Frame, Janet

views updated May 18 2018

Janet Frame

BORN: 1924, Dunedin, New Zealand

DIED: 2004, Dunedin, New Zealand

NATIONALITY: New Zealander

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry

Owls Do Cry (1957)
Scented Gardens for the Blind (1963)
A State of Siege (1966)
Intensive Care (1970)
The Envoy from the Mirror City: An Autobiography (1985)
The Carpathians (1988)


Janet Frame was one of New Zealand's most well known contemporary fiction writers. She published eleven novels and several stories and poems, many of which are set in her native country. Frame is not only often acknowledged

as New Zealand's greatest novelist but is internationally famous—noted not only for her use of material from her years spent in a mental institution, but also for her complex writing style.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Difficult Childhood Janet Paterson Frame was born on August 28, 1924, in Dunedin, New Zealand, the fourth child of railway engineer George Samuel and Lottie Clarice (née Godfrey) Frame, a former housemaid in the home of writer Katherine Mansfield. Frame began writing as a child in an effort to liberate herself from what she termed “a background of poverty, drunkenness, attempted murder, and near-madness.” During the Depression (a worldwide economic downturn in the 1930s caused by economic crises in Europe and the United States, among other factors), her large family scraped out a living in a rural area of New Zealand and suffered several tragedies. Two of her sisters, Myrtle and Isabel, drowned in separate incidents, and her younger brother George suffered many seizures from epilepsy.

Writing as Genuine Life Saver Though she wanted to be a writer, Frame began training to become a teacher at the Dunedin College of Education and audited courses at the University of Otago in 1943. Soon after entering college, Frame suffered from emotional issues. She began weekly therapy sessions, but while practice-teaching in Dunedin in 1947, a breakdown ensued. As a school inspector arrived to visit her classroom, Frame exploded and bolted from the room.

Her breakdown required psychiatric treatment at Seacliff Mental Hospital, north of Dunedin. Frame was diagnosed with schizophrenia (a psychotic disorder marked by severely impaired thinking, emotions, and behaviors), and her teaching career ended. Although she endured several years of institutionalization and electroconvulsive therapy (applying electrical charges directly to the brain)—both common treatments of psychotic and psychiatric conditions at this time—she continued to write and published her first book of short stories, The Lagoon (1951). At the same time that Frame was scheduled to undergo a frontal lobotomy (the removal of part or the whole of the brain's frontal lobe as a means of curing certain mental illnesses, a somewhat commonly used treatment at the time), the book was awarded the Hubert Church Memorial Award. This prize was at that time one of the nation's most prestigious literary honors, and it is said to have resulted in the cancellation of her lobotomy. As Frame would later claim, writing saved her life.

Autobiographical Successes Upon being discharged from the hospital, Frame went to live with her sister and family in Northcote in Auckland. There, she met New Zealand author Frank Sargeson. That same year, Frame moved into an old army shack on Sargeson's Takapuna property, where she wrote her first novel, Owls Do Cry (1957), which won the New Zealand Literary Fund Award in 1960. Frame then left New Zealand and moved to Europe to develop her talents as a writer. While abroad, she published several stories about her experiences in a psychiatric hospital, including Faces in the Water (1961).

Frame returned to New Zealand in 1963. In 1964, she was granted a New Zealand Scholarship in Letters and in 1965, a Robert Burns fellowship from Otago University. As her success flourished over the next several years, Frame continued to earn awards and traveled to the United States and England.

Much of Frame's fiction contains autobiographical elements, but it was not until the publication of her three-volume autobiography in the 1980s that Frame revealed the details of her family life and the eight years she spent in and out of mental hospitals. To the Is-Land (1982) traces Frame's poverty-stricken childhood in New Zealand and investigates some of the incidents that later led to a series of nervous breakdowns. In the second installment, An Angel at My Table (1984), Frame recounted her experiences as a student at a teacher's training college and the events that caused her to flee

from the assignment when the inspector entered her class to observe her lesson.

Frame continued to garner critical acclaim with her subsequent novels, most notably her last book, The Carpathians (1988), which won a Commonwealth Literary Prize in 1989. She died of myeloid leukemia on January 29, 2004, in Dunedin. Another novel of Frame's was published posthumously, Towards Another Summer (2007). This short autobiographical novel was so personal that she would not publish it while she was alive, a metaphysical meditation on the nature of “home.”

Works in Literary Context

Influences of Society, Failed Communication, and Madness Frame's work is complex and not easily accessible. It is also as rewarding as it is challenging, as it imaginatively attacks larger issues of memory as fiction, language as deceptive, and women as vehicles for silence in a largely patriarchal world. Regarding Frame's work and its treatment of memory, there has been much debate over whether her autobiographical work is mostly fiction and whether her fiction is mostly autobiographical. Along with her reluctance to allow her life to be categorically described and dissected by critics, Frame readily acknowledged that autobiography itself is a fiction. Her own memory was affected by the many electro-shock therapy treatments she received during her eight years in mental institutions, affecting her ability to truly write autobiographically. Even the clearest memory cannot be rendered precisely within the limits of language, as her characters often illustrate.

