janet frame & the tempest [continued]
III: Magic and Language

A strong link exists between Prospero the artist/magician and Frame the artist/writer; both learn about their art by reading books while exiled from their societies. Prospero's books were placed on board his boat by Gonzalo (1.ii.166-68), books which save Prospero's life and his sanity by instructing him in magic. Likewise Janet Frame's love of literature leads to her inspiration to write, and to her escape from life-long hospitalisation. Words are the medium by which Frame attempts to create magic, just as Prospero uses the words learned from his books to perform his art. In an essay entitled 'Beginnings', Frame describes how in her family, 'words were revered as instruments of magic'.6 In Owls Do Cry, when Francie and Daphne imagine a bicycle, it is as though they are casing a spell:

…and they looked at each other and spoke it
- A bicycle
- with a dynamo
- tail light
- headlight
- painted red, painted gold painted black
- a pump lying along the bar… (Owls, p.29)

In 'speaking' the bicycle, the girls are imagining its existence, willing it into being. Frame says that, as a child, she wanted to use the power of words to mesmerise her audience:
I remember that I called on the authority of my mother - Mum, they're wriggling, stop them from wriggling while I tell a story. How much more difficult it is now, to choose words that bind with their spell, and to realize that once the words are chosen and written, there's no one to appeal to, to help recall the wandering attention!7

Ariel reports that Prospero's commands, or spells, have been carried out 'To th'syllable' (I.ii.500). Is this not how poetry is written? The inspiration is composed 'to the syllable', but what happens when the reader's response to the words written depends upon the value with which the reader invests them? Vincent O'Sullivan writes:

It is only a gift of language that allows one to see life uncluttered and clear. As Daphne tells her father [in Owls Do Cry], 'say the names…as if you don't know them. Say them new and just born'….Roland Barthes [has] pointed out, there is a kind of writing that 'hastens towards a dreamed-of language whose freshness… might portray the perfection of some new Adamic world where language would no longer be alienated.' 8
Daphne's yearning to see words pure and 'just born' reveals Frame's desire magically to transform words into some sort of poetic gold, or to restore words to a position of power from which they have been wrested. If Barthes' 'Adamic world' could exist, the Withers girls' bicycle would be inseparable from their speaking of it.

Prospero, however, does not perform his art in isolation: he has the assistance of Ariel. Yet it is also Ariel who has been held captive for many years within a tree by the witch Sycorax. It is not until her release from the tree that Ariel is able to sing beautiful songs. When Ariel was imprisoned by Sycorax within the pine tree, Ariel's only singing was a terrible wailing, as Prospero reminds her:

[Sycorax] left thee there, where thou didst vent thy groans    As fast as mill-wheels strike….    What torment I did find thee in: thy groans    Did make wolves howl….               (Iii.274-81, 287-88)

Daphne's agonised song of the wind locked in the telegraph wire, unable to escape, echoes Ariel's groans when trapped in the pine:

Oh the wind is lodged forever in the telegraph wire for crying there…     and the cross the crucifix of the leaning poles linked by the everlasting     wire of crying of the wind.
(Owls, p. 48)

After receiving her freedom from Sycorax's prison, Ariel sings beautiful songs: likewise Frame is able to 'sing' when she writes poetry, stories and novels after her release from hospital.

The Envoy from Mirror City, Janet Frame and Frame's fictional selves, are then not only like Prospero the magician/artist, but also like Ariel the freed spirit, prime worker of Prospero's magic. It is as though Frame is Prospero and Ariel combined into one person. Given the fantastic nature of The Tempest, Ariel might well be interpreted as a facet of Prospero's self: I think that the play allows and desires both interpretations to exist simultaneously, that Ariel is both an autonomous sprite, and an aspect of Prospero's self.

IV: Rescue or Return --
Arrival at 'the Third Place'

Prospero's right to return to Milan is won by rescuing those shipwrecked on his island. Ironically, it is the magic for which he was exiled that enables him to cause the shipwreck, to tamper with the consciences of his oppressors, to be deemed a hero, and to return to Milan as restored Duke. Frame achieved release from her imprisonment by succeeding in a socially approved way at writing when she won the Hubert Church award for prose. Ironically too, her desire to pursue writing as a vocation had initially been perceived as part of her wrongly diagnosed illness. Frame says that she never forgot her friend Nola who 'had not won a prize' and did not therefore escape having a leucotomy (Angel, p. 109). Even though I believe that Frame ought never to have been in hospital, let alone a potential leucotomy victim, such a comment by the autobiographer raises the question: ought Nola, or indeed, any human being, be given a leucotomy?

