Death as a Theme of Initiation: An essay on the autobiographies 'The Twelth of Never' by Louis Nowra and 'To The Is-Land' by Janet Frame
Essay 2003 9 Pages
Death as a Theme of Initiation
In almost any story of childhood and adolescence the topic of death plays a major role. Especially in autobiographies that begin with early childhood, death is usually addressed at some point within the story and can often be seen as central to the child’s initiation process. It is in a child’s first confrontations with death that it learns about loss and sorrow and begins to understand the finiteness of life. However, experiences with death tend to be very different for each individual child and each child has different ways of addressing death, and coming to terms with it. This essay will examine death as an experience of initiation in the autobiographies To the Is-Land by Janet Frame and The Twelfth of Never by Louis Nowra. Looking closely at both of the authors’ early confrontations with death the essay will then seek to examine common themes of death (e.g. the power of death, the mystery of death) and will then look at the different ways that death becomes significant to both characters individually.
In To the Is-Land it is the loss of Frame’s Grandmother that first confronts young Janet with the reality of death. However, it seems questionable whether Janet at this point already grasps the finality of death. Her grandmother’s death seems to provoke curiosity rather than grief. This is illustrated by the fact that Janet’s concern is more directed towards the decision of whether to look at her dead grandmother lying in her coffin, or not, than it is towards actually feeling sorrow at the loss of a loved person. Her refusal to “look on the face of the dead” at the same time confronts her with the connection of death and power, even if this connection is drawn in a childlike and slightly bizarre way.
“When Myrtle came out of the room, I could see in her face the power of having looked at the dead.”
While Janet still does not seem to fully comprehend the total extent of death she does realize that death represents a certain mystery, and anyone who is directly confronted with death comes a little closer to finding a solution to it. Therefore her sister, who actually did look at her dead grandmother, would go on to win many an argument due to the wisdom that in Janet’s eyes must have been contained in the statement “‘I saw grandma dead.’”
The death of Janet’s grandfather again did not spark any outburst of emotion. Janet recalls the incident largely due to the ceremony and the events surrounding the death. Observing these events Janet dissociates herself from the adults’ way of dealing with death. The ceremony, the formal dress and the topics of conversation seem alien to her and she shrewdly identifies them as “duties” of the adult world. Even if she herself does not feel overly emotional about her grandfather’s death she feels the adult way of dealing with death to be dictated by the forces of habit and tradition. This awareness leads to her discarding her grandfather’s death as an event that “belonged to the grown-ups” rather than the children. The imagery used by Frame to describe her grandfather’s death also works towards surrounding the issue of death with mystery.
“(…) he [grandfather] was put in a coffin in the front room with the blinds pulled down so that everyone in the street knew that someone in the house had died; that was the custom: you could tell if people were dead by the pulled-down blinds, and you could tell people were home by the smoke coming out of their chimney.”
This symbolic way of conveying death must have added to the children’s perception of death being somewhat mystic and secret. It must have seemed to them that the topic of death was to remain unspoken of, conveyed only by codes and signs, and that the adults themselves were hiding their ignorance of the topic behind a facade of symbols, traditions and ceremonies.
The death which for the first time is described with some hint of emotion is ironically not that of a person, but that of “Old Cat”. With the sentiment of sorrow also comes a sense of irreplaceable loss that was absent in the description of the two deaths described earlier.
“Myrtle’s Old Cat was shared with all, and it was now unthinkable that another animal would not arrive to take the place of Old Cat.”
It seems to be this death that slowly awakens the notion in Janet’s mind that death means eternal separation. Furthermore, the death of Old Cat was fairly insignificant to the ‘grown-ups’ which means that this death ‘belonged’ to the children. It is this that brings the specific death of the cat closer to Janet, and makes it more emotional for her. It is also this incident that reveals the connection of death and language to Janet. When singing the song “E pare ra” at school, a song that touches on the topic of death, Janet has a premonition of “something terrible” having happened. Coming home, she discovers the death of Old Cat. She describes this feeling with the words: “it was inside the song, yet outside it, with me.”
 Janet Frame, To the Is-Land, p. 23
 Janet Frame, To the Is-Land, p. 38
 Janet Frame, To the Is-Land, p. 37
 Janet Frame, To the Is-Land, p. 41