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'The Painter' is one of Janet Frame's minor and neglected stories. Her biography records that she wrote it while living in Auckland, 'inspired by the do-it-yourself activities of the man next door, who had distracted her for days by scraping paint off his house.'(88) It was published a short time later in the New Zealand Listener, in 1975.(89) Frame did not choose to include the story in her next collection of short fiction, You Are Now Entering the Human Heart, published in 1983, although the piece was anthologised in a New Zealand Short Stories volume, the fourth and final of the series, which appeared in 1984.(90) Thus 'The Painter' has never been properly collected and has never enjoyed the international readership and attention that most of Frame's other work has received. In fact, Frame appears to have taken no interest in the story after its first appearance.
The story describes how a suburban family-man, named Robert, decides to take up painting, and what happens when he begins his new hobby. Despite first appearances to the contrary, Robert's hobby turns out to be not easel-painting but painting his house. As in John Cheever's story 'The Swimmer', where references to The Odyssey mislead the reader into believing that the story will describe a man's return to his loving home (when in truth his wife has left him and the home will be discovered as empty), Frame deliberately deceives her reader. Her title and opening paragraphs mislead the reader into thinking that Robert intends to take up the fine arts. This is done in a deadpan fashion that offers no hint of any surprise to come. Also as in Cheever's story, this contrived deception partly reflects the protagonist's own sense of the importance of the task he is about to undertake; and, again as in Cheever, a feature of 'The Painter' is the intrusive role of the narrator. Frame's narrator plays a key role in withholding information about Robert's painting from the reader at the start. Thus the model for the opening of the story is somewhere between the detective novel, where the narrator reveals information about a puzzling situation slowly and obliquely and tries to outwit the reader with false leads, and the joke, where the narrator withholds crucial information for an extended period and then reveals it all at once as something unsuspected and comic. Indeed, the main impression that the story's opening leaves is of a sardonic and elaborate joke. A stolid New Zealand family is presented as so unimaginative that it cannot conceive of painting except as house-painting, and even this smallest of steps towards self-expression becomes a subversive activity for lives so bound by habit.
In fact, 'The Painter' begins with a reaction to something like a joke: Robert's laughter at the suggestion that he take up painting. The identity of the unnamed 'someone' who makes the suggestion is left deliberately vague, just as the words 'take up', with their overtone of beginning a study or practice, are misleadingly precise. The opening paragraph then moves into an apparently straightforward passage of free indirect dialogue from Robert's point of view: his protest that he has no time for painting because his weekend is occupied with work on his house and property. But it is part and parcel of this story's essential deceptiveness that, although Robert is largely defined by what he does, the reader is never told what Robert does for a living. The characters in Robert's family all have names, but their family name is never revealed. Any area in which Robert might validate his identity outside of being a painter is suppressed.
Once Robert has protested that he has no time for painting, he goes on to protest that the other members of his family have no time either. His son, Pete, assists him with maintaining the property on weekends. His wife, Ailsa, and his daughter, Gwen, are busy with housework. The fact that his family members are busy adds nothing to the logic of Robert's argument about not having time to paint, but it does seem to intensify it and, above all, justify his busy state as normal. He is tied to 'A busy household with no time'. As if further to intensify his argument, the story's next sentence lists family duties, all capitalised to show their importance. Even relaxation is prescribed: television in the evenings, and going to the bach in summer. And at the bach, despite a 'change of scene', the routine of maintenance is the same. To the reader it is now obvious that the family members are prisoners of habit, but Robert seems helpfully to press this point still further. He exclaims, 'They'd never had a year without new potatoes', and details his backbreaking efforts one particular year to grow potatoes for Christmas in a drought. While the resultant meagre Christmas-serving fulfilled habit's demands, 'The rest of the garden yielded nothing.'(91) Nevertheless, the plaintive tone in Robert's protests reveals that he does not enjoy his weekend and holiday chores. They require a lot of effort for a minimal reward. Robert refers to such chores explicitly at the beginning of the next paragraph as 'work'. His life, as he has described it to himself, seems all work and no play.
Painting is what other people do. Robert next protests that his brother-in-law, Bert, is 'the painter of the family', another phrase which misleads the reader about the nature of painting in the story. But though a brother-in-law may be on the edge of the family circle, painters, crucially, are not outsiders. As Robert assesses this, the paragraph follows the movements of his mind. Robert has friends who are painters, and they discuss painting as something separate from 'work' while on the job and in their lunch break. Robert is locked into the community of his family, with its demands on his time, but painters appear to be a community of their own as they discuss the tools of the trade together. Robert notes approvingly, 'Painters could do anything they liked these days.' With its heavily implied reference to the stereotypical view of the modern artist's demands for private and public freedom, this sentence is phrased in a way that is deeply duplicitous. However, it is the prospect of freedom explicit in the sentence which is attractive for Robert--so attractive that the word 'Anything', expressing his next thought in reaction to this, is given its own paragraph to highlight its significance.
But despite this psychologically convincing build-up to a moment of decision, Robert receives one more push towards making up his mind. The free indirect dialogue of the story's opening breaks into direct speech. The unnamed 'someone', whose reported suggestion that Robert take up painting began the story, appears to repeat the suggestion in a now direct exchange; and this speaker acts as if discounting all of Robert's protests, though Robert seemed merely to have been rehearsing them to himself. But--even if the speaker is the same person--who is speaking? The narrative continues without explanation, although Robert no longer resists. The next paragraph notes that by giving in Robert 'surprised himself and everyone else', also without properly explaining who 'everyone else' might be. Instead the narrative hurries on--the paragraph is a single sentence--and details how on the way back from work, towards the 'work' of home, Robert buys some painting equipment from a hardware store. That Robert does not buy equipment at an artist's-supply store is a clue to the real nature of his painting, and yet the reader is unlikely to notice. The paragraph finishes solemnly, and again misleadingly: 'that evening he broke the news to the family.' However, to the extent that the phrase 'broke the news' means disclosing something not previously suspected, then it seems that the other family members have known nothing of Robert's prevarication about becoming a painter; and if so, who is left to be the 'everyone else' that Robert surprised when he at last ceased 'resisting' the idea? It is not the reader, who has read of Robert's decision process in the opening paragraphs. At just the same time that the hardware-store clue hints there may be something strange about the narrative of 'The Painter', the further clue contained in this paragraph's lack of realism indicates that the story's form may not, after all, be any more conventional than its content.