Difficulty of Communication Through her characters, Frame addresses the problem of language as an inept mode of communication. Many of her characters have difficulty relating to others through words. For example, in Scented Gardens for the Blind (1963), narrator Vera Glace is tortured by the speechlessness of her daughter, Erlene. In The Carpathians, New Yorker Mattina Brecon attempts to get to know her neighbors on Kowhai Street, where she has taken up temporary residence in order to research the Memory Flower, for which the town is famous. One night she awakens to find her neighbors screaming without human language, covered by a midnight rain of glittering specks that are the ashes of language: letters and punctuation marks. The towns-people mysteriously disappear, Mattina and Kowhai Street are left deserted, and no words can explain exactly why. In such novels, Frame frequently uses figurative language in an effort to depict the ways in which people communicate—or fail to.

Themes of Dysfunction, Difference, and Madness Much of Frame's fiction is marked by concerns with death, poverty, and madness—conditions with which she became familiar while growing up during the Depression, and later when she spent so many years institutionalized. Owls Do Cry concerns a woman struggling to survive in a psychiatric hospital. Intensive Care (1970) is a story about the creation of legislation that would rid the world of misfits. Scented Gardens for the Blind is an allegorical tale about the possible atomic destruction of Britain. In such works, Frame explores misconceptions about insanity by juxtaposing madness and fantasy with reality.

Social Inequities Frame's writing also addresses the social inequities of people who are perceived as being psychologically, physically, or intellectually inferior by those possessing political power. Her writing is, for instance, often woman-centered. Reflecting the woman-negating influences of a patriarchal world, her main characters are usually females who have been silenced or who have protected themselves through silence. Their language moves within this silence and either serves as companion or executioner.


Frame's famous contemporaries include:

Heinrich Böll (1917–1985): Böll was a German author respected for his post–World War II writings, including Billiards at Half-Past Nine (1959), and for his successful resistance to joining Hitler's Youth.

Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996): Fitzgerald was an African American vocalist dubbed the First Lady of Song. She is considered one of the most influential jazz singers of the twentieth century.

Sylvia Plath (1932–1963): Plath was an American poet and novelist. She explored her obsessions with death, self, and nature in works that expressed her ambivalent attitudes toward the universe, as seen in The Collected Poems (1981).

Doris Lessing (1919–): Lessing is an English author. She is perhaps best known for her novel The Golden Notebook (1962). Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007.

John Updike (1932–): Updike is an American novelist, essayist, and literary critic. He is often appreciated for his in-depth chronicling of American psychological, social, and political cultures in his novels of the “Rabbit” series (1960–2001).

Empowerment The bridging of worlds for the sake of empowerment is central to Frame's work. Though her novels usually stop short of actually empowering her characters, there is the persistent yearning for communication and the idea of acceptance as potential cure. Society, with its limited language, views anyone outside the tight circle of prescribed roles as deviant. Frame's

characters, chained to society by both language and thought, can only attempt to define their own boundaries in society. Despite their frustration and failure at communication, these characters can be thought of as heroic. They strive to find a balance between their individualism and societal norms and eventually come into their own.

Works in Critical Context

Many of Frame's novels are generally regarded as disturbing and powerful. Equally significant is how critics have ranged in their responses from struggling to comprehend Frame's work to praising it with much applause. Several, for instance, have commented on how difficult Frame's novels can be to interpret. Narrators cannot be assumed to be truthful, and events cannot necessarily be taken as fact. Others have praised the lyrical, complex language and word games Frame employs in her fiction. The names of her characters, for example, are frequently symbolic, like Thera Pattern in The Edge of the Alphabet (1962), Vera Glace in Scented Gardens for the Blind, and Malfred Signal in A State of Siege (1966). Still other critics have dismissed these tactics as a distraction from her thematic intentions.

The Carpathians The Carpathians was Frame's last book and is the subject of much critical review. The story takes place in the fictional town of Puamahara, New Zealand, where a local legend purports that a young Maori woman gained unusual knowledge of human history after tasting the fruit of an unknown tree. Mattina Breton, a wealthy New Yorker, travels to New Zealand to learn the source of the folktale from Puamahara's eccentric residents and becomes fascinated by reports of the Gravity Star, an astral phenomenon that—if real—would challenge common perceptions of time and space and destroy the world.

Some critics have faulted The Carpathians for complex and interrelated elements of reality and fantasy and several conscious shifts in point of view. They have found the novel to be overburdened with difficult ideas. However, others have lauded Frame for her exploration of the relationships between language, conformity, and the mysteries of time and space. Jayne Pilling commented in the Times Literary Supplement, “As so often in Frame's novels, there's a curious, combustible mix of modes at work here…. Yet its possibilities are so rich that Frame needs several different narratives, Chinese-box style, to contain them.”

