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'The Reservoir' was first published in 1963 in the prestigious New Yorker magazine(53) and it was the title story of Janet Frame's second volume of short fiction, The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches.(54) It seems to have been based on a real experience.(55) But 'The Reservoir' is unusual in Frame's short fiction because of its relative length, and because its childhood events are recalled through a double perspective, modulating from an experienced adult narrator to the point of view of a still inexperienced child. It is also unusual because, although the story examines knowledge gained through experience (a common theme in Frame's stories), in this case knowledge is linked to power. 'The Reservoir' is a rite-of-passage story. A woman remembers how, as a child, she and her siblings and friends (the exact makeup of the recollected group is a little vague) wander up the gully behind their small town to see the local reservoir for the first time, although they have been repeatedly forbidden to do so by their parents.(56) Breaking this rule enlarges the children's experience of the world. By successfully challenging the community's authority in this rite of passage, the children increase their stock of knowledge, take power for themselves, and master the language with which to articulate and control both. All this happens as a result of their journey to the Reservoir.
At the start of the story, the Reservoir exists only as a word, in the title. Always capitalised in the story as if to lend it an authoritative resonance, the word is from the French meaning 'store'. It is soon made clear that, for the children of the town, the Reservoir is not merely a store of water. But the children know nothing of the Reservoir itself, and so the narrator's first sentence, beginning 'It was said...', can only refer to hearsay. Despite a guess at the Reservoir's location 'four or five miles along the gully' and a list of what things are known to precede it, the rest of the sentence can provide no more information and so the narrator begins a complex digression. First, there is an odd simile of 'rabbits eating like modern sculpture into the hills'--a reference, perhaps, to the sculpture of Henry Moore. But the narrator is also straining to shock the reader in the manner of T.S. Eliot's famous opening to 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock', in which the sunset is compared to 'a patient etherised upon a table'. The narrator's simile fails--its two parts are not sufficiently alike for proper understanding. The simile reads like an insertion into the natural flow of the sentence, and in any case the narrator has set it up clumsily, by preceding it with a metaphor when referring to the rabbits as 'squatters of the land'. Frame does all this on purpose. She alerts the reader to the fact that her narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the story, is a fully grown adult, and she also indicates a tone of forced sophistication in the narrator's voice.(57) Each of the first three paragraphs of 'The Reservoir' consists of a single, over-elaborate sentence.
Curiously, it is while affecting this learned pose that the narrator claims she and her friends did not know anything important when they were children--even though she soon starts to list, instead, the things in her town that the local children did know.(58) This list provides an incidental glimpse of a small New Zealand community. The first item is the town's war memorial, respectfully decorated by the townspeople on Anzac Day.(59) The second item is a collection of gnomes in the local Botanical Gardens. These are defecated on without respect by seagulls so that they appear to weep--and the list breaks off again with a sudden claim that every creature, 'especially children', should show proper respect for authority. In this outburst Frame manages skilfully to establish the world-weary sarcasm of an adult while still allowing an echo of a child's impassioned complaint to come through. Furthermore, the paragraph implicitly contrasts the behaviour of the respectful humans with the behaviour of the seagulls, and shows that in nature's world of brutal self-interest a respect for authority does not exist. Like the respect it demands, social authority is an artificial, social creation.
In the next paragraph it is made clear that the Reservoir is 'forbidden': the town's children should not go there. But the reason for this is merely implied in the link between the paragraphs: because it is important to show respect for authority. The paragraph begins 'for so long we obeyed'--the first of three paragraphs near the story's opening which begin with these words--although the expression discloses the inevitable disobedience, which is the substance of the story, almost from the very start. So long as the children do not venture to the Reservoir, they can only write in their school compositions of such an excursion with cliches, returning 'tired but happy', because they have no true experience to articulate. Furthermore, cliche here serves the interests of authority, since it disguises any description of the children's complex feelings at not going to the Reservoir. In truth, the children can only say to grownups that they went 'nearly to the Reservoir', but they can do so 'with a suspicion of blackmail', since the possibility of one day defying this ban enables them to test the limits of adult authority.
Frame's unit of organisation in her short fiction is the paragraph, and so the next paragraph introduces a new point: the superciliousness of the adult narrator. Obeying solely out of respect was Adam's burden in Genesis, and in an over-obvious reference to Genesis and to medieval superstition that the world was flat, the narrator claims that 'beyond [the Reservoir], you fell'. Of course, the reader is expected to know better than the exaggeration implied here, and in this shared sense of irony the adult narrator's tone of superiority towards her childhood life is conveyed. She next begins to describe what is beyond the Reservoir. But she suggests with further heavy irony that this consists merely of 'strange' cattle and farms--strange only in the sense that the children have never visited them. Furthermore, in a phrase hinting at medieval cartographical fancies, she claims that beyond the Reservoir there are 'legendary people' whom the children would not recognise on a Friday night downtown, something her ironic manner implies is most unlikely in a town already revealed as so small that everybody is sure to know everyone else.
But once again the adult narrator is not as clever as she pretends. She is describing what is 'beyond' the Reservoir, even though in the same paragraph she has already claimed that it is the 'end of the world' with, logically, nothing beyond it. However, the narrator evades all this with another arch display of knowledge, an extended digression into remembered Friday night activities, which she presents condescendingly as naive forays into an adult world before hurrying home to safety: following boys, the Salvation Army Band, a milk shake. And as for the adults themselves, after a typical Friday night in this unchanging town Mother will not have run away and Father will not have shot himself--although the adult narrator's tone of exaggeration implies that perhaps they both should. Instead, the narrator describes Father himself as having been downtown, where he has gone unrecognised by his own children and thus been the only 'legendary' person in the story. Father returns, a little childishly himself in the narrator's description, with bags of sweets, and the adult narrator cannot resist a closing comment which indicates haughtily that she knows where these treats come from: Woolworths. The adult narrator's sophisticated tone plainly suggests the alienation of someone who has outgrown such small-town life.
The first step towards this acquired, adult sophistication has come about through the Reservoir itself. The narrator's family has moved from using pump water on a farm into a house in town with running water.(60) But with the benefit of tap water also comes responsibility to communal authority: the taps must not be left on. Father complains, 'Do you want the Reservoir to run dry?', and he does so 'as if the affair were his personal concern'. By identifying himself with the authority centred on the Reservoir, and speaking for it, he assumes some of its power. The children's reaction is fear. They even imagine dying of thirst like Burke and Wills, two nineteenth-century explorers who perished in the Australian desert.(61) Mother, in kind-hearted contrast to Father's severity, supplies the story's first fact of information about the Reservoir: its water is pure enough to drink. Her speech is the story's third paragraph to begin with the words 'The Reservoir'. The use of triples, more common to French literature than writing in English, is an important element in the organisation of this story and, indeed, of all Frame's short fiction. At this point the story's action consists of three comments by adults on the Reservoir--Father, Mother, and then a parental 'they'--alternating with the children's reactions.
The children begin to apply their analytical intelligence to the fact of the Reservoir's purity. Doing so soon reveals a logical problem: the manifestly impure water of the local creek, which flows down through the gully to the town, has its source up in the Reservoir above the gully. (At the same time, this usefully makes clear the salient facts of local geography.)(62) Such analysis thus only creates doubts and queries which, by implication, question the form of the water's 'pampering attention' by officialdom. When the children question the purity of the Reservoir's water, it is an unspecified 'they' who respond to the inquiry. The pronoun 'they' refers, logically, to the children's parents, but it is also sufficiently ambiguous to stand for officialdom in general: the adult narrator refers to '"they", the authorities' a little later in the story. The answer to the children's query comes as jargon: the water is 'treated'. For the inexperienced children, such language is as empty of reference as their cliches were at the story's start. As with cliches, jargon serves the interests of authority by disguising complex information--particularly useful for adults who may not really understand themselves what water-treatment involves. Imagination usually takes over where rational knowledge ends, and so the children attempt to understand the jargon by adding their imagination to it. They make an intuitive leap when they think of men dumping sacks of chemicals into the Reservoir at night, and such is the power of their imagination that in doing so they arrive at a more-or-less successful interpretation of the word 'treated'.(63)
In the next paragraph, the adult narrator recalls how news in the newspaper seemed to indicate that children have, 'at times', drowned in the Reservoir. The exaggeration in 'at times' suggests that the adult narrator thinks such news is, at best, out of proportion to reality. But the next passage, words from a neighbour that no child 'ought to be allowed near the Reservoir' and Mother's response in agreement, seems redundant except as a glimpse back into the narrator's childhood. The exchange comes as a break in the narrative supplied as direct speech, and the change to direct speech shifts the story briefly into a child's innocent perspective. Significantly perhaps, Mother is referred to here individually as 'my', not 'our', Mother. Mother's response, that 'I tell mine to keep strictly away', is a plausible usage but is also significant in her apparent misplacement of the word 'strictly'. More grammatically correct, in terms of what Mother probably intends to say, would be 'I tell mine strictly...', meaning 'severely'; whereas Mother's actual words, 'I tell mine to keep strictly...', mean 'in accordance with exact rules'.
