over there

This article was first presented at the inaugural JNZL Janet Frame Conference at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand (the papers of which were published in a special edition of the JNZL). It appears here as a re-vamp with some online Frame links.

janet frame & the tempest

This paper is an investigation of the ways in which The Tempest1 informs Janet Frame's writing, concentrating on the autobiographical trilogy To the Is-Land, An Angel at my Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City, and on the semi-autobiographical novels, Owls Do Cry and Faces in the Water.

When Janet Frame was released from hospital after winning the Hubert Church Award for her book of short stories, The Lagoon, she submitted a story and two poems to the literary journal Landfall. When these works were rejected she reports that she was devastated:
What could I do if I couldn't write? Writing was to be my rescue. I felt as if my hands had been uncurled from their clinging-place on the rim of the lifeboat. . . . I comforted myself by remembering that in my years in hospital, when I clung to my copy of Shakespeare, hiding it under my straw mattresses, having it seized and scheming for its return, not often reading it but turning the tissue-paper-thin pages which somehow conveyed the words  to me, I had absorbed the spirit of The Tempest. Even Prospero in his book-lined cell had suffered shipwreck and selfwreck; his island was unreachable except through storm.2
Janet Frame's writing is iridescent with imagery drawn from The Tempest. Her life-story seems to lend itself to a telling that mirrors the tale of Prospero. The two stories are never strictly analogous, and yet the many uses to which Frame puts the notions of Storm, Sea, Island, Exile, Magic, Otherness and Return, create a kaleidoscope of images and ideas that may be explored by reading her writing in conjunction with the play.

I intend to concentrate here on Frame's writing about her life, as opposed to her life as it was experienced. Frame's writing about her life, however, has entered into our understanding to such an extent that I would suggest it has become a type of myth. Frame discusses her decision to write her autobiography in this extract from The Envoy from Mirror City:

My only qualification for continuing this autobiography is that although I have used, invented, mixed, remodelled, changed, added, subtracted from all experiences I have never written directly of my own life and feelings. Undoubtedly I have mixed myself with other characters who themselves are a product of known and unknown, real and imagined; I have created 'selves'; but I have never written of 'me'.    (154)
Frame sees inventive writing as providing her with disguises for what she perceives as 'me'. The notion that the 'real' Frame might emerge from the pages of the trilogy is as vain as hoping that Shakespeare's diaries might be found. Her style of writing, though, is such that the inventiveness of her autobiographical work, while it is constrained by the demands of realism, is empowered by her respect for and ability to work with language. Frame is always aware of the poetic value of words, their sound, the rhythm they create, and the meaning beyond mere definition that might be achieved by using certain combinations of words.

I am interested in the parallel that may be drawn between Prospero, the artist/magician, and Frame, the artist/poet. In his introduction to The Tempest, Stephen Orgel points out that:

[The fact that] The Tempest stands first in the 1623 Folio of Shakespeare's works ... has been taken to imply that the play ... was Shakespeare's valediction to the stage and his last play ... that it was the truest expression of Shakespeare's own feelings, and that in the magician-poet he depicted himself.  (1)
That Shakespeare's Prospero, a magician, has come to signify the play-wright's alter-ego is appropriate. Whether or not Shakespeare intended the play to be about his own art, The Tempest is certainly a play about the artist, and reverberates with metaphors for art. Frame, as we shall see, believes that there is magic to be wrought by using words. As a poet, she sees herself as performing a sort of alchemy on the raw material of language, transforming it into the pure metal of poetry.

In considering connections between Frame's work and The Tempest certain motifs emerge. This study of Frame's work has been divided into four sections, each of which is informed by these motifs: Storm, Island and Sea, Magic and Language, and Rescue or Return.