Responses to Literature

  1. Frame's novels explore how New Zealanders struggle with their identity, trying to fit into a country with Maori traditions. After reading one of Frame's works, write a brief essay that explains how Frame views cultural identity.
  2. Read Faces on the Water and hold a class discussion about Frame's experiences with a mental disorder. Discuss how her personal experience had such a strong impact on her writing.
  3. Frame claimed writing saved her life when her book of short stories, The Lagoon, won the Hubert Church Memorial Award and averted her scheduled lobotomy. After reading the stories, work in a small group and prepare a statement that explains why these stories are worthy of such accolades.
  4. Frame did not agree to many interviews. Imagine that Ms. Frame is still alive and that you have been granted a rare opportunity to interview her. What questions would you ask? Why?


Frame's writing reflects her concerns for destructive familial relationships as well as the consequences of miscommunication between individuals and societies. Here are a few works by writers who also considered themes of family or social disturbance, inequality, and power struggle:

Long Day's Journey into Night (1956), a play by Eugene O'Neill. In this modern drama, an excruciatingly close focus is put on the dysfunctional Tyrone family.

Once Were Warriors (1990), a novel by Alan Duff. In this novel, Maori cultural struggles are closely examined in the setting of urban New Zealand by way of the impoverished, undereducated Heke family.

One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), a novel by Ken Kesey. In this cult classic, the mental institution is changed forever when rebellious parolee Randle McMurphy is admitted.

Song of Solomon (1977), a novel by Toni Morrison. This contemporary novel features Milkman, Macon, and Pilate Dead, and focuses on the dynamics of the southern African American family.

True West (1980), a play by Sam Shepard. The theme of dysfunctional family dynamics is played out to the hilt in this drama with a Western backdrop.



Delbaere, Jeanne, ed. The Ring of Fire: Essays on Janet Frame. Aarhus, Denmark: Dangaroo Press, 1992.

Evans, P. Janet Frame. Boston: Twayne, 1977.

Frame, Janet. An Angel at My Table. New York: George Braziller, 1984.

King, Michael. An Inward Sun: The World of Janet Frame. Auckland, New Zealand: Penguin, 2002.

———Tread Softly for You Tread on My Life: New and Collected Writings. Auckland, New Zealand: Cape Catley, 2001.

———Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame. New York: Picador, 2002.


Finlayson, Claire. “A Bolder Spirit.” University of Otago Magazine, February 2005, 13–14.

Pilling, Jayne. Review of The Carpathians. Times Literary Supplement (London), December 2, 1988, 1350.

King, Michael. “The Compassionate Truth.” Meanjin Quarterly 61, no. 1 (2002): 24–34.

Web sites

Cronin, Jan. “Towards Another Summer by Janet Frame.” New Zealand Herald. Retrieved June 9, 2008, from

Janet Frame Literary Trust. Retrieved March 31, 2008, from

New Zealand Book Council. Frame, Janet. Retrieved March 31, 2008, from

Frame, Janet (Paterson)

views updated Jun 27 2018

FRAME, Janet (Paterson)

Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Dunedin, 28 August 1924. Education: Oamaru North School; Waitaki Girls' High School; University of Otago Teachers Training College, Dunedin. Awards: Hubert Church Prose award, 1952, 1964, 1974; New Zealand Literary Fund award, 1960; New Zealand Scholarship in Letters, 1964, and Award for Achievement, 1969; University of Otago Robert Burns fellowship, 1965; Buckland Literary award 1967; James Wattie award, 1983, 1985; Commonwealth Writers prize, 1989. D. Litt.: University of Otago, 1978. C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire), 1983. Address: P.O. Box 1118, Palmerston North, New Zealand.



Owls Do Cry. Christchurch, Pegasus Press, 1957; New York, Braziller, 1960; London, W.H. Allen, 1961.

Faces in the Water. Christchurch, Pegasus Press, and New York, Braziller, 1961; London, W.H. Allen, 1962.

The Edge of the Alphabet. Christchurch, Pegasus Press, New York, Braziller, and London, W.H. Allen, 1962.

Scented Gardens for the Blind. Christchurch, Pegasus Press, andLondon, W.H. Allen, 1963; New York, Braziller, 1964.

The Adaptable Man. Christchurch, Pegasus Press, New York, Braziller, and London, W.H. Allen, 1965.

A State of Siege. New York, Braziller, 1966; London, W.H. Allen, 1967.

The Rainbirds. London, W.H. Allen, 1968; as Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room, New York, Braziller, 1969.

Intensive Care. New York, Braziller, 1970; London, W.H. Allen, 1971.

Daughter Buffalo. New York, Braziller, 1972; London, W.H. Allen, 1973.

Living in the Maniototo. New York, Braziller, 1979; London, Women'sPress, 1981.

The Carpathians. London, Bloomsbury, and New York, Braziller, 1988.

Short Stories

The Lagoon: Stories. Christchurch, Caxton Press, 1952; revised edition, as The Lagoon and Other Stories, 1961; London, Bloomsbury, 1991.

The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches. New York, Braziller, 1963.

Snowman, Snowman: Fables and Fantasies. New York, Braziller, 1963.

The Reservoir and Other Stories. Christchurch, Pegasus Press, andLondon, W.H. Allen, 1966.

You Are Now Entering the Human Heart. Wellington, VictoriaUniversity Press, 1983; London, Women's Press, 1984.


