One Angle of Approach to Janet Frame's Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room (1967): the Death-to-Life Conundrum 

Deepsouth v.4 n.1 (Autumn 1998) 
Copyright (c) 1998 by 
Ahila Sambamoorthy - University of Otago, Department of English 
  All rights reserved. 
"The theme of quest and its creative potential is portrayed through the protagonist's gradual awakening into a new realm of being which originates from his 'resurrection' from death." 

This novel is about the 'journey' of Godfrey Rainbird from life to death, and back to life again, "a meandering and absolutely non-conformist path of inner exploration" (Mercer, Gina Janet Frame: Subversive Fictions 1994, 129). The theme of quest and its creative potential is portrayed through the protagonist's gradual awakening into a new realm of being which originates from his 'resurrection' from death. Frame's imagistic and symbolic narrative, portraying this process of awakening, will be the focus of my discussion.


Godfrey Rainbird is drawn by chance into a somewhat unwilling psychological voyage as he regains consciousness after his three day comatose state, a temporary 'death', which perpetuates visionary perspicuity and a new lease of life. As the subject of an unconventional, death-defying circumstance -- a return from the 'dead', though not quite from beyond the grave -- Godfrey becomes ostracized from Dunedin society, which perceives his new-life experiences as a threatening, somewhat irrational, and "inconvenient[t] miracle" (Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room 53). In fact Frame's protagonist is a perfectly average human being, acceptable in the eyes of the world, until he undergoes an experience that is atypical. One night he is knocked down suddenly by a passing vehicle and is taken to hospital, where he is "pronounced dead" (54 italics in text). When he awakens (fortunately before his funeral) he finds himself in a "newly developed territory of himself and his death" (61), a dimension of his self lying in "outposts and corners and inaccessible places" which he could never reach in his 'earlier' life (66). He is discharged from hospital and returns to "normal life" in society (112). However, he is increasingly marginalised because "the pronouncement of [his] death cling[s] to him, close at his skin" (55). Godfrey has entered a forbidden zone -- death -- that has to be ultimately silenced, for his returns from the realms of death shockingly annihilates the barrier between being and non-being, for "how could anything remain different or the same, after you had been pronounced dead". As Frame portrays it, death is intensely dreaded and consequently blocked out from the lives of people by the metaphorical barrier of walls. To such a society, Godfrey, because of his 'resurrected' status, is representative of transgressive energies that threaten other lives with dissolution. Joyce Carol Oates states in her review of the novel that Godfrey, as a kind of "pilgrim", supposedly has "forbidden knowledge which has violated . . . normal life" (1969, 5). His existence after returning from the realm of death, and subsequent acquisition of some visionary power, is thus also one of social estrangement; he returns to living in the very society that treats him like a leper, an outcast.


The quest originates as a geographical one, for Godfrey is an Englishman who travels to the "wilderness" of New Zealand to begin a new life (Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room 4). He arrives in Dunedin to work in the public services as a booking clerk in the Tourist Bureau. But this journey, a spatial "'emigrat[ion]'" (63), leads to the metaphysical excursion, an "inner journeying" to "the interior" (65), "the most hazardous journey of all", which his 'death' perpetuates (64). Godfrey is a solitary voyager travelling to "a frightening destination that no other person knew of and that he himself could not name" (91). At first, he is terrorized by the situation that he has been thrust into, and finds he cannot adapt to being a socially marginalized figure who has 'risen' from the dead. He searches for his "'old self'" (63), but discovers that it "would not fit" (97). Soon he no longer feels an occupant of "earth" (65). Not only is Godfrey the voyager spatially displaced, but he is also psychologically uprooted, living in the outer world in a state of death; his skin stays perpetually "cold" and pale, and his body has become "stiff" and "impervious to sunlight" (104). He appears to be stranded in the limbo of a half-world, between inner and outer realities, abandoned by society.