I: Storm

In his study of The Tempest, Prospero's Island, Noel Cobb says:

The Tempest opens in an ... exuberant burst of wild energy. Barely contained within its form, the energy seems to be trying to leap out of itself ... [and] one no longer knows precisely what emotion is being expressed. Could it be terror, exaltation, unbounded grief, the sound of the soul at its outermost extremity, or is it the final rending apart of the cocoon before the butterfly of the psyche unfolds its wings and bursts free? (27)
The notion of storm suggests many different emotions. The sheer volatility of a storm, however, means that whatever feelings may be associated with this sort of upheaval, they can only be passionate. Janet Frame's writing embodies many different aspects of the idea of 'storm'.

To the Is-Land opens with a short chapter called 'In the Second Place':

From the first place of liquid darkness, within the second place of air and light, I set down the following record with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths and its direction always toward the Third Place, where the starting point is myth.    (9)
The movement from liquid darkness to air and light is evocative of the storm of birth. Prospero and his daughter were cast out of Milan at night and set adrift on a stormy sea from which rescue seemed impossible; their stormy passage at sea and arrival at a strange new land can also be seen as a type of birth. Frame's allusion to her birth into the world parallels Prospero's passage through "liquid darkness", and is a foretaste of the storms that will beset her throughout her life before she reaches the "Third Place", the Mirror City.

Frame also uses storm imagery to evoke the tumultuous nature of the agony of mind that is endured by the fictional characters Daphne and Istina, and to suggest the violent nature of electro-convulsive or shock therapy (also referred to as ECT) which was thought to be a cure for sufferers of schizophrenia in the 1940s and 50s. Shock therapy is the artificial induction of a grand mal conclusion or epileptic fit. For Frame, ECT was like a microcosmic version of the cataclysmic upheaval of the elements in The Tempest, and the fear that preceded her treatment was as tumultuous as the 'therapy' itself.

ECT is a kind of death, as Elaine Showalter points out in comments on the so-called therapy:

[T]he magic of ECT ... comes from its imitation of a death and rebirth ceremony. For the patient it represents a rite of passage in which the doctor kills off the 'bad' crazy self, and resurrects the 'good' self.   (217)
Frame identifies death with the storm of ECT: she does not, however, associate rebirth with shock-therapy. She says that when she was finally released from hospital it was after 'having received over two hundred applications of unmodified ECT, each the equivalent, in degree of fear, to an execution' (Angel 109).

This is an awful irony when one considers the fact that Frame, who was terrified of her brother's epileptic fits as a child, is able to write about epilepsy from experience after her hospitalisation. In Owls Do Cry, the narrator sees Toby Withers's fits as if from the inside, asking, "Did Any Reid [the teacher] understand what happened, and how the cloak came with its forest of a million folds? Did he know why some people are given a private and lonely night?" (14) Daphne, the fictional inmate of an asylum in Owls Do Cry, is terrified of the "lonely night" that will be created by the application of electricity to both her body and her mind:

Oh, but at nine o'clock, it is said, all will be well. Their seeing will be blinded. ... And soon the same god or devil ... will turn the switch that commands -- See. Forget. Go blind. ... Be convulsed and never know why. Take your teeth out as a precaution against choking. ... Your life out as a precaution against living.   (Owls 45)
Throughout her writing Frame creates passages that are powerfully evocative of the terror experienced when one's mind is meddled with by a force over which one has no control. Prospero meddles with the subconscious minds of those shipwrecked on his island. When they are regaining consciousness, he says:
Their understanding Begins to swell, and the approaching tide Will shortly fill the reasonable shore, That now lies foul and muddy.    (V.i.70-82)
That a storm has been induced in the minds of Prospero's foes is evident because their "reasonable shores" are "foul and muddy". Ariel, at Prospero's command, has lured Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio to a banquet only to confront them with thunder and lightning and the pronouncement of their mutual guilt in having banished Prospero from Milan. Ariel says, "I have made you mad" (III.iii.59), but her action is not the equivalent of inducing an epileptic fin in the minds of these men.