The Pocket Mirror. New York, Braziller, and London, W.H. Allen, 1967.


Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun (for children). New York, Braziller, 1969.

An Autobiography. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1989; London, Women's Press, 1990; New York, Braziller, 1991.

To the Is-Land. New York, Braziller, 1982; London, Women'sPress, 1983.

An Angel at My Table. Auckland, Hutchinson, New York, Braziller, and London, Women's Press, 1984.

The Envoy from Mirror City. Auckland, Hutchinson, New York, Braziller, and London, Women's Press, 1985.

The Inward Sun: Celebrating the Life and Work of Janet Frame, selected and edited by Elizabeth Alley. Wellington, New Zealand, Daphne Brasell Associates Press, 1994.

The Janet Frame Reader, edited by Carole Ferrier. London, Women'sPress, 1995.


Film Adaptations:

An Angel at My Table, 1991.


By John Beston, in World Literature Written in English (Arlington, Texas), November 1978.

Critical Studies:

An Inward Sun: The Novels of Janet Frame, Wellington, New Zealand University Press, 1971, and Janet Frame, Boston, Twayne, 1977, both by Patrick Evans; Bird, Hawk, Bogie: Essays on Janet Frame edited by Jeanne Delbaere, Aarhus, Denmark, Dangaroo Press, 1978; Janet Frame by Margaret Dalziel, Wellington, Oxford University Press, 1981; The Ring of Fire: Essays on Janet Frame edited by Jeanne Delbaere, Sydney, Dangaroo Press, 1992; I Have What I Gave: The Fiction of Janet Frame by Judith Dell Panny, New York, Braziller, 1993; Janet Frame: Subversive Fictions by Gina Mercer. St. Lucia, Queensland, University of Queensland Press, 1994; Critical Spaces: Margaret Laurence and Janet Frame by Lorna M. Irvine. Columbia, South Carolina, Camden House, 1995; Gendered Reistance: The Autobiographies of Simone De Beauvoir, Maya Angelou, Janet Frame and Marguerite Duras by Valerie Baisnee. Atlanta, Rodopi, 1997; Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame by Michael King. Washington, D.C., Counterpoint, 2000.

* * *

"All dreams," Janet Frame writes in her 1970 novel Intensive Care, "lead back to the nightmare garden." And all nightmares lead circuitously into truth. In all her novels, the looming threat of disorder, violent and disrupting, persistently attracts those that it frightens, for it proves more fertile, more imaginatively stimulating, more genuine, and more real than the too-familiar world of daily normality. The tension between safety and danger recurs as her charactersvoyaging into strange geographies (like the epileptic Toby Withers in The Edge of the Alphabet ), or madness (like Daphne in Owls Do Cry, or Istina Navet in Faces in the Water ), or other people's identities (like Ed Glace in Scented Gardens for the Blind ), or mirrors (like Vic in The Adaptable Man ), or death (like Godfrey Rainbird in The Rainbirds )discover both the mental deliberation that the safe state, in oxymoronic creativity, engenders, and the disembodying that danger contrives. The opening of Faces in the Water demonstrates the author's thematic density and sardonic touch:

They have said that we owe allegiance to Safety, that he is our Red-Cross God who will provide us with ointment and remove the foreign ideas, the glass beads of fantasy, the bent hair-pins of unreason embedded in our minds. On all the doors which lead to and from the world they have posted warning notices and lists of safety measures to be taken in extreme emergency . Never sleep in the snow. Hide the scissors. Beware of strangers . But for the final day they have no slogan. The streets throng with people who panic, looking to the left and the right, covering the scissors, sucking poison from a wound they cannot find, judging their time from the sun's position in the sky when the sun itself has melted and trickles down the ridges of darkness into the hollows of evaporated seas. Nightmares and madness, the education in the nature of Apocalypse and survival, become not mere metaphors of sanity, but direct training in the reactivation of the mind's perceiving eyes.

By "shipwrecking" oneself in mad geographies, however (Frame speaks in one novel of "an affliction of dream called Overseas"as in another she observes that OUT is in man, is what he fears, "like the sea"), one places oneself on "the edge of the alphabet," in possession perhaps of insight, but no longer capable of communicating with the people who stay within regulated boundaries. Malfred Signal, in Frame's weakest novel, A State of Siege, for example, leaves her old self to live on an island and to find the perspectives of "the room two inches behind the eyes." What she discovers, when the elements besiege her, is fear, but all she can do then is silently utter the strange new language that she clutches, alone, into seacalm and death. Like Ed Glace in Scented Gardens, who researches the history of the surname Strang and (discovering strong, Strange, and Danger along the way) wonders if people are merely anagrams, Malfred lives in a mad mirror world of intensely focused perception that anagrammatic Joycean punning-distorting day-to-day languagetries to render. As Owls Do Cry had earlier specified, in the shallow suburban character of Chicks, the "safe" world deals in language, too, as a defence against upset, hiding in the familiarity of conventional clichés and tired similes. What the brilliant punning passages of The Rainbirds show is what the title poem of The Pocket Mirror implies: that convention will not show ordinary men the "bar of darkness" that are optically contained within the "facts of light"; "To undeceive the sight a detached instrument like a mirror is necessary." Or will her narratives. But even that vantage point is fraught with deceit. Superstition, like convention, and Platonic forms, like safe order, can all interfere with true interpenetration with "actuality." And to find the live languagethe "death-free zone" of Thora Pattern, in Edge of the Alphabet as a novelist inevitably dealing with day-to-day words becomes an increasingly difficult task the stronger the visionary sense of the individual mind on its own. Turnlung, the aging New Zealand writer in New York, in Daughter Buffalo, finds the challenge particularly acute; his exile to "a country of death" brings him into bizarrely creative contact with a young doctor, but in the epilogue to the story, he wonders if he has dreamed everything. What matters, as Turnlung puts it, is that "I have what I gave." To conceive is to create some kind of reality, however unconventional the act, the result, and the language of rendering the experience may seem.

