Djuna Barnes

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Robert Giroux (essay date 1 December 1985)

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SOURCE: "'The Most Famous Unknown in the World'—Remembering Djuna Barnes," in New York Times, December 1, 1985, p. 3.

[In the following essay, Giroux discusses his experience as an editor working with Djuna Barnes.]

"You have to trust someone, Miss Barnes. Why not trust me?" Only an author as aggravating as Djuna Barnes could have goaded me into making such a desperate plea, during a meeting in our publishing office. I was unaware I had nearly shouted these words until my assistant, in the outer room, repeated them to me. "Do you think she trusts you now?" she asked after Miss Barnes's departure. "Did it work?" Of course it didn't work. Nothing worked with Djuna Barnes, whose distrust of all book publishers seemed to be pathological, the product of her long and unhappy history with many companies here and abroad. She even rejected the word "publishers"; they were "printers" to her. She was now almost 70 years old. She took advice only from her longtime friend and admirer T. S. Eliot, who happened to be her English publisher, and he told me that occasionally even his advice was flatly rejected.

It was Eliot who had sent me the typescript of her verse play, The Antiphon, which our company published in 1958, three years before this meeting. We imported 1,500 English sheets from Faber & Faber, the publishing house with which Eliot was associated. Happily, the book received the critical praise we had all hoped for, and the edition sold out eventually. In The New York Times Book Review, Dudley Fitts called the work "dramatic poetry of a curious and high order," pointing out that the pleasure to be found in The Antiphon is "the pleasure of language. Not spoken language; Miss Barnes has no ear for the stage, but the intricate, rich, almost viciously brilliant discourse, modeled more or less on the murkier post-Elizabethans." The names of the Jacobean playwrights John Webster, Cyril Tourneur, Thomas Middleton and John Ford were cited in the reviews. The anonymous reviewer in The Times Literary Supplement wrote, "There will always be one or two eccentrics who think The Antiphon gives its author first place among women who have written verse in the English language."

In light of these reviews, Miss Barnes and I had a very pleasant meeting. She told me she considered The Antiphon her most important work. She was in unusually good spirits because of the reviews but even more because Dag Hammarskjold, the Secretary General of the United Nations, had told her he admired the work so much he wanted to translate it into Swedish. I was impressed by his willingness to take on such an arduous task; the play was difficult enough in English. W. H. Auden, who edited Hammarskjold's spiritual autobiography, Markings, rated his poetic judgment highly: "His knowledge and understanding of poetry, the only field in which I was competent to judge the quality of his mind, were extraordinary." Miss Barnes told me she had dined with Hammarskjold at his home and found him to be one of the most perceptive and sensitive men she had ever met; she readily gave her consent. He was now firmly established in her pantheon of heroes, alongside Eliot and Edwin Muir, the English poet who said of her play, "I feel myself that The Antiphon is one of the greatest things that have been written in our time, and that it would be a disaster if it were never to be known."

Hammarskjold, in this new undertaking, had the good sense to use the help...

(This entire section contains 3433 words.)

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of a theater man, collaborating with Karl Ragnar Gierow, the director of the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theater, known as the Dramaten. Early in 1961, under Mr. Gierow's direction,The Antiphon had its world premiere in Stockholm at this unusual theater, which also had the distinction of having premiered Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night and having given Greta Garbo her earliest training in its drama school. Miss Barnes was unable to attend the opening because of her health. Hammarskjold missed it as well because the crisis in the Congo made it impossible for him to leave United Nations headquarters, but that night he sent her a bouquet of roses.

A few weeks later she phoned to tell me that the Dramaten had mailed her a packet of photographs of its production. Would I like to see them? I said I would and, having in mind that she was elderly and walked with a cane, suggested that I stop by for them at her home in Patchin Place in Greenwich Village, since I often lunched in the neighborhood. She could even bridle on the phone: "No, I prefer not to have visitors here. I'll bring them to your office tomorrow." The futility of disagreeing with her about matters small or large, especially if one was a publisher, was obvious. I respected Miss Barnes as an artist and admired her as a writer. We took pride in having her play on our list, and if we could possibly accommodate her wishes, we did so. I told her I looked forward to seeing the photos the next day.

Marianne Moore once told Elizabeth Bishop she had run into Djuna Barnes on the steps of the New York Public Library. "I was curious," the younger poet wrote, "and asked her what Djuna Barnes was 'like.' There was a long pause before Marianne said, thoughtfully, 'Well, she looked very smart, and her shoes were beautifully polished.'" My own view of Miss Barnes was equally subjective and colored by what I had learned from Eliot, who had known her for decades. He greatly enjoyed her company. Whenever he was in New York, he took her to Charles, a French restaurant on the east side of Sixth Avenue, directly across from the old Jefferson Market and Patchin Place. He told me she had been "disowned" by her family because of her rather notorious life in Paris during the 1920s and 30s, as a member of the circle that gravitated around the wealthy American expatriate Natalie Barney. (This group of artists, writers and actresses, many of whom were homosexual, was vividly depicted by Colette in her book The Pure and the Impure.) Occasionally I saw Miss Barnes walking in the neighborhood of our office at Union Square. She held her tall and thin frame as straight as a ramrod, using a silver-headed ebony walking stick and favoring her left side. Her most striking feature in her younger years had been a fine head of glossy auburn hair, which began to turn gray, thin out and frizzle in the 1960's. She was always smartly groomed and often wore black suits with a brightly colored or polka-dot scarf at her throat.

The limited earnings from her books—including her best-known work, the novel Nightwood, which Eliot had published in London in 1936—were insufficient to sustain her. She depended on the generosity of patrons, and her chief supporter during the 50's and 60's was Peggy Guggenheim, a cousin of the publisher Roger Straus. I learned from Eliot the surprising fact that her four brothers were well-to-do, and I seem to recall that at least one was a banker. Her unconventional father, Wald Barnes, was born Henry Budington. He was 14 years old in 1870, when his mother, Zadel Barnes Budington, an early feminist, divorced her husband—an unusual event then—and went back to her own name, which the son then adopted.

Young Wald Barnes married Elizabeth Chappell of Oakham, England, and they gave exotic names to their five children—Thurn, Djuna, Zandon, Saxon and Shangar. Djuna, the second child and only daughter, was born in 1892 and grew up in Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y., in a house her father built on the Storm King mountain estate owned by their uncle, Justin Budington. Wald Barnes refused to send his children to school. According to her account, Djuna Barnes was "educated at home, and received some of her first paychecks from New York newspapers," including The Morning Telegraph and The World. In 1915 her first book, The Book of Repulsive Women, was brought out as a chapbook by Guido Bruno of Greenwich Village fame. The Provincetown Players produced three of her plays in 1919; four years later Boni & Liverwright published her collection of stories, plays and verses, A Book. Horace Liverwright issued her novel Ryder in 1928 and her book of short stories, A Night Among the Horses, the following year. Her Ladies Almanack was privately published also in 1928. With the appearance of Nightwood, she achieved an international reputation. And after a gap of 22 years, she published her play. The Antiphon is impossible to understand without knowing the family background that inspired it. Its odd and sometimes archaic language adds to the difficulty: Dag Hammarskjold confessed to Miss Barnes that when he first read it, he was frequently baffled but, "having worked with The Antiphon, I now share your view that there is nothing obscure in it." The play centers on a mortal combat between an aged and widowed mother, Augusta, and her daughter, Miranda, "a tall woman in her late fifties" who has "a distinguished but failing air." Their duel, the author says, "should be waged with style." The play ends with their deaths, the mother killing her daughter with a large brass bell, falling dead herself from the effort.

It is as fantastic a play as the stage set Djuna Barnes prescribes for it, with a balustrade on which hang "flags, gonfalons, bonnets, ribbons and all manner of stage costumes…. A long table with a single settle facing front, at either end of which is set the half of a gryphon, once a car in a roundabout." All this is "surrounded by music stands, horns, fiddles, guncases, bandboxes, masks, toys and broken statues, man and beast." This unlikely setting, to which members of the family have journeyed from the four corners of the earth for a reunion, serves as a kind of baroque courtroom in which we are the spectators while the whole family is put on trial. Miranda, the outcast daughter, is both prosecutor and defendant. At one point she makes an accusation against her mother for some obscure act that jolts the reader who grasps that she is describing her own birth: "The salt spilled, the bread broke. Unmuzzled bone / Drew on the hood of flesh, entombing laughter: / Tongues came forth, and forth the hissing milk / Its lashing noose, and snared the gaping mouth. / A door slammed on Eden, and the Second Gate, / And I walked down your leg." A play of brilliant recrimination, The Antiphon is a version of the author's family history from her view, a dramatic parallel to another American playwright's long day's journey into night. When Miss Barnes came and spread the photos of the Dramaten production on my desk, she also brought along a rave review by the drama critic of the Stockholm newspaper Espressen. I had never seen her look so happy. "I owe Dag Hammarskjold everything," she said. "If it hadn't been for translation, none of this would have happened." That there were no plans for a New York or London production she attributed, quite unfairly, to the disastrous tryout—in fact, it was a reading without sets or costumes—that Eliot had arranged for the Poets' Theater Company to put on for her at Harvard University in 1956, before The Antiphon was even published. In addition to Eliot, his friends I. A. Richards, Edwin Muir and Robert Lowell were in the audience. Everything about the Harvard tryout displeased her—the actress playing Miranda was not thin enough, all the performers mouthed difficult lines whose meanings had not been sufficiently clarified for them. Since this was merely a reading, they interrupted themselves from time to time, reasonably enough, to ask Miss Barnes what certain lines and words meant. This had enraged her. In her view, no poet should be subjected to such questioning, especially in public. To her the tryout was a wounding breach of good manners.

H. D. Vursell, my gifted editorial colleague, entered the office at this juncture to have a look at the Dramaten photos. Hal, as he was called, had lived in Paris in the late 20s and knew many of the people Miss Barnes had known. They hit it off instantly, speaking of Natalie Barney, Mina Loy, Nancy Cunard, Virgil Thomson, Gertrude Stein, Raymond Mortimer, Romaine Brooks and even the original of Dr. O'Connor, the famous character in Nightwood. (Eliot, in his introduction to the novel, refers to him as "Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O'Connor," whose Irish eloquence and verbal ingenuity make him one of the most memorable characters in the book.) After Hal left, Miss Barnes lingered momentarily in the past, "Everyone in Paris knew him," she said, and at first I thought she meant Hal, but she was thinking of the original of Dr. O'Connor. "He'd been a sailor in the U.S. Navy. In Paris he went everywhere, and he talked all night long. When I put him in my books, I didn't invent a thing."

This was the most tension-free meeting I had ever known with Djuna Barnes. I might have guessed it couldn't last. At the end she casually mentioned that she had numerous corrections and revisions for The Antiphon. My heart sank, since we had no plates of her book, only the imported sheets. I merely nodded as I escorted her to the elevator. If there was to be a wrangle, and it was inevitable, I preferred to face it another day.

When I alerted Roger Straus to the impending crisis, he had an inspiration. Why not collect several different examples of her work—some of her stories, her best-known novel and the revised text of her play—into a single book, The Selected Works of Djuna Barnes? There was a whole new generation of readers who had never heard of her and to whom such an anthology might appeal. Eventually the copyrights were cleared, and my friend James Laughlin of New Directions readily gave his consent to our use of Nightwood. It took several meetings with Miss Barnes—including the one at which I shouted that she had to trust someone—before we worked it all out. Publication of the collection was finally scheduled for the spring of 1962. When the galley proofs came to my desk in mid-September, I phoned to ask if I could bring them over. "You know I do not have visitors," she said. But I did not want to visit; I simply wanted to see the proofs safely delivered. "Are you aware that we have no nameplates or mailboxes and that my buzzer doesn't work?" No, but couldn't I call out her name in the courtyard? "Very well. Come tomorrow, if you wish, but don't expect me to ask you in." I said I understood perfectly. Patchin Place is a small enclave of 10 brick houses converted into small apartments in two rows on either side of a narrow, tree-shaded courtyard off West 10th Street between Sixth and Greenwich Avenues. An iron gate, usually ajar, secludes it from outsiders. Over the years it has been home to such writers as John Reed, Theodore Dreiser, Padraic Colum and Jane Bowles. I first visited it in the early 50s, when I was editing the collected edition of the poems of E. E. Cummings, who lived on the ground floor of No. 4 Patchin Place. He was a good friend and neighbor of Miss Barnes, who lived across from him at No. 5. If she was ill, he brought her chicken soup, and her reclusive behavior made him call up to her second-floor window every few weeks, "Djuna, are you still alive?"

When I arrived with her proofs, I realized that something was wrong. She was standing at the first-floor banister and in a voice much more hoarse and tired than usual said, "Bring them up." To my surprise, when I got to her door she said faintly, "Please come in." Her face was pale and drawn, and I was amazed to see that she was wearing a nightgown of pleated muslin, longer than floor length, with a ruffed collar tied with a black ribbon up to her chin. It reminded me of an old photograph of Sarah Bernhardt in the last act of Camille, except that this costume was transparent and she was wearing nothing beneath it. To avoid tripping, she had gathered up the folds in front of her. Wholly distracted, she seemed unaware of my embarrassment. This was so unlike the Djuna Barnes I was accustomed to, always smartly turned out and in control, that I decided she was ill. The night table beside her bed held dozens of vials of pills and capsules in different colors.

"I haven't slept a wink," she said. "I had ears glued to the radio all night. They've murdered him!"

For a moment I thought she had gone mad. "Who's been murdered?"

"Don't you know that they've killed Dag Hammarskjold? He flew on a peace mission to the Congo, and his plane was sabotaged. He's been burned to death."

"My God, how awful!" I had not seen the papers or heard this shocking news and said so. "I know he was your friend. I'm so very sorry, Miss Barnes."

"He was a saint. I've called the U.N. office, but they don't seem to know anything except that he's dead." She said that when she first heard the news, she felt as if she had been blinded. She motioned me to a chair. I placed the package of proofs on her desk, behind which stood a thronelike curule chair in which she now sat. After a while she seemed a little less agitated, and her voice grew stronger. "His death is one of the worst crimes against civilization ever committed. Dag Hammarskjold did nothing but good, and look what they've done to him. And he really believed in the goodness of man. Well, not I!" It did not seem to be the time for proofs and publishing business, and I said I'd phone her in a day or so. "No," she said. "You're here now, and let's get on with it." I showed her the proofs, gave her the deadline for corrections and asked her how she liked the design for the jacket. It featured a handsome photograph that Berenice Abbott had taken of her around the time of Nightwood. I expected her to fuss and fume over every aspect of the design, but she simply said, "It's rather good," and handed it back.