A restated 'for so long we obeyed' at the beginning of the next paragraph offers, in effect, a second start for the story. Again, it focuses on what the children already know: the creek. The narrator claims the children know the creek in such detail that they have internalised it, so that it 'flowed day and night in our heads'. The remainder of the paragraph is an elaboration of what the creek contains, beginning with 'wild sweet peas' and other plants, and a drowned sheep: this combination of the nice and nasty implies completeness. The narrator is at pains to display the equanimity of country people about dead animals in the water. Their smell causes only 'pleasant revulsion' because its cause is understood, in contrast to the later terror the creek engenders when it changes course for reasons unknown. The elaboration of details about the creek is prefaced by three claims of 'we knew', and it describes a pastoral environment. The pattern of its imagery is circular, suggesting an enclosed world and also a form of paralysis within that world: plants, dead animals, rocks in shallow water, frightening places, dangerous places, stones in sunny water, dead animals, plants. But throughout the paragraph Frame is careful to add adult adjectives such as 'cast-off', 'bloated', 'gruesome', 'gaunt' and 'lush', which effectively re-establish her adult narrator's voice. And at the close of the paragraph this pastoral stasis is disrupted by mystery: that occasionally the creek 'changed its course'. Like the cliche and jargon that preceded it, this empty description is packaged in speech marks. The words come from Mother. The adult narrator, returning to comic exaggeration, recollects that to the children Mother's tone 'implied terror and a sense of strangeness' and even 'tragedy'.(64) Yet rather than any real fear of Mother's, this memory is more likely a projection of the children's anxiety onto Mother's sense of consequence. Even the creek, like the Reservoir from which it comes, has elements of the unknowable. It can act with a disquieting arbitrariness.
In order to convince themselves of their thorough understanding of the creek, the children imitate grownups' behaviour. They imitate adults' tendency to disguise ignorance through jargon and empty description by themselves creating essentially meaningless classifications for the creek's water-level.(65) Such classifications are comforting but do nothing to explain the Reservoir itself. When seeing the Reservoir's effect on the creek's water-level in the morning, the children imitate Mother's earlier sense of this as important. This is revealed in the comic exaggeration of the adult narrator describing how the children speak 'with the fatality and reverence which attends a visitation or prophecy'. But in actually saying, 'They must being doing something at the Reservoir', in direct speech that again returns the story briefly to a child's perspective, the children are also shown to be imitating their Father's action of speaking on behalf of authority and assuming its power. Like Shakespeare's 'philosophical persons', the children are 'ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.'(66) The paragraph that follows, describing the Reservoir in the afternoon, makes it clear that despite all their labelling of the creek, the children can understand the Reservoir only in the same way that they understood the water-treatment process: in their imagination. When the Reservoir's sluice-gate is open and excess water is purged, making the water-level dangerous, the children understand the need for this by imagining that 'they', this time clearly some unnamed Reservoir authorities, are venting an evil concealed under the flood.
The story proceeds to start a third time, with 'For so long then, we obeyed our parents'. The thrice-repeated phrase 'for so long' is an implicit reminder that, unlike Franz Kafka's K. who can do no more than endlessly approach his symbol of authority in The Castle, Frame's narrator must eventually reach her goal and develop as a person. Yet again there is a digression about knowledge--by this point the first paragraph of 'The Reservoir', where the narrator claimed to know nothing as a child, seems almost deliberately disingenuous. The superior sense of the adult narrator towards the small-town community of her childhood, and its correlative in the superior feelings of the child protagonist towards her parents, makes the narrator unable to avoid digressing about her extensive knowledge, even while professing to a childhood ignorance of the world. The adventure of going to the Reservoir is where this sense of superiority was first attained, hence its status as a rite of passage.
The narrator already knows so much that she has received an end-of-year school prize. She comments that this was a book 'the colour of cat's mess.' With this supercilious phrase the adult narrator's voice seems once again established, and the adult narrator now describes the book as 'supposedly' written by garden creatures. During the summer holidays the children sit on the front lawn and read 'insect newspapers' while relating this to the lives of creatures in the grass, and the narrator shows off her knowledge of this grassy world with a list of lawn flora so exhaustive it ends, a little lamely, with the empty description 'ordinary "grass".' The children's reading of insect newspapers is in conscious imitation of their parents' authoritative newspaper reading about drownings, but it is also an unconscious imitation of the actions of the culturally sophisticated. Cultivated people read or watch artefacts about the lives of the common folk around them, while feeling superior to common folk because of their greater learning, exemplified by reading or watching. The insect-newspaper image suggests that the adult narrator's assumption of sophistication is somehow latent in the child. It also stands in contrast to the frustrated creativity of Mother, who regrets as usual that she is unable to use the garden's rose petals to make potpourri. The adult narrator does not fail to show that Mother would need to follow a recipe in order to do this. Then, as if to ram her superiority home, the narrator repeats that Mother 'never made potpourri'. Furthermore, in not having this knowledge or this power, Mother also fails to manage the language with which to articulate it. She, and Father too, are reduced to arguing about the pronunciation of the word 'potpourri'. Correct pronunciation of a word is the most basic form of its control, and from the word flows the knowledge that leads to power over the thing itself. Mother can no more talk about potpourri than the children can talk about the Reservoir. From the superior posture of their insect-newspaper reading, the children observe this.
Superior knowledge of one's world, in this case the children's knowledge of their childish world during the summer holidays, leads not to happiness but to a sense of ennui. Frame depicts this state of childhood ennui as both hellishly hot and endlessly unchanging. The past, exemplified by broken Christmas presents, is already used up and has no value. The future, exemplified by the children's New Year diaries which are too small and already filled out, seems both narrow and over-determined. Even everyday routine itself, summer's 'tedious' days at the beach, seems to break down under the strain of changeless repetition into something more tepid.(67) In the bathing sheds there is, literally, no room to change. For the narrator, the only attractive feature of getting into bathing clothes in the common room downstairs is the 'tiny barred window'. This image, paradoxically, reminds her of a time when authority over human lives had dissolved into freedom and anarchy: the French Revolution.
In this condition of stasis, new information appears only in its most debased form, as mere rumour. And even the examples of rumours among the children that the narrator offers are contradictory: the sea is both drying up and yet so high that sharks are swimming close to shore. The children's vaunted knowledge of water-levels has been reduced to this. At last, the children's language itself degenerates into euphemism, when the narrator refers to a boy's 'you-know-what'. This children's in-crowd expression deftly indicates the children's increasingly adolescent dilemma: they are so bored with understanding their own childish world so well that they can use a code-like euphemism to communicate with each other, but they still understand the adult world so little that they do not see how such an expression might seem gauche to grownups.
This kind of mental paralysis so far described leads to a concomitant physical paralysis. The narrator rather languidly recalls swimming all day, but other activities are given up. The children even give up games in which they imitate the roles of adults. This is significant, because previously the children have been much given to imitation of grownups, and because it is through such games that children seek imaginatively to manipulate and understand the adult world.(68) In a version of the pathetic fallacy, even nature itself around them seems to decay in the heat, in a long catalogue of woes crowded into one sentence. The earth cracks. The lawn creatures, coolly observed by the children earlier, are now dried out and dead in their overheated shells. In fact something similar happens to the children's equivalent of a shell, namely their house. Flies, feeders on carrion, enter from the back into the house as if something inside it were dead. They are trapped on flypaper, and soon even the flypapers are full. At last the narrator ends her catalogue lamely, in a separate sentence. She describes the cat panting in the heat. It is as if the narrator herself has simply run out ideas with which to embroider her theme.
Bored with their long summer holiday, it is no wonder that the children look forward to the reopening of school and, with it, an opportunity to enlarge their world with new knowledge. But in their unchanging condition, they feel they have forgotten what they have already learned. Even worse perhaps, they feel they no longer understand the education process itself: they have forgotten what school is like. Its prospect is thus both exhilarating and frightening--the narrator uses the word 'strange' to describe it. This is the same word the narrator earlier used for the unknown territory 'beyond' the Reservoir, and for what the children perceived in Mother's reaction to the creek changing its course. In this state of paralysis, the prospect of real change quickly becomes daunting. The children begin to worry about school, asking a series of questions about what will happen--questions to which the answers are unknowable in advance. Starting school again also means new social relationships, and the social anxiety that comes from wondering, 'Who would sit beside us, who would be our best friend?' is so large that it has its own paragraph. But school is still in the near future. Thus the next paragraph returns to the heat of the present world, the movement of the narrative mirroring the sense of denial the children feel.
The next paragraph, describing the heat at night, adds nothing new to the story. Like the children's situation, the writing itself in 'The Reservoir' now seems to take on an exhausted quality--repetitive, with pointless elaboration--in an overlong sentence that runs for the entire paragraph, echoing the world-weary tone of the story's opening. An inability to sleep in the heat makes for a feeling of long days and short nights in uncomfortable repetition. The restless nights are characterised by the repeated, frustrated knocking of moths on the walls, seeking even more daylight. Similarly redundant, the next paragraph starts with the phrase 'Day after day', in an echo of Coleridge's becalmed protagonist in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'. It quickly moves to a personification of the sun as malevolently waiting 'to pounce'. The previous paragraph described the withering effects of night; this paragraph describes the day. Coleridge's parched ancient mariner suffered from a paralysis of soul that was written out in his physical suffering, and this paragraph continues with an over-elaborate, if trivial, catalogue of the summer's ill effects on the children's health. Although their problems--itchy skin, sunburn--are mild, this is a useful foreshadowing of the serious illness about to appear.
