Return to No Frills NZ Literature home page.
'Swans', ostensibly an account of a family excursion to the beach, was a story added late to Janet Frame's first published collection of short fiction, The Lagoon and Other Stories.(35) Frame was sufficiently proud of it to read the ending, decades later, in one of her rare public performances.(36) In her biography, Frame is quoted in a letter to John Money that provides an account of how 'Swans' came to be written--after she had a vision of her deceased sister at a country store.
I had been feeling a bit lonely for Isabel, and I kept seeing her as a child, outside a country store and lost. I do not consciously remember her ever having been lost in that way, but the vivid imagery persisted. There was the store, you know country stores, the fly-dirt on the window and a dead fat blow-fly lying just inside, and the empty packets of food and the sham chocolates...And outside there was a little fair-haired girl crying because she was lost. Nobody in the street, and the grey telegraph poles eaten by borer. And the wind high-up, talking through the wires. I saw it vividly and I sat down and wrote, feeling sad because of Isabel's being lost, and my unconscious very kindly took us for a day at the beach, and sneaked in the sadness with the dead cat and the wrong sea, and the father away at work, not sharing and not knowing. And so on. That is how the story gets written.(37)
But this account only confuses any reader, except to show that a vast transforming imagination has been applied to the simple raw material from life. Frame has always enjoyed giving the impression that she is a natural who dashes off her writing quickly and under inspiration--in the Romantic mode--out of her troubled heart. In fact she is a highly proficient technician, capable of contriving complex narratives from engagingly simple images. It seems that if Frame wrote her short fiction quickly it was only after a great deal of concentrated forethought, so that she could write in the manner of certain musical composers who can take a starting phrase and then tease out its nuances in one inspired burst.
At first, Frame's story looks disarmingly easy to interpret. Before a trip to the beach, two children, Fay and Totty, are lied to by their mother about a dying cat being all right. Thus children learn that adults do not know everything and, if so, then perhaps the world where 'there were mother and father always, for ever' is not as stable, safe and easily understood as they have innocently supposed. This is what one reviewer called an 'assured, undidactic movement from a mood to its opposite'.(38) If a cat can die, so will parents. But, like the children, the reader soon finds this story is too analytic to be stable, safe or easy to interpret. It is a dark parable on the moral corruption and self-consciousness that leads to adulthood, and on the operation of evil. For 'Swans' is a children's story for adults, one of several stories by Frame about children. In fact, a tone of childish disingenuousness before a mysterious and hostile world is pervasive in her writing. The children in 'Swans' act principally as a distancing device. In her stories of children Frame encourages the reader to see the everyday world freshly through children's eyes and to reappraise aspects of the world which the adult reader has learned, over time, to ignore. In 'Swans' a further twist is supplied because the reader observes the day and its events through the eyes of children while they are actively trying to ignore its unpleasant aspects. Thus it is doubly necessary for the reader to read like an adult: to see behind the children's point of view and childish language in order to understand the story's action, its meaning and its wider resonances.
To achieve these effects, from the very first paragraph 'Swans' relies heavily on shifts in discourse and point of view--very poetic writing. In the first sentence an authorial narrator makes a conventional-looking, declarative statement: 'They were ready to go.' The remainder of the paragraph is a long second sentence which undercuts everything in the first. This sentence begins by listing the main characters, 'Mother' and her children, Fay and Totty, in the narrator's neutral tone, and then it shifts into a character's voice, expressed in a free indirect style. By the question at the end of the sentence--'well where was Totty'--the shift has extended into a character's stream of conscious. But it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where these changes occurred. This is partly due to the sentence's length. It is, in fact, several sentences run ungrammatically together--in this way, too, it is the antithesis of the short opening-sentence. But it is also because of Frame's cleverness at gradually introducing the language-indicators which locate a character's consciousness. The first clue of a shift in the sentence is the overly detailed 'next best to Sunday best'--too much for an authorial narrator in a short story to bother with. This is followed by similarly detailed descriptions of Mother and Fay's clothes which, in themselves, offer no further language clues; rather, they sketch in the family's class, manner and financial status. Mother's hat is homely and Fay's dress is home-made. But then after 'Totty' comes the thoroughly colloquial 'well', which clearly indicates that a character's interior monologue has already started.
But which character's? From the very beginning of the story, point of view is a problem. It is Mother who speaks first, calling Totty's name, which suggests that perhaps it was her consciousness which was entered at the end of the first paragraph. But there is no other information to assist the reader, and the thoughts could just have easily have been Fay's. At many other places in the story it is clear that the thinking of one of the children is being expressed, but it is seldom clear which. Often it seems as if both children's minds are being expressed in unison. Occasionally, such as in the sentence, 'It was a distinguished sea oh and a lovely one noisy in your ears and green and blue and brown where the seaweed floated', the language seems to express the consciousness of all three characters together.(39) Only Mother would use a transferred epithet like 'distinguished', and yet childishness is maintained in the list of simple colours connected by 'and'. This may be because childishness is associated with denial, in which all the main characters participate to some extent.