There are passages in France that are reminiscent of Doris Lessinglike the apocalyptic scenes of Scented Gardens and Intensive Care, the one anticipating the atomic destruction of Britain and the birth of a new language, the other observing the destruction of animals in Waipori City (the computerized enactment of the Human Delineation Act which will identify the strong normal law-abiding "humans" and methodically, prophylactically, eliminate the rest), and the ironic intensification of a vegetable human consciousness. In the earlier novel, particularly, the author emphasizes the relationship between the "safety dance of speech" and a kind of Coleridgean death-in-life, and that between winter (the gardenless season) and madness, life-in-death,"Open Day in the factory of the mind." The Rainbirds, the writer's gentlest, most comic (however hauntingly, macabrely, relentlessly discommoding) book, takes up the metaphor in its story of a man pronounced dead after a car accident. Though Godfrey Rainbird lives, the official pronouncement, the conventional language, the public utterance, takes precedence over the individual spiritual actuality, depriving him of his job, his children, public acceptance, and so on. Indeed, he only becomes acceptable when he has "died" a second time, when his story is sufficiently distanced into legend and into the past to become a tourist attraction. But if you visit the grave in the winter, Frame adds, you must create the summer flowers within yourself. Summer gardens are openly available even to the spiritually blind; winter gardens are not. Her quiet acceptance, however, of that (mad, winter) power to change seasons within the mind expresses her most optimistic regard of humanity. And as Living in the Maniototo reaffirms, there is an ordering potentiality in the recognition of any person's several selves.

Intensive Care more broodingly evokes the same theme and provokingly points out the difference between the hospitalization of the body and the intensive care required to keep the mind truly alive. When the second world war is long over and the computer mentality takes over after the next impersonal War, all fructifying abnormality seems doomed; Deciding Day will destroy that which is not named human. Through the sharp memory of the supposedly dull Milly Galbraith, who is one of the few to appreciate an ancient surviving pear-tree, and the damningly conciliatory (and then expiatory) attitudes of Colin Monk, who goes along with the system, valuing Milly too late to save her, the apocalyptic days of Waipori City are told. Behind them both looms the mythical presence of Colin's twin Sandy, the Reconstructured Man, made of metal and transplanted part, who is also the Rekinstruckdead Man, a promise of technological finesse and an accompanying sacrifice of man's animal warmth and spiritual being. Milly is exterminated; Sandy is myth; Colin, declared human, breathes:

I was safe, I had won.

I had lost. I began losing the first day, when the news of the Act came to me and I signed the oath of agreement. Why of course, I said, I'll do anything you ask, naturally, it's the only way, the only solution, as I see it, to an impossible situation, as if situations needed solving, I mean, looked at objectively, as it must be seen to be .

The skimming words and phrases that need leave no footprints; one might never have been there, but one had spoken; and the black water lay undisturbed beneath the ice; and not a blade of grass quivered or a dead leaf whispered; a race of words had lived and died and left no relic of their civilization.

As it must be seen to be, looked at objectively .

The ironies multiply around each other. Language reasserts its fluid focus; the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Vegetation plants new pear trees on the Livingstone estate; the computer (not having been programmed for nostalgia) fails to account for the new enthusiasm for old abnormalities; and the Sleep Days cannot erase the time of the fires from the mind of Colin Monk. The mind survives. That her commitment to the spiritual independence of such perception is made so provocative is a tribute to Frame's arresting skill with images. She has an uncanny ability to arouse the diverse sensibilities of shifting moods and to entangle in language the wordless truths of her inner eye.

Language (always a motif in these works) is the central subject of the later novels Living in the Maniototo, with its artificial California setting, and the futuristic The Carpathians. The characters here contend not so much with a world outside themselves as with the kinds of world their imaginations create. Trained in words, they construct fantasies with the power of reality, often mistakenly accepting these ostensible "realities" as fixed truths. While most characters see only what they expect, some are given the gift of transcending their own verbal limitations. Understanding the processes of language is essential. Readers of the later novels are guided into limited insights: once the authoritarianism of their conventional expectations is exposed, they are offered a chance to glimpse alternative possibilitieswithin themselves, and consequently also in the "ordinary" world.