Family members account for all the other named characters in the story, and their approval of Robert's decision to paint is of singular importance to him. Thus he prepares carefully before informing his family, by buying his painting equipment first and then presenting them with a fait accompli. He tells them 'I'm taking up painting' at the start of a section of direct speech and descriptive narrative which forms the climax of the story's opening. Indeed, since 'The Painter' has no other moment of narrative suspense, this is the only climax of the story, coming near the beginning instead of the end. After Robert has made his announcement, the descriptive narrative observes that Gwen speaks and Pete does not.(92) These statements appear to constitute the story continuing from Robert's point of view, as he puts a good face on what he encounters. In this reading, Robert feels 'Gwen was excited', though her actual words which follow, 'Oh Dad!', seem curiously flat. This is partly because Gwen's speech is only two words long and partly because they are redundant. Also, these two words in direct speech are ambiguous--despite the way they are described in the narrative, they could actually come from Gwen's mouth with a positive or negative nuance. Next, the fact that Pete says nothing appears to be explained away by Robert as, 'He was a quiet boy'. But this tautology is feeble at best, along with its further qualification that 'the whole family was quiet.' Just as with Gwen's speech, so Pete's non-speech can be interpreted by the reader as tacit approval or taciturn disapproval.
But these descriptive narrative statements, seeming to represent Robert's interpretations, are more complicated than they appear. They can also be read as not indicating Robert's point of view but rather as coming solely from the persona of the controlling narrator, who has designs of her own. For from this stage the story's development must face a significant narrative problem. Continuing with the story's essential deception makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, to present Robert's breaking his news and his family's mixed reaction in its entirety through the immediacy of the direct speech and descriptive narrative of conventional realism. This is because, true to the formal models of the detective novel and the joke, it is not the characters, nor the narrator, but instead the reader who is the most obtuse in the story at this point: only the reader believes that Robert is talking about easel-painting. However, in a conventionally realistic narrative, announcing that one is merely going to paint the house is not a large event that will generate a remarkable reaction. Nevertheless, in order to deceive, a joke (or detective novel) must seem convincing at first. Thus to continue the joke by maintaining its necessary illusion of realism will require, paradoxically, a great deal of narrative contrivance. Frame's narrator gets around this problem by abandoning immediacy: she intrudes ever further into the hitherto impersonal narrative. First, the descriptive statement that 'Gwen was excited' in reaction to her father's announcement, followed by her direct speech, 'Oh Dad!', is not in its natural narrative order. Usually Robert would hear his daughter's words and then decide on their meaning. This reverse order is contrived by the narrator so as to direct the reader's response in advance to Gwen's speech. Next, after Pete's silence is explained away by Robert (or possibly the narrator), the narrator appears to intrude directly to explain the explanation with 'the whole family was quiet'. There are a number of ways of reading this sentence--where and to what degree the narrator takes over from Robert remains problematic. But there is no doubt that, following Pete's silence, the narrator then speaks directly to the reader on the subject of quiet for a paragraph. This operates to screen most of Ailsa's reaction from the reader. She is the most senior of the three family members, yet after the narrator's paragraph-long intrusion Ailsa's words are recorded only in direct speech and without descriptive qualification: 'I'm glad you're taking up painting'. These words appear as something like Ailsa's summary conclusion, with her initial reaction, in effect, already over.
Far from being Frame herself, or perhaps even an authorial persona, Frame's narrator is now revealed as more like a character in her own story.(93) The narrator is quite possibly the unnamed 'someone' who began the story by suggesting that Robert take up painting, and perhaps the person who later intruded anonymously into the narrative in direct speech to push Robert into making up his mind. If the narrator's relationship to her protagonist is truly that of one character to another, then perhaps she is also the 'everyone else' who was surprised when Robert gave in and decided to paint. All this can be speculated on, but it cannot be proven because of one more quality of the narrator-as-character: she is a trickster. The narrator attempts to mislead the reader about the truth of Robert's painting for as long as possible. She offers clues but makes sure that the reader is unlikely to notice them. This sort of game-playing fits easily into the category of Post-modernism, and so it is no surprise that writing 'The Painter' immediately preceded Frame's composition of her novel Living in the Maniototo, which famously embodies Post-modernist principles.(94)
Even the paragraph in which the narrator intrudes to screen Ailsa's reaction from the reader is a trick, since it says very little. It begins as a narrative generalisation, comparing two types of families. Thus it seems the narrator will obscure the family's approval or disapproval of Robert's painting with her own appraisal of family types. But the narrator's tone, behind the generalisation, is peevish and she appears to disapprove of both types. Members of the first sort of family want to stay in constant contact, and the narrator even gives detailed examples of their announcements of intention. But they are 'forever' discussing and announcing, and the examples given are of trivial activities. She compares their calling out to the behaviour of twittering birds. (In an echo of this, Robert and his family--themselves examples of the phrase 'a bird in a gilded cage'--maintain an aviary in their garden.) In her summation, 'A small movement apart creates a ravine of distance that has to be bridged at once or all is lost', the narrator's tone seems censorious of such overcompensation. But family members of the second type, who 'disconnect their tongues and beings for long periods and appear to give a kind of suspense to their life', seem to draw even greater disapproval for not really living at all. Yet the narrator's description here is rushed, in a single sentence, and weighty statements and qualifications, such as 'tongues and beings' and 'appear to give', are not pursued. Nevertheless, it is to this latter category that Robert's family seems to belong, because of its busy 'outward life'. In the end the narrator never explicitly places Robert's family in the latter category; this is merely implied.
Thus the reader's experience of this paragraph, too, involves a kind of suspense: reading about the carefully described first type of family, then the hurriedly described second sort, and waiting to discover where Robert's family will fit--only to find them slipped almost into the second type in the paragraph's concluding words. The narrator's sententious tone in this paragraph is necessary to her strategy and more important than the little that is explicitly said, because to the extent that the intrusiveness of the narrator is discounted by the reader as reasonable, then the illusion of realism and the joke form can be maintained. Furthermore, if the narrator is a character in her own story, she fits most likely into the first type of family 'forever discussing, announcing [...] or calling'. And she does offer a judgement. Although the narrator may say little of importance to the story's development and at some length, by the close of the paragraph it is implied that she thinks Robert's family members lead hollow lives, and that the sort of quiet waiting they live in is not good. Their quiet is not a restful, inner contemplation, but rather a quietly busy 'outward life' acting as a distraction from an inner absence. This may inform the narrator's earlier observation that Robert's 'whole family was quiet', because they have obscured their inner lives from themselves--just, in fact, as the narrator's busy, wordy elaboration on family types has obscured the expression of Alisa's inner life, in the form her reaction, from the reader.