Janet Frame consistently refused to conform to a society whose values she could not condone. She sees the society that incarcerated her for eight years as a hostile force:

When I was discharged I knew (though I was repeatedly urged to 'adapt' 'mix' conform') that unless I devoted my time wholly to making designs from my dreams…I should spend the remainder of my life in hospital - or perhaps, as had been planned for me while was a patient, there would be a leucotomy and the dreams of those who cared for me would be realized: I would 'mix' 'conform', become a 'useful member of the community'.9

Frame, however, does not want her release from hospital to be a freedom in which she might become 'a useful member of the community'; she relishes instead the idea of a freedom in which she will become a poet.

Ariel sings, 'Where the bee sucks, there such I, as she helps attire Prospero with his magic cloak for the last time. As she sings, she knows that she will soon be free of her bondage to Prospero. Orgel points out that Ariel sings of herself 'pursuing summer, as birds migrate when the weather grows cold. Ariel anticipates a life of everlasting summer as Prospero's masque had promised the lovers a world without winter.10 Frame, however, not deluded about the harshness of life, has Daphne sing from the dead room:

Listening at keyhole of summer,
I hear the roar of snow…

(Owls, p.53)

After quoting Ariel's song, 'Where the bee sucks there suck I;/ In a cowslip's bell I lie' which stands as an epigraph to Owls Do Cry, Lawrence Jones argues that Frame's world is basically dualistic with 'images relating to the outer realm of Time and Death, where 'owls do cry', and [images] relating to the inner realm of 'treasure', the realm of the 'cowslip's bell'.11 He sees the opposition of these two realms as 'ultimately tragic', arguing that 'the gap between the two cannot be bridged'.12 Is it necessary however for the gap between the world of Time and Death and the realm of Inner Treasure to be bridged? Frame escapes hospital with her brain intact, even after the onslaught of years of E.C.T., but her writing does not suggest that this will be so for everyone: Daphne has a leucotomy and works at the mill, Istina is released from hospital because her gamily agrees to 'have' her (Faces , p. 253). Frame's writing acknowledges the fact that life will always be composed of Life and Death, Treasure and Corruption. Prospero returns to Milan, but to what sort of life? Ariel gains her freedom, but will freedom be enough to satisfy her? Caliban remains alone on his island, presumably only until the arrival of the next colonising force. Both The Tempest and Frame's writing resonate with an appreciation of the great beauty that may be experienced on earth, whilst also acknowledging the horror of human life with all its wintry, deathly hues.

Like Prospero, who finally leaves the island, with Ariel filling the ship's sails (V.1.314-16), Frame leaves the exile of her alleged madness and the mental institution, but whereas Prospero will leave his art behind (V.1.49-51), Frame must keep hers for her sanity's sake. Ironically, away from the world, Prospero and Frame develop skills by which they will profit, both before and after they gain their freedom. Prospero is presented as being in a position of power when by using his magic he confronts his enemies with their guilt. Frame is seen to be 'powerful' when she writes, and also when she can be seen, for example, to have deliberately subverted her publisher's request that she write a 'best-seller'.13 Frame is rarely strong when confronted by those alien beings, other people: she says, 'Sometimes when I began to say what I really felt, using a simile or metaphor, an image, I saw the embarrassment in my listener's eyes - here was the mad person speaking' (Angel, p. 98). Frame is here tackling society about its callous attitude towards the insane (or in Frame's case, someone thought to be insane, she is using her art in a politically confronting way, just as Prospero accuses those who have made him suffer.

In London, Frame finally discovered the truth: she had never had schizophrenia. A psychiatrist in London advised her thus: 'I think you need to write to survive. First write the story of your years in hospital [Faces in the Water], then keep on writing'.* Frame reflects, 'There had never been any question of my not being able to exist in the real world unless that existence also deprived me of my own world, the journeys to and from Mirror City' Envoy, p. 128). The Envoy from Mirror City ends with Frame's account of being 'At Home in the City' with her special friend The Envoy:

You say it's Dunedin? It's Mirror City. You know it's time pack this collection of years for your journey to Mirror City.
I stare more closely at the city in my mind. And why, it is Mirror City, it's not Dunedin or London or Ibiza or Auckland or any other cities I have known. It is Mirror City before my own eyes. And the Envoy waits.