W.H. New

Frame, Janet (Paterson)

views updated May 23 2018

FRAME, Janet (Paterson)

Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Dunedin, 28 August 1924. Education: Oamaru North School; Waitaki Girls' High School; University of Otago Teachers Training College, Dunedin. Career: Writer. Lives near Levin, New Zealand. Awards: Hubert Church Prose award, 1952, 1964, 1974; New Zealand Literary Fund award, 1960; New Zealand scholarship in letters, 1964, and award for achievement, 1969; University of Otago Robert Burns fellowship, 1965; Buckland literary award, 1967; James Wattie award, 1983, 1985; Commonwealth Writers prize, 1989. D.Litt.: University of Otago, 1978. C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire), 1983.



The Janet Frame Reader. 1995.

Short Stories

The Lagoon: Stories. 1951; revised edition, as The Lagoon and Other Stories, 1961.

The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches. 1963.

Snowman, Snowman: Fables and Fantasies. 1963.

The Reservoir and Other Stories. 1966.

You Are Now Entering the Human Heart. 1983.


Owls Do Cry. 1957.

Faces in the Water. 1961.

The Edge of the Alphabet. 1962.

Scented Gardens for the Blind. 1963.

The Adaptable Man. 1965.

A State of Siege. 1966.

The Rainbirds. 1968; as Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room, 1969.

Intensive Care. 1970.

Daughter Buffalo. 1972.

Living in the Maniototo. 1979.

The Carpathians. 1988.


The Pocket Mirror. 1967.


Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun (for children). 1969.

An Autobiography. 1990.

To the Is-Land. 1982.

An Angel at My Table. 1984.

The Envoy from Mirror City. 1985.



by John Beston, in World Literature Written in English, November 1978.

Critical Studies:

An Inward Sun: The Novels of Frame, 1971, and Frame, 1977, both by Patrick Evans; Bird, Hawk, Bogie: Essays on Frame edited by Jeanne Delbaere, 1978; Frame by Margaret Dalziel, 1981; I Have What I Gave: The Fictions of Janet Frame by Judith Dell Panny, 1993; Janet Frame: Subversive Fictions by Gina Mercer, 1994; The Inward Sun: Celebrating the Life and Work of Janet Frame edited by Elizabeth Alley, 1994; Critical Spaces: Margaret Laurence and Janet Frame by Lorna Irvine, 1995; The Unstable Manifold: Janet Frame's Challenge to Determinism by Karin Hansson, 1996; Gendered Resistence: The Autobiographies of Simone de Beauvoir, Maya Angelou, Janet Frame, and Marguerite Duras by Valérie Baisnée, 1997.

* * *

Although she is known primarily as a novelist and autobiographer, Janet Frame published about 80 short stories between 1946 and 1979, most of them gathered in one or more of her four collections and many of them also anthologized. Among New Zealand writers only Katherine Mansfield and Frame's longtime friend Frank Sargeson have achieved as much international publication and recognition in the short story.

Frame's first publications were short stories brought out in magazines in 1946-47, and her first book, The Lagoon and Other Stories, which was published in 1951 but mostly written in 1946, was a collection of stories and sketches. The Lagoon and Other Stories was published in New Zealand, but her next collections, the matched volumes The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches and Snowman Snowman: Fables and Fantasies (1963), were published in the United States. A one-volume selection, The Reservoir and Other Stories, appeared in England and New Zealand in 1966. Her fourth collection, You Are Now Entering the Human Heart, a retrospective selection from the first three collections and with four previously uncollected stories added, appeared in New Zealand in 1983 and in England in 1984.

The subtitles of the two 1963 volumes indicate something of the different types of short fictions Frame has written. The "stories and sketches" mix realism and impressionism, usually showing from within, through their subjective impressions, the lives of children or of social outsiders in a recognizable, basically realistic modern setting. This mode, reminiscent of that of Mansfield but with Frame's unique tone and feel, is the dominant one in The Lagoon. Some of the stories of children focus on the happy immediacy of positive childhood experiences, as in "My Cousins Who Could Eat Cooked Turnips" and "Child." Most memorable are the clearly autobiographical stories that deal with a child being faced with the death of a sibling, such as "The Secret" and "Keel and Kool." Another group deal with social outsiders: the mental hospital patients of such stories as "The Bedjacket" and "Snap-dragons"; the lost, disturbed housewife of the powerful "The Day of the Sheep"; the lonely, seemingly schizophrenic inhabitant of a boardinghouse in "The Birds Began to Sing"; and the unhappy, isolated writer figures of "Jan Godfrey" and "My Last Story." "Lolly-Legs," an uncollected story of 1954 dealing with a dumb orphan girl, is similar. Some of the stories juxtapose the immediacy and innocence of the child's experience with the pain, anxiety, and confusion of the adult outsider, as in "Swans" or "Pictures."