"I know you're trying to take my mind off this terrible tragedy, but you needn't," she said. "I have lived with suffering all my life, and I expect to do so until the day I die." I looked around her one-room apartment, which I had never thought I would see. She had lived alone in this room since 1940—21 years. I did not know and could not have imagined that she would occupy it for another 21 years, during which I would never see her again, though we exchanged letters.

With the passing years, it was her fate to become more and more of a legend. She even called herself "the most famous unknown in the world." Books would be written about her. In her later years she would be appointed a trustee of the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and awarded a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts. A group of admirers, including young writers and editors and some residents of Greenwich Village, devoted themselves to her welfare and tried to help her when she would let them. But her suffering did not cease. She was briefly hospitalized for malnutrition, apparently through self-neglect. In 1971 The New Yorker published her poem "The Walking-mort," whose theme was the living death of old age. Her editor at the Dial Press, Frances McCullough, saw the last book she wrote, Creatures in an Alphabet, through press just before Miss Barnes's death in 1982.

Djuna Barnes might have learned from the authorized biography of Dag Hammarskjold by Brian Urquhart, published in 1972, that the Secretary General's death was an accident, not murder. (This does not necessarily mean that she would have changed her mind about sabotage.) When Markings was published posthumously, I found that one of Hammarskjold's entries was this quotation from The Antiphon: "Be not your own pathetic fallacy, but be / Your own dark measure in the vein, / For we're about a tragic business." The gallant woman who wrote these lines lived for three days after her 90th birthday.


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Djuna Barnes 1892–1982

(Also wrote under the pseudonym of Lydia Steptoe) American novelist, dramatist, short story writer, poet, and journalist.

The following entry presents an overview of Barnes's career. See also, Djuna Barnes Criticism and volumes 4, 8, 11 and 29.

Barnes is most associated with the modernists of the early twentieth century. She shared the primary ideals of modernism—to revitalize language, express the unconscious mind and the alienation of the modern individual, and to reject the modes of realism. Barnes's writing was difficult to read because she stressed imagery and symbolism in her works rather than realistic or naturalistic descriptions. Although Barnes was an infamous public figure and well-known journalist, her fiction was never widely read. She had a small cult following, including some of the best-known modernist writers of the century, such as T. S. Eliot. Nevertheless, Barnes described herself as "the most famous unknown of the century."

Biographical Information

Barnes was born in 1892 to Wald and Elizabeth Chappell Barnes. While a child and teenager, Barnes was a victim of incest. As a result, sexual abuse is a frequent subject of her work, but is sometimes buried in the subtext of her fiction. Barnes's home life was further complicated by her mother who ignored and denied Barnes's victimization, and allowed Wald's mistress and their children to move in with the family. Barnes escaped the household, becoming a freelance journalist in the 1910s. Her work ranged from the serious to the ridiculous. She interviewed famous actors, statesman, and carnival sideshow freaks. In 1921, McCall's magazine sent Barnes to Paris, where she remained for several years after completing of her assignment. While in Paris, Barnes met and fell in love with Thelma Wood. The relationship was destructive for Barnes because Wood strung her along for eight years before ending the relationship permanently. During her career, Barnes befriended several notable literary and political figures, including playwright Eugene O'Neill, writer James Joyce, and Secretary General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjold. Throughout her writing career, Barnes published a series of early plays, poetry, and short stories, but the novel Nightwood (1936)—her most significant work—had a difficult publishing history. Several publishers turned the manuscript down until a friend showed it to T. S. Eliot, who edited the book while working for Faber & Faber. After publishing Nightwood, Barnes experienced a series of personal crises, including failed relationships, money trouble, and excessive drinking. She moved into a small apartment in New York's Greenwich Village, where she remained secluded for the rest of her life. Barnes continued to write, but not prolifically, and it took her years to complete her obscure verse drama, The Antiphon (1958). Barnes died in 1982 at the age of ninety.

Major Works

The play, The Dove (1926), is about two aging sisters, Amelia and Vera Burgson, and a young woman they meet in the park whom they name "The Dove." The sisters invite the woman to move in with them, and the play reveals the sisters' voyeuristic tendencies and preoccupation with violence and sexuality. The woman becomes increasingly agitated with events in the household and her treatment until she takes a stand. The ending and the woman's fate remain ambiguous. Ryder (1928) is considered an autobiographical novel that tells Barnes's family story, but is unclear about how many details are factual. The Ryder family is headed by Wendell Ryder, who believes in polygamy, free love, free thinking, and idleness as an occupation. His mother runs a scam targeted toward rich, philanthropic men to support the family's needs because of Wendell's refusal to work. Wendell sexually abuses and oppresses females in the household, and although state officials step in to question Wendell's polygamy and home schooling, the family's deepest secrets are never revealed. Nightwood (1936) is Barnes's exploration of her relationship with Thelma Wood. The novel centers on American expatriates in Europe. There are two main story lines about Robin Vote and Matthew O'Connor. Vote's character is based on Wood. Matthew O'Connor comments on the other characters' actions. The two plots converge when O'Connor tries to counsel Felix and Nora, two characters who have both fallen in love with Vote. The novel is theme-driven, not plot-driven. In depicting the anguish of several characters who have distinct sexual, spiritual, and social identities. Barnes uses dreams, animals, and nocturnal images as metaphors for unconscious and irrational obsessions. The novel's comic depictions of terrifying events represents an early manifestation of black humor. The Antiphon, is a verse drama written in the Elizabethan and Jacobean traditions with a contemporary setting. The novel is about Miranda, a girl who is sexually abused by her father and left unprotected by her mother's collusion. The play is highly autobiographical and explores the feelings of exploitation and betrayal Barnes experienced during her youth.

Critical Reception

Many of the discussions and critical commentaries on Barnes's work focus on speculation about her sexuality and sexual politics. This limited commentary on her fiction has contributed to a limited readership. Georgette Fleischer said, "Zealotry has spawned gross factual errors and irrational readings that have inflated within an insular critical field and emerged as full-blown myths. This has cheapened Djuna Barnes." Many reviewers assess Barnes's Nightwood as one of the most important modernist works of the twentieth century. Miranda Seymour concluded, "Admired by Joyce, Nightwood is as important to the history of 20th-century novel as Finnegans Wake—and more readable." It is by far her most respected work, although there is controversy among reviewers over the quality and lasting impact of the novel. Many critics point out the mysterious and difficult nature of Barnes's prose, complaining there is no substance behind Barnes' difficult writing. However, Anne B. Dalton asserted, "I would argue that Barnes's work is more like Pandora's box: once one manages to open it, the contents stream out irrepressibly." The author herself believed her drama The Antiphon to be her most important work. However, many critics found The Antiphon difficult and obscure. While some critics praised Barnes for carrying on the efforts of Eliot and W. B. Yeats to revive verse drama, others contended the meaning of the play was obscured by its wording. This difference of opinion characterizes the general response to virtually all of Barnes's work. She has inspired acclaim and disdain for her daring methods and bleak, fragmented depiction of modern existence.

Nancy J. Levine (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: "'Bringing Milkshakes to Bulldogs': The Early Journalism of Djuna Barnes," in Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes, edited by Mary Lynn Broe, Southern Illinois University Press, 1991, pp. 27-34.

[In the following essay, Levine traces how Barnes's early journalism influenced her fiction, especially Nightwood.]

Judging by her early career as a journalist, one could say that Djuna Barnes had a taste for "the bawdy, cheap cuts from the beast life," not unlike her character Felix Volkbein of Nightwood, who haunts the dressing rooms of Europe's actresses, acrobats, and sword swallowers (N, II). Barnes combined the public demands of a career with a private fascination for the strange and bizarre. The assignments she drew as a "newspaperman" (her term) during the eight years before she left for Europe in 1920 led her inevitably to the grotesque. Barnes' tabloid journalism is elegant, witty, and surprisingly undated. Because her career as a journalist was the seedbed of her greatest novel, Nightwood, her early essays, interviews, and works of fiction are worth considering, setting aside questions of merit. The motif of the sideshow freak emerged from this early work and found its way into Nightwood.

In 1913 Djuna Barnes began working as a reported and illustrator for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. She free-lanced for the Press, the World, and the Morning Telegraph between 1914 and 1917, eventually writing for most of the other major New York papers. In addition to straightforward news reports, such as her page-one story for the Daily Eagle, "Stage Opens Case in New Delfer Trial" (1913), Barnes wrote interviews and feature articles on a startling variety of subjects. Tango dancers, chorus girls, Greenwich Village bohemians, and British suffragettes engaged her sharp-eyed, amused attention. She talked to out-of-work servant girls and to Lillian Russell in her opulent retirement. David Belasco the playwright, Diamond Jim Brady the financier, and Billy Sunday the evangelist responded to her questions with surprising openness and eloquence. Her early newspaper career kept her in touch with the popular entertainments of the 1910s—the circus, the vaudeville, the boxing ring, and the movies. Scattered among the big names she interviewed are these oddities: an Italian actress billed as "the Wild Aguglia," who kept monkeys in her dressing room; an "Indian" snake dancer named "Roshanara" (actually an English girl with a busy imagination); and a painless dentist. "Twingeless Twitchell," whose office was any Brooklyn street corner.

By 1917 Djuna Barnes was earning five thousand dollars a year as a free-lance feature writer. Fifteen dollars for an article was considered good payment in the 1910s; Barnes could, and often did, write several a day. By the time she left for Europe in 1920, she had published more than a hundred articles and over twenty-five short plays and fictions. The New York Tribune employed her as a stringer during her early years in Paris, Berlin, and the south of France. McCall's, Vanity Fair, Charm, and the New Yorker commissioned articles and interviews that featured personages famous, rich, or royal. McCall's editor, Harry Payne Burton, for example, sent Barnes a $500 check to a Barcelona address in 1925 for an article on international marriage among the elite.1 During the 1920s, Barnes' popular journalism was an uncertain source of income, allowing her to publish her serious fiction and poetry in literary journals with small budgets. The Little Review, the Dial, and transition gladly took her work in return for the glory of the thing; occasional financial assistance from friends helped keep her afloat between checks.2 From January 1929 to September 1931 she wrote articles and a gossipy monthly column, "Playgoer's Almanac" (retitled "The Wanton Playgoer"), for Theatre Guild Magazine. The big assignments became scarcer in the 1930s, however, and finally stopped altogether. But in the 1920s Barnes was known as a brilliant figure in literary and social circles on both continents. In May 1924 a young up-start named Ernest Hemingway warned the readers of the Paris-based Transatlantic Review that Djuna Barnes, "that legendary personality that has dominated the intellectual night-life of Europe for a century, is in town." It may well have been her reputation as a literary legend that finally ended her career as a popular journalist. By the late 1930s she had too much stature to write about what the crowned heads of Europe liked for dinner.

At the beginning of her career, however, there were few things Barnes would not do for the sake of a story, from risking the loss of "all dignity out of our lives as far back as our great grand uncles" on the slides, chutes, and whirling disks of Luna Park Steeple Chase to allowing herself to be lowered at the end of a rope from the top of a building for an article on firemen's rescues. Barnes' range in the 1910s was remarkably wide, but in almost every one of her light and engaging feature articles and interviews the real subject is the unexpected presence of the bizarre embedded in the everyday.

Sometimes the bizarre was not buried very deeply. For example, Barnes found Twingeless Twitchell, the dentist who pulled teeth for free, on a street corner in Brooklyn. The banner that headed her interview with Twitchell was the alliterative exuberance of a Coney Island "talker's" spiel: "Digital Dexterity of the Dental Demonstrator Holds Audience in Awe."3 The point of the article is that Twingeless Twitchell's act, however odd, is not tucked away in a freak show. One could encounter him or others like him on any municipal highway. One of Barnes' first assignments for the Daily Eagle was to explore the streets for "Types Found in Odd Corners Round about Brooklyn" (1913), as the heading for a series of her drawings proclaimed. Sometimes her searching eye picked out the unusual only to deflate it; in an interview with Ruth Royce, the comedienne, Barnes called her "the greatest 'nut' in vaudeville, eccentric beyond the limits of belief unless you have seen her."4 But more frequently her goal was to make the reader aware of the strange and contradictory nature of the quotidian world. If one could "live each day apart," she wrote in "Found in the Bowery" (1917), "then and only then should we see something at once beautiful and real and perhaps not beautiful at all."5

In these early pieces Barnes is flexing muscles she will use when she creates the characters of Nightwood. In a voice that recalls Dr. Matthew O'Connor's verbal dexterity, Dr. Twitchell declaims to his audience, "I'm the man that put the 'dent' in dentist and the 'ees' in teeth." O'Connor himself gives a good imitation of a medicine show spieler when he tells the café crowd, "I was standing listening to a quack hanky-panky of a medicine man saying: 'Now, ladies and gentlemen, before I behead the small boy, I will endeavour to entertain you with a few parlour tricks'" (N, 163). Barnes was particularly drawn to high-talking charlatans. When it came time to write the doctor's monologues, she had more than one prototype on whose mode of speech she could have drawn.6 The evangelist Billy Sunday may have suggested the doctor's favorite rhetorical device, attack by analogy. Side-stepping the question "Is war good or bad for religion?" Billy Sunday responds aphoristically: "Through ammunition one attains immunity: through battle one locates the knees. The eyes do not necessarily have to be acquainted with the Bible; the knees must be acquainted with the floor."7 The balanced repetition of the preacher's language ("through ammunition … through battle") is echoed in the doctor's speech: "we all go down in battle, but we all go home" (N, 129). To a certain extent, Barnes invented all the people about whom she wrote. Since she seldom took notes, she may have had to depend on the cadenced language of her Methodist background to recreate the ecclesiastical rhythms of Billy Sunday's oratory. Her memory was copious; as she told the actress Helen Westley during an interview, she could always "make a paragraph out of a note automatically." No doubt Barnes drew on her past for the interviews, as later she drew on the interviews for Nightwood.

Djuna Barnes also wrote about: a seal trainer in Brooklyn; the above-mentioned snake dancer, "Roshanara, the Reincarnation of the Ancient East"; and a baby gorilla at the Bronx Zoo named Dinah, whom she "interviewed."8 In words that Barnes, acting as "translator," put in Dinah's mouth, the "bush-girl" expresses a wish to try chewing gum so that she can find out "what it is that keeps so many people rotatory beneath their hats."