Ailsa's concluding approval, too, is not as simple as it first appears. She immediately qualifies it with a crucial question, 'You don't mean painting?', which the narrator teasingly refers to as an 'afterthought'. The afterthought supplies a further clue to the reader that there are two types of painting at play in the story, and that the possibility of house-painting should be considered (although in her own terms of reference Ailsa, in her afterthought, is probably referring to easel-painting). But even when the reader picks up on this moment of ambiguity, the result is that the reader, no less than Ailsa, is likely to become confused about what sort of painting is being referred to at this point in the story--even as Robert is resolved in his own mind on his new role and identity. Robert is not about to be deterred by the indecisiveness of others, especially not by the Sartrean bad faith implied in Alisa's fruitlessly bringing up 'other-times, other-opportunities.' The narrative even cheekily has Robert become indecisive about the frequency of Ailsa's indecisiveness, before Robert further blinds the reader to the coming punch-line by affirming, 'Of course I mean painting.' For instead of clarifying what sort of painting he means, Robert's answer only serves to throw the story into even more complex semantic disarray. He and Ailsa appear to be now talking at something like cross-purposes, with Robert believing he is referring to house-painting, and Ailsa wondering if he refers to easel-painting. Certainly the reader believes, mistakenly, that Robert is talking about easel-painting. As in the mechanism of a joke, or a detective novel, the reader's willingness to interpret will not help before the revelation comes, but can only lead to further confusion. And while the reader and the characters all wait for the situation to be cleared up, the narrator intrudes again for a further paragraph--appropriately, on the subject of waiting.
The intruding narrator continues to play games that subvert the reader's expectations. She sententiously describes this moment as, perhaps, the sort when angels visit, although the narrator herself is the only notable presence in the paragraph, speaking and then leaving.(95) Significantly, however, the narrator claims that angels are attracted to this sort of moment because it contains the good quiet of mutual examination, where people look at each other, and of imaginative contemplation, where people wait for inspiration to speak to them or depart. Thus instead of the usual bad quiet of the family's busy 'outward life', the family in reaction and confusion over Robert's announcement has produced a moment of genuine good quiet. They are looking at each other and into themselves. Passivity is a key aspect. The 'promises and performances' of the family's habitual chores--both words which imply a degree of forced, artificial behaviour--are absent. Also absent is the empty sort of 'conversational fuss' that the reader has just observed. The family's bad quiet was earlier characterised as a form of self-distracting activity and suspended inner life. However, the family's good quiet is the reverse; it comes from outward stillness and inward meditation. Interestingly, in the light of the clarification in favour of house-painting to follow, it is while the family members (and the reader) contemplate the possibility of Robert taking up easel-painting that this moment of good quiet appears to occur.
But with the news about painting now more or less broken to the family, the 'news' about 'painting' can now also be broken to the reader. Robert delivers a long-delayed shock to the reader by making clear exactly what sort of painting he means. With this punch-line, the existence of the joke is revealed: the story's conversational fuss has been about Robert's decision to paint his house on the weekends. And at this moment of knowledge an angel of a somewhat wry examination and contemplation can be said to visit the reader. For although New Zealand's weatherboard houses require painting every few years or so as part of their maintenance, Robert's choice seems hardly a life-altering decision. But it is a conscious decision on his part, in the face of a life of habit, and further consideration by the reader will reveal that Robert's decision is not entirely ridiculous. It delivers self-reliance (a quality especially prized in New Zealand), since Robert will take over the family house-painting from his brother-in-law Bert. Robert's decision will also help him to assume greater responsibility for his own life. But most readers will feel somewhat let down, and the first half of the story begins to peter out from this point, over the next two paragraphs. Significantly, the narrative is once again contrived so that the family's immediate reaction to Robert's clarification of his painting is not recorded.
However, the decision does upset the family's equilibrium, and in describing this upset the true reaction of Robert's family over time is revealed in the next paragraph. The 'mood of dissatisfaction and restlessness' which envelops the family is so strong that even Robert, though resolved and prepared, is unable to begin painting on Saturday. This mood, much stronger than the family members' initial reaction of careful approval, implicitly suggests that they do not know their own minds. Spring, capitalised for importance, is vaguely blamed by Ailsa and then Robert as a cause--and since spring is the season of nature's reawakening it is an appropriate intuition as an image, though not as an explanation, for what has happened. Now feeling divided in itself, the family faces a day that seems 'strange'. The family's expression of its restlessness then broadens from the personal (Ailsa's desire to study something creative), through the social (Pete's tiredness at having to fit his face to others' conversation), to the national (Gwen's agreement with ambassadors who claim that New Zealand is dull).(96) But, unlike Robert, the other family members make no saving move towards self-responsibility. Ailsa feels she 'ought to' take a course. Pete complains without considering any change of self. Gwen's complaint merely chimes in with somebody else's. The trickster-narrator is present in the paragraph, too. She goes to the trouble of giving Ailsa's precise words--'something creative'--in quotation marks, but only to show Ailsa's vagueness: that any course of study will do. She interprets Pete's complaint about having to change his face literally, describing his face and sardonically noting that, despite his large size, he tires easily. Gwen's agreement with ambassadors that New Zealand is 'dull, plain dull' has the repetition of free indirect dialogue, but it also appears as if the narrator herself is cheekily mimicking Gwen's form of essentially imitative agreement with others.
In a version of the pathetic fallacy, the family members' dissatisfaction with their world colours their view of their environment. The weather becomes dull, and a cloudy sky creates a lack of 'head-room' in which to exist. In fact, since the neighbour is able to light a bonfire and the narcissi in the garden are in bloom, the weather is good enough for the family members to pursue their chores. But in their listless state a bonfire has become nothing more than unwanted smoke in the house. The narcissi look 'curdled'--the family members cannot even enjoy the results of their labour. Such burdensome days are good only when they are over. Robert alone will be the focus of the story from now on. What happens to the other characters is unclear, though in their habit-imprisoned lives it seems unlikely that they will find any escape from their frustrations. The end of the paragraph marks the story's halfway point, with its buried clues and opening joke played out. In the first half of the story, to the extent that the reader feels disappointed that Robert is only a house-painter, the mechanism of the joke has caused the reader to separate the worldly activity of house-painting from the aesthetic activity of easel-painting. This is in contrast to the feelings of the characters. They regard Robert's conscious choice to pursue the freedom in house-painting as socially subversive--just as much so as with taking up easel-painting. In the second half of 'The Painter', Frame attempts to re-integrate the reader's view by demonstrating the ability of a developing mind to transform the self. For Robert, doing painting will free him to be a painter, and thus change his inner character.