In the second paragraph, Mother calls for Totty to hurry so that they can catch the train. Dad has instructed them to get off at Beach Street but, echoing the contradictions of the first paragraph, Mother is no longer certain of their destination. In the story's original published version, in The Lagoon, Frame's use of the European device of a hyphen to indicate direct speech, rather than speech-marks, further blurred the linguistic borders in the story.(40) But at last a realistic scene has been established which the reader can visualise: Mother and Fay at the front of the house and Totty running around from the back. Totty, presumably the younger child since she is third on the family list and has the more childish name, announces that the family cat, Gypsy, is sick. (Frame never reveals the ages of these 'two little girls'.) However, Totty speaks with a tone of some authority. She announces that Gypsy's 'head's down like all the other cats and she's dying I think.' Perhaps her experience with previous sick cats has given her this authority comparable with her mother's, although Frame tries to minimise the impact of this sense of experience on the reader because other dying cats prior to Gypsy are never mentioned in 'Swans' again. Nevertheless, it is clear from the beginning of the story that the children are not complete innocents; they understand that Gypsy is dying.(41)
Mother's reaction, the children notice, is to look 'flurried'. She is not immediately master of her situation, as an adult should be--at least, in the eyes of children--and this foreshadows her chronic indecision later in the story. But the family excursion is an important one, as they are all dressed in their second-best clothes. As in high society--for example, Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, where the Duke de Guermantes pretends to be ignorant of the illness of the Marquis d'Osmond so that he can go out into society that evening--a social desire conflicts with a moral obligation.(42) The result is the sort of moral fall that people suffer every day. Mother assures the children that 'pussy will be all right' until they get home. In fact, she cannot know this without first seeing the cat. Mother is also doing something else that parents do every day: shielding her children from harsh reality with a lie. However, this time the children's active cooperation is required as well, since they understand that Gypsy is dying. Both parent and children are complicit in this saving lie. And Frame, too, has set up a situation for the reader which is convincingly realistic--so as to help disguise the non-realistic elements in the story which follow.
The authorial narrator moves the scene to the wash-house in a paragraph which will once again slide into a character's stream of conscious. The wash-house, described in terms of poverty and neglect, is a suitably mean place for a lonely death. The narrator describes the cat in one corner, and the next sentence begins the shift into a character's mind with the explanation that Gypsy has 'a fever or poison or something but she was alive.' The cat will require medicine and care if it is to live. Instead, Mother and the children give the cat a tin lid filled with warm milk and cover it with a dusty piece of blanket. The sad detail in these objects again indicates neglect and self-deception. Gypsy cannot drink milk without assistance if her head is down. Keeping her warm with a blanket will not help against an infection. Not surprisingly, then, the family is easily distracted from its task. Even the appearance of a slater escaping from the old blanket quickly occupies their thoughts. The slater runs into 'a little secret place by the wall', and the word 'secret' foreshadows the use of this adjective to describe the sinister swans at the close of the story. Furthermore, like the black swans which seem to merge perfectly with their dark environment, the slater has cracks on its back and moves along a cracked concrete floor. The next sentence, 'Totty even forgot to collect him', shows an illusion of concern over the cat being maintained even as the family members are forgetting her. Yet it is tantalizingly unclear whose mind has been entered. Is Fay observing Totty, or has Totty been named by the author before Totty's own thoughts are expressed? In any event, the children quickly free-associate from slaters to 'earwigs and spiders'. Earwigs are dangerous because they can creep into one's ear and build a nest there: this is a common childish fear and, after the characters' moral fall, the first of many references in 'Swans' to an invasive evil.
Departing from Gypsy, each of the family members pat her and, collectively, mix reassurances that they will take care of her on their return with the ambiguous word 'Goodbye'--they may mean goodbye for now or farewell forever. Influenced perhaps by the place-name Beach Street, the word 'Beach' in the story is mostly capitalised. This helps to give the beach a certain archetypal resonance as a place, also allowing readers to identify it with their own beaches of childhood.(43) Nevertheless, the children appear to want to linger over Gypsy, because Mother is left impatient at the gate once more and repeating, 'Pussy'll be all right now.' The children's reaction to this is a steady brushing aside of their scepticism--from the unsettling feeling that Mother has always said such things, through a halfway stage of 'as if she knew', to the avowal that 'Mother knew always.' Fay goes back to make Gypsy a promise, but it is a promise only to return that night. Then the children allow Mother to sweep them away from the front gate with 'a broom-like motion of her arms', thus absolving them of any final responsibility for leaving. The epithet 'broom-like' also suggests that all three characters feel that Mother has tidied the situation up.
