Faces in the Water

Title: Faces in the Water by Janet Frame

Publication Date: 1961
Genre: Autobiographical Fiction
Page Length: 140 pages (approx.)


Author Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water, published in 1961, is an autobiographical novel that offers a poignant and insightful portrayal of a woman’s experience with mental illness and the challenges she faces within psychiatric institutions in mid-20th century New Zealand.

Set within the backdrop of the 1940s and 1950s, the novel is divided into three sections, each delving into various phases of the protagonist’s journey.

Section One: Faces in the Water

The novel begins by introducing the readers to the unnamed protagonist, represented as “I”. She recounts her experiences as a young girl growing up in New Zealand, her family dynamics, and her eventual journey into adulthood. “I” gives readers a glimpse into her unique perspective and the trials she faces due to societal pressures and her own struggles with mental health.

Section Two: Faces in the Water II

The second section reveals the protagonist’s admittance into Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, an institution that both protects and confines her. Here, the readers meet a host of memorable characters, nurses, and doctors who play significant roles in shaping the protagonist’s experience and perception of mental health treatment. Throughout this section, “I” depicts her fluctuating mental state through vivid imagery and introspective thoughts.

Section Three: Faces in the Water III

In the final section, the protagonist is transferred to Ward Six, another psychiatric institution, where new faces dominate the setting. She encounters both sympathetic and unsympathetic staff members and patients. Amid her battles with the dehumanizing aspects of psychiatric care, “I” continues to struggle with her sense of self and longs for her freedom.


1. Mental Health: The novel confronts the stigmatization and treatment of mental illness during the mid-20th century. It explores the interior realm of the protagonist’s mind, exposing the essential humanity within her, despite her struggle with mental health. Janet Frame’s own experiences with mental illness lend the narrative its authenticity and enable readers to gain firsthand insight.

2. Identity and Selfhood: Throughout the novel, the protagonist grapples with her identity. Society’s expectations and her experiences within psychiatric institutions challenge her understanding of self. She searches for her true identity beyond the confines of diagnoses and societal norms.

3. Power Dynamics: Faces in the Water examines the power dynamics within psychiatric institutions. It explores the authority figures’ influence over patients, highlighting the vulnerability and lack of agency experienced by those under their care. The novel also raises questions about the repercussions of unchecked power and the importance of empathy.

Faces in the Water is a significant work that sheds light on the experiences of individuals facing mental illness within a time and place where understanding and compassion were limited. Janet Frame’s autobiographical approach ensures an authentic portrayal of the protagonist’s struggles, deepening readers’ understanding of the importance of mental health advocacy and compassion in society.

Overall, this 140-page (approx.) autobiographical novel offers a powerful, evocative exploration of mental illness, the treatment of patients within psychiatric institutions, and the complex journey toward self-discovery and understanding. By immersing readers in the protagonist’s experiences and intimately exploring her world, Faces in the Water serves as a compelling reminder of the need for empathy, understanding, and improved mental health care for all.