Most of Barnes' interviewees are in Dinah's position, at least some of the time, of having words—witty, alternately racy and orotund, but unmistakably Barnes' own—placed in their mouths. The Broadway producer Arthur Voegtlin, whom Barnes interviewed for the Press, sounds curiously like Billy Sunday, for example, and both men recall Dr. O'Connor. She even made a spokesperson out of Roshanara, whose verbal talents are rather unexpected coming from a snake dancer; "skill," Barnes remarks in Nightwood, "is never so amazing as when it seems inappropriate" (N, II). Addressing a stumbling American public, enamored of such violent, mechanical dances as the turkey trot and the bunny bug, Roshanara says: "Incidentally, you don't know anything about dancing. That's why my act is a risk; it is moonlight to madness, and it is dream steps to the death charge. It is a hazy, calm, peaceful interpretation of a calm, peaceful race. Well, it's like bringing a milkshake to a bulldog."

In these early essays Djuna Barnes is always trying to bring milkshakes to bulldogs. The attempt to confound her readers' blunted expectations by mixing modes and forcing incongruous juxtapositions is an essential part of her style, both as a writer and as an artist. The drawings that accompanied most of her articles and interviews are an improbable but successful combination of the daily funnies and Aubrey Beardsley. One of Barnes' specialties was the vamp, a type that had its vogue in the 1910s. The pages of popular magazines were filled with drawings of slant-eyed women, dressed in sinuous wraps and wearing the bland, standardized expressions of fashion models. Barnes eschewed anodyne effects; her females are anything but bland. A fashionably dressed woman in a typical Barnes sketch of this period goes for a walk with her pet, but the animal at the end of the leash is a cubistic chicken. Barnes' first published graphic work owes a debt to the whiplash linearity of art nouveau. The prose style she employed in her feature articles for the Daily Eagle and the Press is harder to categorize. The term "euphuistic" hardly does justice to the deliberate campiness of her description of an ice cream soda as "cheerful chemicals in chiffon." There is an element of Coney Island burlesque in such a contradictory construction that makes the usual critical terminology seem stuffy.

Coney Island, not unexpectedly, was another Barnes specialty. From 1913 to 1917 she wrote four articles about her visits to that garish, red-painted amusement park. Built in 1904, Coney Island was the inspiration of two alert showmen, Elmer S. Dundy and Frederick Thompson, who also built the Hippodrome, thereby making themselves sleek fortunes. Barnes was more interested in the people who visited and worked in Coney Island than she was in the park itself. The following passage is from a piece she wrote for the Press in 1914:

I heard emanating from one of the sideshows a noise that was half-way between a melody and a regret; there were also inside some torrid war cries and a glimpse of some turbans…. [The performers] had a lot of sheeting wound around them and a good many spears, which they occasionally threw at one another or at the crowd, or sometimes at a target which, in spite of the fact that they never do anything else, they never hit in the right place. They showed us how they cleaned their teeth, how they nursed their babies, and how they chewed gum.

The last exhibit was rather the best.9

In an essay that appeared in the Press three years later. Barnes' impressions are still as sharply focused, but her response to the sideshow has tilted from outside to inside, from the position of the observer to that of the observed:

A sideshow attracts attention. Great posters of the "Fattest Fat Lady," of the "Ossified Man," of the "Snake Charmer," and of that unfortunate fellow who has legs like whips and who is advertised as the "Cigarette Fiend." You look down upon these people as from the top of an abyss, they are the bottom of despair and of life. The demonstrator comes forward, cane in hand, he touches the nearest freak on the shoulder and begins turning him around as if this turning were all that the unfortunate had been born for. He begins to enumerate this man's misfortunes as though they were a row of precious beads.

An explosion in the mines, a falling of stones and coal, a man pitching forward in the darkness, a stumbling foot, a prayer to God, and then a pick through the body—"You see," he gives the young man another turn, tapping him upon the stomach, "here is where the pick thrust its head out." He smiles, rubbing his hands. The young man turns again, a fixed look upon his face, neither pleasant or otherwise, a cool self-possessed stare, a little uncertain, perhaps, whether to be proud or sorry for the accident that has made him of interest to the gaping throng.10

These two passages could be read as evidence that between 1914 and 1917 a development, a deepening of the character of their author, took place. Such things happen in fiction, if not in the fiction that Barnes happens to have written. Actually, these two passages illustrate two perspectives she had mastered from the start: an objective and a subjective approach to reporting.

Barnes, who began her career writing front-page news items, always retained the ability to record the facts of a story with detachment and economy. Sent to the Bowery in 1917 by the Telegraph to dig out hidden pockets of grand opera, she noticed the poisonous colors of the cakes in an Italian bakery and wondered about their effect on the digestion—without losing sight of her reporter's obligation to tell how, when, and where the public could attend a performance of Salome.

Her best journalism is subjective, however. She had what Louis Kannenstine called "a gift for uncommon observation."11 The facts that mattered to her were the marginal, concealed, but vital details that allowed her to respond to the atmosphere of an assignment, to what one might call its psychological environment. Her essay on the playwright John Millington Synge is "an atmospheric article on an atmosphere."12 The introduction contains an important demurral: "I am not a critic; to me criticism is so often nothing more than the eye garrulously denouncing the shape of the peephole that gives access to hidden treasure." After this graceful hesitation, we are offered a selection of homely vignettes: the Irish playwright cooking a frugal meal of tea and eggs on a small stove, wandering alone in the windy dusk, playing the penny whistle for a few friends. Perhaps these are made-up "facts"—in any case, details no "critic" would find important. But they create the illusion of a presence, palpable and intense, that owed little of its effect to the historical facts, arranged in chronological order, around which her essay is discreetly constructed. Barnes has evoked an atmosphere of loneliness, detachment, and mystery. Most of the feature articles she wrote between 1913 and 1919 have a similar subjectivity.

Barnes' Synge is sad and a bit rumpled; in spite of his celluloid collar and his lyric genius, he resembles the tramps, barflies, and laid-off workers she sketched in the "Types Found in Odd Corners" series she did for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1913. Above the high-flown caption "Because the Road He Took Was Wrong," a man in a rough cap and jacket sits in a chair with his face hidden in the crook of his arm. Barnes gave the same posture of weary suffering to a young prostitute whom Nora encounters after she and Robin are separated (N, 157). Such outcasts of society are valuable, we are told, although "their good is incommunicable, outwitted, being the rudiment of a life that has developed, as in man's body are found evidences of lost needs" (N, 52). Nightwood is a gathering of the distressed, people she terms "détraqués"—O'Connor's "Tuppeny Upright," the boys and girls who hang around public toilets at night, the freak Mademoiselle Basquette, "built like a medieval abuse," and, above all, Dr. O'Connor himself. As a journalist, Barnes learned how to communicate the incommunicable good inherent in such people by studying the workers and actors she found on the margins of social "acceptability."

If much of Djuna Barnes' early newspaper work is "subjective journalism" rather than straight reportage, it was mainly because there was a demand for that work at which she, above others, excelled. She had, however, a reputation for reportorial energy and toughness, as well. "Djuna Barnes, the femme writer," Walter Winchell wrote in the late 1920s, "can hit a cuspidor twenty feet away." That particular talent belonged to someone else, but Barnes had earned the reputation. "Baby Face" Nelson and his girl friend gave her an interview at her Waverly Place apartment while nervous bodyguards patrolled the doors and windows. Once she climbed into an upstairs window to photograph the body of a murdered girl. She snapped the picture but failed to get an interview with the distraught father, who threw her out the first time she tried to enter the house. "This was the kind of thing that made me get out of the newspaper business," Barnes told a friend more than sixty years later. Between 1916 and 1918 her flow of articles diminished considerably. What ended her career as a news reporter (but not as a journalist) was her refusal to divulge to her editor the facts about a rape case she had investigated. He fired her on the spot.13

Barnes also earned her living by describing to a sedentary public how it felt to be a carefree young vamp, a comic or satiric persona she donned in the 1920s when she signed the pseudonym "Lydia Steptoe" to articles she wrote for Vanity Fair, Charm, and Shadowland. For a few years she gave it her all, until the role must have sickened her. Coming briefly out of deep seclusion in 1971 to give Henry Raymont of the New York Times an interview, she said: "Years ago I used to see people. I had to, I was a newspaperman, among other things. And I used to be rather the life of the party."14 It is tempting to imagine a moment when, her bravado faltering, Barnes felt like the young man with the perforated stomach, "a little uncertain perhaps whether to be proud or sorry for the accident" that made her of interest to the throngs. But this is impertinent speculation. Her own terse words to Raymont will have to suffice: "I used to be invited by people who said, 'Get Djuna for dinner, she's amusing.' So I stopped it."

Barnes discovered fairly early that "subjective journalism" could be made to serve the needs of a personal and artistic, as well as a professional, integrity. The account of her experiment with force-feeding, which she wrote for the World Magazine in 1914, is graphically detailed, but it is not coolly detached. Her goal is to inspire the readers of the Sunday supplement with a sense of outrage on behalf of English suffragettes on a hunger strike. She writes: "If I, play-acting, felt my being burning with revolt at this brutal usurpation of my bodily functions, how they who actually suffered the ordeal in its acutest horror must have flamed at the violation of the sanctuaries of their spirit?"15 "Empathy" has rarely been taken further by any writer.

For the average reader, the man who earned his living by displaying his perforated stomach in a sideshow would have seemed no more of a freak than the suffragette willing to risk having a tube forced into hers. What Barnes is looking for in her early pieces is a way to narrow the distance between the freakish unfortunates she encountered in "odd corners" of the city and the audience who "look[s] down upon these people as from the top of an abyss." One way is to enter the abyss herself. Thus she allowed the prison doctors and nurses to strap her to the infirmary table: "This," she thought quizzically as she looked up into their faces, "is one picture that will never go into the family album." Another way is to produce snapshots of the event that turned a human being, like ourselves, into a freak: "a stumbling foot, a prayer to God, and then a pick through the body." The world she introduces by these means is alien and threatening, but full of fascination. Unable to turn away, one experiences direct contact with the grotesque.

During the years she wrote for the daily papers, Barnes developed an eye for the diamond embedded in slug's meat. James Joyce, whom she met in Paris, told her, "A writer should never write about the extraordinary; that is for the journalist."16 Fortunately, she was not that kind of journalist. Her extraordinary fact was almost always buried in the heart of the everyday, whether she was writing about the strange people she met in Greenwich Village and the Bowery, the circus acts at the Hippodrome, or the freak shows at Coney Island.

Nightwood is proof that Barnes absorbed, retained, and used what she had seen as a newspaper writer. The most obvious echo from her past is that collection of circus performers with suggestive names—the trapeze artist Frau Mann, for example, known onstage as "the Duchess of Broadback"—whose presence on the novel's periphery caused some early reviewers to label the book "a sideshow of freaks," to T. S. Eliot's dismay. Barnes would not have tried to duck the phrase. Frau Mann, after all, is "eccentric beyond the limits of belief unless you have seen her."

The word "freaks" appears nowhere in Nightwood. That Barnes would refrain from using the term marks a change in her attitude towards the use to which subjective journalism might be put. In some of her early work, she clearly itches to force the complacent to acknowledge their affinity with anomalous, marginal people. By the time she wrote Nightwood, the teacher had become an author without ceasing to be a humanist. Barnes herself would "never use the derogatory in the usual sense" (a "great virtue" she shared with Dr. O'Connor [N, 116-17]): she seems, rather, to have decided to trust her audience to summon up similar powers of discrimination. "Freaks," to be sure, is a word that recoils upon the reader who would use it for the nonheterosexual characters in Nightwood. If some still do, that fact only proves that Barnes continues to bring milkshakes to bulldogs, even though the "milkshake" has turned to headier stuff.


1. Harry Payne Burton, letter to Djuna Barnes, 2 November 1925, the Djuna Barnes Collection, McKeldin Library, University of Maryland, College Park.

2. Matthew Josephson, in Life among the Surrealists, a Memoir (New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1962), 83, recalls that at one period Barnes was living on a monthly stipend of fifty dollars, given to her by a rich American woman (probably Natalie Clifford Barney).

3. "'Twingeless [sic] Twitchell' and His Tantalizing Tweezers, etc.," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 27 July 1913, 6.

4. "Ruth Royce, Greatest 'Nut' in Vaudeville," New York Press, 19 May 1915, sec. 4, p. 4.

5. "Found in the Bowery: The Italian Drama," New York Morning Telegraph, 21 January 1917, sec. 2, p. 1.

6. The prototype usually cited for Dr. Matthew O'Connor is Dr. Dan Mahoney. For accounts of this friend of Barnes' expatriate years, see John Glassco, Memoirs of Montparnasse (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970); Robert McAlmon, Being Geniuses Together (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968); and Andrew Field, Djuna: The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes (New York: Putnam's, 1983).

7. "Billy Sunday, a Fire-Eater in Pulpet, etc.," New York Press, 12 February 1915, sec. 5, p. 2.

8. "Training Seals in Stage Stunts, etc.," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 31 August 1913, 30; "Roshanara, a Wraithlike Reincarnation of the Ancient East," New York Press, 14 June 1914, sec. 5, p. 3; "The Girl and the Gorilla; Dinah at the Bronx Zoo etc.," New York World Magazine, 18 October 1914, 9.

9. "If Noise Were Forbidden at Coney Island, a Lot of People Would Lose Their Jobs etc.," New York Press, 7 June 1914, sec. 5, p. 5.

10. "Surcease in Hurry and Whirl," New York Morning Telegraph, 15 July 1917, 2.

11. Louis Kannenstine, The Art of Djuna Barnes: Duality and Damnation (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1977), 5-6.

12. "The Songs of Synge: The Man Who Shaped His Life as He Shaped His Plays," New York Morning Telegraph, 18 February 1917, 8.

13. I am indebted to Hank O'Neal's memoirs (excerpted in this volume) for Barnes' account of her newspaper experiences and for her denial of Walter Winchell's "spittoon" anecdote.

14. Henry Raymont, "From the Avant-Garde of the '30's, Djuna Barnes," New York Times, 24 May 1971, 24.

15. "How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed," New York World Magazine, 6 September 1914, sec. 5, p. 17.

16. "Vagaries Malicieux," Double Dealer 3 (1922): 253; reprinted in Vagaries Malicieux: Two Stories by Djuna Barnes (New York: Frank Hallman, 1974).