Changing the setting from house to beach takes several paragraphs. There are no narrative breaks in 'Swans', but the story's continuous time-frame is another contrivance. The first paragraph of travel begins with a voice apostrophising, 'O the train and the coloured pictures on the station...', it and continues for a long, stream-of-conscious single sentence. It is not a normal, concatenated descriptive narrative; rather, a jumbled series of impressions is recorded. This is, in fact, a representation of the children's mental anticipation of the train journey and its pleasures to come, which has been inserted as a cover for the event itself.(44) There is a reference to their father, and the comforting claim that 'he knew', as if this might support Mother's knowing that Gypsy will be all right. By means of an onomatopoeically inspired free-association in the children's minds, the sound of the wheels is referred to as 'Kaitangata', a small seaside town in Otago, which offers some hint of where the family may live.(45) But the paragraph is made from a mental amalgamation of several remembered train trips to the beach and thus of anticipatory moments, making possible the children's fantasy about giving the steam train 'a drink'. Such a thing will be a pleasure, if it happens again. The train journey is not dealt with in itself; it exists in an awaited near-future. By using a form of game-playing with the reader in this and in the other non-realistic paragraphs of travel which follow--all the way through to the spoken question 'Why Mum?', which re-establishes dialogue and descriptive narrative and effectively ends the transition--Frame is able to disguise her narrative difficulties: getting the family quickly from home to beach, having Mother and the children mistake their expected destination, and inserting a sense of menace into a pleasurable event.
The next paragraph of travel has its free indirect discourse clearly located in the children's thoughts, and now it hints at their anxiety about the trip. This time, anticipations may not be fulfilled. For a start, there is anxiety about the destination. Mother must follow Dad's instructions about where to alight from the train. The children remember their father's words about getting off at Beach Street. Dad is capable and 'always managed', but he is at work. Mother has been unsure from the start of the story about where Dad had said to get off the train, and the children have doubts about her abilities which they immediately begin to suppress. There is something almost Biblical about this family hierarchy. Father, with his unquestionable knowledge and power is godlike, but at the moment he is absent. He inspires respect but is best kept at some distance: 'Father was hard and bony and his face prickled when he kissed you'. Mother occupies a more intermediate position, part human and divine, somewhat like the Virgin Mary. She is approachably 'big and warm', but her shyness means she seems distant when she is with other people on the train; she knows, comfortingly, about 'cats and little ring-eyes'(46) , but her knowledge is imperfect.
References to knowing appear often enough in 'Swans' to be a motif, equating adulthood with insight. Despite Totty's authoritative claim about Gypsy at the opening of the story, the children feel they should know little about the world and they ask their mother questions, accepting her answers. In deferring like this they are consciously acting at the role of being children, and encouraging Mother to play the role of parent. The children, in fact, remember their father's instruction to get off at Beach Street, but still they ask their mother about the station. Mother's imperfect knowledge is nicely embodied in her ambiguous response: 'I'm sure I don't know kiddies', which suggests that not knowing is all she is certain of. She uses a variation of the same phrase later, when the children ask whether they have come to the wrong sea: 'I don't know kiddies, I'm sure.' Typically of this tricky story, a reverse hierarchy of knowledge may be as true as the one first presented. Father is absent and so his real depth of knowledge is unconfirmed, while the children clearly know a great deal in 'Swans' which they try to keep from themselves.
The next paragraph of travel begins 'O' and echoes the stream-of-conscious anticipations of the trip to come which began with 'O the train...'; but now the arrival at the beach seems an accomplished fact. Thus the beach makes its appearance somewhat magically, although the trick is one entirely conjured by the unseen narrator's sleight of hand. The single-sentence paragraph--this time a very short sentence--operates as a break in the narrative from the children's thoughts in the previous paragraph, and so it mirrors how the sudden appearance of the beach might, in a more realistic story, break into the children's train of thought. But even this simple matter is undercut. The beach has not actually appeared in the story as a 'fact' but only in the children's minds. The children are not even sure they have seen the beach and the short paragraph finishes lamely, 'it must be coming'. This is partly an echo of the earlier paragraph's stream-of-conscious expression of their anticipatory excitement, but also, to the extent that the beach appears because the children have decided it must, the story's new setting has become a mental construction. Such a device is common in Frame's fiction: to begin a physical description of a place and then colour it with projections from a character's emotions until it becomes as much mindscape as landscape.