With time, however, Godfrey begins to confront his fears and curiosity in order to fathom his new experience. Gradually he acquires a vision of an exclusive, interior passage to mystical experience, not only an experiential path, but also a linguistic one. It is significant that a transformation from death to life such as has happened to Godfrey is considered by Frame as a singular experience of a "frightening change", as if challenging "the laws of gravity" (71), where the mind is thrust into a channel of the formerly unknowable and thus has to grapple with entirely novel modes of thought and language. For Godfrey not only gains insight into a new region of life, albeit temporarily, but he also penetrates the chilly rhetorical zones of the "icy spelling" of death as a result of an epistemological shift in consciousness due to the impact of his 'death' (159). Frame shows language in its potential for transformation by examining the way in which visionary insight can unearth a different dimension of the conventional language of society, exposing its grotesqueness through recombining phonological and morphological units. Thus, forced to live through the newly found intensity of a unique experience, Godfrey inquires not only beyond the boundaries of tangible life, but also palpable language.


After his re-emergence into life, Godfrey's sense-impressions and private thoughts are expressed in a heightened, symbolical mode. His consciousness at the moment he awakens from the dead is communicated through the symbol of a flock of birds, commonly known to represent not only the soul, but the volatile, threatening principle of life as opposed to the fixed, the inert:


Gulls with wings of ice beat down upon him, their red feet flashing like rubies, their claws grasping rubies that reflected a red-and-green world, a light-and-dark world; tundra -- "a barren arctic region where the subsoil is frozen. . . ." (38)

Godfrey obtains a vision of a region of permafrost, and the ice images suggest an inward movement, and a dislocation of consciousness, its severance from external reality. What Godfrey sees and brings back with him from the dead is a surrealistic-like, fantastic region hovering on the dividing line between consciousness and the unconscious, as the tangible image of the birds symbolizes. His mind is in the limbo between life and death where strange shapes materialize in the depths, portraying a private chaos, the threshold itself symbolizing transition and transcendence:


His head raced with its hoofs flying, tipped with pain. Pain hammered like a horseshoe into the iron door that swung and shut the Wildlife Program, the giraffes grazed in his eyes, crossing the screen, in peace, making patterns in the tall golden grass. (39)

Despite his internal turmoil and confusion of thought and speech, what Godfrey perceives here is an image of the savannah, or the prairie, Frame's 'sanctuary' for the nourishment of the imagination, the artistic dimension of the psyche.


Access to the imaginative realm is further conveyed by the image of the sea, equated with the individual's imaginative subconscious. The presence of the sea in Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room, imaged by its "innumerable echoes and depths and distortions of light" (242), comes to be associated with the new frontier of creative experience that Godfrey achieves after his thoughts have been "uniquely fertilized by death" (199). This realm one critic has termed as the territory of the repressed, the unconscious, the unknown, the feminine", in contrast to land, "hard dry . . . masculine surfaces and conscious 'life'" (Mercer 1994, 149). The differences are thus between sea and land which harbour, respectively, different forms of life. As soon as Godfrey awakens from his coma, he feels that he is floating gently on a surfboard on the unruffled surfaces of "inland waters" (Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room 40). He is overcome by a sense of meditative serenity, a certain "stillness" and "warmth" in his body. At this point he becomes half-aware of an incipient zone of new language, "a foreign language with a foreign postmark that he could not [yet] translate, not knowing the grammar, the syntax, the vocabulary, nor even the common phrases of the language". Thus Godfrey's immersion in non-rational forms of thought is symbolized by the sea, the region of the subliminal and the obscure; the imaginative and the fertile, in contrast to the barren, stark, land-locked lives of 'ordinary' people. Furthermore, as a symbol of the collective unconscious, the sea depicts the unfathomed depths hidden beneath its reflecting surface. Godfrey's mind becomes suffused with the rising and falling of the sea's rhythm, "leaving its floatsam and jetsam on the beach of his every thought and feeling" (142). Indeed, Godfrey the visionary "opens himself up . . . to all kinds of fluid . . . oceans of thought, feeling and language" (Mercer, 1994, 150).