The second half of the story begins on Sunday, the traditional day of rest, with Robert commencing his activity at dawn. His painting is solitary, perhaps because he is still a little embarrassed by it. Furthermore, with its associations for him of personal liberation, he conceives of it in ways usually associated with art. He begins in what he feels is an 'unusual silence'--meaning both the sort of silence which seldom occurs and also a silence to which he is unaccustomed. At first, Robert finds this contemplative quiet so disconcerting that he has to correct and reorient himself: it is not the entire world which is silent, but only his own street. He wishes he had brought out a transistor-radio to distract himself with some music, or news, 'Or something.' This latter phrase can be read as an unconscious referral, in Robert's mind, back to what Ailsa said when she determined to study 'something creative' as a way of distracting herself from her own habit-governed life. But next Robert gets into the 'rhythm of the work' and feels better, although the word 'work' suggests a barrier has developed between Robert and his new experience: he feels better because he imagines that he is at work on a normal weekend chore. In order to screen from the reader how this barrier is removed, the narrator intrudes for a third time with a generalisation. She insists, in a deliberately complex statement of the obvious, that if a person's outward life is busy with noisy distractions from people and machines, then that person's inner being will be distracted even when not talking. This is elaborately characterised as 'an agitation at the root of the tongue, even when one is not speaking'. The image clearly refers back to, and helps to clarify, the bad quiet mentioned earlier in the story when the narrator intruded for the first time, where 'tongues and beings' are disconnected and yet 'appear to give a kind of suspense' to life. However, with Robert's family and the street not yet stirring, Robert's outward life is actually quiet. Rather, it is the narrator who is agitated, providing an intrusive 'outside' noise in an attempt to distract the reader.(97) At the end of the paragraph she has Robert explicitly feel a 'complete rest', with any barrier to his experience thus already gone.
Despite this attempt at screening the change in Robert's mind from the reader, two images from nature which follow, through their impact on Robert, indicate the process of his thinking. The first is the sight of two sparrows pecking on the lawn, which Robert glances at 'sideways'. Although the birds are ostensibly free, they appear to Robert as an image of habit-imprisoned domesticity. This can be inferred from Robert's reaction to what the narrative describes him seeing: the two birds, like himself and Ailsa, are engaged in work on the land without any clear object, pecking perhaps 'for seeds or worms. Or something.'(98) It is the appearance of Robert's thought ('Or something') which, through repetition, links this bird-image with the earlier moment in which he wished to distract his silent outward world by means of a transistor-radio--and also once more with Ailsa and her own efforts at self-distraction. Thus, through the association in his mind, Robert's interpretation of the image can be understood. The repeated phrase 'Or something' also acts as a pair of brackets in the narrative. At its first appearance, the technique of the narrative's free indirect dialogue (displaying Robert's thoughts while painting) was replaced by the increasingly intrusive presence of the narrator, which then declines and vanishes by the phrase's second appearance.
The second image from nature is of three unleashed dogs running by, enjoying the freedom of simply following each other according to chance. Thus, in contrast to the birds that are free but have bound themselves to peck on the lawn, Robert perceives the dogs running without direction as an image of genuine freedom. His first reaction, though, is to think of them in the stock middle-class terms--as well as the language--of his local newspaper.(99) That newspaper, he imagines, would automatically describe the dogs as 'at large, running wild', characterising their freedom only as escape and imputing to them a dangerous intent which plainly they do not have. Robert dismisses this view, but his is not a moment of social rebellion. Rather, he feels only tolerance. Likewise, it is no more than tolerance that brings Robert to dismiss Ailsa's description of the street--again, someone else's language is the medium for Robert's thoughts--as a '"Deathtrap with all those trucks."' He is not ready to reflect that it is the street's busy habits that are self-destructive, nor that the street is more pleasant and quiet when empty of vehicles. Nevertheless, in rejecting the barriers of received thinking and thus opening himself up to experience, the notion that there is something flawed about his everyday life continues to develop in Robert's mind, just as it first did in the story's opening paragraphs.
While coming to his feeling of 'complete rest', Robert has been stripping paint off his house, an apt emblem for stripping layers of received thinking from his personality. Next he begins to add fresh paint to his house in the form of undercoat, somewhat analogous to beginning to develop a new self. He has been, literally, in the dark, but now the sun comes out near Rangitoto island. Robert feels the sun before he sees it, and it begins to serve as a barometer of his concentration on building a new self. A scenic view of Rangitoto island from the windows of one's house adds great value to a residential property in Auckland.(100) Robert recalls that his own property once had this view but it is gone, because families around him have developed their own properties. There is always a curiously competitive element to materialism, and so it is a paradox that Robert's family can no longer see Rangitoto because of others' similar efforts at seeing it. Robert then thinks that the obscuring house over the road is, in fact, over-developed. Although it began as a cheap fibrolite bach, it has been raised and had a garage added underneath, along with a 'rumpus' room.(101) Distractive noise has been, as it were, built into it. This has all been done purely for financial gain through sale, and so Robert starts to feel there is something deceitful about the house, that it is less than the sum of its named, advertised parts. He uses the word 'surgery' to describe its development, although the alterations are really only an extreme case of his own maintenance and development chores. But such thinking is no longer tolerance from Robert; it is a mood of something like social rebellion.
As Robert implicitly rejects this sort of materialist life, he feels the sun shine on him harder at the beginning of the next paragraph. He appreciates the sun imaginatively, thinking of it as a 'big warm hand spread across his skin', and he gives himself up to it by taking his shirt off. But just as the previous paragraph began with Robert's thoughts imprisoned by habit and then set free, so this paragraph, in reverse, begins with Robert's thoughts free and returns them to habit. Robert's attention is distracted by the two sparrows on the lawn--even though he notes they are ignoring him and preoccupied with their pecking. His attention then wanders to the lawn itself, one of the most highly maintained parts of a New Zealand residential property. Robert personifies the lawn, possibly as a dog, since he feels it deserves 'a pat on the head'. Just as earlier thinking about sparrows and dogs indicated Robert's departure from habit-imprisoned thinking, so now they mark his relapse. He is glad that the lawn has not grown in the winter months, but with spring new grass is appearing which will have to be cut. As earlier, following Robert's announcement of his decision to paint, spring is blamed for mounting worries after a change in thinking. Resisting his attempts to develop a new self, Robert's mind focuses once more on a chore. In considering the house over the road Robert developed his thoughts about the dishonesty of materialist life, and in thinking about his lawn Robert finds another frame of reference: new growth must be prevented. In his mind the dog-like lawn gradually changes into an always-dangerous beast which might 'get a hold'. In a complex irony, Robert thinks he will be 'finished' if this happens. First, he will be finished because unchecked growth will make lawn-maintenance impossible. Secondly, he will be finished as the old, habit-bound Robert if his lawn merely grows and his new, self-developing line of thought continues. But thirdly, the possibility exists that if his new thinking allows him to develop completely, Robert may reach a finished (i.e. perfected) stage as a human being.