The stories in The Reservoir continue in the mode of The Lagoon but with an expanded range. The first eight all deal with childhood, but with less immediacy and less use of the child's idiom and more retrospection, as in "The Reservoir" or "The Bull Calf." After these stories Frame returned to childhood only in the uncollected "A Boy's Will" of 1966, a quite different kind of story about the pressures put on a bright and individualistic boy by his anxious, conformist family. Another group focuses on outsiders: the lonely spinsters of "The Teacup" and "An Incident in Mid-Ocean," or the isolated writer-observer figures of "The Windows" or "The Linesman." This gallery is enlarged somewhat in the later stories with the lonely old people of "The Bath" (1965) and "Winter Garden" (1969) and with the economic loser, who interacts with the writer-observer, in Frame's last published story, "Insulation" (1979), all three collected in You Are Now Entering the Human Heart. A more restricted group of stories is primarily satirical. In The Reservoir, "The Triumph of Poetry" and "Burial in Sand" depict self-deceiving would-be artists, as does the later uncollected "They Never Looked Back" (1974), while the uncollected "The Painter" skewers the unimaginative suburban male, and "A Relative of the Famous" from The Reservoir uses a mad outsider to show up a shallow society woman.

The "fables and fantasies" of Snowman Snowman are very different in mode. All break the boundaries of realism while pointing parabolically at certain recurring themes, most having to do with death and the knowledge of death, but they do so in a variety of ways. The title work is a fully developed allegory of novella length that uses the figures of the snowman and his teacher, the Perpetual Snowflake, to comment on the cycle of life and death. "The Red-Currant Bush, the Black-Currant Bush, the Gooseberry Bush, the African Thorn Hedge, and the Garden Gate Who Was Once the Head of an Iron Bedstead" is a playful fable and "The Mythmaker's Office" a satirical parable, while others such as "The Press Gang" or "Visitors from the Fields" are not much more than developed metaphors.

Whatever their mode, Frame's short fictions are united by a verbally inventive style and a constant vision of life and death. The style is marked by a play with language and a rich flow of metaphor. For instance, in "The Pleasures of Arithmetic," in Snowman Snowman, the television news bulletins become little bullets of the same thoughts fired into the brains of thousands of users, all "in the end hosts only at the point of a gun to thoughts donated to them by courtesy of the television company." The tone shifts from the ironic to the seriously oracular or to the vivid, innocent, free indirect discourse in the idiom of children, but the language is always rich, imagistic, and suggestive. The vision of life presented is dark and intense. At the center is the sense of the relentless power of time and death. Human beings in Frame's world are conscious creatures desiring life and continuity but caught in an unconscious universe that operates in a cycle of birth and death that will always defeat their wishes. Although we try to deny and evade the knowledge, we know that we must die, as the narrator of "The Press Gang" admits in typically metaphorical language: "… I know the Press Gang waits for me … until the three score and ten are concluded, and the ship and the sun go down together, and Death at last subdues the piratical activities indulged in by Life."

In Frame's world children live in an imaginative present at first free of the knowledge of death, but gradually the darkness impinges on their world of light. Adult society uses social status, consumer goods, and power to try to cover over its knowledge of death, with the mass media the primary agents of encouraging conformity to this false vision. In the dark parable of "The Mythmaker's Office" a law is passed forbidding the public mention of death, but "the avoidance of Death, like the avoidance of all inevitability, overflowed into the surrounding areas of living, like a river laying waste the land which it had formerly nourished and made fertile." Only by accepting time and death and by honestly facing the human situation can individuals give life meaning. But in Frame's world only artists and other visionary outsiders face this knowledge and, like the narrator in "One Must Give Up," integrate the knowledge into their inner imaginative world, "using the panel in the secret room" to "make one's escape to fluid, individual weather; stand alone in the dark listening to the worm knocking three times, the rose resisting, and the inhabited forest of the heart accomplishing its own private growth." But as "Two Sheep," the next parable in Snowman Snowman, shows, such knowledge is painful and difficult to live with, and the price of imaginative vision in Frame's world is always alienation.

In Frame's autobiography the compensation for living alone in the "mirror city" of the imagination is the power of creation, which if it cannot defeat death can at least incorporate it into the design. Such an option is denied most of the characters in her short stories, but its presence is still felt in the author's language, an imaginative light in an otherwise dark world.

—Lawrence Jones

See the essay on "Swans."

Frame, Janet

views updated May 11 2018

Janet Frame

Born Janet Paterson Frame, August 28, 1924, in Dunedin, New Zealand; died of leukemia, January 29, 2004, in Dunedin. Author. One of New Zealand's most famous literary exports, Janet Frame searingly chronicled the sometimes-fluid border between mental illness and what society terms "normal" in her dozen novels. Her fiction was a byproduct of her own struggle: she had been hospitalized for eight years in a series of psychiatric facilities, and was saved from barbarous corrective surgery only when one of the doctors noted that she had won a literary prize for a short-story collection. She was fond of saying that writing had literally saved her life. "Writing is a boon, analgesic, and so on," Frame once asserted, according to New York Times obituary writer Douglas Martin. "I think it's all that matters to me. I dread emerging from it each day."

