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  • Melancholia in Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water
  • Sylvie Gambaudo (bio)

New Zealand author Janet Frame was initially diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1945, during her stay in Seacliff Mental Hospital, Dunedin, following a mental breakdown. She spent eight years in and out of psychiatric institutions in New Zealand. The diagnosis of schizophrenia was reversed in her late 30s. In 1956, she left New Zealand on a literary grant to travel Europe. While in London, she voluntarily attended psychiatric assessment at the Maudsley Hospital to re-appraise her mental difficulties. In 1957 she was declared “sane” and told that she had never suffered from schizophrenia. Her mental difficulties were believed to be the result of years of “treatment” undergone in New Zealand. Frame’s psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Hugh Cawley, suggested she write about her experience to gain some form of cathartic closure. The result was Faces in the Water, first published in 1961, in which she narrated her experience of the psychiatric establishment. She also wrote about that experience in the second volume of her autobiography An Angel at My Table, first published in 1984. Both novel and autobiography share a common story line. Not surprisingly, clarifying the relationship between fiction and fact in Frame’s work has preoccupied most of her readers and critics.

In fact, it is difficult to separate Frame’s writing from her life. This is nowhere more evident than in her personal account of internment that she describes in Faces in the Water. The novel recalls Frame’s experience of psychiatric treatment through the eyes of the main character, Istina. The narrative has this peculiarity: it is written like a documentary but is, Frame insisted, a work of fiction. The narrator creates a tension between realism and fiction by situating herself at once in and out of the asylum experience, at once the madwoman and the observer of the mad. This article will focus on the manner in which madness is constructed as something that can realistically be documented while at the same time suggesting that documenting [End Page 42] itself is the very root of mad-making. I thus aim to make clear what I see as Frame’s intentional depiction of a conflict between madness as observable fact and the establishment of facts as participating in the making of madness.

It is fair to say that psychotherapeutic catharsis motivated the creation of Faces in the Water. But the novel is also much more than this and fulfils several other functions for Frame. First, it acts as biographical supplement and becomes the place where Frame was able to recapture a sense of agency of which her psychiatric diagnosis had robbed her. Readers of Faces in the Water find an uncanny resemblance between narrator and author in the sense that Istina’s journey recalls much of Frame’s biography. Both are interned following an episode of mental breakdown. Both are scheduled for a lobotomy. Both are suddenly discharged days before the surgery. Although in her autobiography Frame finds a “reason” for her release (she won a literary prize, so her psychiatrists had a change of mind), Istina gives no rationale for her discharge, making of psychiatric “release” a sham. Beyond biographical supplement, the characters of the novel enable the author to successfully unpack the dynamics of social viability and the social significance, or more accurately insignificance, of marginal experience, something the autobiography does not do. Faces in the Water is then a multi-layered tale, at once the author’s therapeutic homework and the literary treatment of madness, a treatment in which her autobiographical work did not allow Frame to engage. It is not a defense of “the mad” or a political pamphlet. But it is a successful literary exercise through which Frame critiques narratives of sanity/insanity.

Faces in the Water has traditionally called for biographical, feminist and post-colonial interpretations. Indeed, the novel belongs to a literary tradition that became popular from the 1940s onwards when an increasing number of women started writing asylum stories.1 In the wake of 1980s Anglo-American feminist literary criticism, women’s narratives of madness became a literary genre. Not only did they deal with the particular...


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