The Reservoir by Janet Frame is a tale about a group of children embarking on an adventure for the first time. Innocence, childhood experiences, freedom, generational conflicts and natural mysticism operate at the centre of the story. The human psyche too, holds an integral position in the course of the narrative and the author’s own childhood and psychological suffering during her lifetime presumes this work as a creation of opportunities and possibilities she could have otherwise enjoyed.
Janet Frame was a writer from New Zealand whose rich imagination materializes in the extensive use of run-on sentences and a plethora of images that render her narratives a certain degree of reading complexity. The 1963 collection The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches is the home to the story “The Reservoir” which is a tale about a group of children embarking on an adventure for the first time.
The Reservoir | Summary
The story commences with a wide description of the Reservoir which the narrator and the other kids always hear about but fail to see in person. Their parents restrict them to venture around the dreadful spot due to multiple reports of death in the newspapers. So, the mysterious water resource limits its presence in the children’s school compositions as a product of their imagination. The Reservoir somehow assumes the status of a border, the finishing line marking the end of the world where an unknown world lies beyond.
Further, the narrator contemplates the community’s association with it due to the development in water services tracing from the pump to the taps in the houses. Wasting the water is out of the option unlike before because now it comes directly from the Reservoir and no event should cause it to dry up. Even though the parents prohibit the children to tread around the Reservoir and the school vacations grow boring and unbearable along with the summer heat, the young group manages to find solace in its walk along the local creek.
The advent of diseases such as Infantile Paralysis accompanies the global rise in temperature and results in the schools not reopening anytime soon. The extension in the duration of the holidays sparks a desire to undertake a long walk along the local creek once again but this time, dismissing the warning about the Reservoir by the parents. The usual itinerary includes glancing at the couples fooling around the creek and passing innocent comments. But this time, the absence of people that earlier keep them busy prompts the group to head to the Reservoir. A long walk is due ahead and the children harbour various thoughts, one of them mentioning a man from their community who travels to the said destination and suffers from infantile paralysis thereafter. This instance supports the rumours floating around but after many moments of contemplation, the group finally sets to the Reservoir.
The natural and scenic beauty in its mystery enchants the kids while narrowly escaping from a bull’s charge. One of them hurts himself/herself and it kicks off a debate over language and words-what is an injury on the foot addressed as, a sprained leg or a strained leg? Then they arrive at the “vast surface of sparkling water” i.e. the Reservoir and the calmness surrounding it force the children to ponder over the reasons for people’s fright of the reservoir- is someone sleeping in it, possibly a dangerous mammal? Still, they are not afraid of what their imagination offers to them. A multitude of thoughts engulfs them and a realization of the night getting darker leads them to run towards their homes. The narrator’s mother expresses her concern about the Reservoir and her child’s late evening walk. However, the kids resort to not disclosing the details of their walk because their parents are “out-of-date.”
The Reservoir | Analysis
Frame’s narrative consists of narration with a double perspective- the children’s and that of the parents’. The first person plural brings universality of thought and experience to the table when it comes to perceiving the world around.
Sometimes, the narrator switches to a single pronoun to specify the workings of her house and one can affirm her gender as a young girl when she expresses her concern during the journey about “the barbed wire tearing at…[their] skin and at…[their]skirts put on over…” However, the demographics for the rest of the group are vague though it is safe to assume that most of them are girls due to games they play involving imitating wives to their husbands. Frame revels in experimenting with different tools of language and the same evidence in her employment of euphemisms and rhymes to exhibit a child’s worldview and knowledge about certain realities. Using “Frenchie” to refer to a male’s protection during sexual intercourse or the expression about a rumour that “one shark attacked a little boy and bit off his you-know-what” are attempts to render suitability to the conversation and the age of the children despite the topic of discussion. They even sing a rhyme “Pound, shillings and pence, a man fell over the fence, he fell on a lady, and squashed out a baby, pound, shillings and pence” to humorously and childishly expose the process of pregnancy because this is what they know. The innocence also compels them to wonder about the same happening to them — “what if a man fell on us like that and squashed out a chain of babies?” Their distance from the medical world also articulates in their failure to pronounce ambulance or hospital which they do as “amberlance” and “hostible.” Even the distinction between a “sprain” and “strain” puzzles them leading to a debate. Frame interestingly does not only make the children a subject of a healthy joke in their efforts of pronunciation. The narrator’s parents to argue over the correct pronunciation of “potpourri” like kids. While the elders believe to possess the entire world’s knowledge in the eyes of their children, such little instances sow the seeds of doubt.