The single-sentence paragraph on the beach's appearance was briefly coloured with a projection of the children's wishes; the next long paragraph is coloured by their fears. The train stops, and a sentence with three clauses beginning 'as if' describes first an image of death and decay, then an image of being unable to return to any former life, and finally an image of this condition being a logical end-point. Though Gypsy is not mentioned directly here, guilty knowledge of Gypsy's immanent death is clearly affecting the children, and there is also the intimation in the narrative that by denying this they may have moved towards some new mental state from which they cannot return: the morally fallen condition of adulthood. They prefer to remain in the comfortable world of childhood. A few physically descriptive sentences follow in which the children observe the adult passengers self-consciously preparing their appearances for alighting from the train, with the comforting conclusion that 'never would they grow up and be people in bulgy dresses'. But then the children imagine adults knitting(47), and in doing so they free-associate to the image of a knitting-bag with an initial 'to show that you were you and not the somebody else you feared you might be'. This serves again to highlight their guilt over Gypsy and their dread at crossing over into adulthood. After this, the paragraph's final flourish 'but Fay and Totty didn't worry they were going to the Beach' seems like escapism.
The next paragraph establishes the new setting with a firm statement of arrival. But, as usual in 'Swans', this is then called into question. 'Why weren't there other people?' the children wonder after they set off down the road towards the sound of the sea. This beach seems to be for them alone. When they ask Mother, they receive a plausible answer, 'It's a week-day'. However, this only explains the lack of working adults, not of other mothers and children, and Mother's response trails off into the now familiar, 'I don't know'. But this anxiety becomes suppressed when Mother asks the children if they are tired, looking at them 'in they way they loved'. After the rush and uncertainty of travel, Mother has resumed acting the role of a parent, and the children recognise this. In the previous paragraph the children felt distanced from this sort of adult self-consciousness, but now it is revealed that they, too, are usually active participants in such role-playing by playing at being children. Whenever Mother asks 'at other people's places' if they are tired, 'Fay and Totty would yawn as if nothing in the world would keep them awake'. The children's fears about their location, both physical and mental, are being assuaged by the game of naive child and protective parent. This form of self-deception, in which one pretends to a social, racial or gender-based role, was characterised by existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre as 'bad faith'.(48) Furthermore, because adults are people who play at being adults, children begin to learn of this--and thus to enter adulthood--when they play at being children. In Fay's and Totty's case, this process started when they entered into complicity with their mother about Gypsy being all right. Thus in 'Swans' moral corruption and bad faith are parallel processes on the road away from innocence towards adulthood. This can happen irrespective of age--it does not matter how old Fay and Totty really are, or who is the older girl.
After reminding themselves further of their social role ('the day was for waking in'), the children rush ahead to the beach. Three paragraphs follow in which a descriptive statement by the narrator at the start shifts into the children's thoughts. In the first, the children are 'eager to turn the desolate crying sound of sea to the more comforting and near sight of long green and white waves'. But their first sight of the beach itself results in an, apparently, unambiguous reaction: 'They had never been here before'. The children's minds compare this sea to others they know and find it different. However, before this anxiety-producing comparison can end, they once more begin to distract themselves with ideas about social roles, thinking of what mothers say about children at the beach and then, comfortingly, about their father and how he can best be referred to. Next, in a second paragraph, the children reach the end of the deserted beach road where 'it was all fun and yet strange', after which the older child, Fay, ends the paragraph with a frightening and non-childish insight: 'what if there is no sea either and no nothing?' To the extent that the beach is a mental construction, then there is no sea--just an emotional state the children visit before returning to an irrevocably altered 'home'. But the 'no nothing' refers to greater fears about the falsity of identity and the non-existence of any paternal God. It is very much an existential moment.
The third paragraph focuses back again on the sea's roar and the children's decision that 'it was true sea'. In a reverse of their self-conscious role-playing, the children see the sea in itself and, in stream of conscious, observe its random physical aspects. This brings happiness until the children see a cat's-eye shell. The word 'Gypsy' pops guiltily into their minds and into the text, and is immediately ignored. A long monologue on 'plopping' follows in which the children try hard to forget Gypsy--the strained, drawn-out language reflects the children's thought processes--and Mother joins in at the close. The authorial narrator then intervenes in a single-sentence paragraph, the tone solemn and almost godlike, to end this period of determined ignorance with, 'But it cannot go on forever.' It is a vague but evocative statement, all the more striking because it seems to be one of only two places in which the narrator intrudes directly into the story (the other is the story's final sentence). It is a statement about the characters' awareness of time: of the children's inability to maintain their sense of ignorance, of the end of Fay's and Totty's childhood, and about death. Its sense of menace is in some ways its greatest significance. With this catch-all reminder, and with the family having arrived at the beach in this precarious state, the story has reached its halfway point.