Gonzalo says, "All three of them are desperate; their great guilt,/Like poison given to work a great time after,/ Now gins to bite the spirits" (III.iii.104-06). It is the consciences of the three men that are activated by Ariel's enactment of Prospero's plan. Prospero is ever careful to avoid harming those upon whom he exercises his power. He boasts to Miranda that he has not harmed one hair on any of the creatures upon whom he has worked his magic (I.ii.30-31). Frame does not, however, have such benevolent or skilled workers delving into her subconscious mind. Her storms are electrical convulsions of the most uncontrolled kind.

Frame's bewilderment at finding herself mistakenly diagnosed with schizophrenia resounds in the passage from The Tempest (I.ii.206-10) which stands as an epigraph to An Angel at My Table:

Prospero: My brave spirit! Who was so firm, so constant, that this coil Would not infect his reason?

Ariel: Not a soul, But felt a fever of the mad, and play'd Some tricks of desperation.

In this passage Prospero is asking Ariel which of the mariners had been able to resist Ariel's performance of his magic. Ariel's reply indicates that none could help by be affected by her sport.3 Frame's use of the passage, however, seems to suggest that even the bravest, firmest, most constant of human beings, including Prospero, herself or the reader, might find their spirit (or mind) infected by "a fever of the mad", and that Frame's "tricks of desperation" in having role-played text-book schizophrenia to gain attention have been such a success that the medical profession has been duped.

When Frame was diagnosed as having schizophrenia, she says, "I kept 'pure schizophrenia' for the poems where it was most at home, and I looked forward to John Forrest's praise" (Angel 79). In keeping "pure schizophrenia" for her poetry, Frame was using language to create a storm, rather than to construct a 'realistic' narrative. Much of Daphne's singing in Owls Do Cry is an example of this technique.4

In creating storm by using poetry, Frame is emulating Prospero who is able to conjure up tempests by using his magic art. It is ironic that Frame's incorrect diagnosis and subsequent hospitalisation were preceded by attention from her psychology lecturer, who almost coaxed the young woman into believing that madness and genius were inseparable and that schizophrenia was an asset to the serious poet. Forrest made a remark of which Frame writes,

[The comment] was to direct my behaviour and reason for many years. ... "When I think of you," he said, "I think of Van Gogh, of Hugo Wolf, [of Schumann]."   

All three were named as schizophrenic, with their artistic ability apparently the pearl of their schizophrenia. (Angel 79).

Unfortunately, such a patronising attitude ignores the agony of mind and body that can be felt by people with schizophrenia. Forrest's romantic notion of mental illness is shown to be facade in Faces in the Water when the fictional narrator, Istina Mavet, points out that the speech of asylum inmates is "seldom the easy Opheliana recited like the pages of a seed catalog or the outpourings of Crazy Jane" (112). She goes on to say, "Few of the people who roamed the dayroom would have qualified as acceptable heroines, in popular taste. ... Their behaviour affronted, cause uneasiness; they wept and moaned; they quarrelled and complained" (Faces, 112).

Likewise, it is tempting to romanticise Prospero's life upon his island as idyllic and yet he has been ejected forcibly from his society in a most brutal manner. In The Tempest, Miranda says, after witnessing the shipwreck of Alonso's ship:

O, I have suffered With those that I saw suffer! a brave vessel, Who had no doubt some noble creature in her Dash'd all to pieces! (I.ii.5-8)
While in hospital Frame saw human bodies, equally "brave vessels" that had no doubt at some time held "noble creatures", and she was appalled at their ignoble plights. In her autobiography Frame says of her time in Seacliff Hospital:
From my first moment there I knew that I could not turn back to my usual life or forget what I saw at Seacliff. ... I saw people with the eyes of hurricanes surrounded here by whirling unseen and unheard commotion contrasting strangely with the stillness.   (Angel 69)
Frame presents madness as a storm of the mind, the ravages of which cannot be known by those who refuse to hear "the Terrible Screaming".5 Ironically though, those who can hear the screaming are often thought to be mad.

