I’m not saying that Frame is an animal rights person; it is the pattern of imagery that interests me, and the large question it asks: what is it that constitutes the human? Certainly, the novel presents a terrible vision of dehumanisation of the psychiatric patients and the indifference of the staff to the human dignity of patients. Yet human status is not a mark of superior difference to the lives of animals in terms of behaviour within the world of the institution where hierarchy, indifference and cruelty are routinised. If there is a mark of difference it is a both a tragic and an elevating one: it is a function of the perception and interpretation, of being able to suppose, in Sargeson’s term, that allows Istina to record her sufferings but also increases them (49/30, 241/251)
hierarchies within the mad world replicate those without from god-like doctors down to catatonic patients in isolation ward. To come out is to learn again to feel above those below one in the pecking order. Istina has a vision of the lowest depths on a Sunday walk: p. 65/50. She sees veneer of bright polish over dread and disaster, but her observation of the suffering of others is not humanising. It suggests an extreme distance between the ordinary unenlightened people and those few who are true seers. To see too clearly behind the veneer of normality is to fall into an abyss.
What she does gain is sense of the duplicity and possibility of language— duplicity in the way the names of the institutions disguise their reality and the careful use of language to persuade victims that what they receive is in their interests. Yet her situation in the psychiatric system also allows access to a rich store of language and perception as a writer.
It’s not that the hospital staff are evil, but the system designed by a supposedly benevolent medical system and the state produces the reduction of humans to animals
Istina does not idealise her own alienation. Staying with sister and family in Auckland, she describes the sadness of her situation (79). Nor is she a romantic victim of authority, as when she sprays a dying woman with DDT (127). The novel shows a loss of faith in the basic dignity and goodness of humans in the aftermath of the revelations of the Nazi camps. Here is also a sense that progress, especially technological progress, does not inevitably bring enlightenment with it.
Frame presents the mental institutions that Istina is trapped in in the novel as Gothic places of threat and menace. She recounts how
… I made myself a nuisance by asking, asking, asking of they were planning to give me E.C.T. or do anything terrible to me, to bury me alive in a tunnel in the earth so that no matter how long I called for help no one would hear me, to remove part of my brain and turn me into a strange…