Anxiety reasserts itself. The children begin to question their mother about the inadequacies of the beach, which is as mean and neglected as the wash-house was. Fay comes nearest to solving the mystery in her question, 'have we come to the wrong sea?' It is a haunting phrase, resonant with a sense of error and projected guilt over Gypsy, and it haunts the family.(49) Mother is not sure if she has made a mistake, though she is willing to be persuaded so by her children, in a slippage out of her motherly role. Her next comment seems to refer to the excursion, the process of growing up and to life itself, but Frame makes it a convincingly realistic complaint, the lack of punctuation suggesting someone thinking out loud: 'Isn't it funny. I didn't know it would be like this. Oh things are never like you think they're different and sad. I don't know.' Because the story supplies no wider frame of reference--God and father do not appear, and Frame the narrator provides no clue--it is impossible for the reader to know objectively whether the beach is the correct destination or not. The effect this uncertainty has on the reader is another result of this story's only apparent realism. The basic premise of 'Swans', that a mother and her children might not recognise the local beach on a day trip, is most unlikely. There is no suggestion in the story that this is their first trip to the beach--in fact, the opposite is implied during the train journey. It is precisely this quiet defiance of logical expectation that makes the arrival so eerie for the reader, causing the reader to share the children's feelings.
It is Fay, not Mother, who saves the situation, by acting as a child. She talks insistently of finding 'the biggest plop of all'. In almost a reverse of the story's first half, 'plopping' this time serves not just to distract the family from guilt but also to return them to an appreciation of this sea in itself. It has all the attributes of any normal sea and the next paragraph elaborates on them, bringing a form of happiness. Mother reasserts her role as Mother by, arbitrarily, forbidding any swimming. Her apparent mastery of this new setting means that the children and their parent all 'felt proud'. Their increased confidence allows them to assert their imaginative power and project their wishes onto their surroundings for several short, happy paragraphs. The sea has the possibility of whales, sharks and seals. Playing on the sand involves 'getting buried and unburied' which, comfortingly, reminds the children of Lazarus's miraculous triumph over death in the Bible. They eat tomatoes in a shed, with a small fire keeping away the cold, and they imagine the genie-like smoke allowing them a wish. They wish for the day to last forever and for their father to be present, and such is the increasing power of their imagination that he does appear, projected from the children's minds. He plays games with them--this is a story in which everyone, including the narrator, plays--and he even speaks benevolently: 'It's both of your turns.' By now the story has left its setting behind and drifted entirely into the realm of the children's thoughts.
But in the background of this happy reverie, the children's troubles continue to lurk in unsettling images. The cold wind that drives them to the shed is 'devilish' and seems to say 'I'll teach you' as it bullies the fir-trees. The imagined smoke of the fire recalls for them the story of Aladdin and the genie--but once the genie was out of Aladdin's bottle it could not be put back. Their imagined father begins playing a benign game with the children on his knee, but this turns into 'sacks on the mill', a game where people jump on each other in a pile and try to smother someone. And finally, the imagined father so competently tending the fire and 'showing this and that and telling why' leads to a moment of Sartrean identity-crisis for the children: 'Did anyone in the world ever know why? Or did they just pretend to know because they didn't like anyone else to know that they didn't know?' Like J.D. Salinger's adolescent Holden Caulfield, who hates the 'phoney' world of adults, the children have seen through the seeming omnipotence of adulthood.(50) This has been taught to them, the genie is out of the bottle, and their childish innocence is being smothered.
All Fay and Totty can do is try to ignore things. But they head for home and immediately the swans appear in the narrative, for the first time in the story. In fact this is something of a narrative hook: the swans will not really appear for several paragraphs as if, after mentioning them, the narrative itself tries to ignore them. The swans, like the slater at the story's start which foreshadowed them, are mentioned when Mother offers a short-cut, this time across a lagoon. Frame's story does not use the expression 'short-cut', but Mother's direction of the children 'this quicker way' echoes the short-cut she took in the first half of the story when she involved the children in a lie about Gypsy--and also echoes the result when they were introduced to moral corruption. Furthermore, as it was with the arrival at the beach, the geography here is somewhere between realistic and mental. The large lagoon has not appeared before, and even if Mother 'had been exploring', her sudden knowledge of a short-cut strains credibility, as her assurances about Gypsy did in the story's first half. A strip of land allows the family to walk 'across the lagoon' to the station--technically, however, a strip of bifurcating land would create two lagoons. But the expression 'across the lagoon' is even repeated in the next paragraph, inviting the reader to visualise people walking on water. Mother, facing the prospect of returning to Gypsy, is hoping for a miracle. The children's initial reaction to the lagoon is an implied nervousness, but Frame describes only Mother's response to their anxiety. Mother 'put her arms round them both' (again, the gesture echoes Mother's comforting 'broom-like' sweeping of the children away from the house at the story's start), and the paragraph ends with a strong affirmation by the children of parental power and presence--the most complete denial so far in 'Swans' of everything the children are coming to understand.