With the opening of the next paragraph, the loop in the narrative is ended. 'School soon, we said again, and were glad' brings the story back to four paragraphs earlier, when the children first looked forward to school 'and were glad'. The children imagine school and its lessons as an escape from the summer heat and an end to their ennui, but something intervenes. It is an outbreak of poliomyelitis, then commonly known as 'Infantile Paralysis'. These solemn words receive the same capitalisation as the Reservoir. Like the Reservoir and its creek, Infantile Paralysis has a frighteningly arbitrary power, striking 'out in the country, up north, down south, two streets away.' Also like the Reservoir, it is potentially fatal and essentially unknown. Before the Salk vaccine was introduced in 1956, polio epidemics were commonplace throughout the world. In November 1947 North-Island schools in New Zealand were closed by a polio epidemic and did not reopen until April 1948.(69)
The children's ennui, their sense of paralysis at not challenging the limits of their childish world, bounded by the Reservoir, now seems to have coalesced into a real disease, the embodiment of arrested development.(70) Infantile Paralysis, in turn, will prevent the schools from opening and ending the long summer. The description of the outbreak delivers a small shock to the reader partly because of the simple, direct sentence in which it is conveyed: 'Then, swiftly, suddenly, disease came to the town.' It is not the voice of the over-sophisticated adult narrator recalling events. The use of this voice would have operated to distance the reader somewhat from the event described. Rather, the sentence's faintly dramatic opening 'Then', its paired adverbs and its impersonality in referring to 'the town', suggest a written style: something a child might write in a story. It might even be a sentence from one of the 'school compositions' referred to at the opening of 'The Reservoir'. In any event, what is significant is that Frame does not return to her adult narrator's voice to describe the complex outbreak of a historically important disease. During the paragraphs of ennui the adult narrator's obtrusively supercilious voice has begun to drain away, and the same has begun to happen to the story's more obviously adult language. The point of view of the story is becoming more and more a child's, and thus there is steadily less distance in the narrator's tone from the events described. By the mention of 'Infantile Paralysis' any further exaggeration in the story will be from a childish viewpoint, to emphasise a child's view of the largeness of the world. From the second half of the story, all events will be related solely with the voice, and from the point of view, of a child narrator.
With the schools closed, the children's lessons come by correspondence. They find this unsatisfactory, but what fails to meet their expectations at first is the form of this education, rather than its content. The lessons are poorly printed--not proper school textbooks. The children feel they are 'makeshift and false'. Their response is that such lessons cannot 'compete with the lure of the sun'. But this response only reveals their confusion, since earlier they had wanted to be distracted from the sun, and their confusion rises into the near-hysteria of a repeated 'there was nothing to do'. The children complain that the lessons are 'dull', without being specific, and then complain about the form of their education once more because the front room is no substitute for a classroom. The alluring yet exhausting sun comes through under the room's blinds. Mirroring the children's continued paralysis and enclosure, the sentence expressing these complaints is long and elaborate and its pattern of imagery is, once again, circular: poor printing, the sun, boredom, dullness, the sun, poor printing. The children complain about 'unexplained blots of ink' on the lesson papers, imagining that the machine which creates these has itself broken down from, or rebelled against, the tedium. The lessons, the children conclude from all this with childish illogic, 'were even more dull.'
Next the content of the lessons--'Ancient Egypt and the flooding of the Nile!'--is dismissed with contempt in a short paragraph. In such a poor educational environment, such material seems devoid of its exotic appeal and loses its ability to attract by exciting the imagination. Instead, the children opt for what, for them, is real and already known: their own creek. With the occasionally flooding creek they have no need of the Nile, or rather, have one of their own. They have rejected school as a way of enlarging their world with new knowledge. The children begin to speak of taking a walk along the creek, and for the reader the short paragraphs displaying the children's thoughts and direct speech brings a refreshing immediacy to the story, which, up until this point, has been mostly paragraphs reporting the adult narrator's recollections. The narrator comments that they are 'tired with all these', a quiet echo of Shakespeare's Sonnet 66, which has a list of the world's travails somewhat like the elaborations of the preceding paragraphs. This is the last literary allusion in the story, it strikes no discordant note, and it signals the near-completed fading away of the adult narrator. At length, in a brief paragraph of images repeated from earlier in the story--of the trap of flypaper, and of the pent-up energy in the overheated house--the children focus on the 'the only solution to our unrest', and set out to explore.
Things begin a little tentatively. The only mention of where the children might go is 'along the gully, along the creek', but they still indulge in a rather pointless check of the creek's water-level. They wear bathing suits--fine for more summer swimming but not necessary for exploring up along the creek on land. With them they carry switches of willow, a little like the badges of medieval pilgrims. As the children leave on what will become a rite of passage towards adulthood, Mother reminds them to wear sun hats, and in doing so she reminds them of their status as children. The children's immediate reaction is to insist defensively to themselves, 'We knew'. They make light of the danger of sunstroke by interpreting this word literally, as 'when the sun clipped your over the back of the head'. Partly as a matter of self-encouragement, the children's sense of superiority is on display, and the child narrator's mastery of this use of language shows that the children feel masters of this sort of situation. The child narrator comments, 'The world was full of alarm', with a hint of the superciliousness she will reveal as an adult. But as with each earlier reference to 'the world' in the story, the children's world is still the town and its gully, bounded by the Reservoir. Mother's second reminder, 'And don't go as far as the Reservoir', strikes nearer the mark. The narrator merely manages to comment, 'We dismissed the warning.'
Instead, in a denial of their own purpose, the children insist to themselves that 'There was enough to occupy us along the gully'. These distractions are twofold. One, mentioned only passing, is 'robbing the orchards'. But this sort of petty theft is a rite of passage the children have long since passed through, and in any case the apples are still unripe. The other main distraction is spying on courting couples. But for the children this involves the exact opposite problem to robbing orchards: sexual experience is a rite of passage far in the future. The child narrator begins by explaining that they know the couples lie in the grass together 'because they were tired or for other reasons'. But the children's jokiness which follows is an obvious cover for a nervous uncertainty about what they are observing. Kissing is all they really know about and thus all they can talk about in specifics. The child narrator says the children are waiting for the couple to 'do it'--the children insist on their knowledge that couples 'did it'--but clearly 'it' is another example of language disguising ignorance. The comic speculation about 'technical details' which thus arises is a case of psychological displacement. Instead of focussing on the sex act itself, the children fuss about wearing 'a frenchie' and where such contraceptives are bought--the same Woolworths that was earlier associated with the adult excitements of Friday night downtown. The children may 'follow the boys' on Friday nights, as they mention at the start of the story, but they do not yet know the so-called facts of life--only the fact that there are facts of life. Their childish fascination with the couples is based on fear as much as on curiosity. The childish rhyme they shout, which includes the ominous lines 'he fell on a lady,/and squashed out a baby', seems to indicate the extent of their sexual knowledge.(71) But they do know that sex can have dangerous consequences, such as unwanted pregnancies that have to be ended 'by drinking gin', and this concern lies under their jokiness. Another consequence of sex, the act of giving birth, is also dangerous, and the child narrator confesses to the children's 'slight fear' of having a chain of babies.
But there are no couples to offer distraction, and so someone, unspecified and thus clearly not the narrator, suggests going to the Reservoir. This is the first mention of this possible destination. The children's immediate reaction is 'dread'. The word has been chosen by Frame with care. In Kierkegaardian philosophy, dread is the feeling that arises on understanding that one's future is not predetermined and one is genuinely free to make any choice. The child narrator tries to counter this feeling by repeating her South Island address to herself in great detail, almost as an incantation.(72) It is a return to the safety of the known. More subtly, in the same sentence she is also telling herself that a visit to the Reservoir may be inevitable, and thus inescapable, but it is still somewhere among the major life-changes of the remote future. The narrator then wonders how one decides 'the right time' to do such things, but this is a largely rhetorical question which returns the narrator to a state of Kiekegaardian dread: one does not decide these things, they simply happen. Frame's stories often divide neatly in half, and at this point of decision this story, too, has reached its halfway mark.
The second half of the story begins with a rehearsal of the sort of themes with which 'The Reservoir' opened: being forbidden to go, the distance to the Reservoir, its mysterious nature, how it might be talked about, and the legendary people who have knowledge of it. The child narrator starts by noting that 'one of us' timidly reminds the children that they have been told not to go to the Reservoir, before confessing in the next sentence, 'That was me'. The narrator explains that her hair and even her skin are red from eating bread and syrup, an obviously false premise, and this means that she blushes easily--a false deduction. None of this may be true, but eating bread and syrup seems to be an explanation for red hair which has been offered by adults and which the child narrator half believes, so that just as 'We've been told not to' defers to higher authority, so too the child narrator's explanation for obeying defers to adult authority. This passage, devoid of any of the ironies of the sophisticated adult narrator, also further serves to highlight that it is the child narrator who is now telling the story as it happens. The narrator's little sister supports her with 'It's a long way', and then someone retorts, 'Coward!'. It is not clear who says this. Is this the reaction of some stronger member of the group? Does the child narrator say it, her pride wounded at seeming as timid as her younger sibling? Or is this perhaps the mood of the group itself, somehow being expressed? Group dynamics are often mysterious and opaque in just this way. It is also an indicator of the new immediacy with which the children's direct speech and thoughts are being presented by the child narrator, rather than through the adult narrator's recollections.