II: Island and Sea

For Prospero, the island on which he is washed up is a place of exile (as well as being a place of safety from the sea) -- exile from the court in which his life was in danger. It is also a place where, freed from responsibility, the scholar can study his books and practise his magic. Exile is, however, a painful state, and while one might speak of the safety that may be found during exile, it is important to look at some wider reaching implications of the state of having been banished. C.D. Narasimhaiah, writing on the theme of exile describes the way in which

[b]oth world history and world literature lend support to the view that ... [people] live in perpetual exile -- exile from home, community, country, race, from God and sometimes from ... [themselves] too. In its many variations exile has dominated the writer's thinking in different cultures in different ways, so much so that it has acquired the compulsion of an archetypal truth. In popular use, however, it carries intimations of being banished, alienated, uprooted, disembowelled, and in all cases of being deprived and dispossessed.   (57)
Frame experienced a form of exile as a woman because she did not conform to the sort of life expected of her gender by New Zealand society in the 1940s. The fictional Withers girls, in Owls Do Cry, live in fear of having to work at the Woollen Mills, where the workers' big hope is the raffle which is for them:
[the] chance of a life time, first prize a washing machine and, consolation, a vacuum cleaner; riding on and on the mill girls, with the mill out of sight and the girls driven there by a secret siren in their head.    (Owls 27-28)
While the mill girls have a 'career', their dreams are bound up in future domesticity, marriage and a nice home. The appalling life of a woman confined to the drudgery of housekeeping without either washing machine or vacuum cleaner, is seen in Frame's account of her mother who finds freedom in hospital after a heart attack:
She could laugh and talk and express opinions without being ridiculed; and there she was writing poems in a small notebook and reading them to the other patients who were impressed with her talent. ... What had we done to her, each of us, day after day, year after year, that we had washed away her evidence of self.   (Angel 105)
Frame's writing reverberates with such insights into the isolation that is experienced by women who must fight persistently against social expectations in order to lead the life of full-time poets. Janet Frame can well identify with the notion of being alienated and dispossessed, not only as an alleged 'madwoman' within a 'sane' society but also as a New Zealand writer working within an Empire.

The Tempest provides much material for postcolonial critics: Caliban suffers displacement when his island is invaded by 'civilised' people; Prospero must form a new relationship with the island that becomes his prison; and Ariel seeks freedom to find her place in the world. Frame writes of having negotiated similar forms of displacement. She comments poignantly on her discovery of New Zealand writing with the same pride Caliban displays when he describes the music of his native island:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not. (III.ii.130-31)
In An Angel At My Table, Frame describes how she was restricted to the language of the Empire when she first began to write. She says she had to populate her stories with
characters and dreams from the poetic world of another hemisphere and with my own imaginings. There was such a creation as New Zealand literature; I chose to ignore it, and indeed was scarcely aware of it. Few people spoke of it, as if it were a shameful disease.   (Angel 67-8)
When at last she discovered the poems and stories of her own country, Frame writes of being "overwhelmed ... by the fact of their belonging. It was almost a feeling of having been an orphan who discovers that her parents are alive and living in the most desirable home -- pages of prose and poetry" (Angel 68) and of the "excitement of being in a land that was coming alive with its own writing, speaking for itself" (Angel 78). Caliban points out that being forced to learn the language of his 'coloniser' has done little to liberate him when he says to Prospero,
You taught me language, and my profit on't Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you For learning me your language! (I.ii.336-38)
As Bill Ashcroft writes, "One of the main features of imperial oppression is control over language. The imperial education system installs a 'standard' version of the metropolitan language as the norm, and marginalizes all 'variants' as impurities" (7). Frame wrestles with this idea in an essay written for a postcolonial publication:
We want our words. If I write of a bach by the sea I do not want it to be turned into a bungalow or cottage or mansion. ... This absorption, even within one's own country, of another culture means a form of imprisonment for able-bodied words which languish and could die exiled from the literature, never having the opportunity to work within it and enrich it. How much more magnified this imprisonment and exile may be in a world setting, when countries high in literacy and publishing opportunities, reinforced by an abundance of exported films, can almost vacuum-clean, overnight, another culture and language.   ("Departures" 92)
Frame points out that there is a literary value that needs to be ascribed to a word as well as a literal value and that a publisher's changes could often destroy "both the meaning and the rhythm of ... [a] sentence" ("Departures" 92). Here then, Frame is concerned about the possibility of the language of the literature she loves being banished by a society that fails to be aware of the aesthetic value of its own words.