The next paragraph begins with the narrative statement that the family 'began to walk across the lagoon'. But the sentence that follows is odd: 'It was growing dark now quickly and dark sneaks in'. Are the last three words an instance of Frame shifting once more into the minds of the children, as in the stream-of-conscious sentence which comes after? Or is 'dark sneaks in' a direct statement by the authorial narrator? Certainly, it encapsulates what will happen in the remainder of the story, in which Frame shows the mechanism of evil in operation. Mirroring the first half of 'Swans', a series of impressions of a train journey follow, a distraction detailing anticipated pleasures. However, the images of a lost bag of shells and a dead crab at the end of the paragraph suggest creeping disappointment and guilty feelings about Gypsy once again. Mother reassures the children that they will 'soon be home' but then she is silent, and these are the last spoken words in the story. Home, with Gypsy's death and an awakening to adulthood, will not be the place it was.
An enveloping darkness is described in the next paragraph. The dark water is 'secret' and therefore as personal as the beach was--the children are entering their own version of Joseph Conrad's heart of darkness. They feel 'as if they were walking into another world that had been kept secret from everyone and now they had found it'. A second 'as if' clause escalates the darkness to a physical, menacing presence--'as if you could touch it'--and the children fear it will 'fill the earth'. But before the climactic appearance of the swans in the final large paragraph, an interlude follows, as distracting in its way as the anticipated pleasures of the train trip, in which the children's and Mother's feelings are explored in a single, complex sentence. The physical and mental excursion is almost over, leaving tiredness, sadness and quiet. Mother appears to reflect on the day in stream of conscious, feeling guilty and wondering 'what had she done'. In an ironic inversion of her complaint about the 'wrong sea' at the start of the story's second half, 'things are never like you think they're different and sad', she feels she had hoped to find things different from the deserted beach they eventually encountered. Because it was deserted, there was little chance for her to play the role of parent. A simple repetition confirms her damning sense of guilt: 'what had she done?' However, a second reading of this interlude-paragraph is also possible. Perhaps this is not Mother's stream of conscious at all, but rather from the children's point of view, wondering in free indirect discourse why Mother is 'sad and quiet'. At the end of the first half of the story, when they first understood that they had come to the wrong place, the children used similar imagery of 'merry-go-rounds and swings and slides' and an imagined view of their mother acting her role as parent in order to distract themselves from their realisation that the beach was not what they expected. Viewing their mother now, they imagine her feeling guilty about having taken them to the wrong sea and feeling guilty that she has failed at effectively playing the role of parent. The 'what had she done?' which closes the paragraph can be read as the children's intuition of Mother's belief in her fundamental guilt. In fact, whichever way this paragraph is read, both versions reach the same conclusion: that Mother is guilty and responsible for the events of the day, with, most importantly, the children's complicity ignored.
With this final denial, the swans now make their appearance. Just as in William Blake's 'The Sick Rose', where the words 'invisible worm' and 'dark secret love' imply a willingness on the part of the rose to be defiled, so too, with the swans, 'dark sneaks in'. The children notice the black swans on the black water, and a third 'as if' clause suggests that the creatures are the darkness incarnate, 'resting and moving softly about on the water.' There is a distinct break in the language between this sentence and the next, when the children begin to deny the swans' malevolence. Frame does not engineer a gradual shift into the children's language, so that their evasive response seems to stand out--it feels somehow artificial and imposed on the paragraph. The children immediately compare the swans to ships, and in doing so start to try and alter the import of the words 'secret,' 'sad' and 'quiet', which have been used previously to describe the darkness and the children's response to it--though, alternatively, the words themselves can be read as intruding immediately into the children's evasive thoughts and corrupting them. The children next project their feelings onto the landscape and hear the word 'Hush-sh'--significantly, perhaps, they hear this from the water but not from the swans. In fact, despite noticing that 'the air was filled with murmurings and rustlings' when they first started across the lagoon, the children now insist that the swans make no noise and there is 'no other sound but the shaking of rushes and far away now it seemed the roar of the sea like a secret sea that had crept inside your head for ever.' Even as the children deny the presence of the swans, they deal with the sound of the excursion's 'wrong sea' by internalising it--it has become part of them through the physical action of memory and the mental action of guilt. Then they admit that the swans are also 'inside you'--Frame broadens her perspective to include the reader with the use of the second person--though the children insist that the swans' presence is benign. Unfortunately, their describing the swans as 'peaceful and quiet watching and sleeping and watching' seems ominous. The children's insistences are further undercut: 'there was nothing but peace and warmth and calm' is damaged by the sense of knowledge in 'everything found'; 'train' is damaged by 'sea'; 'Mother and Father' is undermined by the ominous 'earwig and slater and spider' from the story's start.