Principal Works

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The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings (poetry and drawings) 1915
An Irish Triangle (play) 1919; published in A Book, 1928
Kurzy of the Sea (play) 1919; published in A Book, 1928
Three from the Earth (play) 1919; published in A Book, 1928
A Book (verse and plays) 1923; enlarged edition published as A Night among the Horse 1929 To the Dogs (play) 1923
The Dove (play) 1926
She Tells Her Daughter (play) 1926
Ladies' Almanack (poetry) 1928
Ryder (novel) 1928
Nightwood (novel) 1936
The Antiphon (verse drama) 1958
Spillway (short stories) 1962
Vagaries Malicieux: Two Stories (short stories) 1974
Smoke and Other Early Stories (short stories) 1982

Jeanne Campbell Reesman (Winter 1992)

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SOURCE: "'That Savage Path': Nightwood and The Divine Comedy," in Renascence, Vol. XLIV, No. 2, Winter, 1992, pp. 137-58.

[In the following essay, Reesman compares Barnes's Nightwood to Dante's The Divine Comedy.]

Among the many interesting problems raised by Djuna Barnes's Nightwood (1936), is that of placing this complex and mysterious novel in a literary-historical context. Many critics describe Nightwood as an example of the post-modernist "new novel." Joseph Frank, for example, views it as a striking example of literary spatialism, a "richly experimental" novel that goes beyond other similar works in its post-cubist exploration of narrative form and narrative consciousness (Frank 46). Following Frank, Sharon Spencer calls it an "architectonic" novel that attempts "to liberate character from the restrictive traditional unities by means of new structural principles based upon juxtaposition in space" (Spencer 39). Yet although Nightwood clearly emerges out of the literary attitudes and trends of its time, it also progressively assimilates and coordinates itself with the literature of the past. T. S. Eliot, for example, whose introduction to Nightwood drew favorable attention to a relatively unknown author, praises the novel's "great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterisation," but adds to these virtues "a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy" (Nightwood, xvi).

Indeed, like Eliot himself and like James Joyce, who, as George Steiner puts it, produced works "crammed with quotations from, allusions to, pastiches and parodies of the best art, music and literature of the previous two thousand years" (Steiner 134), Barnes should be regarded as both custodian of tradition and innovator, and Nightwood's experimental form should not be set apart from the rich literary tradition that informs it. As Louis F. Kannenstine notes, Nightwood is "steeped in the literary-historical past as thoroughly as it is grounded in its concrete present." It particularly draws upon the sacred literature of Christian and pre-Christian tradition, as does Barnes's first novel, Ryder (Kannenstine xi). By re-presenting the past in the present, Nightwood addresses all that has gone before it as well as that culture in which and for which it was composed, but its jarring juxtapositions of past and present become even more meaningful as it also becomes part of a literary past. Indeed, now, after fifty years, Nightwood's juxtaposition of contemporary cultural concerns with broader themes and archetypes can be more clearly seen and described. Despite its revolutionary chic, many of the important questions about Nightwood—and it is a novel that has baffled and even outraged literary critics—can be taken up in light of its relation to much older literary modes. It is fitting that a cunning book like Nightwood should present such a paradoxical universalism.

Perhaps in part because the reclusive Barnes was so unavailable for questioning about her life and career, Nightwood's sources in past literature have never been adequately addressed. There are tantalizing suggestions, however, of such sources in various critics' comments. Besides Eliot's and Kannenstine's remarks, Frank, for example, despite his post-modernist approach, writes that this "amazing book" combines "the simple majesty of a medieval mystery play with the verbal subtlety and refinement of a Symbolist poem" (Frank 46). Others have noted the book's significant references to the poetry of John Donne. Yet the one name which emerges repeatedly in the criticism is that of Dante Alighieri, though it comes up casually and without explanation. Kannenstine says of Dr. Matthew O'Connor (whose full name is Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O'Connor) that "the Dante in O'Connor is a chronicler of purgatory" (Kannenstine 95). Similarly, in his 1937 New Yorker review of Nightwood, Clifton Fadiman calls the characters of the novel "the denizens of Dante's Inferno" (Fadiman 103), and Stanley Edgar Hyman describes Dr. O'Connor as "the mad, tormented Dante of our sexual underworld" (Hyman 61). An examination of Nightwood with Dante's The Divine Comedy in mind confirms the association sensed by these critics and reveals the Dantean influence in theme, structure, characterization, and imagery. The much-disputed meaning of the last chapter of Nightwood, in particular, is made clearer through the comparison with The Divine Comedy. The likenesses appear to indicate a conscious memory of Dante's poem, but I have been unable to locate any biographical evidence to indicate Barnes's knowledge of it. It is, however, their significance not their origin that concerns me. To see Barnes's novel as a mirror for Dante's poem is to see it illuminated in a significant way.

As in The Divine Comedy, in Nightwood duality is the overriding thematic as well as structural pattern. To begin with, it is and is not a novel: "only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it," as Eliot remarks (xii). Dr. O'Connor describes the unusual structure and development of the book when he claims that he has a narrative, "but you will be put to it to find it" (97). The eight chapters of Nightwood each focus on a single character, and this preference for multiple points of view formally contextualizes the novel's other dichotomies of day and night, of dual forms of being, of sexuality, of love and hate, consciousness and unconsciousness, descent and ascent, spirituality and bestiality, soul and flesh, salvation and damnation, linear and simultaneous time. Most importantly, a "reverse morality" pervades every aspect of the book. What is usually considered "good" is no longer in Nightwood. What is grotesque is beautiful. Morality and aesthetics are problematic and even dangerous in this dualistic universe, as Doctor O'Connor warns:

"Have you," said the doctor, "ever thought of the peculiar polarity of times and times; and of sleep?…. Well, I … will tell you how the day and the night are related by their division. The very constitution of twilight is a fabulous reconstruction of fear, fear bottom-out and wrong side up. Every day is thought upon and calculated, but the night is not premeditated. The Bible lies the one way, but the nightgown the other. The night, 'Beware of that dark door!'" (80)

The characters of Nightwood occupy a "middle condition" that seems to presuppose a lack of understanding as a condition of tentative existence in a seemingly empty universe. How odd and how oddly appropriate, then, is Barnes's use of the moral architecture—the resolved and unresolved dualisms—of The Divine Comedy.

Like The Divine Comedy, Nightwood's thematic focus is on love, human and divine, and this is informed throughout by the insistence on duality and reversal. Love is generally inversion in Nightwood. Nearly all of Barnes's love relationships in all her works involve a search for self-completion—this love is symbolized in relationships that are either strictly familial or homosexual. In Nightwood the most "perfect" love thus appears to be that which allows the lovers to be mirror-images of each other. As Barnes wrote in "Six Songs of Khalidine," an early elegy to a dead lover:

      It is not gentleness but mad despair
      That sets us kissing mouths, O Khalidine,
      Your mouth and mine, and one sweet mouth unseen
      We call our soul…. (Barnes, A Book, 145)

Similarly, in Nightwood, Nora remarks that "… a woman is yourself, caught as you turn in panic; on her mouth you kiss your own" (143). Indeed the story of Nightwood traces how Nora's obsessive love for Robin is revealed as a selfish personal design on Nora's part. Her sin is that she treats Robin not as another human being but as a facet of herself. In Nightwood, whether between man and woman, woman and woman, or man and man, love that could be joy fails because of narcissistic self-containment. Nora's attempt to become one soul with Robin, to abolish their duality, is her great failing, and she painfully learns that when one "loves" anyone in a possessive, egotistical way—that is, when one's love is a demand on the loved one to function as a mirror of one's own personality and desires—the love is doomed. Nightwood thus suggests that all love is in danger of becoming merely a selfish, auto-erotic quest, but it also just hints in its conclusion at awareness of another kind of love, a love that would not be the less for allowing the "other" her identity and freedom. As The Divine Comedy portrays the limits and possibilities of Dante's and Beatrice's relations as they occur in Dante's spiritual journey, Nightwood similarly explores such possibilities and limits of human and Divine love; much more tentatively than The Divine Comedy, Nightwood offers a redefinition of love as salvation from self-absorption.

Perhaps like Dante at the beginning of the Inferno, the characters of Nightwood are in revolt against the facts of their physical realities as human beings; these "perpetual protagonists" of Barnes's represent to Alan Williamson an extreme form of "the tragic encounter between an aspiring hero and a limiting universe, in that the antagonist is the protagonist's own nature rather than some external force pitted against him" (Williamson 61-62). The great sins of The Divine Comedy, Incontinence, Violence, and Fraud, are also the sins of Nightwood: all the characters are morally incontinent, but they come to represent individual besetting sins as well, all involving failures to love brought on by their self-absorption and alienation. As Ulrich Weisstein comments, "sooner or later in the novel, the characters of Nightwood are judged according to their spiritual age" (Weisstein 9). For both Dante and Barnes, the theme is that of "the agonized heart" (Hyman 62), the pilgrim soul on its way to death—or salvation—on the "grim path of 'We know not' to 'We can't guess why'" (101). "Agony" in Nightwood takes on the meaning of a struggle between well-defined but seemingly impossible choices. Like Faulkner's portrayal of the "human heart in conflict with itself," the struggles of Barnes's heroes and heroines suggest that if understanding within the self is next to impossible, how much more difficult is communication—especially loving communication—between oneself and others. Language is suspect; it can falsify reality by substituting "a word [for everything seen, done or spoken] and not its alchemy," as the Doctor puts it. "We swoon with the thickness of our own tongue when we say 'I love you …'" (83), he adds. Since in our modern wasteland, our "night wood," one cannot know the beloved's inner life, the Doctor suggests, one cannot love or be loved.

It is this seemingly insurmountable condition of ignorance of self and others in Nightwood which has furnished the evidence for the standard reading of Barnes's novel as utterly despairing, but to read the novel this way would be like reading only Dante's Inferno and not the complete Comedy. Nightwood is an Inferno for the modern world; like the Inferno it offers in its mysterious conclusion an enhancement of the possibility of hope by leaving the issue of interpretation, of belief, up to the reader. There is hope in Nightwood's savage portrait of modern failures at love, but it is like the hope offered at the end of Eliot's The Waste Land—it is subtly suggested, not directly presented. Such "incompleteness" actually offers the more "complete" reading of Nightwood.

Barnes's "negative" method specifically reflects the novel's dependence upon the Christian myth of a redemptive Fall: love is possible here on earth, but paradoxically one must first face one's failures at love. Fittingly, Spencer calls Nightwood a "form of the Christian message in disguise" (Spencer 39), and Williamson suggests that in Nightwood, because love seeks "to heal fragmentation, to overcome solitude, and to deny mortality," love is the most perfect act of revolt against earthly despair (Williamson 65). But the Doctor says it best: "We were created that the earth might be made sensible of her inhuman taste; and love that the body might be so dear that even the earth should roar with it" (83).

The love so great "that even the earth should roar with it" is the same love Dante beholds in The Divine Comedy, "The love that moves the sun and the other stars" (Pur., XXXIII, 145). The structures of The Divine Comedy and Nightwood seek to trace the way of the soul on the path through damnation and purgatory to paradise. Nightwood stops short at purgatory, just at the precise moment, in fact, of the turn from hell into purgatory and the beginning of the way to salvation, while The Divine Comedy portrays the soul's ascent as well as descent. Dante encounters all manners and degrees of degradation and despair, but ends with a vision of God as changeless Light. Led by the wise Virgil and then taken into heaven by his projected soul, the animal figure Beatrice, the pilgrim is in the end united with himself and with God. His mission now, we are given to understand, is to return to earth and tell the tale of his salvation. Although Nightwood's inhabitants trudge the "savage path" (Inf., II, 142) Dante's pilgrim started down, it reverses the moral structure of The Divine Comedy and confirms it at the same time. Both works are full of inversions (as in Canto XIX of the Inferno, which describes the upside-down popes), perversions, and, as Kenneth Burke theorized about Nightwood, "con-versions" as well. In both works, one's puzzling out these structural movements and counter-movements causes one to participate fully to the very end of possibilities, or, particularly in Nightwood's case, to their real beginning.

The structures of The Divine Comedy and Nightwood exhibit movement not so much through plot but through an overall spatial design. Dante's readers have always delighted in trying to "draw" in their minds his amazing geography of hell, purgatory, and heaven, and some editors have gone further. The Dorothy Sayers translation, for example, contains complicated notes and diagrams explaining where the poet and his guide are at a particular moment. The basic mythic description of death and destruction as downward and of new life and resurrection as upward emerges in The Divine Comedy as the structural statement of the Middle Ages, but modern Nightwood's metaphorical structures are also dominated by these Dantean features of images of descent, ascent, and turning. Characters in Nightwood are always falling down (for example, the "go down" or "bow down" phrase so often repeated refers to several things at the same time—it is a naughty joke, a suggestion of bowing down to an aristocratic past, a sleep, a falling, a dream, a death, a prayer). Like stage directions, Nightwood's frequent movements of turning call attention to the book's spatial relationships as well as its gradual abandonment of chronology (Kannenstine 124). Such a spatial organization calls for a reconstructive reader who is willing to put together what is presented as fragmentary, to build what is smashed, to find meaning where meaning seems at best confused or illusory or, at worst, absent.

Like The Divine Comedy, Nightwood presents a "static situation" in addition to its logical/chronological narrative; according to Frank, the reader will find facets of the 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" (Frank 31-32). Much the same could be said of Dante's Cantos: the sins he sees in hell, for example, may be meticulously differentiated but are all the same human weaknesses in different guises—it may even be suggested that they are all Dante's sins. Dante carries several image clusters throughout his trilogy, as Sayers notes, including the Wood, the City, the Path, the Fall, and the Ascension. In a similar way, Nightwood contains patterns of meaning connected independently of time-sequence. What Frank says of Nightwood is just as true for The Divine Comedy: meaning is generally located in "reference and cross-reference of images and symbols that must be referred to each other spatially throughout the time-act of reading" (Frank 49).

And yet it is not true that Nightwood is "timeless," that if one is lost in the night wood the year and city do not matter (Spencer 43). These things do matter very much: Nightwood tells us, especially with Dante as a background, that the traditional kinds of salvation (Dr. O'Connor's Catholicism, for example) seem utterly impossible in the modern world. In spite of what some critics claim about the book's "timelessness," Nightwood is set in a very particular time, precisely in "the cosmopolitan world of displaced Europeans and expatriated Americans in the post World War I years," as Walter Sutton describes it. The world of Nightwood is largely Djuna Barnes's world. Yet Nightwood's structure is also "flexible and adaptable, accommodating itself to every altered perspective in time" (Sutton 117, 120). Similarly, Dante tells his readers in Cantos I and II of the Inferno exactly what time of day it is, "Day was departing and the dusk drew on" (Inf., II, 1), and further that the day is his thirty-fifth birthday, "Midway this way of life we're bound upon" (Inf., I, 1). It is Easter Week, 1300. Dante continues throughout the entire poem to label each Canto with the time of day—"Good Friday, a.m.," or "Holy Saturday, p.m."—emerging from hell into purgatory at precisely 5 a.m. Easter Sunday. Dante means for his readers to realize that his universal and timeless poem also occurs in their own time.