Frame is also constantly aware of the power structures which in her own country, colonised both Maori and the mentally insane. In Owls Do Cry, she writes ironically of the colonial teaching that she received at school: "There had been Maori Wars and the white people had taken a block of land -- how big is a block of land, Toby wondered" (Owls 12-14). Frame is appalled by the subhuman status often attributed to the inmates of mental institutions. She says of her time at Seacliff:

I didn't tell them how I had peeped through the fence of a building ... where there were strange men in striped shirts and trousers and some without trousers, walking round and round in a paddock with the grass worn away.   (Angel 71)
Caliban is treated as an animal in The Tempest, but he is also presented as being gentle and having an awareness of the beauty of life. Caliban says to Stephano:
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices, That, if I then had waked after long sleep, Will make me sleep again ...      (III.ii.132-35)
In response to Caliban's haunting descriptions, Stephano merely gloats that he will be able to have his "music for nothing" (III.ii.140). Toby is seen by his society as an epileptic misfit, but he is portrayed as having a naive appreciation of the 'otherness' of life, aware of the realm of the imagination. When he goes to Wellington to stay with relatives:
Toby spent the day looking, next at the Sound Shell, where bands played, and then at the Zoo where the polar bear wore an old yellow fur coat, and his eyes were runny and red as if he had a cold. All the animals seemed to have sore eyes as if they had been looking too much in the daylight, and Toby wondered if perhaps his aunt and uncle and his two cousins and himself had red eyes with all their looking ...   (Owls 123)
Frame's writing frequently moves from "material" actuality to any of many imagined spaces. Her texts are fill with interplay between mind and sea. The Jungian idea of the mind, as described by Jolande Jacobi, is a useful metaphor when trying to unravel connections between The Tempest and Frame's writing. Jacobi says, "The consciousness ... floats like a little island on the vast, boundless ocean of the unconscious which ... embraces the whole world" (6). Her description is reminiscent of Prospero's words:
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.      (III.ii.132-35)
Certainly The Tempest presents events that might well have occurred in a dream; 'reality' is tested at every turn. Frame's writing also shimmers with dreams and dream-like passages that seemed to have been dredged up from the sub-conscious mind. In both The Tempest and Frame's writing the motif of the sea is often used to represent that aspect of the mind which will not be subservient to the rational, controlled intellect.

Frame's disdain for her country's fear of the intangible treasure of the mind and its craving instead for material wealth is displayed in her tourist brochure view of Waimaru:

... the Woollen Mills, the chocolate factory, the butter factory, the flour mill -- all meaning prosperity and wealth and a fat-filled land; and lastly a photograph of the foreshore with its long sweep of furious and hungry water ... where you cannot bathe without fear of the undertow, and you bathe carefully, as you live, between the flags.   (Owls 18)

'The undertow' suggests a menacing image of the sub-conscious mind as an overwhelming force that might drag one away from society's approved path: Prospero was exiled from Milan because he chose to study books rather than make Milan prosperous.

Daphne, exiled from society to live in the asylum called the 'dead room', sings:

I walk to the foreshore of Waimaru where the sea will creep into the sleep of people and flow round and round in their head, eating out caverns where it echoes and surges till the people become eroded with the green moth and all cry inside themselves. Help, Help.