Additionally, the area of Godfrey's new-found experience is portrayed in terms of depth, symbolically as an oil field whose deep-seated layers he has to fathom: "he was like the manager of an oil company who . . . . move[s] from point to point, shafting here, shafting there, to tap the wealth of meaning" (61). The oil field is obviously a metaphor for the novel depths of profundity that he has to "gauge", an unfamiliar territory that will demand a widening and deepening of his inner "being" (65). The "depth" represents a plunge into the unconscious, into "the caverns of sleep and dream" (199), out of which new forms of perception emerge to unfold their potentialities. Such regions, in Frame's opinion, are to be given credibility because they reveal the impregnability and closure of the unconscious, a womb-like symbol which nourishes creative potential. Godfrey thus comes to perceive the space at the 'other' side of life, death. Also, there exists a clear disjunction between the protagonist's inner and outer worlds, a discrepancy which breeds in Godfrey feelings of "unreality" in the phenomenal world, for he feels unrelated to the world around him (113). Areas like "wells" appear in his mind; wandering into them he is "immersed, baptized, in the joyousness of being alive"; climbing out of these wells, he continues to wander through a strange inner darkness that has no counterpart in the external world. The imagery of the well and baptism obviously point to the general symbolism of life as a pilgrimage, thus signifying salvation, one of the rituals of purification involved in the archetypal quest. The well is also "an attribute of things feminine" (Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols 1971, 369). That Godfrey has undergone some kind of salvation is clear, for he wanders into these wells and when he re-emerges from their depths, he discovers a curious private terrain instead of an identifiable landscape. The symbolic baptism which the death experience has meant for him, gives him a new lease of life, leading him in a direction that was not accessible before his 'death': "it was an inward path and direction and it was there that his foothold was most firmly set, . . . . [an] unfamiliar path" (Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room 91). Also, the metaphoric pilgrimage that the voyager undertakes to the centre of visionary knowledge means that he comes to perceive the nature of the symbolic labyrinth, to trace its complex patterns, in order to arrive at the centre of visionary knowledge.


In relation to Godfrey's death and his reawakening, it is significant that he shows an awareness of Oriental philosophical concepts which emphasise the unity between life and death, instead of their division. Godfrey comes to identify life and death as a single "territory", where there is "no Out [death] or In [life]" (199). When the conventional boundary between life and death is thus broken, only then can the mind admit the potentiality of the "unknown", the non-partisan realm that eliminates the borders between the two dichotomous zones, "Out" and "In".


Despite his feelings of alienation and loneliness "in his inward world of desolation" and "fear" (101), Godfrey's experience of cosmic transcendence is described as an "awakening", a liberation of the imagination that derives from acquiring new knowledge (91). Indeed, no more is his life "a side stream" of "shallow waters"; it now resembles "deep pools", an image of water which reflects not only deep-seated activities of the subconscious, but also the transitional states between life and death, or solid and vaporous states. Godfrey thus becomes more responsive to sensations lying beyond those easily identified and recorded, and grows more conscious of the atmosphere and objects surrounding him in "outposts and corners and inaccessible places" within himself" (103).