In any case the narrator feels the need to agree that 'it was a long way', so that perhaps the children might have to stay out all night. Since they know the Reservoir only as somewhere far and dangerous they can only imagine it: a place bordered by owls, warrens and wind in pine trees. Owls are a common harbinger of evil, and the children think of the warrens, fantastically and somewhat illogically, as holes full of pine-needles reaching down to pools of molten lead and 'waiting to seize us'.(73) Like the warrens, the crying of the pines is imaginatively personified, as 'a sound of speech at its loneliest level': full of its own feelings but lacking coherence for others.(74) At first, the children focus upon the struggling quality of this sound because it reflects their own struggle to articulate the nature of the Reservoir, and so, paradoxically, they explain what they know about the sound at length. The children know that the pines' speech produces in them, through imaginative sympathy, feelings of isolation and helplessness; but this is really because the pines, though they have already attained a superior language of pure expressiveness with the wind, are reduced to a kind of despair at their own isolation in having no superior interlocutor separate from themselves that they can communicate with properly. Ominously, the attainment of superior language at the Reservoir has not brought on happiness, just as the children's attainment of superior knowledge of their childish world brought them only ennui. And so in reaction to this the narrator exclaims, 'we could not spend the night at the Reservoir among the pine trees.' Significantly, perhaps, the Reservoir as a body of water is not even mentioned here. The children do not dare face what is so unknown to them that it cannot be further articulated than in this roundabout manner.
In his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Wittgenstein recognised the inter-relationship between the limits of language and of one's experience of the world and was led to conclude: 'What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence'.(75) Likewise, the children's fear of night at the Reservoir means they are in danger of reaching a mental and physical impasse. But this possible recurrence of paralysis is prevented when someone, again unnamed, recalls that Billy Whittaker and his 'Green Feather' gang have already been to the Reservoir.(76) The speaker even notes in passing that Billy Whittaker went 'one afternoon', implying that he did not have to stay overnight. Billy Whittaker did not say what the Reservoir was like, but the children are heartened. Clearly Billy Whittaker is someone already experienced--he has actually had infantile paralysis two years ago and thus been treated for it in an iron lung. This information, confirmed as true by parental authority, rouses 'envy' as well as 'dread' among the children. Dread arises as their Kierkegaardian fear over an undetermined future and envy as their feeling about those people, like Billy Whittaker, who have already faced down dread. Naively, the children feel Billy Whittaker is lucky to have been in an iron lung.(77) Because the children do not really understand what an iron lung is, they are free to interpret this, too, imaginatively. But this time they imagine something benign. They conceive of an iron lung as like a suit of protective armour, an emblem of glamour and strength rather than of physical weakness. In contrast, the children feel that their own flesh lungs are 'paltry'.
At this point someone asks, 'are we going to the Reservoir or not?'. The child narrator notes that this is an attempt 'to sound bossy like our Father'. The speaker is usurping adult status in order to force the issue. The children's response is to play with the emblems of their status as pilgrims: their sticks. The sticks' whistling sound is similar to the incomprehensible sound of the pines. The children have tried to make musical instruments out of such sticks in the past and been frustrated. The narrator complains that they could never 'make anything out of the bits of the world', in this way lamenting her childish inability to understand and control the world around her. This frustration is compounded when an airplane passes in the sky, and the children try to collect the number under its wing. An airplane is a fine example of adult humanity's knowledge overcoming natural boundaries, in contrast to the children who can only wave sticks in the air. Even in the period before jet planes this version of trainspotting would have been difficult, and when the plane is gone 'in a glint of sun' it appears that the children have failed at this, too. When one child reminds them about going to the Reservoir, another responds with the sort of display of knowledge that both child and adult narrator have had repeated recourse to, in this case information unrelated to the Reservoir but rather about the sun in the children's eyes. An eclipse is described as a merely temporary night--subconsciously reassuring perhaps, because it was spending the night at the Reservoir which most frightened the children before. With this, and with the children's mounting impatience at their own frustration, the decision to go the Reservoir has been somehow made, without rational discussion, through the dynamics of the group. The children 'set out' again, but this time with a definite destination.
The decision made, the child narrator tries to imagine in detail what the Reservoir itself might be. Significantly, she passes over the simple truth, that it is a lake, to concentrate on something darker. She tries to invest the Reservoir with danger because of its importance to her. Thus she conceives of the Reservoir in terms of imagery related to medieval mystery painting, as 'great wheels' with a 'demonic force'. To shore such an unlikely view up, she relates this to a known danger: the possibility of being drawn beneath the wheels of a train.(78) The arrival of the Limited usually frightens her, but she knows 'you had to approach' the train out of social duty: kissing arriving aunts.(79) In a paradoxical way, too, breaking the rules of society and going to the Reservoir is also a social duty. Even if it involves challenging society's authority, to fail to pass through a rite of passage and thus remain in a form of infantile paralysis is to let society down. Society is organised in that way: its rules are relative to its members' age and situation. Mastering this is an aspect of growing up, the lesson implicit in a rite of passage.
And so, at last, the children begin to venture beyond their world bordered by the gully and the wild sweet peas of the creek's banks. The narrator lists the plants they pass before coming to 'strange territory'. This new territory seems hostile and is characterised by its barbed wire fences. Although the sun remains in the sky, the children feel cold, a reaction to fear and a projection of their feeling that they do not fit into this new environment. This is expanded on in the next paragraph. The child narrator describes walking through some bush, but the imagery and language used is of exploration. The trees are weirdly huge and their roots are compared to skeletons. Directions are 'plotted'. The children walk past signs warning them to go back, such as 'TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED BY ORDER', which hints at the authority behind the warning. In this strange land they begin to feel nostalgic, even for the remote sun which was the source of their complaints earlier but which looks down on the life they have left behind. Through the associative link of the sun-mark on a school ruler, an instrument of measurement and knowledge, the children begin to feel nostalgia for school. School is also part of their past, where the experience of learning was safe. Even the school's bare corridors on wet days seem desirable. There is something fake about all this. The children are not explorers dreaming of home. In fact, though they feel they have set off on a daring adventure, they have not yet encountered any challenge. Facing no barrier beyond what is in their own minds, they romanticise their position and talk it up.
But then the children encounter genuine danger: they enter a paddock with a jersey bull in it. The child narrator begins by comparing the bull to a wardrobe. This unusual simile itself invites comparison with the 'rabbits eating like modern sculpture' at the story's start. Whereas the simile of the rabbits seemed forced and overly bookish, the comparison of the bull to a wardrobe is strikingly effective. A wardrobe convincingly suggests the bull's size and sheen, and the unnatural comparison also conveys the children's sense that the creature is eerie. Because the child narrator uses an object for comparison from within her own experience, this simile succeeds, and so does the one that follows which compares the bull's colour to copper. There is no false sophistication, even when the child narrator goes on to blend both halves of the wardrobe simile into something like a metaphor of 'heavy beams' creaking in the grass. This is, indeed, the sort of comparison an explorer's journal might make use of when trying to describe something genuinely new.
Questing heroes in ancient literature typically encounter a mythical beast obstructing their path. In such cases, heroes need to use all their resourcefulness in order to get by. Indeed, the key feature of Odysseus's personality is that he is never at a loss. Resourcefulness consists of knowledge and experience and, like Odysseus, the children apply their knowledge and experience to their problem. They know how to observe that the animal is a 'real bull', not a harmless steer and, since the bull has a ring through its nose, they consider how tamed it may or may not be. They are aware of the bull's 'massive shape against the sky' but then note coolly in the next paragraph, 'The bull stood alone.' This is in contrast to the romanticising that characterised their walk though the bush. Next, the children apply their experience. They remember the case of Mr Bennet, who was gored by 'his own tame bull'.(80) Deciding on discretion, the children creep around the inside edge of the paddock, near to the fence. When the bull paws the ground, the children's knowledge warns them to escape through the fence. Then, gathering courage from their experience of creeping inside the fence, the children re-enter the paddock, skirt some bushes and then leave to continue their journey. How much danger the children really feel they have been in is left open. What is clear is that the tone of the writing follows the flow of the children's emotions, alternating between calm and a fear that is reasonable but steadily diminishing.
The children are now reunited with the creek, their erstwhile guide. But on seeing it they feel no genuine relief, because they no longer recognise it as their own. It seems 'foreign water'. Like someone keeping his cards close to his chest, the creek 'seemed to flow close to its concealed bed' and, drawing this into a full personification, the children feel that the creek no longer wishes to communicate with them. They have 'lost possession' of it as a point of reference, and so they are thoroughly in new territory. Their first reaction is to try to understand what has happened by using their imagination. If they have lost possession of their creek, they wonder, 'Who had taken it?', and why is it not theirs? But now this imaginative thinking offers them no intuition about their situation. In any case, the children are not in any immediate danger. They again wave their pilgrim-like sticks in the air, as they did when deciding to go to the Reservoir. Giving themselves up, in a minor way, to something like a Kierkegaardian leap of faith, they forget their dismay and even become cheerful.
