Djuna Barnes Essay - Critical Essays

Djuna Barnes American Literature Analysis

Eliot once described Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood as a novel that in its stylistic prowess and its preoccupation with horror and fate very much resembles an Elizabethan tragedy. Although Barnes herself was widely read in the literature of the English Renaissance, the motivation for the preoccupation with decay and emotional trauma in her work stems from sources much nearer than the Elizabethans. Barnes insisted (in a 1919 interview with the American bohemian publisher Guido Bruno) that life was fundamentally morbid, particularly if one considers the life that goes on beneath the surface of everyday life.

Although she was not a serious student of depth psychology, Barnes’s work reveals a passing acquaintance with Freudian notions, and her concern with the morbid character of psychological experience is largely a consequence of her decision to explore the often possessive and aggressive aspects of the family dynamic and of romantic relationships. In this respect, the Freudian influence in her work only substantiates the impact of the other major influence in Barnes’s fiction—fin de siècle literature.

In Barnes’s early journalism, there are frequent references to Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde and to the drawings of English artist Aubrey Beardsley. Both figures are connected with the aura of exotic decadence that is commonly associated with European culture at the turn of the twentieth century, and Barnes’s early poems and art definitely demonstrate the impact of the languid and often strangely animalistic figures that one characteristically finds in Beardsley’s drawings.

The Book of Repulsive Women is perhaps the best example of such influence in Barnes’s work, but it can also be found in the grotesque imagery that pervades her late verse drama, The Antiphon. Thematically, one might consider Barnes to be preoccupied with the process of decay and emotional estrangement, and this concern with impending doom and dissolution has led critics to consider her otherwise possibly eccentric fiction as very much in the mainstream of American fiction that runs from Herman Melville’s tortured mariners to the apocalyptic vision of Hollywood that one finds in the fiction of Nathanael West.

While the thematic concerns in Barnes’s work are very tightly focused, her stylistic and technical achievements are extravagant and wide-ranging. In this respect, Barnes is also very much in the mainstream of the spirit of literary experimentation that characterized the modernist movement of the 1920’s. Her own interest in the work of Joyce is well known, and, as her novel Ryder demonstrates, Barnes is able to imitate effectively virtually every major writer in the history of English prose. In Ryder, this rhetorical exuberance is often entertaining and occasionally dazzling, but in Nightwood it is the motor that drives the novel.

In Nightwood, Barnes largely eschews any interest in plot in favor of a detailed representation of the consciousnesses of the major figures. In her preoccupation with motivation and with the associative patterns that preoccupy her characters, Barnes’s writing in Nightwood parallels what is often described as stream-of-consciousness prose, most frequently associated with the fiction of James Joyce and with the psychologically motivated passages in the work of William Faulkner.

Barnes’s subsequent interest in verse drama reflects a further rhetorical development in her work, and it looks forward to her late return to poetry and short lyrics. In this respect, Barnes’s career may be thought of as describing a circle that begins with short verse, passes through the prose experiments of the 1920’s and 1930’s, and returns to verse via the very demanding form of blank verse drama. It should not be forgotten, of course, that throughout her life Barnes continued to pursue visual art; her drawings form an essential part of novels such as Ryder and collections such as A Night Among the Horses, and they may well be studied for insights into the prose that they illustrate.

Finally, Barnes must also be read as an important example of lesbian writing and for her efforts to write a women’s modernism and to use experimental techniques to explore the estranged and oppressed roles of women. Her world of gay women in Nightwood is doubly distanced from the white heterosexual norms of modernist fiction, and as such this novel represents an important oppositional voice in the history of twentieth century literature.


First published: 1928

Type of work: Novel

The eccentric and philandering Wendell Ryder attempts to assert patriarchal control over his family, but he ultimately fails.

Barnes’s first novel, Ryder, is most...

(The entire section is 1998 words.)