Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2193
Barnes, Djuna 1892–
American novelist, short story writer, and dramatist, Barnes has earned wide acclaim for her remarkable novel Nightwood. The characters of her fiction are haunted and obsessed, existing in a nightmarish setting. In his introduction to Nightwood, T. S. Eliot notes the novel's "great achievement of style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterization, and a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy." Barnes has also written under the pseudonym of Lydia Steptoe. (See also, Djuna Barnes Criticism and volumes 4, 11, 29 and 127.)
Of the fantastical quality of her imagination; of the gift for imagery …; of the epigrammatic incisiveness of her phrasing and her penchant,… akin to the Elizabethans, for dealing with the more scabrous manifestations of human fallibility—of all these there is evidence in Ryder, Miss Barnes's first novel. But all this might well have resulted only in a momentary flare-up of capricious brilliance, whose radiance would have been as dazzling as it was insubstantial. Ryder, it must be confessed, is an anomalous creation from any point of view. Although Miss Barnes's unusual qualities gradually emerge from its kaleidoscope of moods and styles, these qualities are still, so to speak, held in solution or at best placed in the service of a literary jeu d'esprit. Only in Nightwood do they finally crystallize into a definitive and comprehensible pattern. (p. 26)
While the structural principle of Nightwood is the same as of Ulysses and A la recherche du temps perdu—spatial form, obtained by means of reflexive reference—there are marked differences in technique that will be obvious to every reader. (p. 27)
Proust and Joyce accept the naturalistic principle, presenting their characters in terms of those commonplace details, those descriptions of circumstance and environment, that we have come to regard as verisimilar. Their experiments with the novel form, it is true, were inspired by a desire to conform more closely to the experience of consciousness; but while the principle of verisimilitude was shifted from the external to the internal, it was far from being abandoned. At the same time, these writers intended to control the abundance of verisimilar detail reflected through consciousness by the unity of spatial apprehension. But in Nightwood … the naturalistic principle has lost its dominance. We are asked only to accept the work of art as an autonomous structure giving us an individual vision of reality; and the question of the relation of this vision to an extra-artistic "objective" world has ceased to have any fundamental importance. (p. 28)
Ordinary novels, as T. S. Eliot justly observes, "obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose which is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official." Miss Barnes abandons any pretensions to this kind of verisimilitude, just as modern painters have abandoned any attempt at naturalistic representation; and the result is a world as strange to the reader, at first sight, as the world of Cubism was to its first spectators. Since the selection of detail in Nightwood is governed not by the logic of verisimilitude but by the demands of the décor necessary to enhance the symbolic significance of the characters, the novel has baffled even its most fascinated admirers. (p. 31)
Since Nightwood lacks a narrative structure in the ordinary sense, it cannot be reduced...
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to any sequence of action for purposes of explanation. One can, if one chooses, follow the narrator in Proust through the various stages of his social career; one can, with some difficulty, follow Leopold Bloom's epic journey through Dublin; but no such reduction is possible inNightwood. As Dr. O'Connor remarks to Nora Flood, with his desperate gaiety: "I have a narrative, but you will be put to it to find it." Strictly speaking, the doctor is wrong—he has a static situation, not a narrative, and no matter how hard the reader looks he will find only the various facets of this situation explored from different angles. The eight chapters of Nightwood are like searchlights, probing the darkness each from a different direction yet ultimately illuminating the same entanglement of the human spirit….
[The first four] chapters are knit together, not by the progress of any action—either narrative action or, as in a stream-of-consciousness novel, the flow of experience—but by the continual reference and cross reference of images and symbols that must be referred to each other spatially throughout the time-act of reading. (pp. 31-2)
[Chapters five through seven] are completely dominated by the doctor, "Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dane-O'Connor," whose dialogues with Felix and Nora—or rather his monologues, prompted by their questions—make up the bulk of these pages. (p. 43)
[To] find anything approaching [these dialogues'] combination of ironic wit and religious humility, their emotional subtlety and profound human simplicity, their pathos, their terror, and their sophisticated self-consciousness, one has to go back to the religious sonnets of John Donne. It is these monologues that prove the main attraction of the novel at first reading, and their magnetic power has, no doubt, contributed to the misconception that Nightwood is only a collection of magnificent fragments. Moreover, since the doctor always speaks about himself sub specie aeternitatis, it is difficult at first to grasp the relations between his monologues and the central theme of the novel. (pp. 43-4)
[The] book cannot be understood unless the doctor is seen as part of the whole pattern, rather than as an overwhelming individual creation who throws the others into the background by the magnitude of his understanding and the depth of his insight…. It is this attitude that, in the end, dominates the book and gives it a final focus.
"Man," the doctor tells Felix, "was born damned and innocent from the start, and wretchedly—as he must—on those two themes—whistles his tune." Robin … was described as both child and desperado, that is, both damned and innocent; and since the doctor generalizes her spiritual predicament, we can infer that he views the condition of the other characters—and of himself—as in essentials no different. (p. 44)
Because of his knowledge of man's nature, the doctor realizes that he himself, and the other people in the novel, differ from Robin only in degree; they are all involved to some extent in her desperate dualism, and in the end their doom is equally inescapable. (p. 45)
Nightwood does have a pattern—a pattern arising from the spatial interweaving of images and phrases independently of any time-sequence of narrative action…. [The] reader is simply bewildered if he assumes that, because language proceeds in time, Nightwood must be perceived as a narrative structure. We can now understand why T. S. Eliot wrote [in his preface to Nightwood] that "Nightwood will appeal primarily to readers of poetry," and that "it is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it." Since the unit of meaning in Nightwood is usually a phrase or sequence of phrases—at most a long paragraph—it carries the evolution of spatial form in the novel forward to a point where it is practically indistinguishable from modern poetry. (p. 49)
Joseph Frank, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1945 by The University of the South), Summer, 1945 (and reprinted as "Djuna Barnes: Nightwood," in The Widening Gyre, Indiana University Press, 1963, pp. 25-48).