The time overlay in Nightwood, though buried, is also very precise: one finds a chronology scattered throughout the 170 pages of Nightwood that begins with Felix, born in 1880 and married to Robin in 1922. Robin goes to live with Nora until she leaves for America with Jenny, whom she first meets in 1929. The final portions of the book take place in the 1930s. But time in Nightwood is charted very carefully up to the point of the separation of Robin and Nora, after which occurs a descent into a world "ultimately preconscious and ahistorical" (Kannenstine 94). This movement parallels Dante's leaving off of his careful chronology as he gets further and further into heaven, and perhaps the doctor in Nightwood thinks of Dante's redeeming dawn: "Dawn, of course, dawn! That's when she came back frightened. At that hour the citizen of the night balances on a thread that is running thin" (139).

In both works, the night wood is the scene of the descent of the soul, and the novel's whorled, rococo pattern of descent is carefully connected to its wood imagery—such a connection exists in the chapter title, "Where the Tree Falls," for example. In the Inferno, the image of woods appears at regular intervals in the descent into deeper and deeper rings of hell. At the very entrance to hell appears the frightening Dark Wood in which the pilgrim is lost:

     Ay, me! How hard to speak of it—that rude
     And rough and stubborn forest! the mere breath
     of memory stirs the old fear in the blood;

     It is so bitter, it goes nigh unto death
     Yet there I gained such good, that, to convey
     The tale, I'll write what else I found therewith.
       (Inf., I, 4-9)

Turned aside from escape to the "right road" by three animals symbolic of the sins he will have to face in Hell, a Leopard (Incontinence), a Lion (Violence), and a Wolf (Fraud), and fleeing back into the wood, Dante meets the shade of Virgil, who tells him that one day a Greyhound (Christ) will come to drive the beasts away. For now the only escape is to travel a longer way, led by Virgil through hell and purgatory to be finally guided by Beatrice through heaven.

The woods reappear in Canto IV, when Dante describes the Limbo of the Great Pagans and Poets as "the wood (as'twere) / Of souls ranged thick as trees" (II. 65-66). Canto XIII, which takes place in Circle VII, Ring ii, of hell, the Violent Against Self, portrays the Wood of the Suicides, a dismal, pathless wood of withered trees that enclose the souls of suicides:

      No green here, but discolored leaves and dark.
      No tender shoots, but writhen and gnarled and tough,
      No fruit, but poison-galls on the withered bark.
        (II. 4-6)

The gloom of the woods is disturbed by the shades of two profligates, flying through the forest eternally pursued and torn by black hounds and screeching Harpies. In this night wood of total despair Dante, urged by Virgil, tests the trees to discover what they are:

      So I put forth my hand a little way,
      And broke a branchlet from a thorn-tree tall;
      And the trunk cried out; "Why tear my limbs away?"

      Then it grew dark with blood, and therewithal
      Cried out again: "Why dost thou rend my bones?
      Breathes there no pity in thy breast at all?

      We that are turned to trees were human once;
      Nay, thou shouldst tender a more pious hand
      Though we had been the souls of scorpions."
        (II. 31-39)

As the Florentine explains, "I am one that made my own rooftree my scaffold" (II. 151). The denizens of the Wood of the Suicides committed the same sin the characters of Nightwood commit: they wantonly destroyed their own lives "turning to weeping what was meant for joy" (Inf., XI, 45). Perhaps this is what O'Connor has in mind when he declares, "… now nothing, but wrath and weeping" (166). The connection between Nightwood and the Wood of the Suicides becomes clearer when one realizes that Dante and Virgil's next stop is the Burning Sand and the woods that fringe it—there they discover the Sodomites, located after the suicides in hell and just before the crossing of the Great Barrier into the lower third of hell, which contains those who committed the sin of Fraud. Violence and Incontinence are left behind, but these sins form a backdrop to the Sins of Fraud which will come. The Suicides and Sodomites in The Divine Comedy and Nightwood symbolize the sin of lovelessness, and lovelessness, we learn, underlies Fraud in both works as well.

In order to make the transition from Violence to Fraud, at the edge of the barrier cliff Virgil instructs Dante to throw down his rope girdle, which Dante remembers he had used earlier to capture the Leopard. The girdle is a symbol of his last holding onto and subsequent shedding of the lesser two sins he has so far faced. When the monster Geryon is called up by the girdle from the depths of hell, Dante and Virgil climb on his back and descend into the pit of Fraud. Geryon is an image of duality, his man's face belied by his "wyven's trunk." He is "painted with ring-knots and whorled tracery," "such dyes in warp and woof" as "Arachne's web." He is propelled by his tail, "twisting the venom fork in air / Wherewith, like a scorpion's tail, its point was tipped" (Inf., XVII, 10-27). Geryon continues The Divine Comedy's pattern of turning and serves as a figure of Satan as well. He also has a correspondent in Purgatorio: the Gryphon of Canto XXXI in whom duality of form is resolved.

But resolution does not mean stasis in either Nightwood or The Divine Comedy. Each work has at the center a static, still figure around which the other characters and action move; for human beings, movement, not stasis, is offered as the life-giving force in both works. In hell, Dante finds the strange, three-sided, frozen figure of Satan, immobile in the center of the earth, caught forever in a vast lake of ice. Dante and Virgil actually climb down his trunk and at his center, his loins, find themselves reversed and climbing up to purgatory. As Virgil explains:

      "Thou think'st," he said, "thou standest as before
      You side the centre, where I grasped the hair
      Of the ill Worm that pierces the world's core.

      So long as I descended thou wast there;
      But when I turned, then was the point passed by
      Toward which all weight bears down from every where.
      The other hemisphere doth o'er thee lie—
      Antipodal to that which land roofs in…."
                                        (Inf., XXXIV, 106-13)

The still center that paradoxically causes movement, reversal, even eievation, appears again as the Vision of the Light at the center of the Heavenly Rose: the Unmoved Mover, God Himself. Dante has gone down through hell to get to the still Satan, up through purgatory to get to the still God. Ironically, Satan furnishes Dante the avenue upwards; God sends him back down to earth to sing of heaven.

Robin Vote is the still center of Nightwood. All characters act through her and against her and because of her. She is something different to each character, and, although she is "La Somnambule," the unmoving sleeper, she is a catalyst for either damnation or salvation, a frightening figure to those who behold her. As Dante turned in disgust away from the frozen Satan, Nora sees in Robin her own worst designs of wrongful domination of another. She cannot stand to view Robin—and yet craves the sight of her. Perhaps Nora eventually learns merely to accept what she cannot assimilate, just as Dante tells us he accepts the too-bright Light of God without being able to stare into its secrets, but Nightwood ends on the "down note" of the climb down Satan's torso, before everything reverses and the possibilities of purgation are revealed.

I shall return to the question of Nightwood's ending, but first I wish to address exactly how the novel's characters enact their Dantean journeys. Some characters are central: Dr. O'Connor, Nora, Robin. Others are representatives of the larger world of the story. Jenny and Felix, Robin's other lovers, stand out most clearly from the rest of the inhabitants of the might wood, the freaks, whores, transvestites, circus actors, and midgets. But as noted earlier, like Dante's characters, all of the characters of Nightwood are symbolic and must always be viewed in relation to one another; because of their symbolic nature, they take on reflexive meaning like the parts of a poem, a meaning found only in juxtaposition and cross-reference, not in logic. It is possible to arrange the major characters of both works in such a way as to point out their echoing interrelations:

O'Connor Nora Robin
Speaker Heroine Soul
Virgil/Prophet Dante/Pilgrim Beatrice/Satan
Sin of Incontinence Sin of Violence Sin of Fraud
Leopard Lion Wolf

Dr. O'Connor has been singled out as the hero of Nightwood by some writers, but although he is heroic in his attempt to hold onto his Catholicism in order to be saved, he knows he has failed and can only interpret his failure as instruction for others. His constant sin of Incontinence damns him, as does his condemnation of the others at the end of the chapter called "Go Down, Matthew." And yet perhaps he is not so much damned as set apart from salvation. The doctor is a prophet who can show the way but who cannot live in the Promised Land, a priest who can hear confession but who cannot grant absolution, a Virgil who can lead Dante only as far as the gate of heaven before returning to his Limbo. Dr. O'Connor is strongly associated with Tiresias, the blind hermaphroditic prophet of Greek mythology who was damned by Zeus for his garrulousness, particularly his foretelling of Zeus's own downfall. Like Tiresias, O'Connor sees the future but cannot change it; he must wander in his horrible awareness of the other souls through a wasted earth, as does Tiresias in Eliot's The Waste Land. Nora recognizes this role: "Doctor, I have come to ask you to tell me everything you know about the night" (79). Dr. O'Connor is the "Watchman of the Night."

Eliot emphasizes the doctor's "hypersensitive awareness" of other people's pain, his "desperate disinterestedness" and "deep humility." What "sends him raving" in the end is his "squeezing himself dry" and getting no sustenance in return (Introduction to Nightwood xiii). Frank sees the doctor as damned (by his excessive knowledge of evil, "which condemns him to a living death") and innocent at the same time (Frank 44-47). O'Connor's despair allows him to recognize despair in others and to help them, but there is nothing else he can do but talk to them. The doctor attempts to save Nora from her obsessive attachment to Robin through talk when she visits him in his one-room flat. She surprises him, finding him in tawdry dress and wig in his filthy, cramped bed. He speaks in long, chapter-length monologues on the state of the soul in the night world: at his feet sits a pail of excrement, fitting accompaniment to his spewing of words. As a chorus chants, as a prophet raves, O'Connor goes on and on—his woman's gown, symbol of his sexual disorientation, becoming the "natural raiment of extremity" worn by "infants, angels, priests, the dead" (80).

The doctor's agony is genuine, his lack of self-consciousness laudable. Yet too often his talk is not offered as the way to salvation, but merely as a distraction to help the listener endure. The doctor's monologue is not about how to overcome a loss, but how to bear it to death. Dr. O'Connor's Catholicism is much the same to him, since for him it offers comfort but no hope. He cannot attain the state Eliot prays for in "Ash Wednesday": "Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still." His deep involvement in the sufferings of others binds him to their fates, despite the pain that bond causes him:

"Look here!" said the doctor … "the liar I am!…. I talk too much because I have been made so miserable by what you're keeping hushed…. Do you think, for Christ's sweet sake!" he said, and his voice was a whisper. "Now that you have all heard what you wanted to hear, can't you let me loose now, let me go? I've not only lived my life for nothing, but I've told it for nothing—abominable among the filthy people—I know, it's all over, everything's over, and nobody knows it but me—drunk as a fiddler's bitch—lasted too long—" He tried to get to his feet, gave it up. "Now," he said, "the end—mark my words—now nothing, but wrath and weeping!" (165-66)

The doctor has failed because he has found selfless love impossible to maintain toward other people and has long ago given up as hopeless any other kind of love.

Before turning to the other characters of Nightwood, let us note the position of Dr. O'Connor in Ryder, Barnes's first novel, since his spiritual agony there is carried over and expanded in Nightwood. His role as spiritual guide is formed in Ryder; his one monologue (the Doctor is a minor character) recalls the words of a priest, Father Lucas, at the funeral of the Doctor's younger brother:

Look up, he says, and there you will see the Lamb of the Lord trampling out the small clouds and the great clouds and the indifferent clouds of heaven, grazing without sin, go thou and do likewise. I'll do that, Father, says I, and please Moses it's in my strength, but what with a dilator on my hip and the disease and distresses and distempers of man, and what they are prone to, coming into my mind, and before my eyes, and me restless, it's a devil bit of peace I'll get, says I, banging my head against the scrofula and the tapeworm and the syphilis and the cancer and the pectoris and the mumps and the glut and the pox of mankind, I says, and me with my susceptible orbs staring down into and up through the cavities and openings and fissures and entrances of my fellowman, and following some, and continuing others, and increasing many, and them swelling and opening and contracting and pinching like the tides of the sea, and me a mortal like the sea with my ebb and flow, and my good heart, and my thundering parts and my appetites and my hungers. (Barnes, Ryder, 174)

The doctor enters all the orifices of the human body as the Earth itself, leading as Virgil does down tunnels and up fissures to the very gate of heaven. His eyes become the searchlights to guide others; his knowledge of the deep allows him to show other lost souls the way out. Father Lucas answers:

Visit me often, he says, and I'll give you comfort and kind words and a little consolation that shall inch thee on thy way a bit, and bring thee nearer the Celestial Gate, slip by slop, cleansing your soul as you go, that you may not enter altogether dusty and dirty and mucked before the Judgment Seat, with its two in front and its two behind and the four singing Holy! Holy! Holy! God save the behind. I said, and staggered out into the life and traffic of my days…. (Barnes, Ryder, 174)

In Nightwood, if the doctor himself does not discover hope, he at least helps Nora to the path of purgation, for Nora is the real pilgrim. A seeker of the Word held back by her sin of selfish Violence, Nora is fascinated by depravity, repressive in response perhaps to a Puritan ethic. Nora's fascination with degradation is rather like Dante's open-mouthed awe of hell's various grisly sins and punishments, and, like Dante, she identifies strongly with the sinners, and she finds harsh judgment of them difficult to abandon. Nora's selfish identification with Robin, her clutching recognition of the "double" she finds in Robin, leads eventually to Robin's annihilation. O'Connor warns Nora against her attentions to Robin, especially her giving Robin dolls and other toys to play with: "We give death to a child when we give it a doll—it's the effigy and the shroud; when a woman gives it to another woman, it is the life they cannot have, it is their child, sacred and profane …" (142). Nora and Robin represent the paradox that only through another can the pilgrim find herself, and yet if she does not find the strength to continue her search for her soul alone—alone in the last extremity and freed of her selfish personal designs on the other—she will destroy the other person, the vessel of her search. But Nora is afraid to let go of Robin. Attempting to convince her of this, the doctor calls up Dante's handling of Beatrice, which for him apparently represents a notable attempt to love and yet to continue the search for selfhood separately from the beloved:

The doctor brought his palms together. "If you, who are bloodthirsty for love, had left her alone, what? Would a lost girl in Dante's time have been a lost girl still, and he had turned his eyes on her? She would have been remembered, and the remembered put on the dress of immunity…. The uninhabited angel! That is what you have always been hunting!" (148)

Nora loves in the only way she knows, and she loves too much; eventually, unlike Dante with Beatrice, she violently forces Robin into reacting to her possessive needs.