By denying the presence of evil, evil can enter one's heart; because denial is in fact a form of knowledge that thus internalises the thing denied. At the end of the story the ugly duckling of the children's determined ignorance of their own complicity over Gypsy has grown into a swan within them. It is no accident that the language of the children becomes more childish as the story progresses, as their sense of denial deepens and as their playing at the role of children becomes more self-conscious. At the start, Totty speaks authoritatively: 'I've found Gypsy and her head's down like all the other cats'. By the middle of the story at the beach, the language of both Fay and Totty is insistently childish: 'And look at the seaweed look I've found a round piece that plops'. By the appearance of the swans at the story's close, their language has degenerated into baby-talk: 'Hush-sh the water said; rush-hush'. It only remains for Frame to tear away the children's self-delusion, and this she does to finish her story. The single sentence paragraph, 'And Gypsy?' could be the children's words, as a guilty end to their insistent denial of the swans, or it could be the authorial narrator's second direct intrusion into the narrative, this time reminding children and reader alike of what is to come. Nevertheless, there is no ambiguity in the flat, authorial statement which closes out 'Swans'. The opening 'But' is reminiscent of the authorial statement with which the first half was closed, and the short syllable and repeated 'd' sounds in 'dead' are like the slamming of a door. Indeed, the lulling sensuousness of the language in the long paragraph, 'They looked across the lagoon...', followed by the abrupt closing sentence, delivers the story's meaning as effectively as any analysis of the meanings of the paragraph's poetic language. Such a marrying of form and meaning is a Modernist device. For the children there is no miraculous escape from the consequences of their selfishness, and Gypsy's death will put their understanding beyond evasion. They are on their way to adulthood because, as the first sentence in the story suggests, 'They were ready to go.'
Like Conrad's Marlow in Heart of Darkness, the children go on a mysterious journey which is partly psychological as well as geographical, and which permanently alters their lives, even as it draws the reader along too. On the return, a new and dangerous knowledge gained during the journey means that things can no longer be the same.(51) 'Swans' is a curiously disjointed story, but Frame uses what would normally be a weakness to her advantage. To the extent that the reader accepts 'Swans' as a realistic account of a beach excursion, and passages like the children's scattered impressions of train travel as a convincing bridge between settings, requiring the suspension of disbelief, the reading process itself also induces the reader's complicity in a saving lie--the basis of the story's moral fall. Frame seems to have had in mind the kind of writing advocated by Stephane Mallarme, who felt poetry should not state but rather evoke 'the horror of the forest, or the dumb thunder strewn in the foliage; not the intrinsic dense wood of the trees.'(52) Moreover, the free indirect technique Frame uses to display Fay's and Totty's thoughts is not realistically childish but rather an approximation of childishness invented by an author and accepted by the reader. A troubling weakness arising from this, however, is that the horror the swans are meant to inspire at the climax of the story is not as effective as the anxiety over 'the wrong sea' at the story's mid-point. This is partly because the swans as symbols have to carry more weight than the wrong sea does, and partly because the appearance of the swans is not arranged by Frame, as the sea is, so that the reader feels the anxiety the children feel. Instead, the reader is to observe the effect on the children, and so is more distanced.
Even more curiously, like Heart of Darkness, at the end of 'Swans' the reader is left in a world in which the presence of God is denied (or at least thrown into irrevocable doubt) but the presence of an almost cosmic evil is strongly affirmed. The dark swans are out there, and waiting to enter into us all if we do not face up to them and thus accept that 'there is no sea either and no nothing'. (Even this latter ambiguous phrase may suggest that only nothing exists, or that nothing does not exist, because evil does.) Presented with this no-win paradox, it is little wonder that Fay and Totty prefer not to grow up and to play roles. This is a very Modernist dilemma. Furthermore, this essentially horrific metaphysical view goes some way towards explaining why Frame's characters typically feel so frail and helpless in the world, even when they are adults. For the final paradox in 'Swans' is that, certainly, when children begin to act at being children they start to understand that adults only act at being adults, and therefore that adults are not godlike and do not know everything. But childishness, or at least a childish helplessness in a cruel universe, is in fact the essential nature of adulthood--and only a child would not know it.
35. Frame, Janet. The Lagoon and Other Stories. Christchurch, Caxton Press, 1951. More recently, You Are Now Entering the Human Heart. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1983: 11-16. Michael King notes that the manuscript was sent to John Money in America on 2 July 1948. [King, Michael. Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame. Auckland, Viking, 2000: 534 (note 50).]
36. King, Michael. Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame. Washington DC, Counterpoint, 2000: 461.
37. King, op. cit.: 99. Frame also offers further information about the possible origins of the story in her autobiography, where she recalls the annual Railway Picnic at Hampden and 'climbing from the train just before the cattlestop by the lagoon and its shadowy mass of black swans.' She recalls how on a later train journey she 'looked out at Hampden and the black swans and the lagoon, remembering the sea and the beach of shells and the wet-floored dunny; and the railway raspberry drink, free.' [Frame, Janet. An Angel at my Table: An Autobiography: Volume Two. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1984: (chap 2) 14-15.]