Djuna Barnes in "The Antiphon" has invented a language which would flabbergast an ordinary, cultivated reader, give pause to a brave lexicographer; it so hallucinates the day as to leap into another century (backward or forward as you may think). It is this extraordinary poetic language by which she will be known. The plot of her play, concerning the dire results of Mormon polygamy in the relations of a cast-off wife with her daughter and sons, loses no chance, in a decrepit house, to hide in the art-irradiated artificial talk. If it could be acted, the action would not be notable; the actors are puppets on which to hang ideas and diatribes, but the interwoven characterization of mother and daughter is notable. It is better as a poem, a verse play for reading, than as a verse play for production. Nevertheless, I should think H. James would have enjoyed it, been startled by it. Sin and incest are shown as irremediable. (pp. 619-20)
Djuna Barnes is a creeper into worm-holes, the worm-holes of frustration, incest, and death. But from her dung heap, what a startling bloom of language! (p. 620)
[I wish] that Djuna Barnes had written a less esoteric play, one more for acting than for reading. (p. 623)
Richard Eberhart, in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1958, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 34, No. 4 (Autumn, 1958).
The black humor of Nightwood is … particularly illustrated in the grotesque, violent characters, the detached attitude toward the descriptions of outrageous clothes and houses, and the parody of the novelist's role.
These comic elements are part of Barnes' larger thematic concern with modern man's separation from a more primitive animal nature—at first glance, hardly the theme for a humorous novel…. In Nightwood, humanity, day, and present contrast with beast, night, and past. Thus Robin is introduced as an "infected carrier of the past" and as having "the eyes of wild beasts." Her various love affairs with Felix, Nora, and Jenny illustrate a search for someone to tell her that she is innocent, for, as Barnes suggests, awareness of innocence leads to consciousness of moral values and, in turn, to humanity. Robin's three principal lovers, however, are unable to help her achieve the human state. Caught up in their own senses of alienation, and goaded by selfish love of Robin, they become animal-like themselves in their desperation to appropriate the bestial woman.
The numerous love affairs are destructive, painfully pursued, and selfishly concluded, for each character searches for a lover who might alleviate his sense of incompleteness. The longed-for reunion between animal and human states never takes place, and the characters are left with an impossible choice: to be primarily human, which means the painful awareness of alienation; or to be primarily animal, which means the longing for moral consciousness. Barnes suggests that the scale has tipped too far on the side of humanity, and she would probably agree with Dr. O'Connor's advice to Nora: "Be humble like the dust, as God intended, and crawl"…. (p. 46)
Happily, however, Barnes has not written a novel of unrelenting gloom. Her sense of humor is evident from the beginning, and her use of funny elements with a depressing theme reflects the perplexing mixture so vital to black humor. Because Barnes reserves many of her comic touches for description rather than action, analysis is difficult…. Recognition of the comedy … depends upon the individual reader, for Barnes maintains total authorial detachment. (pp. 46-7)
None of these people can be called [a character] in the conventional sense. They do not "live," nor are they "round," and the reader is never encouraged to identify with them. Like the characters in many contemporary black humor fictions, Barnes' people are static and subordinated to theme. Nightwood provides insight into the disordered human condition by conveying generalizations about love, bestiality, and religion, and it avoids the reader's expectations of verisimilitude and character development. (pp. 49-50)
In addition to the already recognized work of Djuna Barnes' contemporary, Nathanael West, Nightwood remains the most successful early example of the American black humor novel. Published nearly twenty-five years before the critical acceptance of this new comic fiction, it illustrates the major principles of black humor, particularly the extreme detachment of the author, the comic treatment of ugliness and violence, and the disruption of the conventional forms of the novel. Closer to the fiction of Hawkes or Pynchon than to the work of Hemingway or Dos Passos, Nightwood stands out among post-World War I American novels as one of the first notable experiments with a type of comedy that makes the reader want "to lean forward and laugh with terror." (p. 53)
Donald J. Greiner, "Djuna Barnes' 'Nightwood' and the American Origins of Black Humor," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1975), Vol. XVII, No. 1, 1975, pp. 41-54.
[Djuna Barnes'] compounding of the unlike in juxtaposition, objects of essential dissimilarity compelled into adjacency, is fully in accord with surrealistic techniques. It may frequently remind us of the compulsions of Giorgio di Chirico. Eliot's contention that her work will appeal primarily to readers of poetry is upheld, of course; but the commitment of the poetry may be far other than Eliot was willing to recognize. This much is certain: Whoever studies the French affinities of American artists after the First World War will be obliged to take Djuna Barnes into serious account. (p. 181)
James Baird, "Djuna Barnes and Surrealism: 'Backward Grief'," in Individual and Community: Variations on a Theme in American Fiction, edited by Kenneth H. Baldwin and David K. Kirby (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1975 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Duke University Press, 1975, pp. 160-81.