But like Dante, the pilgrim Nora's need for a journey downward to a confrontation with a demonic Robin is a need for confrontation with her soul. "Robin disfigured and eternalized by the hieroglyphics of sleep and pain" (63) becomes Nora's love object. Frustrated by Robin's lack of response to her designs and particularly irritated at Robin's immersion in a numbing round of night-time partying with people whom Nora considers depraved, Nora attempts the psychological rape of Robin. She forces Robin into a moment of intense contact in which Robin suddenly feels overwhelming guilt towards Nora. Nora then cruelly tries to "slap her out of it." Nora becomes for Robin an inaccessible Madonna of redemption and unspoken accusation, and Robin feels she must leave Nora to escape insanity—which condition overtakes her anyway, as one critic emphasizes, by the end of the book (Williamson 71).

After Robin leaves Nora for Jenny, Nora turns to the Doctor, who, in spite of himself, does shed light on Nora's predicament and helps her gain insight on what has happened to her. Like Dante with Virgil, Nora begins to assert herself more and more during the course of the Doctor's monologues—these monologues finally become dialogues in which Nora speaks as much as the Doctor, defining more and more clearly the nature of her problem. She seems much better able to address her guilt, loneliness, and failure by the end of their talks than when she first came to him in a broken state. What happens to her after she leaves him furnishes the last chapter of Nightwood.

Waking into consciousness in the first chapter of the novel and slipping down into darkness in the last chapter, Robin is immobile like Satan in his ghastly ice; but she is also a Beatrice shining with the eternal light of heaven. She is whatever the other characters of Nightwood perceive her to be, for, as Frank notes, she is a "creation" symbolizing a state before good and evil—she is "meet of child and desperado." She is a "sleepwalker living in a dream from which she has not awakened—for awakening would imply a consciousness of moral value—Robin is at once completely egotistical and yet lacking in a sense of her own identity" (Frank 32-34). Felix says Robin is looking for someone to tell her she is innocent. Robin needs "permission to live" as a human being, for in the story she never rises above the state of moral possibility. Seemingly, only in the others', especially Nora's, acting through her can she effect any progress at all, and then only for the person associated with her. Robin's fall is the reverse of Nora's rise; Robin's role as inverted exemplum makes her very similar indeed to the sinners of Dante's hell.

In Nightwood Robin embodies the legend of humankind's "true history"—she is the carrier of the primal past nearly forgotten by civilized people. In her transformative state, however (she is Geryon and Gryphon), she also represents the possibility of a future, good or evil, for Robin suggests the soul in all its possibilities. This helps explain why she is so often presented in animal images. Her sin is Fraud, the sin of the Wolf in Dante's scheme; and yet because she herself is not capable of moral or immoral action, her Fraud occurs through another person—Jenny, the woman who steals her away from Nora. It is really Jenny's fraud which pervades Robin's personality, just as Nora's love is harmfully thrust upon her from outside. The doctor is right to contrast Nora's love for Robin to Dante's immortalizing of Beatrice and to recognize that Nora must learn to release Robin, as Dante learns not to desire conventional control over Beatrice as he did on earth, but to love her and himself in a new way.

As Dante's and Barnes's characters portray humanity debased and elevated, the image patterns uphold the dualism and simultaneous interconnectedness thematically and structurally implied. As I have mentioned, both Dante and Barnes weave a pattern of reflexively related symbols and images throughout their work; in their fragmented worlds, identity is an unstable process, a becoming instead of a having become. Meaning thus occurs through the juxtaposed, not the synthesized image: "An image is a stop the mind makes between uncertainties," as the Doctor defines it (III), and there are many of them. Images echo and reflect allusively instead of speaking in single certainties. Uncertain, and even dark, such an insight helps explain the situation in which the characters of Nightwood find themselves caught. Meaning will be, but will be as open to possibility as is Nora's spiritual state.

Nightwood evokes Dante's use of figurae that present an event or figure in sacred history as prefiguring another, as the burning bush is a figura of the Virgin Mary, the Virgin a figura of the spotless tomb. Such images illustrate what Jacques Maritain calls "intuitive" meaning to be found in the "preconceptual life of the intellect and the imagination. Two things are not compared, but rather one thing is made known through the image of another … by the same stroke their similarity is discovered" (Maritain 329). James B. Scott discovers figurae in Nightwood when he calls the novel's imagery an "apprehended tableau" (Scott 106), which also describes Dante's vast setting for the salvation of a human soul.

The most significant shared image patterns of Nightwood's and The Divine Comedy's "tableaus" are the night and wood images and the striking animal images. Dante's woods, I noted, form an extensive pattern in the Inferno and are carried over to the Purgatorio. The woods images are equally important in Nightwood. The characters are lost in the night wood of the novel's title, but beyond that wood in Nightwood is the wood of the cradle, church door, cross, and coffin. It is further associated with the "feminine principle of matter and mother (materia, mater)" (Burke 339). This association calls for attention, for in its link with blood, wood takes on greater mythic meanings. In Eliot's "Sweeny Among the Nightingales," Agamemnon "cries aloud within the bloody wood," and in Nightwood, wood is also tragic and deadly. It appears as a symbol of the loss of spiritual life in the richly carved furniture (such as Frau Mann's "bloody wood" cabinet, the toys, and the picture frames of Nightwood) (Weisstein 6). Kannenstine suggests further meanings for wood: it carries the connotation of "being out of one's mind, a condition which merges with being beyond or out of time." The night wood is in short "the medium for recurrence of all lost phenomena" (Kannenstine 125-26).

Images of animals remarkably similar to those of The Divine Comedy haunt Djuna Barnes's night wood. Like The Divine Comedy, the novel is full of descriptions of people as snakes, of bestial acts, of animals evolving into humans. Most significantly, Dante's Leopard, Lion, and Wolf take human forms in Nightwood. The doctor daubs himself with gaudy makeup like the Leopard with "painted skin" in Dante's poem (Inf., XVI, 108). Like the gamboling Leopard, the doctor incontinently talks away in empty speculation his real chance to help those who call out to him. Nora is associated with the Lion of Violence. When she first meets Robin at the circus she leads her away from a lioness:

… she turned her furious great head with its yellow eyes afire and went down, her paws thrust through the bars and, as she regarded the girl, as if a river were falling behind impassable heat, her eyes flowed in tears that never reached the surface. At that the girl rose straight up. Nora took her hand. "Let's get out of here!" the girl said, and still holding her hand Nora took her out. (54)

The image comes up again when Nora is trying to explain herself to O'Connor. He responds to her "explanations" of her feelings towards Robin that "Lions grow their manes and foxes their teeth on that bread" (151). The Doctor refers to these two animals in their Biblical comparisons to Satan, whom the prophets call a raging lion and whom Jesus calls a wily fox. As Robin's animal is the Wolf of Fraud, she is repeatedly associated with dogs, especially in the conclusion. Nora fears to rearrange anything in their house, for fear that "if she disarranged anything Robin might lose the scent of home" (56). Mythologist Erich Neumann characterizes the dog as the animal of the Great Mother in her guise as Gorgon, or Artemis/Hecate, "mistress of the night road, of fate, and of the dead." The Gorgon's principal animal is "the dog, the howler by night, the finder of tracks,… the companion of the dead"; as "mistress of the way down and of the lower way," the feminine Goddess keeps by her side the Cerberus-like dog (Neumann 170).

There are other important parallels in the animal imagery of The Divine Comedy and Nightwood. The Harpies in Dante's Wood of the Suicides are remarkably like the characters Barnes describes as haunting the underworld of Paris and preying on the unwary traveller in its depths; furthermore, Jenny's association with birds of prey casts her as the novel's most destructive "Harpy." The dualistic Geryon/Gryphon figures, as I have noted, are quite significant to Nightwood. The Gryphon, an apocalyptic animal, is Dante's first sight after his immersion in the River Lethe:

      Thus did they chant, and thus they led me, right
      Up to the Gryphon's breast, where watchfully
      Beatrice gazed, and we stood opposite.

      "Take heed," said they, "spare not thine eyes, for we
      Have set thee afore the orbs of emerald
      Whence Love let fly his former shafts at thee."

      Myriad desires, hotter than fire or scald
      Fastened mine eyes upon the shining eyes
      That from the Gryphon never loosed their hold.

      Like sun in looking-glass, no otherwise,
      I saw the Twyform mirrored in their range,
      Now in the one, now in the other guise.

      Think Reader, think how marvellous and strange
      It seemed to me when I beheld the thing
      Itself stand changeless and the image change.
      (Pur., XXXI, 112-26)

Dante stares into the eyes of Beatrice, which individually mirror the Gryphon; when the duality is reconciled, the divine and human Gryphon proceeds in a pageant to a newly flowering Tree of Knowledge on the way to the gate of heaven. Interestingly, Barnes alludes to this Canto when in her poem The Antiphon she describes a wooden table decoration which consists of the two halves of a gryphon which had once been a carousel car. This symbol of childhood was halved by the father in the poem with his saw, but it becomes the vehicle of the mother and daughter's "voyage" to mystical union. Dante's "beast / Which in two natures one sole person is," we recall, is a symbol of incarnation, of divine and human natures in the process of resolving themselves. In Nightwood Nora furnishes her house with Robin with "circus chairs, wooden horses bought from a ring of an old merry-go-round,…" and she sits in them, staring out of the window for Robin's return and crying for forgiveness (55). Robin, on the other hand, thinks of her life with Nora and her life in the streets as a "monster with two heads" (59).

Thus it seems Nora cannot forget her sin, as Dante forgets his in the River Lethe. But what happens to Nora in "The Possessed," the final scene of Nightwood? The description in this short coda is deliberately sparse and difficult to follow. We know Nora has been living for some time alone in America. Apparently, Robin has left Jenny and has been circling around Nora's house for days. Nora hears odd noises outside and follows "things rustling in the grass" to a chapel on top of a hill, described as a modern Chapel Perilous. "[C]ursing and crying," Nora "blindly, without warning, plunged into the jamb of the chapel door" (169). There she sees Robin cavorting before the altar with a frightened dog, then grovelling on the wooden floor of the church with the dog, "whining and waiting." All we hear of Nora is that "at the moment Nora's body struck the wood, Robin began going down." What is the outcome of these two falls?

Though this "sacrament" Nora witnesses in the lonely church seems an unusually bleak vision of despair, not everyone reads this ending as completely dark. Donald J. Greiner, for example, argues that Barnes's use of black humor, nowhere more explicit than in the final pages, offers a more positive reading of Nightwood than most approaches: black humor in Nightwood "… uses comedy to encourage sympathy as well as to expose evil; it suggests futurity; it celebrates comic distortion as an indication that anything is possible…." Black humor provides the opportunity to face up to ugliness and failure in the post-World War I world of Nightwood, and in so doing it offers hope for the characters' central thematic struggle to become human beings (Greiner 44-45). Alan Singer's analysis of metaphor and narrative claims that the act of creating artistic language itself offers hope in Nightwood; he suggests that "the true 'tragedy' of Nightwood lies not in the characters' failures but in the critical interpretation that fails to acknowledge the reconstructive possibilities latent in authorial self-consciousness" (Singer 87). Lynn DeVore claims, in a similar attempt to redress the "unbalanced and tarnished image" Nightwood has retained, that a biographical study of the novel, particularly the identification of Nora with Barnes herself, allows the reader to "humanize" the novel. He also mentions the positive ramifications of the conclusion's "allegorical intentions," though he does not specify what these intentions are (DeVore 71, 86-89). Despite these insights, however, Nora's reaction to her vision of Robin in the conclusion has not been fully addressed.

One needs the Dantean context to read the ending. In the conclusion Barnes orchestrates all the dualisms of the descent/ascent pattern in the book with the Dantean wood and animal imagery; Robin's going down is carefully linked to Nora's hitting the wooden door of the church. What happens is simultaneously very precise and quite unresolved. Doorways have been important throughout Nightwood and The Divine Comedy. Nora earlier describes the streets of Marseilles, Tangiers, and Naples: "In open doorways nightlights were burning all day before gaudy prints of the Virgin" (157). The action of the last chapter takes place "on a contrived altar, before a Madonna, two candles … burning" (169). The doorway suggests the chapel as a place of transition, a place of hope—a new kind of wood. While Robin is lost, Nora falls not into death but into a transformative state which leaves open the possibility that she has come to terms with her own sin, her abuse of Robin's freedom. She is at last able to fall down, to "bow down" or "go down"; symbolically she is ready to enter purgatory and move towards the cleansing waters of forgetfulness and salvation. The wood of the chapel door is no longer the Wood of the Suicides, but the wood of the Gryphon, the Tree of Knowledge Dante rises to behold on the way from purgatory to heaven. There is even a suggestion in the narrator's "struck the wood" of the phrase "knock on wood," which comes from the belief that the wood of the True Cross could protect the person who touched it. Nora has left the haunted night wood and entered the woods of the transformative Gryphon, a wood that becomes a garden.

This reading of the ending of Nightwood is prefigured by several earlier statements in the book. Nora thinks thoughts of the "resurrection, when we come up looking backward at each other …" (58). We are reminded in the ending of the Doctor's statements that "A man is whole only when he takes into account his shadow as well as himself—and what is a man's shadow but his upright astonishment?" (119-20) and "The unendurable is the beginning of the curve of joy" (117). Nora's vision of Robin's fall may serve to lift her up and free her from her selfish misunderstanding of Robin's nature—and more importantly of her own soul's nature. She may become a real self through self-knowledge—instead of through possessive, designing self-satisfaction. Earlier the Doctor tells Felix that "… [A]ll dreadful events are of profit" (119), and here in the conclusion he recognizes what Nora will eventually comprehend when she awakens: "O Widow Lazarus! Arisen from your dead!" (137).

The last paragraphs of Nightwood ask, "What happens now?" It seems that Dante will return to earth to write his poem of heavenly love, while we do not know what will become of Nora. But in this last scene, the Dantean model teaches us that, after this fall in the transformative wood of the church door, Nora can rise to continue living—and perhaps, if we take the metafictive view suggested by DeVore, to write the story itself. The act of turning, of movement upwards and outwards, is there for the reader, too, who is forced to turn away from the dual vision of the end, of Robin collapsed with a dog on the floor, of Nora held in the church door in a trance of stillness, just as Dante turns away abruptly from his supreme evil, the motionless Satan, and his supreme good, the motionless God. There is hope for reader as well as character in Nightwood's Dantean dualities, for its end is clearly a call for a movement towards futurity.

works cited

Alighieri, Dante. The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, The Florentine: L'Inferno, Il Purgatorio, Il Paradiso. Trans. Dorothy L. Sayers. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1949.

Barnes, Djuna. The Antiphon. New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1958.

