Title: The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965

Author: Joan Stevens

Publication details: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1966

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Sylvia Johnston

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

Conditions of use


Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965

A Fable

A Fable. A novel like this occupies a place somewhere intermediate between a fable and a fiction. William Golding's Lord of the Flies is a fable, concerned to embody and express in concrete terms a preconceived thesis about human life. Fielding's Tom Jones is the novel proper, concerned more to present a reflection of the complexities of life as it is experienced, leaving the thesis, if any, to be inferred from the persons and what happens to them. Fiction deals with individuals, with an experience unique in time and place; fable page 100 generalises such experience into a universal, a symbolic paradigm. (Gulliver's Travels, for instance, or Animal Farm.)

Janet Frame has tried to make a poetic statement which may be felt to be true for all, to make the particular bit of personal history with which she deals stand as a symbol for human experience. The Withers family are to be not merely themselves, New Zealanders with a local habitation and a name, but Man, Woman and Child. That this is so is made clear by the epilogue, where an effect is created of withdrawal from the immediate instance, the immediate realism, into something universal. The poet John Donne wrote, "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee". Janet Frame puts it thus, "And the name was Daphne Withers, though the papers said another name".

The method which she has chosen involves presentation of her material in the usual manner through the third person. Not content with this, however, she has also woven in passages in italics which give either the dream world of some speaker or the twilit mental world of Daphne, who is to see and feel for all of us as the story goes its way. Daphne thus expresses explicitly, in a poetic monologue, what Owls Do Cry means symbolically; she is also a character within the story; she is also very obviously the voice of the author. This is too great a burden to place upon any device of character or plot, and the novel suffers accordingly. In addition the texture of the novel is notable for all sorts of poetic patterns, such as the ' verbal echoes, the clustered images which gather about the treasure trove-rubbish dump, and the fire which "withered" Francie, the first of the family to be destroyed. More closely interwoven and perhaps more effective are the continual poetic references to childish rhymes, to poetry with its non-rational overtones, to objects out of the world of childish magic, and to childish misunderstandings of words and things which suggest other, expanding meanings, in the manner of James Joyce's puns. ("Colander? Calendar? . . . Calendars hang upon the wall ... to collect all the days and months of the year, numbering them, like convicts, in case they escape. Which they do, always. Time flies, said Mrs Withers. And it is calendar, not colander, you silly children.")

A reviewer of The Lagoon expressed the hope that Janet Frame would win through to more control of her form in her later work. Owls Do Cry, however, exhibits the same tendency to fly apart into kaleidoscopic flashing pieces, the same mixture of styles, the same unwillingness to harness a darting, passionate imagination to the restraints of formal prose. Probably one cannot ask the leopard to change its spots, only to make the most of them. What Janet Frame has achieved is inextricably involved with her tragic and disturbingly fragmented vision. (Notes for a critical discussion of Owls Do Cry will be found in the Appendix. See also chapter eight.)

page 101