Knowledge is power and thus it restricts children from having any. The disallowing parents to let them view the outside world deny them their freedom and a chance to wonderful experiences crucial for their development. For instance, the children only have an idea about the modern sculpture in relation to a warrior statue every year on Anzac Day. Their confinement within the circumference of a world deemed suitable by their parents limit their knowledge. They know “how important it was for birds, animals and people, especially children, to show respect!” as an accepted norm of behaviour. Contrary to their knowledge, the parents somehow fail to learn that it is equally important for the kids to experience the world in its rawness and they cannot always protect them. Believing the rumours such as “the sea…[is] drying up, soon you could paddle or walk to Australia [and] sharks…[have] been seen swimming inside the breakwater…” force the parents to restrict their children in their adventures, even without inspecting the truth. They are equally gullible as the children. The limitations of knowledge drive their imagination as in the case of their perception of the nighttime- “we reminded one another that during the day the sun doesn’t seem to move, it just remains pinned with a drawing pin against the sky, and then, while you are not looking, it suddenly slides down quick as the chopped-ofT head of a golden eel, into the sea, making everything in the world go dark.” They are at an age where cosmic movements are still a subject of fancy.
Not only the sun and its movement, but various other issues like the treatment of the water adopts a belief of some men dumping sacks of chemicals into the Reservoir at night or the replacement of a human’s flesh lung with an iron one as something glamorous rather than a medical liability for life. The conceptions about infant paralysis also escape an understanding of anatomical complications. A mention of diseases in the story directs the readers toward the Polio epidemics in the early 20th century and its tolling effects on children due to the late arrival of its vaccine as a medical advancement. A lot of the diseases arise out of infiltration of water and the treatment of the Reservoir in the story points to the day’s concern. A fascinating take of the children over this issue interrogates the official’s lack of concern over the creeks supplying the water through the taps at their houses which often pour down contaminated water. This brings them to regard the Reservoir as something not pure contrary to popular opinion. The innocence and lack of education on the water resources and their course of movement reveal in their assumption.
Their inquisitive mind does not attach itself to nature alone but also takes an interest in the life of the adults. In the holidays, the children play imitating games where they mimic “grown-up life, loving and divorcing each other, kissing and slapping, taking secret paramours when…[their] husband…[is] working out of town.” They are also curious about how pregnancy works with a slight knowledge about protections and abortions when one of them utters- “Would he wear a frenchie? If he didn’t wear a frenchie then she would start having a baby and be forced to get rid of it by drinking gin.” The group is well aware of the causes and effects of the sexual act and tries to contemplate it in their own naive terminology. While one can contest that the children maintain simpleminded judgment of the world, they are also the bearers of universal truths such as voicing the “agony of deciding the right time — how…[does] one decide these things?” The answer to this question is a perplexing undertaking but the question itself suggests the powerful capabilities of a young mind.
For these young minds, the Reservoir becomes an object of mystery and fantasy. Undeniably, it is a source of life as well as death due to drowning reports surfacing in the newspapers. It marks a boundary the parents draw between the children and the rest of the world. For the kids, it is an idyllic setting with potential for discoveries but with its own set of dangers like the presence of sharks and epidemics. But later, on reaching the Reservoir, they observe how the reservoir itself is not an object of fear. Rather it is the parents’ authoritative standing in their life that instils fear in them. Comparable to the authority of the parents is the significance of the capitalization of the ‘Reservoir’ as a distant idea holding dominance over information and common knowledge that becomes a source of both exhilaration and fright. It is also a body that promises discoveries and attracts the attention of scientists and ecologists.
The story oddly holds relevance to the COVID-19 pandemic in the arrival of an epidemic in the town leading to an extension of school vacations. The boredom accompanying it constrains the children to adopt a less interesting attitude towards their lessons that come by posting “in smudged print on rough white paper” and inspiring “distrust [as] they could not compete with the lure of the sun still shining.” The days are too long and “there was nothing to do, there was nothing to do…” which children around the globe similarly experienced.