The sun does not shine on Robert so hard at the start of the next paragraph, as his development of a new self has wavered. The sunlight is mixed with shadows. In fact the narrative suggests that the sunlight has actually become 'moving shadows', in an echo perhaps of Macbeth's gloomy perception that life is 'but a walking shadow'.(102) But the process of Robert thinking about his life in terms borrowed from things immediately around him continues, now with a major self-examination. Robert becomes self-consciously aware of what he is doing (the narrative even hints he 'found himself'): that he is spreading undercoat not just on his material environment, characterised as his house, but also on himself in the form of his own shadow. His shadow even moves to evade this. It is as if until this point Robert has been alienated from his own self, a divided man, just like the other members of his family who seemed not to know their own minds when they reacted to Robert's announcement about painting. In painting over his shadow Robert is ending this sense of division and reintegrating into a new self. Thus, to Robert, he is leaving the truncated, childish, alienated part of his old self behind, just as he might on a train or in a car. He imagines, from the shadow's point of view, that the stunted old self is a child waving vaguely to strangers who are the newly forming Robert--waving hello as the shadow sees aspects of the old self in the new, and goodbye as the new self moves on and the old is left behind.
Following this moment of self-awareness, Robert sees the shadow of the tree he bought for his wife's birthday three years ago. It is large and even in its shadow-form he can see buds starting, indicative of burgeoning feelings for Ailsa, though he attempts to hide this from himself by thinking about the tree's price. Robert is continuing to think about his life in terms borrowed from things immediately around him, but to spare himself pain he is doing so at some remove, only going as far as considering shadows.(103) For that same time, three years back, the gift that Robert received in return from Ailsa was an aviary, a cage. Whereas he has to hide the strength of his feelings for Ailsa from himself, now he feels the need to reassure himself that the aviary was indeed a romantic gift. However, Robert's reaction on receiving the aviary three years ago was to plant a 'passionfruit vine' on its roof--to cover over the dubious cage with an emblem of passion. Even so, the only result was that the passionfruit wandered naturally next door, 'where it flourished, apparently disowning its roots'. This year the vine is withering and bears no fruit, suggesting that Robert's wandering romantic interests have waned. Perhaps the personal freedom in painting is the antidote Robert needs for having felt that his relationship with Ailsa is like a trap. In any case, no further information on Robert's marital relationship is offered (except for the hopeful image of the newly budding tree), because Robert ends this bittersweet self-examination by shutting his eyes 'dreamily'. The sun is at its warmest and Robert feels that, like the increasing self-knowledge it indicates, if it continues it will become unendurable. He effectively rejects the notion of going further.
Robert's self-examining mind has been largely abstracted from the physical process of painting, but it now returns to this when he accidentally brushes over an ant, creating a small flaw in the paintwork. In feeling that the ants will 'have to' be watched, Robert recommences deceiving himself by thinking of his life as duty, an inescapable routine. Even the weather in this sort of life seems prescribed, since Robert decides they are 'due for' a blandly medium summer. Advancement is possible only through narrow material means, such as owning a bigger boat. Robert still clings to his sense of new identity when he expresses painting's conflict with all this, in reverse terms from those of the story's opening: 'now that he'd taken up painting would he have time to sail?'. However, distracted from his task, Robert finds that his surroundings are no longer quiet and they intrude on his thinking. Boats provide the crossover link between his inward thoughts and outward distractions: he now sees boat-trailers being driven up the coast. His attention then wanders to the passing motorcyclists. Riding on motorcycles is often an emblem of freedom in literature, but Robert's attitude is an ambiguous mixture of envy and scorn. These are only 'Sunday morning motorcyclists', though he is only a Sunday painter. Their 'flash four-strokes with automatic everything' seem enviable; but at the same time Robert's language suggests he feels the motorbikes are only for show, with automation meaning that the rider is not really involved in the experience of riding.
The next three short paragraphs, each indicating a discrete thought of Robert's as he reconsiders the world around him in the light of his own morning's experience, are also ambiguous. The first, 'Yes everything', can be read as Robert's musing, prompted by the motorcycles, on the value of having everything and thus as an acceptance of his materially abundant life. The second, 'Dead by afternoon', can be read as Robert's disapproval of the motorcyclists' risky weekend attempts at escape from routine, in language echoing Ailsa's disapproval of the trucks which turn the street into a deathtrap. And the third, 'The quiet was gone', can be read as Robert's realisation that the good quiet of the early morning has vanished. But in tandem with this negative reading, an equally positive reading suggests itself. 'Yes everything' could be Robert's realisation of the doubtful value of materialism, where boats, motorcycles, habit and chores are all there is to a superficial life. In that case, 'Dead by afternoon' becomes a contemplative thought that everyone dies too soon, in the afternoon of life, and thus meaning must be given to life by doing and being in the spirit of carpe diem. 'The quiet was gone' then becomes an understanding that Robert's bad quiet, where one lives waiting 'for something important to happen', has been dispelled. The very ambiguity of these paragraphs reflects Robert's intermediate state; his effort at developing a new self through painting is, at best, a qualified success.
Nevertheless, after painting Robert can review what he has done. This, too, is largely an ambiguous combination of positive and negative thoughts. Like an artist, Robert has begun to produce an artefact, a painted house, but he is still inclined to think of his activity in terms of the number of weekends it will take to finish, like someone planning a chore. Robert can now become part of the community of painters. But when he imagines being asked about this, the expression he sees himself using in reply ('Yes, when I get the time') suggests a shyness about how he will reveal this to others, and again it suggests that he will disguise his attitude to what he does in terms of a limited household chore. And this further raises the problem that his painting will not only mean a struggle to find time but will also be over too quickly, in just a few weekends. Perhaps in reaction, Robert thinks of painting the bach after the house, thereby changing the pattern of his holidays. This prospect he begins to look forward to, though he realises it must still be the work of a limited number of Sunday mornings. As a result, Robert then feels dissatisfied and is inclined to belittle his own achievement as work not completed: 'it wasn't as if he had done anything.' Things are a struggle, time is limited, pleasures will all be over too quickly, nothing is properly achieved: this gloomy conclusion to Robert's line of thought--and by analogy his view of life itself in the noisy world--has developed unwittingly from the moment when, through inattention, Robert killed an ant.(104) For though he feels he has become a painter, Robert has not yet managed to attain the truly liberated condition of 'anything' which seemed so desirable when he first considered taking up the activity and thought: 'Painters could do anything they liked these days.'
