Djuna Barnes Long Fiction Analysis
The difficulties of negotiating identity in a culture whose moral values and cultural expectations are powerful and repressive run throughout Djuna Barnes’s canon, from her satirical and witty works to the profoundly serious and dark Nightwood. Emotions, which run high through the generations of the families she depicts, are reflected in the struggles, violence, or loyalties of individuals. Characters across a broad Euro-American landscape try to locate and free themselves from old patterns of quest and fulfillment, seeking authentic channels of emotional and sexual intimacy. Barnes’s work incorporates multiple levels of meaning and multiple layers of figurative allusiveness, which make it challenging for readers to distinguish truth from falsehood and sincerity from fabrication; the characters themselves may not articulate their positions and often may not know themselves.
From the vantage point of the early twenty-first century Barnes remains a modernist concerned with literary innovation, but she is indisputably a saboteur of traditional culture, a woman who extended her writing beyond traditional modernism and who lived according to her own standards. Like other women writers of the period, such as H. D., Jean Rhys, Anaïs Nin, and Gertrude Stein, she cared about women’s freedom and was certainly a feminist. It could be said, however, that her greatest allegiance was to language, to creating it and controlling it either through elaborate expression or declared silence.
Published in 1928 with the author’s own illustrations, Barnes’s first novel, Ryder, is an elaborately structured story about the Ryder family, extending through four generations up to the early twentieth century. There are many family members, some of whom appear briefly while others, like the patriarch and polygamist Wendell Ryder (based on Barnes’s father), loom large. The book sold well for a time, but the complexities of its language (Chaucerian, Elizabethan, and Rabelaisian) and harsh portrayal of family relationships failed to sustain a readership.
Highly ambitious, Ryder works through literary pastiche and satire, relying also on quick changes of style, tone, and narrative points of view. On some levels it...
(The entire section is 933 words.)