――――――. A Book. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923.

――――――. Nightwood. Introduction by T. S. Eliot. 1937; rpt. New York: New Directions, 1961.

――――――. Ryder. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1956.

Burke, Kenneth. "Version, Con-, Per-, and In-: Thoughts on Djuna Barnes's Novel, Nightwood." Southern Review 2 (1966–67): 329-46.

DeVore, Lynn. "The Backgrounds of Nightwood: Robin, Felix, and Nora." Journal of Modern Literature 10 (1983): 71-90.

Fadiman, Clifton. Review of Nightwood by Djuna Barnes. The New Yorker (13 March 1937): 83-84.

Frank, Joseph. "Spatial Form in Modern Literature." In his The Widening Gyre: Crisis and Mastery in Modern Literatures. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1963. 3-62.

Greiner, Donald J. "Djuna Barnes' Nightwood and the American Origins of Black Humor." Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 17 (1975): 41-54.

Hyman, Stanley Edgar. "The Wash of the World (Djuna Barnes)." In his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time. New York: Horizon Press, 1966. 58-62.

Kannenstine, Louis F. The Art of Djuna Barnes: Duality and Damnation. New York: New York UP, 1977.

Maritain, Jacques. Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. New York: Pantheon, 1953.

Neumann, Erich. The Great Mother. Trans. Ralph Manheim. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963.

Scott, James B. Djuna Barnes. Boston: Twayne, 1976.

Singer, Alan. "The Horse Who Knew Too Much: Metaphor and the Narrative of Discontinuity in Nightwood." Contemporary Literature 25 (1984): 66-87.

Spencer, Sharon. Space, Time and Structure in the Modern Novel. Chicago: The Swallow Press, 1971.

Steiner, George. "The Cruellest Months." The New Yorker (22 April 1972): 134-42.

Sutton, Walter. "The Literary Image and the Reader: A Consideration of the Theory of Spatial Form." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 16 (1957): 112-23.

Weisstein, Ulrich. "Beast, Doll, and Woman: Djuna Barnes's Human Bestiary." Renascence 15 (1962): 3-11.

Williamson, Alan. "The Divided Image: The Quest for Identity in the Works of Djuna Barnes." Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 7 (1964): 58-74.

Further Reading

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Allen, Carolyn. "The Erotics of Nora's Narrative in Djuna Barnes's Nightwood." Signs 19, No. 1 (Autumn 1993): 177-200.

Presents Nora's narrative in Barnes's Nightwood as "a narrative of lesbian erotics" and then "argue[s] how such an erotics critiques Freud's influential writings on narcissism and desire."

Bockting, Margaret. "Performers and the Erotic in Four Interviews by Djuna Barnes." Centennial Review XLI, No. 1 (Winter 1997): 183-95.

Explores the identity of women and actors in the early twentieth century by looking at four interviews conducted by Barnes with Mimi Aguglia, Gaby Deslys, Yvette Guilbert, and Alla Nazimova.

Broe, Mary Lynn. "'A Love from the Back of the Heart': The Story Djuna Wrote for Charles Henri." Review of Contemporary Literature 13, No. 3 (Fall 1993): 22-32.

Studies Barnes's story "Behind the Heart" and what it tells about Barnes's relationship with Charles Henri Ford.

Castricano, Jodey. "Rude Awakenings: or What Happens When a Lesbian Reads the 'Hieroglyphics of Sleep' in Djuna Barnes' Nightwood." West Coast 28, No. 3 (Winter 1994–95): 106-16.

Traces the configuration of desire in Barnes's Nightwood, especially focusing on the last chapter.

Dalton, Anne B. "Escaping from Eden: Djuna Barnes' Revision of Psychoanalytic Theory and Her Treatment of Father-Daughter Incest in Ryder." Women's Studies 22 (1993): 163-79.

Analyzes Barnes's presentation of incest in Ryder and how her portrayal went against the prevailing psychoanalytic theories of father-daughter sexuality.

Kent, Kathryn R. "'Lullaby for a Lady's Lady': Lesbian Identity in Ladies Almanack." Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, No. 3(Fall 1993): 89-96.

Explores lesbian identity in Barnes's Ladies Almanack.

Michel, Frann. "Displacing Castration: Nightwood, Ladies Almanack, and Feminine Writing." Contemporary Literature 30, No. 1 (Spring 1989): 33-58.

Asserts that "Barnes's works suggest that the value of ideas of the feminine and feminine writing consists less in their postulation of a new language or their call for a revolutionary future than in the possibilities they offer for new ways of thinking language, ways that recognize the subversive and potentially revolutionary elements already operative within the languages of the past and present."

Scott, Bonnie Kime. "Barnes Being 'Beast Familiar': Representation on the Margins of Modernism." Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, No. 3 (Fall 1993): 41-52.

Discusses Barnes's use of the bestial in her work, and what that means to her portrayal of women.

Stevenson, Sheryl. "Ryder as Contraception: Barnes v. the Reproduction of Mothering." Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, No. 3 (Fall 1993): 97-106.

Provides a female-centered reading of Barnes's Ryder asserting that the novel "constitutes Djuna Barnes's strongest statement against women's enslavement to reproduction."

Winkiel, Laura. "Circuses and Spectacles: Public Culture in Nightwood." Journal of Modern Literature 21, No. 1 (Summer 1997): 7-28.

Analyzes the role of the circus and spectacle in Barnes's Nightwood, the main characters' relationship to the circus, and how the circus affects the public culture.

Ahmed Nimeiri (essay date Winter 1993)

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SOURCE: "Djuna Barnes's Nightwood and 'the Experience of America,'" in Critique, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, Winter, 1993, pp. 100-12.

[In the following essay, Nimeiri discusses the symbolic significance of the Americanness of the characters in Barnes's Nightwood.]

Since the American publication of Djuna Barnes's Nightwood in 1937, critics have focused on the formal aspects of the novel and have paid little attention to its content. This tendency has prompted Lynn DeVore to complain that "The book's linguistic complexities … have … directed critics to analyze especially the form and structure of the text as well as to speak only of its verbal tapestry in terms of imagistic, expressionistic, cubistic, or surrealist affinities while slighting its altogether human dimensions" (71). Even when critics find meaning in the novel, it is often abstract with no bearing on any particular situation, as if the story occurs in a void or a dream-world where the characters move about in a landscape of metaphors, images, and myths. This view of the novel ignores, regards as irrelevant, or even denies the existence of the obvious experiential context and its decisive effect on determining the theme. Leslie Fiedler, who virtually dismisses Nightwood as being little more than verbosity and expressionism, in his brief discussion of it in Love and Death in the American Novel, exemplifies this kind of criticism in its extreme form. Noting "the dislocated lyricism, hallucinated vision, and oddly skewed language of Miss Barnes's black little book," he concludes that "Linguistically, Nightwood is too complex, and thematically, it is too little concerned with the experience of America to achieve even the belated and limited success of West's work" (490). This reading of the novel, which is paraphrased and only slightly modified in the majority of subsequent criticism, is more appropriate to John Hawkes's The Cannibal, a book that portrays, in difficult personal idiom, Europe after the Second World War and that deals minimally with America, than it is to Nightwood. But what Fiedler says about Barnes's novel is still important because he inadvertently draws attention to its main theme. A careful reading will show that Nightwood is primarily concerned with "the experience of America" and that its real achievement is in expressing an original though dark and desperate vision of this experience. Gerald Nelson is the only critic who sees Nightwood as centrally concerned with America. Yet his "versions of America" in Nightwood are more abstractions than real expressions of the "experience of America." O'Connor, for example, represents "the entire history and soul of mankind in one body" (103).

The novel pictures the American, who migrates to Europe to find the nourishment for and fulfillment of the humanity he is deprived of at home, as encountering and embracing, in Europe, forms of the American experience that oppose his efforts to achieve a human stature and that finally strip him of his humanity. American expatriation, therefore, is not a pilgrimage to a new life away from America but an experience that ends in a retreat and entrapment into a life more sinister than that which has initially prompted the American to leave his country.1

Barnes gives enough clues to her concern with America so that the careful reader will not miss it. The major characters, with the exception of Felix, are American and their Americanness is not incidental but the hallmark of their personalities and the aspect that explains their actions and relations. Robin's Americanness, for example, draws Felix to her. When Matthew O'Connor asks him about the woman he wants to marry, Felix says "the American" and explains that "with an American anything can be done" (39). Thus he indicates that innocence is the essence of the American character. Similarly, Nora's Americanness is obviously central to an understanding of her character and role. She is described in terms that recreate the characteristic images of the American past (although Barnes may be making fun of Nora and what she represents):

She was known instantly as a Westerner. Looking at her, foreigners remembered stories they had heard of covered wagons; animals going down to drink; children's heads, just as far as the eyes, looking in fright out of small windows, where in the dark another race crouched in ambush….

At … meetings [in Nora's salon] one felt that early American history was being re-enacted. The Drummer Boy, Fort Sumter, Lincoln, Booth, all somehow came to mind; Whigs and Tories were in the air. (50-51)

The significance of Jenny's Americanness becomes clear when she takes Robin back to America and thus makes a significant part of the action shift and conclude there. With such a conclusion it is difficult not to consider the effect of the specific identity of the characters on the meaning of the book.

O'Connor seems to be the one character whose nationality is irrelevant to his role as seer, commentator, and interpreter of experience. But O'Connor himself insists, occasionally, on being an American and describes himself in a way that indicates that, in essence, he is not different from the other American characters. When Felix says to him, "But you are American, so you don't believe," the doctor answers, "because I'm American I believe anything …" (40). This qualification of himself becomes meaningful when we have a deeper sense of his role, and the aspect of his personality he stresses here will be seen as more real and permanent than other aspects. His Catholicism, homosexuality, and intellectualism give the sense of being assumed to protect him against the chaos in the middle of which he lives.

A more important clue to Barnes's concern with "the experience of America" is in the conversation between the doctor and Nora in "Watchman, What of the Night" where the doctor speaks of the night and the realities excluded from normal civilized life. He contrasts two ways of apprehending reality, one American and the other French or European; he argues that unlike Europe, America banishes from its life some of the essential aspects of experience and consciousness because it cannot tolerate them. Later in the novel when O'Connor discusses Robin with Felix and, in another conversation, with Nora, we realize that this contrast is an index to both Robin's character and the novel.

But perhaps the most important clue is that the introduction of Robin, as a somnambulist and an American, marks the dramatic beginning of the book. The account of the marriage of Guido and Hedvig, which T. S. Eliot in his introduction to Nightwood calls the "opening movement" that is "slow and dragging" (xii), is a prologue to a story that really begins when their son, Felix, meets and marries the American somnambulist. The complications in the narrative develop after this point. The marriage and its breakdown lead to the series of actions, relations, and speculations that makes up the main body of Nightwood.

The structure of the novel clarifies the meaning that these clues only hint at or refer to broadly. Critics of Nightwood have observed that its structure rests on the relationship between two plots: one centers around Robin Vote and the people who are attracted to her, and the other deals with Dr. Matthew O'Connor and his effort to bring Felix and Nora to an awareness of the magnitude of their predicaments and to help them free themselves of the traumatic effects of their love of Robin. But the structure of the book is more complex than this. In addition to the two plots, there is the story of Felix that begins as a separate story, then merges into the Robin plot, but reaches a separate resolution in the final "bowing down" of Felix, which presages O'Connor's disintegration and Robin's descent into bestiality. Nora and Jenny each have chapters ("Night Watch" and "The Squatter") that, because of their focus on the characters of the two women, are almost complete in themselves. This fragmentariness has induced Joseph Frank to claim that Nightwood lacks a narrative structure in the ordinary sense and that its eight chapters "are like searchlights, probing the darkness each from a different direction, yet ultimately focusing on and illuminating the same entanglement of the human spirit" (438). The narrative in Nightwood is a complicated one that defies efforts to find coherence in it. Sharon Spencer expresses a typical reaction when she remarks that "there is absolutely no explanation of surprising or even bizarre events or relationships" (41) in the novel. This, however, is only partially true. The book may lack logical development, yet its parts are bound together by the thought and meaning that its story only insinuates but that come out more clearly in the speeches and conversations. Barnes concentrates on ideas and develops them carefully and in such a manner that the novel reads like an argument that moves from one chapter to the next achieving coherence gradually.

The progression of the novel is thematic. Narrative, which is subordinated to theme, illustrates and clarifies ideas and gives them logical form. O'Connor who says, "I have a narrative but you will be put to it to find it" (97), draws attention to the peculiar character of Nightwood. He acts minimally and talks all the time; although his conversations and monologues are sometimes vague and incomprehensible, they reveal clearly the novel's emphasis on ideas and stress the precedence of thought over action. In "Watchman, What of the Night," O'Connor spouts a long disquisition on the night in answer to Nora's inquiry about the subject. What he says provides the groundwork of ideas on which the novel stands. But in another and more immediate sense O'Connor's dissertation on the night paves the way for the story that O'Connor tells when Jenny steals Robin from Nora. He says, reminding Nora of the purpose of his talk: "'But I'm coming by degrees to the narrative of the one particular night that makes all other nights seem like something quite decent enough …'" (99). The implication here is that without O'Connor's exposition, that is, without a prior statement of ideas, his narrative is incomprehensible because it has no inherent meaning. The elucidated narrative reciprocally clarifies the ideas in O'Connor's speech. This strategy is employed repeatedly and makes the novel virtually locked in thought.

Nightwood may best be described in the terms that Melville uses to distinguish two modes of expression in The Confidence-Man, a book that resembles Barnes's novel in many ways, as a "comedy of thought" rather than a "comedy of action" (71). This dominance of thought and the sense of the novel's developing an argument rather than a narrative gives the characters clear symbolic roles. When the symbolism of the characters is examined, one understands that Nightwood cannot be explained completely without taking into consideration the fact that the characters are American. The novel is structured in such a way that the characters, in their symbolic roles, reveal aspects of and make statements about the American experience. This is why Nora and Jenny are given whole chapters and greater prominence than they would have in a realistic novel. The difficulties Nightwood poses are resolved when one sees its structure as deliberate and necessary. The first chapter seems redundant and not part of the novel unless we see the pathetic situation of the Jew as providing an appropriate explanation and a frame of reference for the predicament of the American innocent who strives to transcend his innocence and achieve a human identity. The Jew and the innocent, being close to each other in their positions on the periphery of history and experience, come together in a doomed union that inevitably fails in "La Somnambule." The American is then thrust back into his native experience represented by Nora and Jenny in the following two chapters. The next chapter, in which O'Connor discourses on the night, provides insights into the preceding chapters and expresses ideas that form the philosophical basis of the novel. At this point O'Connor emerges as the alternative to Robin, representing the American intellectual who has gone through experience but only in his mind. The rest of the novel—the last three chapters—constitutes a resolution and reveals the failure and disintegration of the main characters. The fall of Felix in "Where the Tree Falls" prefaces that of O'Connor in "Go Down, Matthew" and Robin in "The Possessed." It is notable that, at the end of their tragic experiences, the American characters return to America. Twice Barnes specifically concludes chapters with Robin's going back to America to start a new life after failing to find fulfillment in Europe. Following the breakdown of her marriage, Robin returns to America where she meets Nora; "La Somnambule" concludes with O'Connor explaining that during her three or four months' absence from Paris Robin has been "In America, that's where Nora lives" (49). Again after breaking up with Nora, Robin goes to America with Jenny and "The Squatter" ends with: "it was not long after this that Nora and Robin separated; a little later Jenny and Robin sailed for America" (77). At the end of "Go Down, Matthew," when the doctor breaks down, the ex-priest who has bought him a drink twice offers to take him home: "The ex-priest repeated. 'Come, I'll take you home'" (165). In the context of the novel, "home" becomes more than the doctor's dingy room.