But such happiness is short-lived. The children worry it is getting late, and their fear of possibly staying out all night swiftly returns. They give in to the thought that the sun may set very quickly, dropping them into sudden nightfall.(81) Robbed of any point of reference, the children's ability to harness their imagination to their reason continues to fail them. Although this process allowed them to understand the nature of water-treatment at the story's start, here the children conclude that the sun's immobility is proof that it will move suddenly--a travesty of their knowledge. They reason by comparing the sun's immobility to an object fixed with a drawing pin and by comparing a possible quick downward movement to an eel's head falling into the water--but this a travesty of their experience. Such reasoning by analogy is not the sort of intuitive leap that the children managed in order to understand water-treatment; rather, it is logic in its most primitive form. The reported speech of this paragraph is moved up into the present tense, to give it more immediacy and to prepare for the passage of dialogue which will soon follow.
Indeed, the children are on the verge of unreason. An unnamed speaker, in an attempt to restore rationality, claims that the sun sets suddenly only in the tropics. The story returns briefly to a narrative paragraph reported in the past tense, in which the children accept that they are not in the tropics--but not that the sun sets swiftly only in tropical areas. Harking nostalgically back to school once more and the measurements in school geography, the children think of the world contained, comfortingly, in an atlas. Nevertheless, this only serves to highlight the fact that there must be differences among the world's various places, and also the difference between abstract book-knowledge and the unknown present, because next the story proceeds, in stages, to leave narrative behind for an extended period. What follows is a passage of unattributed, seemingly meaningless dialogue, indicating the children's confusion through their confused language. The reader is suddenly pitched into the kind of conversation which has always been going on among the children during the journey, but which is now in the foreground. In a Modernist tactic, through her use of language Frame organises the reading experience to mimic the action of the story. The reader, like the children, is placed in a position where prior knowledge and experience is useless. In a role equivalent to the children's task, the reader must hack a path through confused talk, free association and psychological displacement in order to reach the climax, the arrival at the Reservoir. This is the reader's rite of passage. The discourse of the semi-coherent, direct speech which follows is at the farthest point in the story from the sophisticated narrative of recollection at the story's start. Any sense of distance from the story's action has vanished.
Taking its cue from the talk of the tropics, the dialogue begins, unsurprisingly, with a competitive display of knowledge. The children interrupt to correct each other over the terminology for 'bits of sand' in the desert, or to embellish on each other, comparing camels' necks to snails. Any information will do to manage the psychological displacement of the thought of spending a night at the Reservoir, so the mention of 'snails' even allows one child to think imaginatively about how to describe a snail's antennae and then ask for confirmation, 'with horns, do they have horns?'. The word 'horns' leads associatively to sex, and the mere gossip of 'Minnie Stocks goes with boys' is interrupted by the more accusatory, 'I know who your boy is'. This unnamed speaker then appears to think of someone 'Waiting by the garden gate', perhaps anticipating some future sexual fall; and the simple rhyme, the use of italics and the gate image recalls the earlier rhyme of the man who fell over a fence and 'squashed out a baby', shouted after the courting couples. Secondary fears of sex and giving birth, other rites of passage not yet undertaken, are breaking through and intensifying the primary anxiety of the journey to the Reservoir.(82) Thus the same speaker ends up with a despairing, 'We'll never get to the Reservoir!'.(83) This is followed by an attempt at scapegoating which, in turn, is overtaken by events: the first physical injury among the group. Someone claims to have 'strained my ankle.' The narrative returns briefly as something approximating a mere stage-direction in a drama, indicating that someone cries and the groups halts. Then the dialogue reasserts itself, with a repetition of the child's claim about a strained ankle that serves as an intensifier, and in a last splutter of redundancy, the narrative offers, 'There was an argument.' By these stages the narrative has gradually ceased to have a presence in the situation that is developing, and from now on there is only dialogue.
The injured ankle appears to be a symptom of rising hysteria (significantly, the injury vanishes later on arrival at the Reservoir). The children next proceed to argue over whether the correct term for the injury is 'strained' or 'sprained'. This is partly a matter of psychological displacement, but it also shows an instinctive attempt by the children to control their situation by first controlling the language of the situation, as they observed their parents trying to do while arguing over the pronunciation of 'potpourri'. The children compete over the right word. The loser, who is in fact the child suffering the injury, concedes, 'All right sprained then.' But the child makes up for this loss on the level of language by attempting reassertion further up the hierarchy of experience, on the level of knowledge. The child insists on the proper form of the injured ankle's treatment, although this degenerates into a display of specialised language with 'bandage' and 'crutches'. This insistence is in turn challenged by an appeal to direct experience, when someone else talks about actually using crutches after falling off a pair of stilts. This child starts to show a scar on his or her shin from the incident, but then the child seems even more determined to control the terms of the scar's description, by announcing its colour and comparing it to a centipede. Thus, in this competitive dialogue, appeals to knowledge and experience tend to be overtaken by concerns with language.
Language is itself a world parallel to the realities of knowledge and experience, but one with an advantage in that it can be easily manipulated in a way that reality cannot. When the child with 'a white scar' describes the scar on his or her 'shins', the child is creating something in language which is unlikely in reality: having a single scar on plural 'shins'. Taking a cue from that, the next speaker is able to talk about the 'funny word' that is 'shins' and then, by association with the word, asks about the experience of being kicked in the shins. But being kicked in the plural 'shins' is completely impossible in reality, although the expression exists as a common phrase. The next associative link in the dialogue is purely linguistic: the expressions 'funny word' and 'shins' lead someone to say 'funnybone'. This then returns the children to the process of correction and embellishment which began the extended dialogue. A child corrects the everyday expression 'funnybone' with the more scientific word for the same thing, 'humerus', which leads to the embellishments of knuckles, sprained and strained ankles, and then a list of random parts of the body and illnesses. Unwilling to face their reality, the children have begun to regress into a world of pure language-play, with words largely disconnected from their referents. At the same time, Frame continues to make the reader's experience parallel the children's. The insertion of the uncommon word 'humerus' puts the reader in the same sort of linguistic position that the children are in. The other children ignore the word, at best pretending knowledge, even while they include it in games of free association. Most likely, the reader does the same thing. This free-associative play that results only in a random list of body parts and illnesses can lead to another dangerous impasse for the children, and this is highlighted when the word 'infantile paralysis' itself appears in the list.
In response, the children begin to display genuine knowledge and experience again. First, one child truthfully describes the results of poliomyelitis: a wheelchair, leg braces and difficulty walking. Another child then chimes in by saying that 'in an iron lung you can't get out' and by comparing an iron lung to a cage. This is in marked contrast to the children's imaginative interpretation of Billy Whittaker's iron lung as being like armour, when they were trying to decide to visit the Reservoir. It seems the children knew all along that an iron lung was not glamorous or desirable. Under pressure such unpleasant and even ominous facts, which they have earlier been repressing, are coming out. The result is somewhat like a brief confession. Whereas earlier the children had sublimated Billy Whittaker's iron lung into protective armour in order to bolster their own courage, here they implicitly acknowledge the suffering and danger in Billy Whittaker's experience of physical paralysis. They are also acknowledging by association that the mental paralysis which would result from not going to the Reservoir might be similarly painful and dangerous (as it was during the children's over-extended summer holiday)--and thus that there can be no going back. Approaching this truth, the children regress again rapidly into the world of language-play. This time they are reduced to arguing about the pronunciation of the words 'ambulance' and 'hospital'. They have fallen exactly to the level of Mother in her inability to pronounce 'potpourri'. The children cannot get the words right in their near-panic, even though these are words of rescue.(84) One's mispronunciation of 'ambulance' leads another to the mispronunciation of 'hospital', and no sooner is this corrected than 'ambulance' is wrong again. The words 'Infantile Paralysis' then return to the dialogue, after which three of the children begin to chant loudly the names of patent medicines, like a primitive prayer.
What saves the children from complete panic is one child's sudden observation, 'The creek's going on high-flow!'. It is a comforting return to the known and measurable in the form of the children's earlier, if essentially meaningless, system of classification. It is also a re-establishment of the connection between language and a physical referent; indeed, it is the sort of use of language that leads to a sense of knowledge of, and power over, its referent. The story's form mirrors this development: the panicky dialogue ends. The comforting use of language to manage reality lets the children see 'the same old creek'. It dispels their doubts and allows them to manage the troubling, incomprehensible sighing from the pine-tree plantation just in front of them. They have, in fact, arrived. The children stay as close to their knowable creek as they can until they find it has 'deserted' them, and then they are completely among the pines--emblem of the incomprehensible unknown. But this lasts only for an instant, because next the children come through the pines and see the Reservoir for the first time. The body of water dazzles them, making it difficult to see as well as to comprehend, and they mentally compare it in its newness to a lake, a river and a sea, rejecting each. The children cry, in the first of three outbursts into direct speech, 'The Reservoir!'.