The Reservoir | Characters
Children – The non-specific identities of the young humans give them universality throughout the story and a feeling of unity as they spend their vacations together as a group. The age and gender are unspecified except for the narrator who is a young girl. A bunch of brave kids, they resolve to travel to the Reservoir against the commands of their parents who until their journey is a mere idea in their heads. The expedition becomes both an adventure and a learning experience for them pivotal to their formative years.
Parents – Similar to the children, the parents too lack names. They are authoritative people who ask the children to be away from the Reservoir in order to protect them. However, they are prone to rumours and news in the papers and obstruct the kids from exercising their freedom. The viewpoints differ between the two generations where the parents represent experience and maturity and the children represent imagination and innocence.
The Reservoir | Themes
In addition to the previously discussed themes such as fear, nature, curiosity, imagination and universality, another significant theme of modernity commands attention. Globalization and Industrialisation are the pillars of modern development in the world but the harm they impart to the environment is not a matter to ignore. By referring to the seas drying up, epidemics and infiltration of water, the author signals the water crisis that the world is facing and will continue to face.
The Reservoir | Literary Devices
Simile- An odd and out-of-place metaphor marks the beginning passage of the story- “rabbits eating like modern sculpture into the hills.”
During their traverse towards the Reservoir, the group encounter “a jersey bull polished like a wardrobe, burnished like copper.”
Imagery – The author describes the Reservoir in both its scenic yet mysterious aura-
“What is it? I wondered. They said it was a lake. I thought it was a bundle of darkness and great wheels which peeled and sliced you like an apple and drew you toward them with demonic force, in the same way that you were drawn beneath the wheels of a train if you stood too near the edge of the platform.”
Personification- The multitude of instances where the author employs personification are as follows-
The creek has “crowds of bubbles [that] were passengers on every suddenly swift wave hurrying by.”
Due to the postponement of the school reopening, the delivery of lessons to the children’s homes compel them to perceive the cause of their dullness in “the machine which had printed them…[as] broken down or rebelled.”
Later on, on their journey towards the Reservoir, Nature becomes a key target of humanization. There are trees “crying” which is “a sound of speech at its loneliest level where the meaning is felt but never explained, and it goes on and on in a kind of despair, trying to reach a point of understanding.”
They also pass “huge trees that lived with their heads in the sky, with their great arms and joints creaking with age and the burden of being trees, and their mazed and linked roots rubbed bare of earth, like bones with the flesh cleaned from them.”
During the journey, the children somehow lose and find the creek which “seemed to flow close to its concealed bed, not wishing anymore to communicate with [them].”
After they spot the Reservoir, the children imagine the “fringe of young pines on the edge” sighing and telling them their sad secrets.
Foreshadowing – The extension in the school’s vacation draws the children again to the creek and they dismiss “the warning for the reservoir” by their parents that foreshadows their future endeavour and rebel against their elders.
Allusion- There are various events the story alludes to beginning with Anzac Day which is a “national day to mark the commemoration of Australia and New Zealand for victims of war and for recognition of the role of their armed forces.” It crosses the mind of the narrator during her contemplation on the modern sculpture to which the nearest association she has is during the Anzac Day when people visit the Warrior statue.
Further, the narrator draws on the great expedition by the nineteenth-century travellers Burke and Wills who in popular belief died out of starvation. The hot weather during the school vacation influences the narrator to relate her condition to the men.
During the holidays, the boredom and overpopulation on the beach and bathing shed with their “tiny barred window” makes the narrator believe as if she’s living “in the French Revolution” in all its chaos.
Lastly, the high-flow creek compels the narrator to imagine a situation of a flood similar to the one in Ancient Egypt due to the river Nile.
Contrast- During their trek, the children realize “with dismay” that they have “suddenly lost possession of” their creek but the excitement of the journey turns down their gloom and they grow “cheerful.” A quick change in attitude is only expected at their age.
Onomatopoeia- The children perceive the trees sighing and requesting them in their “hush-sh” to be quiet as if something was sleeping and “should not be disturbed” in the Reservoir.
Rhetoric – Towards the end when the mother expresses her concern over her child’s late evening expedition, she says “I hope you didn’t go anywhere near the Reservoir” which is a rhetorical statement.
Repetition – The boredom of the vacations is highlighted in the children’s rant “there was nothing to do, there was nothing to do.”