Robert finds what is missing for him later that night. He awakens in complete quiet in the dark--just as he first began his painting in early-morning darkness--away from the distractions of daytime. Bird imagery has been recurrent in the story, and the only sound Robert hears next is the cry of a morepork, completely free in the nearby Domain.(105) His arm feels tired 'as he remembered' the motion with the paintbrush. Significantly, it is not the case that his tired arm reminds him of painting, but rather that the feeling comes to him as he returns, imaginatively, to remembering his painting. Wordsworth found that bringing daffodils seen earlier back to life through the 'inward eye' of imaginative contemplation was an even greater pleasure than the original experience, and in the same way Robert begins to find that remembering his day imaginatively brings him the unambiguous sense of freedom which eluded him earlier.(106) This process of transforming the world through the imagination is pre-eminently the activity of the creative artist; and it is in the transforming mind, rather than in the physical action of producing an artefact in a finite period, that true freedom exists. While painting earlier, Robert contemplated himself though the medium of the surrounding world; at night, he contemplates the world through the medium of the self. However, he feels he must do this quickly 'because it was work tomorrow and he hadn't time to say awake in the middle of the night'. At first reading this suggests Robert's continuing limitations as a creative-artist figure, but the expression is by no means wholly a criticism. Crucially, Robert's painting is now completely separate from his work, something he had hoped for when first he decided to take it up. In fact, like an artist, Robert is now balancing a mental activity he wholeheartedly wants to pursue against life's more practical demands. The repeated word 'quickly' can also mean 'alive', and it is in this sense that Robert seems to go on and recall the quiet and each of the elements of his morning's painting in turn. Most of all he remembers 'himself and his shadow, painting' as he began to develop a new self. In reaction Robert sighs, which the narrator unambiguously qualifies with 'happily'.
Near the end of the first half of the story Robert's announcement of his decision to paint disturbed his family, and once again an announcement by Robert near the story's close, his sigh of contentment, disturbs Ailsa beside him. She asks, 'WHAT ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT?'. Her question is in capitals to show its importance, to her and to the story. It may also indicate something of vehemence. Ailsa is not being quiet. Even so, the trickster-narrator is once more playing games with the reader's ability to find the story convincingly realistic; the reader has to reconcile a completely capitalised question with a couple talking in bed in the middle of the night. Robert's answer is 'Nothing', and he begins to fall asleep again. At first, this response seems mysterious. Perhaps Robert feels he cannot communicate his new sense of self to Ailsa and that as a painter he is beginning to live apart from ordinary society. Perhaps he feels he is indeed thinking of nothing, in the way W.B. Yeats compared a pensive mind to 'a long-legged fly upon the stream' moving on silence.(107) The final word of the story, a repeated 'Nothing', seems opaque.(108) Perhaps Ailsa makes no reply and so Robert repeats the word 'Nothing' for emphasis. Or maybe Ailsa is merely repeating the word between them in surprise. In any case, the ending of 'The Painter' is notably flat. As at the close of the first half, the story just seems to peter out.
But the final 'Nothing' may be the narrator's speech, and the final exchange may have a wider significance than is offered at first reading, for in 'The Painter' Robert appears to undergo an existential awakening. An existentialist view can argue that the members of Robert's family, preoccupied with external matters and with fitting into the definitions of identity supplied by others, are leading inauthentic, self-alienated lives. Indeed, when it is first suggested that Robert take up painting, the evasions of habit and duty which he rehearses serve as a case-study of Sartrean bad faith, even more so than the 'other-times, other-opportunities web' Ailsa seems likely to spin after Robert's announcement. For, crucially to existentialism, people give meaning to their lives by realising that they are free and choosing to act. Robert does precisely this when, attracted by the freedom of painting and as a surprise to his own divided self and everyone else, he ceases to resist the notion and chooses to paint. In existential terminology, Robert finds a new original project and begins a radical conversion of his own self. Jean-Paul Sartre, in particular, referred to this process as accepting responsibility.
Central to the concept of responsibility is that when people choose to act, they then define themselves: doing results in being. All of Robert's decisions before choosing to paint, such as marrying, having children and maintaining a household, appear to have been mere acceptance of society's roles. Painting is the only selfish activity Robert freely decides on in the story--it is solitary and related to the development of the self. By painting, even house-painting, he can then become a painter. Seen in this light, the momentousness of Robert's decision, the hesitancy with which it is accepted by his family members, and the restlessness it causes among them, take on a more convincing logic. Similarly, the initial push from the narrator that Robert take up painting seems less like a caprice. In an essay Sartre even compares the responsibility that comes from choosing to act and be to the construction of a work of art, and he seems to comment on Robert's sort of painting.
As everyone knows, there are no aesthetic values a priori, but there are values which will appear in due course in the coherence of the picture, in the relation between the will to create and the finished work. No one can tell what the painting of tomorrow will be like; one cannot judge a painting until it is done.(109)
Robert's sort of painting is the most humble type, and it is unfinished, but his will to create is sincere and actually fits the sense of painting that the reader formed on first seeing the story's title. Robert's decision also reveals a very New Zealand pragmatism--for what sort of painting, carried out in order to define one's own self, could be more appropriate than making something one can live in?
But Robert's existential awakening is not completed until the story's close, when he really does awake in the middle of the night. For the key to an existential awakening is to begin to understand that nothingness, in the form of death, is the one sure fact of life--and from this understanding everything else emerges. It is from contemplating nothingness as the inescapable condition of human life that a person can then properly choose to act and be. At the beginning of 'The Painter' Robert notices that, despite his efforts to grow potatoes in a drought, 'The rest of the garden yielded nothing.' But he does not pursue this. When Robert paints over an ant on the Sunday morning he does not immediately think of death, but rather of 'watching, controlling, trimming', an inauthentic sublimation about living in the face of death (even though the awareness of mortality colours his subsequent thoughts). But at night, at the story's close, contemplating his actions and then thinking about nothing, Robert comes to understand what he has been moving intuitively towards. 'Nothing' is thus the appropriate word to end the story, particularly if it is a final, intrusive push toward existential awareness coming in direct speech from the narrator, this time directed both to Robert and to the reader. Nothing is also, tantalisingly, the word used to describe Pete's non-response to Robert's announcement that he will take up painting early in the story. Perhaps this suggests that there may be something more existential in Pete's quiet, and in his tiredness at having to fit his face to what people are saying, than Robert understands. Has the narrator been concealing this from the other characters, and the reader as well? The characters are described obliquely, and they are distanced from the reader by the intrusive narrator, but the story's hints that they have lives outside its framework--Robert's job, the state of his marriage to Ailsa, Pete's quiet, Gwen's desire for excitement--help offset the impression that they are specimens used in the illustration of an idea.