The children begin to comprehend the Reservoir and its surroundings through their various senses: the smell of the pine needles, the sound of the trees' sighing, and the sight of the water. When they gaze at the water clearly, they see 'an almost perfect calm which we knew to be deceptive'. They are already beginning to feel let down: there is a gap between the fear others express over the Reservoir and their own perception. Already the children see the fringe of pines at the water's edge as 'like toy trees', and they feel that the pines' sighing, which the child narrator can now explain prosaically as caused by the wind, has become understandable. The pines 'told us their sad secrets'--though what these secrets are is not specified at first. Instead, the children decide that the Reservoir's appearance of neatness 'concealed a disarray too frightening to be acknowledged except, without any defence, in moments of sleep and dreaming.' As when the children first began their visit to the Reservoir and felt the need to talk the journey up, because they did not encounter any immediate danger en route, so now they talk up the Reservoir itself to hide their letdown at arrival.
But Frame's writing is operating on two levels: to express the children's conscious understanding of what the Reservoir is and, through irony, to reveal the children's understanding on a subconscious level of what the Reservoir represents. First, the children are consciously beginning to realise that the hitherto unseen Reservoir is really a paper tiger, invested by adults with a danger that allows them to draw a specious authority from it. The children's reaction to this is to imitate the behaviour of the grownups, as they did earlier when trying to understand the creek and imagine the Reservoir, and similarly to invest the Reservoir with a sense of danger. This danger, they reason falsely and rather unimaginatively, must be something hidden from perceptible reality through people's denial, something so frightening that it can only be perceived in reality's alternative version: the world of sleep and dreams. And this, the children argue to themselves with circular logic and in their own form of denial, must be so because people are so afraid of the Reservoir.
However, on a subconscious level, perhaps because the children at last understand that adults are investing the Reservoir with their own sense of danger, the children are able to perceive the Reservoir as an empty vessel which has become a repository for the townspeople's feelings: fears which can only be expressed 'in moments of sleep and dreaming', when the repressive controlling devices of language and reason are removed. Carl Jung referred to such a repository as the collective unconscious.(85) Much in the story has foreshadowed this view of the Reservoir as a representation of the unconscious. Its geography suggests as much: a large, forbidden pool with a small, accessible creek that runs from it to the town, flowing constantly but arbitrarily. In Jungian terms, the Reservoir is an apt image for the collective unconscious, while the creek coming from it is an image of the personal unconscious and the town it flows to is an image of the ego. Furthermore, near the start of the story the adult narrator commented that the creek 'flowed day and night in our heads in all its detail.' The children also intuited that the sudden rises of the creek to 'high-flow' indicated 'whatever evil which "they", the authorities, had decided to purge so swiftly and secretly from the Reservoir.' When read in this light, even the doubts the children evince at the start of the story about the Reservoir's purity take on a new resonance. At this Jungian level, then, the journey to the Reservoir can be viewed as a quest for knowledge about oneself and the nature of one's community. This may even be one reason why the narrator is unnamed and so little of her background is described by Frame: her anonymity may make her seem somewhat like a Jungian archetypal figure. The narrator comes to discover the existence of the collective unconscious and also realises that it is best left undisturbed. But finally, from this necessary journey, the narrator develops her Jungian persona (i.e. one's public image). This results in the adult narrator's sophistication, which seems so much on show at the story's opening.
For all that, the Reservoir still perplexes the children by offering them nothing more to be afraid of than they would be of their own selves. Its waves are 'innocent'. The children's minds work to compare the waves' colours to petticoats and lettuce leaves, harmless objects, just as the pines have become like toy trees. By now the children have interpreted the pines' sighing as 'hush-sh', an injunction to be quiet. A little tentatively--the child narrator begins with 'perhaps' and ends with a question--the narrator decides that the pines' message is not to disturb something that 'must never ever be awakened' beneath the Reservoir's surface. If this implied menace is indeed the pines' secret, then the children are still in the process of talking the Reservoir up, since it seems that what must never be awakened is the same truth the adult narrator had the seagulls demonstrate at the story's start, when she described them defecating on the town's garden gnomes: social authority does not exist in nature. Ultimately, the power of social authority is an artificial creation, and this truth is better left unacknowledged.
Nevertheless, having conceived that the Reservoir itself is not dangerous but rather that something separate is, hidden inside the Reservoir, the child narrator begins to ask, 'What was it?'. She asks three analytical questions.(86) But at this point her imagination cannot assist her capacity for reason toward any answer whatsoever. And perhaps this is what she wants, since the non-appearance of any intimidating answer to these questions makes the children unafraid. In a paragraph consisting of one long sentence, the child narrator expresses the children's lack of fear, professing it just a little too much for the children to seem secure in their courage. Describing the Reservoir to herself as flat, with a fence around it, and trees, she notes the little house on the far side and wonders briefly if it has 'wheels inside'. On deciding to journey to the Reservoir earlier, the child narrator had imagined the Reservoir as having 'great wheels' with a 'demonic force'. Her sense of caution remains, fuelled by what remains of her imaginative conception of the Reservoir. But feeling that they see the Reservoir as it really is, the children cry out its name for a second time.
In front of the children a noticeboard warns of 'DANGER', completely in capitals that demand respect. But unlike the earlier sign, 'TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED BY ORDER', which seemed so intimidating when the children began to journey to the Reservoir, this notice has become meaningless. Experience has rendered its language empty, just as inexperience at the story's start led the children to the language of cliche, jargon and empty description. Realising that any separate danger exists only in the sign and not actually in the Reservoir itself, the children react with glee and become genuinely unafraid. They swing on the trees which, only a short time before, they had been personifying as crying and sighing but which are now reduced to mere objects. They gaze 'possessively' at the Reservoir, reducing it to the status of their creek, and they enjoy the contradiction in its 'wonderful calm and menace' as a body of water. They feel masters of their situation, and so they cry out the Reservoir's name for a third time. Curiously, this causes the children to quarrel over the pronunciation and spelling of the word. It is the third time in the story that pronunciation has become an issue. Nevertheless, although this sets up an obvious parallel with Mother and Father's argument over the pronunciation of potpourri--indeed, the verb 'quarrelled' is exactly the word Frame used to describe Mother and Father's argument--here the process of argument is reversed. Unable to manage the real experience of making potpourri, Mother sought to gain a failing control over the word itself (and later the children, in their near-panic over 'amberlance' and 'hostible', sought to manage some failing connection between language and reality). But here, having managed to gain experience of the Reservoir through their journey, the children are arguing over how best to articulate, and thus shape and control, this new experience.
But while the children are preoccupied with language, reality of a sort intrudes again: the children think it is getting dark. The fear of spending the night in strange territory is the only fear that has not been discounted by the children on reaching the Reservoir. Immediately the trees, which the children were swinging on a moment ago, are personified once again. Perhaps the trees are 'stealing the sunlight'. The children begin to run in panic, no longer caring about niceties of pronunciation or even that, once out of the trees, they are in sunlight again. Earlier, on their way to the Reservoir, the children passed the gully, the orchards, a danger sign about trespassers, a bull, an unrecognisable creek, and the pine trees. The children having left the trees behind already, these other items reappear quickly in reverse order. They find the creek again, but the fact that it is not recognisable here as their own, which left them cheerful before, now seems unbearable to them in their panic. Its wild flowers and dead sheep they no longer acknowledge as friendly, and the children's only concern is that they will have to sleep among them. The child narrator notes, 'We had lost all account of time'--this is literally true, since the children have lost the ability to calculate that the amount of time spent going to the Reservoir will be the same as the time spent returning. Whereas earlier a seemingly mythic bull in a paddock had barred the children's way, here they worry that magic eels will come out of the creek and move through the paddocks, changing into people who will prevent them from getting home. Next is the danger sign, 'TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED', this time operating in reverse to prevent the children from returning. Throughout this panicked return-journey the fear of night pervades until, alloyed with the magic eels which the children imagine, it is personified in the children's minds as a row of malevolent, black-coated people who will devour them. The children's vestigial powers of imagination about the Reservoir have become a hindrance to them, even potentially dangerous. They long for the still distant orchards, and the gully and its known world.
Whereas before the relentless sun had been the accompaniment to the horrors of Infantile Paralysis, now to the children night personified seems capable of transmitting the disease. But this paralysis takes the form of permanent exile: being unable to walk home. In fact the children are anything but physically paralysed--they are running for their lives--and they have successfully negotiated the rite of passage of journeying to the Reservoir. However, because they have been changed by the experience, in a real sense they cannot go home to childhood again, and the children seem to sense this. But they also worry that they may not be able to take their place as properly experienced members in the adult community; thus they worry that the grownups may not be able to locate them. Frame briefly characterises this coming world of adult power as a form of helplessness--being brought 'an iron lung with its own special key'. Earlier the iron lung has served as an image both of protective armour (seen through childish imagination) and of an enveloping cage (seen through grownup experience). Living in an adult community will mean living in a cage of experience, though it is possible for this be transformed into something like armour with a 'special' key: the imagination of childhood. But the key is also special in the sense that it is seldom likely to be used, perhaps never. The child narrator cannot yet understand this consciously, and the adult narrator seems incapable of displaying this degree of self-knowledge, yet Frame is able to hint at her point by gathering up the children's interpretations of an image already used in the story and presenting them as a lesson that the reader will be able to interpret.
