Zealand with her railwayman father, her harassed "poetic" mother who talked of books but never had time to read them, her brother, and her three sisters. The oldest sister drowned, the brother was seriously epileptic, there was never enough money; but Janet, in her skimpy...

(The entire section is 1462 words.)

Tom Aitken (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Outside the Brown Picket-Fence," in The Times Literary Supplement, May 31, 1991, p. 21.

[In the following review, Aitken judges the short fiction in The Reservoir and Other Stories "powerful and refreshing."]

People are sometimes admitted to psychiatric hospitals as a result of the misdemeanour of writing: this book set its author free and cancelled the leucotomy she had been about to suffer. The twenty-four stories in The Lagoon were written in the late 1940s when Janet Frame—in flight from school teaching—was in and out of mental hospitals (diagnosed as schizophrenic) and worked as a domestic in hotels and hospitals. The stories were...

(The entire section is 683 words.)

Judith Dell Panny (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Snowman, Snowman," in 'I have what I gave': The Fiction of Janet Frame, Daphne Brasell Associates Press, 1992, pp. 50-6.

[In the following excerpt, Panny explicates the short story "Snowman, Snowman" as an allegory.]

Whom we might meet as we pass into the "for ever" of death is one of the questions posed in The Edge of the Alphabet; the story "Snowman, Snowman" considers the nature of the destination, the "place" where one is to live "for ever and ever." . . . ["Snowman, Snowman" is] a skilfully composed allegory focused on fundamental human concerns. Other stories by Frame can be read as parables or fables, but the near-novella length of this...

(The entire section is 2026 words.)

Anna Grazia Mattei (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Two Sheep': A Fable," in The Ring of Fire: Essays on Janet Frame, edited by Jeanne Delbaere, Dangaroo Press, 1992, pp. 54-62.

[In the following essay, Mattei interprets the story "Two Sheep" as an existential fable.]

'Everything is always a story, but the loveliest ones are those that get written and are not torn up and are taken to a friend as payment for listening, for putting a wise ear to the keyhole of my mind', says the narrator-protagonist—who is, significantly, a writer—of 'Jan Godfrey', a story included in Janet Frame's first collection, The Lagoon. And the reader-friend who embarks on a story by New Zealand's most distinguished...

(The entire section is 3454 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

Craig, David. "Tanks, Trees." New Statesman 71 (11 March 1966): 347-48.

Applauds the naturalistic stories in The Reservoir but criticizes Frame's fantastic tales and her habit of "wishing sinister or apocalyptic significances onto her humdrum fabrics."

Evans, Patrick. Janet Frame. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977, 228 p.

Biocritical study that focuses primarily on Frame's novels but also discusses The Lagoon, The Reservoir, and uncollected stories.

Nyren, Dorothy. A review of Snowman, Snowman and The Reservoir. Library Journal 88, No....

(The entire section is 269 words.)