115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Reading between the Frames: An Analysis of Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water and An Angel at My Table

Linda Middleton, University of Hawai'i, Manoa

Kristeva’s theories of the semiotic are used to show how Janet Frame’s autobiographical Faces in the Water (1961) and An Angel at My Table (1987) mutually inform each other, disclosing Frame’s rediscovery of the semiotic her misdiagnosed madness made her distrust, a rediscovery she demonstrated by writing Faces upon her deinstitutionalization.


This paper considers Janet Frame’s autobiographical novel Faces in the Water (1961) and the section from her Biography (1991) published separately as An Angel at My Table, which documents her eight years in a mental institution in Oamaru, New Zealand. I analyze the contrasting self-representations and narrative styles in these texts, tracing Frame’s evolution as a writer.  Finally, I claim that Frame’s achievement in writing Faces is illumined when read in the light of Angel, though written thirty years later.

I suggest that Frame’s autobiographical narrator in Angel at my Table uses a style that signals a distancing resistance to the subject position of the fictionalized narrator in Faces, a work written shortly after Frame’s de-institutionalization for misdiagnosed schizophrenia.  In exploring the events in Frame’s life prompting her institutionalization, I apply the theories of Julia Kristeva.  Kristeva’s term for the psychological state related to the “death impulse” (Lacanian, by way of Freud). Abjection is also paradoxically related to the primal generative drive of the artistic psyche, to which Kristeva attributes a poetic pre-speech called the semiotic.  While the semiotic influence inflects Frame’s style in Faces, the autobiographical narrator speaking for Frame in Angel had not yet processed the abjection of recent trauma, including the drowning deaths of two sisters, and the more prolonged psychic wound of her mother’s emotional inaccessibility. Because Kristeva emphasizes the mother as a source of both semiotic creativity and reabsorption into the space of death, processing abjection entails acceptance of the mother’s body as a place of birth and death, and the intimate opposition of creativity and erasure.  Frame’s narrative in Angel, in a voice that almost censors the semiotic nuances informing the voice in Faces, nevertheless explains its writing, which occurred after the autobiographical Frame had processed the abjection of the drowning death of her second sister and her mother’s emotional detachment.  Though her mother still lived, Frame’s loss of her sister compelled her to enact a symbolic re-mergence with and assimilation of the absent maternal in her life, resolving her abjection by confronting her mother’s emotional inaccessibility. 

These parallel narratives, written decades apart, show how Frame recovered the semiotic space where, in her own hybrid style she wrote both life and death, recording her losses and recovering her agency to create: to trace Faces in the water with an Angel as her healing muse.

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