Furthermore, 'nothing' stands in clear opposition to the materialism embodied in the 'everything' of the motorcycles. And the bad faith inherent in the characters' versions of 'something' is opposed to the liberated 'anything' that painters can do. The words 'anything' and 'something', 'everything' and 'nothing', appear so prominently as patterns in 'The Painter', and yet appear so baffling at first glance, that it is hard not to feel the trickster-narrator has fore-grounded them on purpose, to confuse analytically-minded readers. Paired images, often as oppositions, are also a prominent feature of 'The Painter'. The narrator intrudes to describe noisy families and quiet families, and good and bad forms of quiet. Birds appear caged and free, and they are also paired in contrast with dogs. Even the family members consist of two pairs. Much of this further patterning also appears arbitrary and confusing. One reason for its presence is that ideas of binary opposition, as well as of the ludic nature of narrative, were prominent in the literary-critical theory of early Post-modernism at the time when 'The Painter' was written. But an explanation for the arbitrariness in such patterning and its tendency to confuse may be that the founder of existentialism and apostle of nothingness, Martin Heidegger, argued that the only way to explore the nature of nothing was to abandon logic. Because of its penchant for trickery, 'The Painter' appears heavily contrived. Moreover, relative to the time at which it was written, it has a remarkably up-to-date Post-modern form and a somewhat old-fashioned existentialist content.(110) It is possible that the story was a practice piece, and this may be one reason why Frame chose not to collect it.(111)
But another more intriguing possibility exists for the story's neglect. The more carefully 'The Painter' is read, the more clearly its origins appear to lie in literary criticism and philosophy, rather than in Wordsworth's definition of good poetry: 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.'(112) Yet in her rare public interviews and (as her biography shows) even in private communication to friends, Frame has always been careful to present herself as an intuitive author in the Romantic mode. She describes herself as a sensitive whose often painfully perceptive nature allows her, in the manner of John Clare's famous phrase, to find her stories in the fields and only write them down.(113) Furthermore, in both Frame's autobiography and biography acute sensitivity has been linked not only to her creativity but is also frequently offered as an explanation for the mental breakdown that led to her incarceration. A large portion of Frame's readership has been happy with this linkage, wanting to be convinced that her writing is an invitation, through what seem acts of literary therapy, to a vicarious therapy of its own. Yet it is plain that Frame is a conscious artist whose fiction is the written distillation of thought as well as of feeling. If 'The Painter' reveals too clearly that the wellspring of Frame's fiction may be as much, if not more, in her reading of philosophy and literary criticism as in a troubled heart--stories written from ideas, rather than feelings, for which images have been found--then 'The Painter' may have become a work Frame chose purposefully to suppress.(114)
In any case, deliberate neglect by its author seems curiously in harmony with the spirit of 'The Painter'. Save for Robert, the characters in the story act without any sense of existential responsibility and, what is worse, by insisting on their duty to their habit-imprisoned lives, they turn the notion of responsibility on its head. The trickster-narrator, too, plainly feels no responsibility to advance the sort of narrative the reader might expect from the conventional-looking opening. She even contrives a joke so that the reader will think negatively of Robert's house-painting, with a climax near the work's start and an ending that appears unsatisfactory. Thus the reader, too, is unlikely to take a responsible approach to reading Robert's story. Nevertheless, if Frame has been consistently misrepresenting the way her fiction is written, and then suppressing fiction too revealing of her methods, that would be the greatest act of irresponsibility of all.
88. King, Michael. Wrestling With the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame. Washington DC, Counterpoint, 2000: 400.
89. New Zealand Listener, 6 Sept, 1975: 20.
90. Frame, Janet. You Are Now Entering the Human Heart, Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1983. Wevers, Lydia, ed. New Zealand Short Stories, Fourth Series. Auckland, Oxford University Press, 1984: 83-86.
91. The inappropriateness of eating potatoes in the heat of a drought is not pursued. However, it was part of the inauthentic nature of New Zealand culture at this time (the mid-twentieth century) that New Zealanders still usually celebrated Christmas during the antipodean summer with a heavy, British-style meal. Maurice Duggan's 'The Departure' puts a family through an inappropriate roast meal in summer weather.
92. Because it has never been collected, 'The Painter' has a number of textual problems. This essay is based on assumptions of what seems appropriate. The New Zealand Short Stories version appears to be a copy of the earlier New Zealand Listener version, but unfortunately the Listener version is a mess. Paragraphs are sometimes indented, sometimes not, so that it is not always clear when a new paragraph begins. Dashes used to indicate direct speech sometimes appear, and sometimes do not, so that it can be unclear whether a character or the narrator is speaking. The New Zealand Short Stories version makes several sensible changes, but it fails to make others, and it introduces at least one error of its own. The problems in the New Zealand Short Stories version appear to be: 'Anything' (after 'Painters could do anything they liked these days') should be indented as a new paragraph; '--I've got a supply in the workshop' should follow on from 'he said', instead of being a new paragraph; 'Gwen was excited' should begin a new paragraph; 'I'm glad you're taking up painting' should be preceded by a dash; 'Of course I mean painting' should be preceded by a dash; 'Yes, painting' should be preceded by a dash; the second 'Or something' (after 'seeds or worms') should be a new paragraph; 'Ailsa moved' at the story's close should begin a new paragraph. See also note 108.
93. There is no indication of the narrator's sex in the story but, true to the impish spirit of 'The Painter', the exigencies of writing criticism about the piece require an arbitrary decision to be made.
94. Frame, Janet. Living in the Maniototo. New York, Braziller, 1979. Michael King makes it clear that Frame began writing this novel in mid-1976, a year after 'The Painter' was published. [King, op. cit.: 403]. Given the lack of interest in realist representation displayed by Frame's short fiction even in her earliest stories, the move towards Post-modernist game-playing was not a large transition.
95. This may contain an echo of Chekhov's: 'An angel of silence is flying over our heads' [Chekhov, Anton. The Seagull. Act 1]. More especially, it can be read as a reference to the Christadelphian faith, which believes that angels interact with humans. King's biography notes that Frame's mother, a Christadelphian, 'in a refinement she particularly favoured, was a strong believer in the proximity of angels and would make strenuous efforts to communicate this belief to her children.' [King, op. cit.: 15]. Frame remained sceptical, but the memorable title of her second volume of autobiography was to be An Angel at My Table. [Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1984].
96. More than one ambassador, departing from New Zealand in the early 1970s, did make this claim, and such cases were reported with disapproval in the local media.
97. Whether the narrator's intrusive comments can really come from 'outside' the narrative, particularly if she is a character is her own story, is debateable. This seems to be a case of Frame playing games with the critical apparatus of her analytically-minded readers. [See the essay's later comments on the fore-grounding of 'anything' and 'something', 'everything' and 'nothing'.]
98. It should be noted that, according to the original New Zealand Listener version of the story, the phrase 'Or something' here should be a new paragraph. Such a textual break would further emphasise any break between free indirect dialogue and the voice of the narrator.