(Envoy, p. 129)

Frame finally finds a home inside herself. She says, 'No longer…dependent on my schizophrenia for comfort and attention and help, but with myself as myself, I again began my writing career' (Envoy, p. 129).

V. Conclusion

In Owls Do Cry, Daphne's sister Chicks is given a new steam iron by her husband, and thinks, I shall give my old one to Daphne so that when she recovers she will have some kind of material basis for her new life' (Owls, pp. 96-97). How tragic if Gonzalo had given Prospero a steam iron instead of books to make his terrible journey more tolerable!

Prospero may be read as the coloniser and oppressor of Caliban and Ariel, but it must be remembered that he did not choose to go to Caliban's island. He was forcibly ejected from his society, and it was intended by his enemies that he should drown, not reach safety. Prospero may be seen as the equivalent of the doctor with his machine in Owls Do Cry, because he meddles with the minds of his captives (his former oppressors). As such Prospero could not be allied with Frame. I would argue however that as an author, Janet Frame meddles with our minds and with the minds of her former oppressors when she lures us to her banquet, only to confront us, often with our own guilt.

The action of the Tempest takes place in the minds of the audience, not on a real island, just as the action in Frame's writing takes place in the reader's mind and not in the various asylums, countrysides and imaginary dwellings of Frame's worlds. We, the audience and the readers, are as involved in the spells as the authors of the magic. the Tempest is open to many different readings: the entire play might be interpreted as one man's dream, or nightmare; the island might be Prospero's mind, and the storm's upheavals within himself as he attempts to grapple with life. While such reading is difficult to sustain, its possibility resounds throughout the play, leaving the audience with an ever-present sensation that the entire story might be occurring within one person's mind, possibly even their own. Such a reading makes the play even more appropriate as a literary parallel for Janet Frame's life-story.

In The Tempest's epilogue, Shakespeare and Prospero merge as the real sorcerer behind the work of art who leaps for a fleeting moment from behind his mask to remind the audience of their collaboration in the success, or otherwise, of his magical production. Likewise, Frame's autobiography give us insight into the many masks the author wears in her fictions. After the storm, the time spent awash at sea, the period of exile, and the apprenticeship in magic, Frame reflects thus on her return from London to the place of her birth:

Although I was now being referred to as an 'expatriate' writer, my reasons for leaving New Zealand, apart from the desire to 'broaden my experience', had not been literary or artistic. My reason for returning was literary. Europe was so much on the map of the imagination…with room for anyone who cares to find a place there…yet the prospect of exploring a new country with so many layers of mapmakers, particularly the country where one first saw daylight and the sun and the dark, was too tantalizing to resist… Living in New Zealand, would be for me, like living in an age of mythmakers.

(Envoy, pp. 165-66)

Frame has arrived at the place, both physically and psychically, where she will be able to set down the 'mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths and…[where] the direction [will] always [be] toward the Third Place, where the starting point is myth' [Is-Land, p. 9).

Diane Caney, 2001
© all rights reserved


Janet Frame, 'Beginnings', Landfall 19 (March 1965), p.40

7 Ibid. p.42

8 Vincent O'Sullivan, 'Exiles of the Mind - The Fictions of Janet Frame', in A Sense of Exile p.183. Quotations within the excerpt are from Owls, p. 168, and Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero (New York: Hill & Wang, 1968).

9 Frame, 'Beginnings', p.46

10 Orgel, p.193

11 Lawrence Jones, 'Janet Frame: No Cowslip's Bell in Waimaru: The Personal Vision of Owls Do Cry', in Barbed Wire and Mirrors: Essays on New Zealand Prose (Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1987), p.175.

12 Ibid, pp.176-77.

13 Stead comments, 'Goulden [Frame's publisher] admired Frame's talent but wanted to advise her on how to make the best of it in her novels. She was…recommended to drop her off-beat fictional obsessions…Her task was evidently to bend her "genius" to the requirements of the market…Frame seems to have accepted the instruction meekly…The novel produced by way of this off pact was…The Adaptable Man…If it could be taken "straight", as her publisher would have wanted, it would be almost totally bogus - a vast pastiche of "the English novel"…The willing, meek, "adaptable" Frame…produced it. But the other Frame, that most authentic, firm and unadaptable lady, planted landmines everywhere in those bogus English fields…So much for Frame's interest in the market' (C.K. Stead, 'Janet Frame: Language is the Hawk', in In the Glass Case: Essays on New Zealand Literature (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1981, pp. 131-32).
Diane Caney, 1998

© all rights reserved

Return to the first section of this essay: Storm & Island and Sea.

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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