Part of Godfrey's mystical awakening is his significant linguistic discovery. Suddenly, he develops a penetrating insight into commonplace words which hold a special attraction for him, words which "propelled like missiles towards him striking a fear in his heart" (153). Not only does he realise the vacuity of conventional forms of language, but he also becomes receptive to the macabre "cold spell" of death and its "ice-embroidered letters" (145). Now he is able to penetrate the substructure of individual words, the different parts that uphold and strengthen them, seeing "the word and its lining" (159). Godfrey's newly-acquired lucidity of perception is endowed to him by the chilly regions of death. Once familiar words now seem to read "more truthfully" in the cold spelling, mocking the truth that they contain (161). This icy language has, no doubt, pushed Godfrey into a heightened consciousness of the absurdity of existence; his sundering from the ordinary world is revealed in how printed words become gibberish to his mind, yet are connected to his absurd dilemma of marginalisation, and the people who are intolerant of his plight. Indeed, Godfrey's changing vision of reality is manifested in his haphazard spelling of words, jumbling up their accepted alphabets instead of arranging them in the correct order, thereby revealing the preposterousness of traditional language. The "orthography of the dead" (152) -- literally interpreted as the standard kind of spelling used by the dead -- becomes Godfrey's preoccupation after his awakening.


This new language is basically a subversion of the nature and values of letters and their combinations as they exist in the world of the living. Godfrey's dream of an "icy language" draws attention to familiar words that are disassembled and disconnected in order to reveal that the "lining" which upholds them is weak, very often liable to metamorphose into other meanings. The "lining" can also be seen as the link between a word's morphology (shape) and semantics (meaning) which we take for granted. But Frame, by changing a word's spelling, distorts its meaning. This change in turn undermines the role of linguistic representation, as apparently stable and traditional word-structures are shown to be prone to instant transformation into jumbled-up forms that render them impotent. Godfrey reads "crematorium" as "creamtorium", "ready" becomes "radeye", "burned" becomes "bunred". Essentially, this is a comic, bizarre, recreation of standard language. Similarly, the sombre, religious invocation of the Lord's Prayer ("the Drol's Pryer") -- which Godfrey reads in the newspaper -- into blasphemously animalistic imagery which transforms God into "Dog" and Art into "rat", satirizes provincial New Zealand society's lack of spiritual values: "Our father which rat in heaven; hollowed be thy mane; . . . .give us this day our daily bread and frogvie us pour press-stares as we frog-vie those who press-stare against us. . . ." (163 my emphasis). Godfrey's victimisation by this obtuse, spiteful society that refuses to recognize transcendence is epitomized by the label it assigns him, "Mr. Brainrid" (160). This novel is certainly preoccupied with the parody of the brittle, customary language of human communication, the language of lies, which for Frame is unimaginative, evasive, ineffective, insincere, dispassionate, and definitely "absurd" (119). Her criticism appears to be specifically directed to the hybrid English spoken by New Zealanders, who speak "a coarse foreign language", ritualistic and inflexible, like their attitude towards Godfrey's 'return' from the realms of death.


As opposed to such language then is Godfrey's perception of an 'ice-cold' language, a linguistic symptom or manifestation of visionary knowledge, which strives to probe into deeper epistemological terrain. This realm is suggested by the dislocation of the letters of each word and their recombination; this changes their semantic (meaningful) dimension, and symbolically suggests a different order of reality, a grotesque reality that distrupts the conventional.


Having drifted away from the conventional order of society and life, Godfrey discovers a new lease of life deriving from an abundance of warmth which is exclusive to him; he becomes conscious of "warmth flowing into his body as if from a secret outward reservoir" (245). Once again "he stood complete . . . upright on the earth" (246). Godfrey is liberated by death and attributed an inward path of visionary acumen. From Frame's imprisoning, stagnant and myopic Dunedin society, Godfrey embarks to explore the inner room of mystical vision prompted by his death and a return to life.



Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971.

Frame, Janet. 1967. Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room. New York:George Braziller, 1969.

Mercer, Gina. Janet Frame: Subversive Fictions. University of Otago Press, Dunedin, 1994.

Oates, Joyce Carol. 'Review of Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room' New York Times Book Review. 9 February 1969: 5 & 46.

Ahila Sambamoorthy - recently obtained her Ph.D. on Janet Frame from the University of Otago. Entitled "The Fantastic as a Creative Method in Selected Novels of Janet Frame," the thesis is now being considered by publishers in the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand for publication.