Born in 1924, Frame grew up in an impoverished household. Her father was an engineer for the railroad, and her mother had once been a maid in the household of Katherine Mansfield, one of New Zealand's most famous authors. Frame likely inherited her literary ambitions from her mother, who wrote poetry and peddled it door-to-door in their neighborhood. But it was a bleak life, and the situation was compounded by the drowning deaths of two of Frame's sisters. She emerged from adolescence a painfully shy, socially awkward young woman, but found regular refuge in her writing. Schooled at a teachers' college in Dunedin, she was expected to undergo an evaluation for her student teaching credit, but when the observer arrived to watch her in the classroom, she panicked and fled. A suicide attempt followed, but she later enrolled at the University of Otaga. There, for a psychology-class assignment, she wrote about the attempt, and school authorities became alarmed. She was forced into treatment two days later, and spent the next eight years confined to a psychiatric hospital.

Frame was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and underwent extensive electroshock treatment. A leucotomy was recommended, a surgery that would sever the connection between the brain and its prefrontal cortex. Such procedures were performed regularly between the 1930s through the '60s as a treatment for severe depression or anxiety, but sometimes rendered the patient into a near-catatonic state. A doctor at the hospital, however, saw that a collection of short stories by Frame, The Lagoon, had been published and even won a literary prize. She was released from care, and taken in by a well-known New Zealand writer, Frank Sargeson. He let her stay in an old Army hut on his property outside Auckland, where she wrote her first novel, 1957's Owls Do Cry, based on her own experiences as a shy child and a young woman undergoing psychiatric treatment.

Frame received a government grant, and used it to travel to Spain and England. She produced a number of novels in the early part of the 1960s, including Faces in the Water, about a woman in a psychiatric hospital. Often her fictional characters were silenced in some way, either mute or shunned by others. Of her 12 novels, "each explored a dimension of human suffering and rejection and furthered her reputation for graceful and sorrowful prose," noted Adam Bernstein in the Washington Post. "Frame's literary output often blended themes of fractured identity, morbidity, and caustic appraisals of modern society."

Frame was fascinated by language and its possibilities, and once recounted the genesis of one of her novels. She had gone to see a London dentist, who "was very vague," she remembered, according to her obituary in the London Independent newspaper by C.K. Stead. "Then he said, 'Rinse whilst I'm gone.' I hadn't heard anyone say 'whilst' and it was that word that prompted me to write the whole book."

During her time in London, she was also examined at a renowned mental-health facility, whose doctors concluded she had never suffered from schizophrenia in the first place. Her later autobiographies—beginning with To the Is-land in 1982 and concluding in 1985 with The Envoy from Mirror City—strive to explain how she came to be misdiagnosed. The middle volume, An Angel at My Table, was made into an acclaimed 1990 film by Jane Campion. "It's no wonder that I value writing as a way of life when it actually saved my life," she later wrote in one of her autobiographies, according to Los Angeles Times obituary writer Mary Rourke.

Frame was less shy later in life, but remained somewhat reclusive. In 1990, she received her country's highest honor, the Order of New Zealand. Frame died at the age of 79 in Dunedin on January 29, 2004; she had been suffering from leukemia. The woman "widely considered New Zealand's finest writer," according to Rourke, was the subject of a 2001 biography, Wrestling with the Angel. She had told its author, Michael King, that sometimes others suggested to her, "'Why don't you go out and mix?'" referring to her preference for isolation, and scoffed, "as if I were a pudding."


Independent (London), January 30, 2004, p. 22.

Los Angeles Times, January 31, 2004, p. B23.

New York Times, January 30, 2004, p. A23.

Washington Post, January 30, 2004, p. B8.

—Carol Brennan

Frame, Janet

views updated May 11 2018

FRAME, Janet

FRAME, Janet. New Zealander, b. 1924. Genres: Novels, Novellas/Short stories, Children's fiction, Poetry, Autobiography/Memoirs. Publications: The Lagoon: Stories, 1951, rev. ed. as The Lagoon and Other Stories, 1961; Owls Do Cry, 1957; Faces in the Water, 1961; The Edge of the Alphabet, 1961; Scented Gardens for the Blind, 1963; The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches, and Snowman, Snowman: Fables and Fantasies, 1963; The Adaptable Man, 1965; A State of Siege, 1966; The Reservoir and Other Stories, 1966; The Pocket Mirror: Poems, 1967; The Rainbirds (in U.S. as Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room), 1968; Mona Minim and the Small of the Sun, 1969; Intensive Care, 1970; Daughter Buffalo, 1972; Living in the Maniototo, 1979; To the Island (autobiography), 1982; An Angel at My Table (autobiography), 1984, screenplay, 1990; You Are Now Entering the Human Heart (short stories), 1984; The Envoy from the Mirror City (autobiography), 1985; The Carpathians, 1988; An Autobiography, 1991; The Janet Frame Reader, 1995; The Complete Autobiography of Janet Frame, 1998. Died 2004.

Frame, Janet

views updated May 14 2018

Frame, Janet (1924–2004) New Zealand short-story writer and novelist. Her works draw on first-hand experience of the treatment of mental health patients. Her autobiographical work, An Angel at My Table (1984), was filmed by Jane Campion.