Academic journal article Antipodes

How Can Life Be Still?": Teaching Janet Frame's A State of Siege and Virginia Woolf's to the Lighthouse

Academic journal article Antipodes

How Can Life Be Still?": Teaching Janet Frame's A State of Siege and Virginia Woolf's to the Lighthouse

Article excerpt

Janet Frame's A State of Siege was published in 1966. In both style and theme, the novel was ahead of its time. Its style remains a challenge to today's students, and the feminist overtones of Frame's tale, dealing as it does with a middle-aged woman-Malfred Signal-breaking free of family and job to pursue her art, might at first glance seem dated to a generation in which women have seemingly made such gains in opportunities in education and career. Yet so often women remain primary caretakers when family members need help, like Malfred, and so many careers, like the teaching job from which Malfred retires in A State of Siege, remain female-identified. The mysterious way in which Malfred dies allows speculation as to what finally defeats her. The novel, rooted in so many realistic details, at the same time contains allegorical elements that allow students to speculate about the persistence of expectations for women dictated by gender, as well as reasons for violence against women. The novel would work in many classes from Women in Literature, to the Female Gothic, New Zealand Literature, and Modernism (or the Lyrical Novel). Even paired with such novels as Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927), Frame's novel holds its own. Because of limitations of space, I will concentrate on a comparison between A State of Siege and To the Lighthouse, though I will mention other works, including films, to provide resources that may prove helpful in teaching a range of classes.

There are many similarities between Woolf's novel and Frame's. Each novel features a middle-aged female painter who is looked down upon by other characters, and each novel can be viewed as a tribute to the author's mother-until she wrote To the Lighthouse Woolf said her mother's memory "obsessed" her (Sketch 80); Frame's mother died before she wrote her novel, but her mentor Frank Sargeson forbade her to speak of the death, according to biographer Michael King (135-36). Each novel employs stylistic experimentation and is divided into three parts. In A State of Siege the parts are "The Knocking," "Darkness," and "The Stone." In To the Lighthouse the parts are "The Window," "Time Passes," and "The Lighthouse." In Woolf's novel, World War I intervenes in the action and scars the characters; in Frame's, it is World War II that alters Malfred's life. Ironically, in some ways the earlier novel, To the Lighthouse, could be seen as presenting the most successfully liberated female artist in that Lily Briscoe finishes her painting at the end of the novel, declaring, "I have had my vision" (310), whereas the deadly assault on Malfred Signal begins the night of the day she finishes her painting, and her painting is not even of her sought-after "New View." Both Woolf and Frame were also institutionalized numerous times in their lives. Frame may never have suffered from any mental illness beyond anxiety and depression (though she received both insulin shock treatments and electroshock). Woolf was diagnosed as schizophrenic, but Frame was found by one doctor not to be suffering schizophrenia at all (King 197). More than once, Frame's linguistic flights of fancy were misinterpreted as "madness" for which she was institutionalized and treated.

In fact, part of the difficulty of both A State of Siege and To the Lighthouse comes from the fact that both novels are stylistic tours de force that show that women relate to language in a different way than men do. As Annette Kolodny points out, "women writers, coming into a tradition of literary language and conventional forms already appropriated, for centuries, to the purposes of male expression, will be forced virtually to 'wrestle' with that language" (6) in order "'to remake it as a language adequate to our conceptual processes'" (Stanley and Robbins, qtd. in Kolodny 6). By the end of Frame's work, a piece of "nonsense verse" has pride of place, demonstrating the break from language based on the "Name of the Father," as Jacques Lacan would say. …

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