99. It is also characteristic of the determinism in the Post-modern critical theory of the period that, when Robert thinks about something 'in the language of the local newspaper', the form of that language should seem to be influencing the content of his thought.
100. Peach Street is a fictional location, but from the story's mention of views of Rangitoto, it would seem to be somewhere on Auckland's upper-middle-class, suburban, North Shore. The area's development followed the opening of the Auckland Harbour Bridge, but prior to this it was a low-cost and isolated haven for many of Auckland's fledgling literati. Janet Frame famously stayed with Frank Sargeson in the hut at the back of his property, on the North Shore's Esmonde Road, when she first lived in Auckland.
101. Sargeson's house on the North Shore was a 'mere fibrolite bach', and many baches of a similar type were developed after the opening of the Auckland Harbour Bridge.
102. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. V.5, line 31.
103. Although Robert seems to be thinking at a remove, his seeing things in terms of shadows at this point may also echo Plato's famous description of how people perceive reality, as shadows (as on the wall of a lit-up cave) of ideal forms. Paradoxically then, this passage can also be read as Robert coming as close as possible to seeing the painful truth of an ideal form, by consciously looking at its shadow.
104. Robert's god-like relationship to the ant he inadvertently kills is an echo of Shakespeare's famously pessimistic: 'As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods./ They kill us for their sport.' [King Lear. VI.1, lines 44-5.] This adds a further metaphysical dimension to Robert's tendency to think in terms borrowed from things immediately around him--that God is cruel or absent. The development of this line of thinking is significant in the light of his final comment to Ailsa at the story's close.
105. The Dictionary of New Zealand English describes a morepork as 'a small brown nocturnal owl'. Crying owls frequently appear as harbingers in fiction. A Domain is described in the Dictionary as 'A public park or reserve'.
106. Wordsworth, William. 'I wandered lonely as a cloud', line 21.
107. Yeats, W.B.. 'Like a long-legged fly upon the stream/ His mind moves upon silence.' 'Long-Legged Fly', lines 9-10 and following.
108. More textual problems. It is not entirely clear from the original New Zealand Listener version of the text whether the second '--Nothing' should run on from Robert's 'falling asleep' and thus be Robert's speech; unfortunately, the words 'falling asleep' are near the right-hand side of the printed column. However, on balance, it does look as if it is not a run-on, thus making the second '--Nothing' a final word spoken by someone who is not Robert.
109. Sartre, Jean-Paul. 'Existentialism is a Humanism', 1946.
110. This can be compared with the late story 'Insulation', which comes closer to fulfilling the Post-modern ideal of containing a largely self-referential interplay of language. 'Insulation' begins with a complex sentence, sufficiently off-putting to insulate the story against casual readers. The opening paragraph is packed with artifice--references to Keats's poem 'In Drear-Nighted December', to Hamlet and to agricultural television shows--and contrasts the natural enjoyment of summer's warmth with the more civilised response: preparing for the next winter and thus insulating oneself against danger. This is what makes civilisation (its consumer comforts as much as its art) possible. Yet civilization's advance only brings new, artificial dangers, such as the 'shedding' of workers. The story highlights the continuing naivety of human response to such dangers, not only a young girl's and a young boy's but the narrator's, too, when she encounters an insulation salesman who is trying strenuously to adapt to his changing environment. (How the narrator can know all about the salesman's background--all except for his name, and this despite taking his leaflet--is a typical piece of Frame's narrative trickery.) The salesman is not relying on the ways of the past ('word of mouth') or the magic technology of the future ('a knitting-machine'). The narrator rejects the salesman because, as an artist, she believes her home and self are insulated already from trouble, but as the result of a dream she loses confidence. She realises that troubles come from within (like dreams) as well as from outside, that civilisation develops but this only results in new versions of old problems, and that even misplaced insulation itself ('like a blizzard') can dangerously bury everything. Nevertheless, in response to this vision the narrator telephones the salesman and asks to be insulated--even though 'We both knew we were playing a game, he trying to sell what he didn't possess, and I imagining I could ever install it, to deaden the world.' In opposition to cyclic nature, human life, civilisation and art are all of a piece: as temporary as a summer's lease, and protected only by games and one's suspended disbelief in the games' efficacy. With its rich interplay between narrator and character, between realism and fairy tale and between literary and contemporary language, the story becomes a ludic confection in which the grace notes, rather than the melody, are the primary source of reading pleasure. [You Are Now Entering the Human Heart. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1983: 198-203.]
111. Frame has published other stories which she has not collected. Her biography, for example, mentions 'In Alco Hall' as being accepted by Harper's Bazaar (but has no reference to its actual appearance in print) [King, op. cit.: 306]; 'A Boy's Will' as published in Landfall 80 (Dec. 1966): 314-23 [King, op. cit.: 306]; 'Birds of the Air' as published in Harper's Bazaar 102 (June 1969) (no page numbers are listed) [King, op. cit.: 337]; and 'Two Widowers' as published in the New Zealand Listener, 9 June 1979 (no page numbers are listed) [King, op. cit.:425].
112. Wordsworth, William. 'All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.' 'Preface', Lyrical Ballads, 2nd edition, 1801.
113. Clare, John. 'I found the poems in the fields/ And only wrote them down.' 'Sighing for Retirement', lines 15-16.
114. It may be helpful to consider the example of one of Frame's fables, 'Visitors from the Fields'. [Snowman Snowman. New York, Braziller, 1963: 117-8.] Frame's fables perhaps come from her reading of Kafka, and death is frequently referred to in them--indeed, in a contemporary review of Snowman Snowman David Dempsey counted how often the word 'death' appeared in the fables. [Dempsey, David. New York Times Book Review. 18 Aug. 1963. Quoted in King, Michael. Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame. Auckland, Viking, 2000: 252]. In 'Visitors from the Fields', bees appear on behalf of the senses and pollinate the writer-protagonist's mind with ideas about the nature of the world, at the expense of her belief-system. Paradoxically, though, these ideas all confirm the existence of an outer world which the protagonist seems reluctant to face. Her beliefs are based on denial, because acknowledging the outer world means accepting the existence of change and death. Frame presents her protagonist as a victim of the power of her own inward-looking imagination and ends with her refusing to accept the idea of death. Because of its attempts to surprise and the lack of any ironically expressed authorial distance from the protagonist, the fable clearly aims to evoke an emotional as well as an intellectual response in the reader. However, for the protagonist death seems a philosophical concern rather than a genuinely felt presence, and so at an emotional level the fable seems little more than glib. This is a common problem with the fables, which appear the result of Frame attempting to match images to her intellectual concerns. Perhaps for this reason, Frame later felt that some of the fables were not 'finished art', and only a few have been reprinted. [King, op. cit.: 264.]
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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