But when the children reach home, they are in fact no worse than 'panting and scratched'. Night has not come and the children see the sun 'in the same place in the sky.' Not yet ready to acknowledge that their danger was all in their minds, they find this 'strange'. Yet 'strange' is a word that has been used repeatedly in the story to describe what is new or unknown, not what is familiar, and this is a further hint that the children's old world will no longer be the same for them. It is a paradox that this comes in an observation that nothing has changed. Certainly, however, one thing is already different: like anyone who has been through a rite of passage, the children are in a position to talk about it. They are no longer inarticulate, and the story they have to tell is, in fact, the one that the reader has almost finished.
However, the children's concern about whether to confess their new status to their parents is cut short. Mother greets the children with, 'You haven't been long away, kiddies', in a clear blow to their newly acquired, adult-like pride. As when Frame had Mother misplace the word 'strictly' in the sentence, 'I tell mine to keep strictly away', at the start of the story, Mother's apparent misplacement of the word 'long' is significant. Mother does not say, 'You haven't been away long', referring solely to time. In 'You haven't been long away', 'long' refers ambiguously to both time and distance. Mother still seems to be worrying that her children might go to the Reservoir. Father looks up from his newspaper, which could report on the wider world but which earlier existed to announce the drowning of children, and echoes her concern in a scolding, parental tone. The children feel that this attitude is 'out-of-date'. It takes no account of their new status--and the feeling that older adults are 'out-of-date' is the attitude of rebellious youth everywhere on gaining new confidence. However, the children say nothing about their trip; they continue to assume, perhaps less comfortably now, the role of being children. And thus the children scorn their parents' words in secret, thinking 'They were actually afraid!'. Of course, it may be assumed that the parents are not actually afraid of the Reservoir, and that the children are mistaking parental concern for fear. The children are also overcompensating for concealing their new sense of achievement--and perhaps for hiding from themselves any sense that their achievement has not really been so remarkable. In any case, to the extent that the children misunderstand their parents, they show that they have not yet fully grown up. Nevertheless, going to the Reservoir is another significant step on the child narrator's journey to maturity, and it will lead, as was made clear at the story's opening, into isolation from her parents and her town.
In Kierkegaardian terms, the child narrator has moved backwards from a subjective truth, that the Reservoir is to be regarded as a store of authority and danger, to an objective truth, that the Reservoir is to be regarded as just a store of water. Although for Frame's story this is part of the necessary journey towards maturity, such an experience comes at a price: alienation. This, then, is the second reason why the narrator is unnamed--the sense of alienation at the story's close means a loss of identity for the narrator. But all this is not an experience the reader can share. The risk in Frame's using the image of the Reservoir to stand for so much is exemplified in the complaint Thomas Carlyle is said to have made about 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner': 'a lot of bother about a bird.' For with whatever subjective truth the children may view the Reservoir at the story's start, from the opening of the story the reader already knows the objective truth: that reservoirs are not really repositories of authority or of the collective unconscious, but just areas of water. Thus it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the reader to see the Reservoir wholly from the children's point of view at the story's start, when the Reservoir is described as a mysterious object of respect. It is to get around this difficulty that Frame opens her story with her narrator as a recollecting adult. The adult narrator can exhibit a sense of superiority similar to the reader's own. However, the adult narrator also has a superior tone so exaggerated that it soon drives the reader away from imaginative sympathy with her in any case. But this tactic means that by the time the adult narrator's voice is discarded and the children begin their journey to the Reservoir in earnest, the reader is in a position to sympathise with the children's point of view during their quest. The story is told in the first person, and this naturally increases the reader's sense of identity with the child narrator. However, at the close of the story on the children's return, the reader now knows all about what the journey to the Reservoir has meant to the children, and the reader is ready to smile at the children's wounded pride over Mother's comment that they have not gone far and Father's insistence that such a journey should not be made. Thus, at the close, the reader is alienated again, this time from the children's point of view. The reader's experience of the story deftly mirrors the children's sense of alienation from their community, and the reader is ready for the adult narrator's distanced, sophisticated point of view at the story's opening once more.
This circular aspect of 'The Reservoir' is a vital part of the story's structure. In fact, the structure of the story reflects the entire mental and physical process of going to the Reservoir. The story begins with a series of starts and stops, containing hints and guesses about the nature of the Reservoir and what can be said about it. It is an oversimplification, but not a great one, to say that this section of the story is broadly preoccupied with language. Next follows a tediously drawn out passage of ennui, resulting from not learning any more about the Reservoir. This section of the story is similarly preoccupied with knowledge. Then, from the start of the story's second half, the physical journey to the Reservoir takes over and the story gathers suspense as difficulties are faced. A passage of unattributed dialogue follows in which the children, and the reader, struggle to stay in control of experience, after which comes discovery, disappointment and a sense of distance from the events. This section of the story can be described as broadly preoccupied with power. And at the story's anti-climactic close the reader is ready, on now knowing what the Reservoir means, to go back to the story's beginning again and read what happened with the world-weary sophistication that characterises the story's start.
Furthermore, just as the Reservoir is a paper tiger so, too, the story 'The Reservoir' has an empty core. In terms of events, little really happens, and the experience of reading the story is the slow realisation that nothing much is going to happen. Such writing has become commonplace because of Modernism, but Modernism is an urban development which arrived late in New Zealand's largely provincial culture, and thus Janet Frame was among New Zealand's first successful Modernist writers. If, misreading as a non-Modernist, or pre-Modernist, the reader expects to find conflict and drama in 'The Reservoir', then the resultant discovery that nothing happens will lead to a reading experience which is a form of paralysis. The way to avoid this danger of reading-paralysis is, like the children, to expand one's horizons: to learn to read the story in a Modernist, urbane, highly literary fashion, for its resonances and the wider significance of the narrator's provincial situation--in short, to become like the adult narrator. Thus the adult narrator's artistic pretension, so on display in the story's opening, is not an accidental acquisition. The narrator has grown up to become like the Modernist artist (and the Modernist artist's ideal reader) who sees provincial society's rites clearly from a distance and therefore cannot join in; but who, in seeing them, can comment on them ironically, a little superciliously.
In Virginia Woolf's classic of British Modernism, To the Lighthouse, members of the thoroughly urbane Ramsay family eventually arrive at their goal of the lighthouse, and this completes a psychic and artistic journey which puts everything into a state of rest and balance. The stillness of a finished pattern is the goal. There is no resulting sense of alienation, because reaching the lighthouse teaches Woolf's characters about themselves, rather than some critical truth about the world they live in. But in Frame's story, the only happy cultivated people are children who read insect newspapers. Frame's provincial situation is different, and so is her story's aim in describing it. During her New Zealand children's journey to the Reservoir, Frame shows that the acquisition of language, of knowledge and of power are processes involving the imagination, and the feeling that one has finally acquired these qualities occurs at the expense of the imagination. The children's ability to use their imagination in order to understand their world gradually deteriorates as the story progresses.(87) Thus, within the enclosed limits of a provincial world, to fail to strive for language, knowledge and power is to remain in a state of arrested paralysis. Yet, paradoxically, attainment of these qualities does not increase one's control over the world but only one's sense of isolation, ennui and helplessness, which then places one in the margins. To live naively before going to the Reservoir, or in forced sophistication after: this is the choice a provincial must always make.
53. The New Yorker, 12 Jan. 1963: 31-6.
54. Frame, Janet. The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches. New York, Braziller, 1963: 1-17. More recently, in You Are Now Entering the Human Heart. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1983: 127-139.
55. King, Michael. Wrestling With the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame. Washington DC, Counterpoint, 2000: 220.
56. Only the smallest of hints suggests the sex of the narrator: the expression 'follow the boys' as a possible activity on a Friday night downtown. This essay proceeds on the assumption, from this, that the narrator is female, but it is clearly a case that is far from proved.
57. In her autobiography Frame recalls returning home from university and being 'infuriated' at the ignorance of her parents because 'They knew nothing of Sigmund Freud, of The Golden Bough, of T.S. Eliot.' [Frame, Janet. An Angel at my Table: An Autobiography: Volume Two. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1984: (chap 3) 27.]
58. The narrative's technique at this point, a disingenuous naivety, is something Frame would have been familiar with from Sargeson's early stories--except that here, unlike in Sargeson, the naivety really is to be seen as a pose, as something affected by the narrator.
59. Like the Reservoir, the war memorial's 'Warrior' is capitalised as a mark of respect. Encompassing many paradoxes, war memorials were a significant and revered repository of conservative authority in New Zealand small towns in the first half of the twentieth century.
60. In her autobiography Frame recalls having only pump water at Wyndham before moving to Oamaru. [Frame, Janet. To the Is-land: An Autobiography: Volume One. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1982: (chap 5) 39.]
61. In her autobiography Frame recalls that Burke and Wills were her 'heroes of exploration'. [Frame, Janet. To the Is-land: An Autobiography: Volume One. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1982: (chap 25) 201.]