38. Lowry, Elizabeth. 'The Wrong Sea' [review of McLeod, Marion and Manhire, Bill, eds. The New Zealand Short Story Collection.] Times Literary Supplement, 20 Feb. 1998: 22.
39. This has led some commentators to see Mother as a third 'child' in the story.
40. This device was popularised in English by James Joyce. The later version of 'Swans' published in You Are Now Entering the Human Heart uses conventional speech-marks.
41. In her autobiography Frame recalls the death of the family cat at Oamaru. She also recalls kittens being born and dying and that 'we were close to them in their births and deaths.' [Frame, Janet. To the Is-land: An Autobiography: Volume One. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1982: (chap 8) 74-75.]
42. Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past, 'The Guermantes Way'. Trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. London, Chatto & Windus, 1981: 611.
43. It is likely no coincidence, too, that Beach was one of the names given to the earthly paradise sought by the Spanish conquistadors.
44. It is instructive to compare the language in this paragraph of anticipated pleasure with the paragraph in Frame's autobiography in which she writes of her mother's impressionistic anticipation of a train journey to Picton, to be taken again after many years. 'We knew she was pleased. We could see in her face the surfacing of former pleasure--Oh Waikawa Road, Oh Old Caps and down the pa, Oh the sounds, and Port Underwood, Diffenbach and the Pebble Path, remember the Pebble Path, kiddies, the storms and the shipwrecks. Oh the Pioneers...' [Frame, Janet. An Angel at my Table: An Autobiography: Volume Two. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1984: (chap 12) 88.]
45. In her autobiography Frame recalls how 'The wheels of the train [...] all my railway life had said Kaitangata, Kaitangata, Kaitangata' [Frame, Janet. An Angel at my Table: An Autobiography: Volume Two. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1984: (chap 11) 78.]
46. The Dictionary of New Zealand English describes a 'ring-eye' as a type of bird: 'the mainly South Island silvereye'.
47. In Greek mythology, the Fates wove a person's fate, and some Modernist writers have found the equivalent in knitting. Notably, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness has Marlow encounter two women knitting outside the door of the trading company which will send him on his voyage, 'guarding the door of Darkness'.
48. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness, 1943.
49. Because of the story's interest in perceptions arising from bad faith, it is tempting to speculate upon a linguistic origin for this phrase: 'the wrong see'. [See also note 74.] Linguistic game-playing is common in Frame's short fiction. Despite Margaret Dalziel's observation that Frame's early stories 'use a narrative style characterized by loose syntax and simple vocabulary, suggesting a narrator governed by (at least supposedly) simple and childlike emotions', [Dalziel, Margaret. Janet Frame. Auckland, Oxford University Press, 1980: 39] it is similarly tempting to read 'Keel' and 'Kool', the mournful, broken halves of the seagull's cry as perceived by the main character in the story 'Keel and Kool', as 'kill' and 'ghoul'. In this early story, also about a family facing a death, the main character, Winnie, feels her sense of connection to her older sister, Eva, under threat after Eva's death, and she compensates by wishing that she were Eva. One threat comes from the willingness of her parents to erase Eva from their minds (and even replace her with Joan, the neighbours' girl) and thus (in Winnie's view) 'kill' her. Father then mimics this when he disappears in the story physically, and Mother by vanishing mentally. A second threat comes from Joan, also Eva's former best friend, who appropriates memories of Eva that Winnie feels she should have. To Winnie, Joan thus feeds like a 'ghoul' off a corpse. In the end, prompted by the seagull's cry of 'Keel' and 'Kool', Winnie confusedly rejects first Joan and then her parents while at the same time doubting the existence of an afterlife and climbing a tree, isolating herself from the others in imitation of her perception of Eva's situation after death. Off the ground, Winnie then tries to create imaginatively a heavenly world with herself and Eva in it. But she fails--her final speech is about the footwear that connects people to the earth--and she is forced to reinterpret the seagull's cry and face her own longing and the finality of Eva's death more directly than the evasive Mother, Father and Joan. [You Are Now Entering the Human Heart. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1983: 1-6.] It is also worth noting that Frame's father was a keen fisherman, and his fishing expeditions were the occasion for Frame family picnics. [Frame, Janet. To the Is-land: An Autobiography: Volume One. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1982: (chap 4) 26.]
50. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye was published in the same year as The Lagoon and Other Stories, 1951, though 'Swans' was written earlier.
51. A similar pattern governs Frame's other masterpiece of growing up, 'The Reservoir', where the protagonist discovers not only the artificiality of identity but also of adult laws and boundaries.
52. Quoted in the introduction to Mallarme: The Poems. Introduction by Keith Bosley. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1977: 15.
Copyright Ian Richards, 2004. This article was originally published in book form in Dark Sneaks In: Essays on the Short Fiction of Janet Frame, Wellington, Lonely Arts Publishing, 2004.
Return to No Frills NZ Literature home page.