(Owls, p.19)

Daphne warns of the consequences of a society that encourages its people to neglect their minds. By creating dream-like and semi-real images, Frame evades representation of the world of materiality, pointing always to that other reality, the reality beyond things. In Faces in the Water, Frame's fictional persona Istina writes:

I was in hospital because a great gap opened in the ice floe between myself and the other people whom I watched, with their world, drifting away through a violet-coloured sea where hammerhead sharks in tropical seas swam side by side with the seals and the polar bears. I was alone on the ice….I was not yet civilized; I traded my safety for the glass beads of fantasy….
[and became] a prisoner on a coast of timelessness where the moments, like breakers, rise and surge near but never touch the whore.

(Faces, pp. 11, 12, 31)

Frame continued to be an outsider in a society that could not understand her, even after her release from hospital. She writes of her realisation that further exile could not be avoided, saying, 'At the suggestion of Frank Sargeson I applied for a Literary Fund grant to travel overseas. I knew, and others knew, that leaving the country was my last hope to avoid life-long confinement in hospital'.5a The final volume of the autobiography opens with Janet Frame sailing away from New Zealand, a course she felt must take if she was to retain her freedom to write.
Diane Caney, 2001
© all rights reserved

This article continues with sections on Magic and Language & Rescue or Return.


1. Unless otherwise indicated italics are replaced by emboldening to indicate the title of a book or other work which is traditionally italicised or underlined. This is because italics do not translate well in into html, especially in this font.
2. Janet Frame, An Angel at my Table, London: Paladin, 1987, p. 128. All further quotation references are placed in brackets within the body of the text (with an identifying word if it is not clear to which author/work this essay is referring). All works cited are listed on the references page.
3. The stage history of The Tempest has involved both men and women playing the part of Ariel. Orgel points out that "By the early eighteenth century ... Ariel ... had become exclusively a woman's role. ... [but that] the idea of The Tempest as a specifically Jacobean play ... contributed to ... Ariel ... [becoming in 1930] a male role again for the first time in over two centuries" (Orgel 70, 77). Shakespeare does not specify a gender for the part of Ariel which is listed in the dramatis personae of the play as "an airy spirit". Frame has chosen at different times in her writing to identify herself with both Prospero and Ariel. I like the idea of a female writer associating her notion of self with a male magician and a "male" airy sprite. Because Ariel is gender-neutral, though, I have found it useful to think of Prospero's airy servant as a female, and have, for this reason, used feminine pronouns when referring to her in this essay.
4. In Owls Do Cry many passages are printed in italics and are referred to as Daphne's 'singing' from the 'dead room'. Such passages are usually poetic and do not obey the rules of grammar. Their purpose is to demonstrate Daphne's agony of mind, as well as her artistic capability which is being by both her family and the society in which she lives.
5. Janet Frame's short story "The Terrible Screaming" appears in You Are Now Entering The Human Heart, London: The Women's Press, 1991: 105-107.

5a. Janet Frame, 'Beginnings', Landfall 19 (March 1965), p.46.


References to this article

Good Links
An excellent online Bibliography of articles both by and about Janet Frame (and her writing), provided by the University of Auckland.
Peter Alcock reviews [nb. the reviews are the last 3 at the bottom of the page]: JANET FRAME, The Pocket Mirror  & Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun, Auckland: Random Century N.Z. Vintage pb. 1992; & JUDITH DELL PANNY, I Have What I Gave: the fiction of Janet Frame, Wellington, Daphne Brasell Associates Press, 1992.
Tara Hawes, "Janet Frame: The Self as Other/Othering the Self", Department of English, University of Otago, New Zealand, Deep South, v.1 n.1 (February, 1995).
Ahila Sambamoorthy, "'The Fantastic' as a Mode of Writing in Janet Frame's Stories", Department of English, University of Otago, New Zealand, Deep South, v.3 n.2 (Winter 1997). 


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