62. In her autobiography Frame describes a similar geography behind her house in Oamaru, including a creek from a reservoir. [Frame, Janet. To the Is-land: An Autobiography: Volume One. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1982: (chap 7) 53-54.]
63. This remarkable intuitive leap is only one of several unusual features in this passage. Another is that in thinking about the nature of water-treatment by adding their imagination to the pre-existing jargon, the children are unconsciously mimicking the action of water-treatment itself. Yet one more is the possibility--admittedly a remote one--that this intuition has its origin somehow, linguistically, in the 'usual Friday night treat' provided by Father, which comes from Woolworths in bags. Furthermore, when imagining the men carrying sacks through a circle of pines around the Reservoir, the children also seem to intuit correctly that the Reservoir is surrounded by a ring of pine trees--at least no other explanation is provided in the story for how they know this. But perhaps they have heard this fact earlier somehow, for the children do seem remarkably sure of it. Later they worry about spending the night among the pines at the Reservoir; and on finally seeing the Reservoir they show no surprise that the fringe of pines around it matches their prior conception. Finally, their intuition here becomes more accurate as it goes on: it is unlikely that the water need be treated at night (this seems a Gothic supposition); what the men would wear is unknown and immaterial, though a uniform is likely; the circle of pine trees is 'true' in the story's terms; and that the chemicals used would clean the water and prevent tooth decay is objectively true.
64. In her autobiography Frame recalls her mother's '"earthquake-and-tidal-wave voice," announcing with high-pitched urgency'. [Frame, Janet. To the Is-land: An Autobiography: Volume One. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1982: (chap 5) 40. Also (chap 7) 53.]
65. In her autobiography Frame recalls observing the water-level of the creek behind her house in a similar fashion. [Frame, Janet. To the Is-land: An Autobiography: Volume One. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1982: (chap 7) 57.]
66. Shakespeare, William. All's Well That Ends Well. II.3, lines 5-6.
67. The notion of the summer idyll has been common in New Zealand literature, including Frank Sargeson's famous 'That Summer', published in 1946. It is subverted here, as it was in Maurice Duggan's story 'Along Rideout Road that Summer', also published in the same year as 'The Reservoir', 1963.
68. In her autobiography Frame recalls playing with her sisters at dressing-up and adult-style role-playing games which had an erotic element. She notes: 'We graduated then, my sisters and I, from using Kewpies to using ourselves and, embarrassed by our daring, referred to our play, usually in our bedroom, as "one of those games." "Let's play one of those games," we'd say.' [Frame, Janet. To the Is-land: An Autobiography: Volume One. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1982: (chap 25) 202.]
69. In her autobiography Frame briefly recalls the polio epidemic of 1936. [Frame, Janet. To the Is-land: An Autobiography: Volume One. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1982: (chap 17) 139.]
70. This sort of use of paralysis has its antecedents, notably in James Joyce's short story 'The Sisters', in Dubliners. Charles Peake has commented that paralysis 'provides the metaphor for the spiritual condition of the Dubliners.' [Peake, Charles. James Joyce: The Citizen and the Artist. London, Edward Arnold, 1977: 14.]
71. The rhyme appears in Frame's autobiography as part of her childhood learning about sex, learned along with information 'about fucking and Frenchies'. [Frame, Janet. To the Is-land: An Autobiography: Volume One. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1982: (chap 9) 81.]
72. Frame is also playing a geographic joke here. Although Ohau sounds convincingly like the name of a small New Zealand town, no such place exists. However, the South Island's Lake Ohau is one of the largest in the country. It is certainly large enough to appear, to adults, the way the Reservoir might to children.
73. In her autobiography Frame recalls similar adventures behind her house in Oamaru, and 'deep drifts of fallen pine needles, some many feet deep over the entrances of old rabbit warrens'. [Frame, Janet. To the Is-land: An Autobiography: Volume One. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1982: (chap 7) 60.]
74. Personification is common in Frame's writing. Its origins may lie in her childhood reading of Grimm's Fairy Tales, which clearly influenced her early writing, and where 'Even the insects and animals in the stories had speech; I'd always felt as if they had'. [Frame, Janet. To the Is-land: An Autobiography: Volume One. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1982: (chap 9) 79-80.] In her autobiography Frame recalls being moved as a child by the sound of the wind in telegraph wires: 'In listening to the wind and its sad song, I knew I was listening to a sadness that had no relation to me, which belonged to the world.' She also notes that she will not search for the 'commonplace origins' of such a feeling. [Frame, op. cit.: (chap 3) 22-23.] She further writes of her later home at Willowglen that it had 'a plantation of young pines to listen to with the wind blowing'. [Frame, Janet. An Angel at my Table: An Autobiography: Volume Two. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1984: (chap 6) 53.] But it is tempting to speculate upon a linguistic origin for the pines' behaviour here, perhaps even in the author's conscious mind, since 'to pine' can mean 'to long for' or 'to be tormented'. In Frame's novel Owls Do Cry, too, a fir tree in chapter three talks--but only to itself, 'saying firr-firr-firr, its own name'. [Frame, Janet. Owls Do Cry. Christchurch, Pegasus Press, 1957.] Frame, too, would mostly likely be aware of the fondness of the Romantics for the aeolian harp, a sound-box with tuned strings which made a noise when the wind went through it (much as the branches of a tree do, or wind in wires), because it produced art almost directly from nature.
75. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico Philosophicus: 7.
76. In her autobiography Frame recalls joining the Green Feather gang in Oamaru as a child. [Frame, Janet. To the Is-land: An Autobiography: Volume One. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1982: (chap 12) 100.]
77. To the extent that the children's reaction, on hearing of this tragedy in Billy Whittaker's life, is envy and delight, then the children's emotions are an ironic inversion of Aristotelian catharsis. Aristotle argued that dramatic tragedy should produce a purgative pity and fear in its audience. Although the reader cannot know it at this point, the children later show they do understand that being in an iron lung is not glamorous ('Once you're in an iron lung you can't get out, they lock it, like a cage'), so their response here is, in fact, purposefully false, a mixture of repression and bravado. But this understanding is only possible on re-reading the story.
78. In her autobiography Frame recalls the 'railway tradition' of people stepping back from the platform when a train arrived to avoid being sucked under. [Frame, Janet. An Angel at my Table: An Autobiography: Volume Two. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1984: (chap 13) 93.]
79. The Dictionary of New Zealand English describes the Limited as 'an express train formerly running between Auckland and Wellington; occasionally applied to a South Island "main trunk" train.'
80. In her autobiography Frame recalls a Mr Bennett[sic] who was gored by his brown jersey bull. [Frame, Janet. To the Is-land: An Autobiography: Volume One. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1982: (chap 4) 28.]
81. The New Zealand evening is notable for its lack of twilight, so the children are in fact exaggerating something that really happens. The passage may contain an echo of Katherine Mansfield's similar observation in her story 'The Woman at the Store': 'There is no twilight in our New Zealand days, but a curious half-hour when everything appears grotesque--it frightens--as though the savage spirit of the country walked abroad and sneered at what it saw.' [Mansfield, Katherine. The Collected Short Stories. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1981: 554.]
82. It is not entirely clear whether the rhyme 'Waiting by the garden gate' is spoken out loud or part of the speaker's thoughts. If it is thought, then it is possible that the mind being entered is the child narrator's. But there is no other evidence for this. Nevertheless, the following of boys on Friday nights, the fear that Mother might have run away on the night train, 'those games' the children claimed to give up which involve secret paramours, the fascination with the courting couples, the unconscious fears about babies: all these point to a strong sense of sexuality in the background of the narrator's psyche. And this is not just a child's latent sexuality, since the narrator is an adult. One can see the contrast clearly in Maurice Duggan's main character, Buster O'Leary, in 'Along Rideout Road that Summer', which was published in the same year as 'The Reservoir'. The adult Buster describes his adolescent sexual awakening with a bravado that displays an obvious sense of distance and a need to be thus distanced. But the adult narrator in 'The Reservoir' still seems to share the same concerns over sexual relationships that are exhibited by the child protagonist. If what was latent in the child now exists as frustration in the adult, then this is a further example of a form alienation on the part of the adult narrator.
83. The original collected version of 'The Reservoir', published by Braziller, has the sentence 'We'll never get to the Reservoir!' indented, as if spoken by a new speaker, not the speaker or thinker of 'Waiting by the garden gate'. But this sentence is not indented in later versions.
84. The words are also convincingly chosen, since 'ambulance' and 'hospital' are notoriously difficult for children to pronounce--just as the French spelling of 'potpourri' creates difficulties for adults.
85. It is thus entirely appropriate that the children's understanding of the Reservoir as an image of the unconscious should occur at their subconscious level. Even here, Frame is making her story's action parallel its meaning.
86. The children did something similar when they saw the creek in flood near the start of the story and imagined that the authorities were venting some separate evil concealed under the water.
87. At the story's start the children can correctly intuit the process of water treatment (and the ring of pines around the Reservoir) merely by means of their imagination. [See note 63.] At around the same time, however, they begin the logical classification of the creek's levels according to reason, a grownup activity. A study of the conflict between declining innocence (exemplified by the imagination) and advancing experience (exemplified by reason) in 'The Reservoir' would probably be useful.
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.
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