What is the role of women in Djuna Barnes' novel Nightwood?
Djuna Barnes’ 1936 novel Nightwood is about female relationships – the novel has been categorized as “lesbian literature” – but which presents its main characters in a somewhat asexual light. Nightwood’s protagonist is Robin Vote, a character who moves through the story in a barely perceptible manner, first as wife to Felix Volkbein, an Italian Jew pretending to Viennese royalty, and then as lover to Nora Flood an Jenny Petherbridge, the former the owner of a salon who moves with Robin to Paris only to lose her lover to a series of affairs and, eventually, to Jenny, and the latter a parasitic partner who “gains happiness by stealing the joy of others.” Barnes describes Robin, who passes through life without leaving a significant footprint save the son she had with Felix, a development that convinces her that the family life is not her way, as “an infected carrier of the past.”
Barnes was herself probably homosexual or, possibly, bisexual. The most enduring relationship in her life was her longtime affair with Thelma Wood, and literary scholars who have studied Barnes’ life have suggested that the character of Nora is based closely upon herself, with the character of Robin inspired by Wood, who was never faithful to Barnes and entered into a relationship with a wealthy heiress named Henrietta McCrea Metcalf, which development is reflected in the above description Barnes provides of the character of Jenny Petherbridge, who was herself modeled after Metcalf.
The autobiographical elements of Nightwood are overwhelming, and a description of Barnes during the final half of her 90-year life is reflected in the manner in which Nora (Barnes), betrayed by her only true love, Robin (Thelma), lives out her life in seclusion. As described by one scholar of Barnes,
“Djuna Barnes . . . endured the last forty-two years of her life as a semi-recluse in a tiny Greenwich Village flat, amid piles of letters, drafts of poems, and the sudden movement of scurrying roaches. The infrequent visitors whom she admitted were perhaps reminded of Miss Haversham of Dickens’ Great Expectations . . .” [Phillip Herring, “Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood: The Vengeance of Nightwood,” Journal of Modern Literature, Winter 1992].
The role of women in Nightwood is dominant. The men are weak (Felix) or, in the case of the novel’s most compelling male character, Matthew O’Connor, a closeted transvestite, clearly trapped in a sexual neverland whose fantasy while serving as a soldier in the first world war was to be the female lover of a soldier. This is a book about female relationships. While Matthew has been considered Nightwood’s conscience, his is a rather pathetic existence and hardly worthy of emulation. The women rule in Nightwood, but what they rule is open to interpretation.