The structure of Nightwood conveys strongly the sense of the inevitable return of the American to America, which, translated into thematic terms, expresses the failure of American expatriation. At the end of the novel we become aware of two related images of the American in search of a meaningful experience outside America: one case ends in a retreat to America and regression into the most primitive forms of the self, and the other case, ends in total estrangement from himself and from other human beings and a fall into a void of meaninglessness. In both cases the questing American discovers that he is as constricted in Europe as he has been in America. Barnes indicates the tragic consequences of expatriation from the beginning through nature imagery, especially animal imagery that illustrates the descent into bestiality and the retreat to a primitive life as the end result of American expatriation. The central image is that of the "tree of night", which gives the novel its title. The image comprehends the realities that are excluded from American life and suppressed in the American consciousness. O'Connor argues that

To think of the acorn it is necessary to become the tree. And the tree of night is the hardest to mount, the dourest tree to scale, the most difficult of branch, the most febrile to the touch, and sweats a resin and drips a pitch against the palm that computation has not gambled. (83-84)

Nightwood delineates the effort of the American expatriate to climb the "tree of night," his plight and failure, and the final draining of his humanity as a result of the endeavor. The sense that the American in his country faces a dearth of experience that threatens to make his life vacuous and senseless is strongly suggested not through realistic details or drama, because the novel obviously eschews realism, but in general through its form, language, and mode. The thin plot with its scanty action and the heightened language that blurs what little narrative there is combine with the self-reflexivity to produce a distinct impression that the world the characters inhabit has little significant life and much mental activity. O'Connor's incessant talk has the added structural function of filling the recurring gap created frequently by the absence of story, but his words only make what is missing conspicuous.

The plight of the American expatriate is prepared for by a description of the predicament of the Jew in "Bow Down" that serves to put the position of the expatriate in proportion.3 By characterizing Guido and Felix Volkbein in extreme terms Barnes illustrates the futile effort of the alienated Jew to come into history and experience. Guido's life expresses "the sum total of what is the Jew" (2), that is, the degradation and dehumanization that have made up the fate forced on the Jew. The image, in Guido's memory, of Jews in 1468 led with ropes about their necks into the Corso for the amusement of Christians sums up that fate and is an image that foreshadows Robin's transformation into a beast at the end of the novel. Guido's endeavor to free himself from this fate is a costly venture that leads to the distortion and effacement of his character. His marriage to "a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty" (1) should earn him a place in society and history but only makes his position sad and ridiculous: "He tried to be one with her by adoring her, by imitating her goose-step of a stride that by him adopted became dislocated and comic" (3). He lives in a sham world of deception and gives the unmistakable sense of burlesquing life rather than living it. The son fares worse than the father and expresses the hopelessness of ending the alienation of the Jew. Felix is a degenerate version of Guido and more emphatically an outcast. Described as a Wandering Jew who goes everywhere without belonging to any place, he mixes, in his perception of the world, history and experience with make-believe and legend and avoids the rigor of his father's life by associating himself with the "pageantry of the circus and the theatre" where "he had neither to be capable nor alien" (11).

The pathetic situation of the Jew anticipates a worse and more tragic fate for the American. Felix's attraction and marriage to Robin and his steadfast friendship with O'Connor expresses the connection of the Jew and the American. The role of the Jew in Nightwood is similar to that of the Jew in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Both characters are placed at the beginning of stories of American expatriation, thus indicating an affinity between the Jew and the expatriate. In both novels the Jew represents the fate that the American strives to avoid by leaving his country in quest of life and awareness; instead he falls into a worse one. Felix Volkbein is more complex than Robert Cohn and represents the historical experience of the Jew more clearly, but the two characters do not go beyond the stereotype of the Jew.

The first chapter of Nightwood also describes the milieu in which American expatriation exists. It teems with images of extreme alienation and decadence: Guido walking "incautious and damned" (2), Hedvig "moving toward him in recoil" (3), Frau Mann who "was as unsexed as a doll" (13), and the false barons, duchesses, princes and kings of the circus and theatre. Such a description makes clear from the beginning that the American who seeks to replace America by Europe as his right and proper experience is inadvertently opting for spiritual death and is doomed to be an outsider in Europe allying himself with the alien and decadent. This condition finally brings out the primitive in him—the aspect of himself he strives to transmute into human qualities—and allows it to dominate his character. This is precisely what Robin is ensnared in and cannot escape.

Robin represents a simple and common form of American expatriation. She is the American innocent (somnambulist) who goes or is taken to Europe to be free of the parochialism of her country and to get a cosmopolitan experience, a descendant of Henry James's innocent migrants exemplifying the trait in its most extreme form. Robin is first introduced in a fainting fit from which she cannot be brought out until Dr. O'Connor is summoned. Later the doctor and Nora characterize her innocence more clearly. O'Connor, referring to Robin, states that "to be utterly innocent … would be to be utterly unknown, particularly to oneself" (138), and Nora remarks that "Robin can go anywhere, do anything … because she forgets" (152). This lack of awareness of the self and the world indicates that Robin is, as the doctor describes her, "outside the 'human type'" (146). Hers is a state of being that precedes human experience and that is connected with animal and plant life. The room where she faints, which is a jungle of exotic plants and flowers, symbolically expresses this connection, and the description of Robin in the room emphasizes her relationship to primitive life. "Her flesh was the texture of plant life, and beneath it one sensed a frame, porous and sleep-worn, as if sleep were a decay fishing her beneath the visible surface" (34). Barnes speaks of Robin's innocence as mixed with depravity—Robin is "meet of child and desperado" (35)—and presents it as inert and almost lifeless. These are perhaps the normal features of innocence given an extreme form, but Barnes adds to the familiar picture the suggestion that the trait has now lost its human content. The general manner and the poetic language she uses to describe Robin in "La Somnambule" have the effect of abstracting human qualities from the character and insinuating that Robin has no palpable presence in the world. Barnes wraps her in an anonymity that effaces her almost completely and, instead of referring to her directly and specifically, she speaks of "the woman," "such a woman" and "such a person." The rest of the novel continues to suggest that Robin does not exist independently in her own right, although she is often the fulcrum of the story. She is never characterized clearly; instead we have mediations on her by the author and the other characters.4 In this way, Barnes shows that American innocence in the twentieth century has become so entrenched in itself and so removed from human intercourse that it has turned into an inhuman condition.

Robin cannot attain humanity in America and thus has to become an expatriate because America condemns and excludes the dark realities that are associated with her innocence and that are represented in the novel by such metaphors as the night, the forest, the beast and "filthiness." Conversely, Europe accommodates and regards these traits as an integral part of man's being. This is, in fact, the main point of O'Connor's discourse on the night in "Watchman. What of the Night." He tells Nora:

The night and the day are two travels, and the French … alone leave testimony of the two in the dawn; we tear up the one for the sake of the other; not so the French … because they think of the two as one continually. (82)


The French have made a detour of filthiness—Oh, the good dirt! Whereas you are of a clean race, of a too eagerly washing people, and this leaves no road for you. (84)

Robin's tragedy, however, is that her expatriation does not vindicate and accommodate her essential innocence. Like most American expatriates in the 1920s, she lives in Europe without being involved in its life, associating mainly with other American expatriates, and therefore never experiencing Europe.5 Her significant relationships in Europe are limited to Felix, O'Connor, Nora, and Jenny. None of these characters is truly European.

Robin's marriage to Felix and the breakdown of the marriage indicate that, outside America, the American is doomed to share the perpetual alienation of the outcast and never to become a part of a meaningful experience. The marriage is a traumatic affair for Robin because, instead of realizing herself in it, she is more terribly exploited than her antecedent. Isabel Archer in Henry James's A Portrait of a Lady. Felix wants to reproduce and perpetuate himself without bowing down, that is, without the effort of adjusting himself to forms and conventions. But at the same time he wants Robin to give up her otherness and become part of him. This negation of her otherness, which is repeated in a sinister form in her relationships with Nora and Jenny, becomes the main feature of her experience in Europe. Felix only offers her a travesty of the values that make life meaningful; and, unlike his father, he is not even good at deception. The perversity and the futility of the marriage are evidenced by its product, the sickly child Guido, the most alienated character in Nightwood and the one associated with death more than life.

Awareness of the reality of her situation after the birth of her child does not prompt Robin, as in the case of Isabel Archer, to put her life in order. She sinks into despair and moves about blindly and purposelessly, thus exposing the inadequacy and helplessness of her innocence before the complexity of life. Felix sums up her position later in the novel when he describes her as one "who must get permission to live, and if [she] finds no one to give her that permission, she will make an innocence for herself; a fearful sort of primitive innocence" (117). Robin, indeed, makes for herself "a fearful sort of primitive innocence" after her separation from Felix. The trauma of her marriage throws her back to the American experience and into herself: she relates to her own race and sex. A lesbian affair, as described by Nora, is a relation to oneself that precludes otherness: "A man is another person—a woman is yourself, caught as you turn in panic; on her mouth you kiss your own" (143). Robin's lesbian affairs with American women are endeavors to attain humanity by identifying with aspects of the American experience represented by Nora and Jenny.

Nora, who is presented in "Night Watch" in such a way as to suggest a composite image of early America (Puritan, pioneer, and, in a sense, romantic and transcendentalist), represents the persistence of the past in the present. By this symbolic role she demonstrates that the past is not an invigorating influence on the present and that its immanence in the present does not bestow firmness and solidity on the fluid and, perhaps, volatile, living reality. At first Nora offers Robin an apparently meaningful life, but soon this life becomes senseless and empty because of Nora's protean and alienated character. Her love for Robin is really self-love. She tells the doctor that Robin "is myself" (127) and that "I thought I loved her for her sake, and I found it was for my own" (151). This possessiveness sometimes takes the form of an intolerance of Robin's occasional displays of vitality and joy, especially when these occur in contexts that Nora condemns as corrupt and evil. She tells O'Connor that she has tried to save Robin when Robin was drunk and gay and people were laying "dirty hands" on her. The scene ends in Nora's house where Robin falls asleep, and Nora is kissing her and saying, "Die now, so you will be quiet, so you will not be touched again by dirty hands, so you will not take my heart and your body and let them be nosed by dogs—die now, then you will be mine forever (144-145). The same idea of Robin's death being a condition of Nora's love has been expressed before in "Night Watch": "Nora knew … that there was no way but death. In death Robin would belong to her" (58). Nora is like Emily Grierson in Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" in conceiving of love as the negation of freedom and otherness. But Nora's spiritual necrophilia, which is more extreme than Emily's because of Nora's rationalization of it, becomes meaningful when seen as stemming from her symbolic role as a representative of the American past. This past is pictured in Nightwood as a life-killing legacy that destroys all the vestiges of humanity in the American. Significantly, the last scene in the novel takes place in Nora's estate and describes Robin's transformation into a beast. The sense of an America dominated by the past and dehumanizing its people is unmistakable and strong.

In opposition to Nora, Jenny has no sense or relation to the past. Presented in extreme terms, she has no real being; what she has is either borrowed or stolen. Four times a widow, she is not a giver but a robber of life. She stands for emptiness and vacuity and represents a persistent reality in America that is mediocre and lethal. Barnes maintains a steady invective tone in presenting and describing Jenny Petherbridge as if she is disclaiming her and wants to purge the narrative of her.6 Robin's choice of Jenny, in spite of what Jenny represents, expresses a despair that speeds her to her end as a human being. The forfeiture of her humanity is prefigured in "The Squatter" when Jenny strikes and scratches her until she bleeds and sinks down. That the scene ends in Nora's garden indicates that Nora's repression is responsible for Robin's falling into Jenny's grip.

O'Connor seems at first to avoid Robin's fate of being trapped in certain positions and disintegrating as a result. Unlike the other characters he appears in control of experience and of his destiny. The compound name that he gives himself, Dr. Matthew-Mighty-Grain-of-Salt-Dante-O'Connor and his characterization of himself as one who knows everything suggest an effort to be all-encompassing. But we realize from his first appearance that his character is assumed and his situation unreal. He is introduced as taking the place of Count Onatorio Altamonte, who is "related to every nation" (14), as host to a group of people. The Count shows up only to dismiss the party, and the fatuity of O'Connor's situation becomes apparent. Later in the novel Felix is shocked to see the doctor looking old and exhausted. Then "the Baron hailed him, and instantly the doctor threw off his unobserved self, as one hides hastily, a secret life" (110). O'Connor is engaged most of the time in cultivating an image of himself as a sage and seer. Although he talks a great deal about himself, he seems concerned with great and universal experiences. Sometimes this contradiction makes him absurd, especially when he turns simple common remarks into poetic statements charged with meaning. When Felix asks him, in their first meeting: "Are you acquainted with Vienna?" He answers: "Vienna … the bed into which the common people climb, docile with toil, and out of which the nobility fling themselves, ferocious with dignity—I do but not so well but that I remember some of it still" (17). He frequently presents his opinion "with such conviction and in such general terms that the reader has little cause to doubt it" until the author expresses its fallaciousness by presenting instances of the truth (Greiner 51). We realize at the end, when O'Connor breaks down, that his speeches are carefully worked out to produce a calculated effect. He describes himself as being "damned and carefully public" (163), suggesting that he strives by talk and expatriation to avoid falling into particular experiences and becoming limited by them. He implicitly justifies his expatriation—in the contrast he makes between Europe and America—as an option for the right way of living and apprehending life. In his speeches he endeavors continuously to demonstrate his apprehension by transforming particular experiences into abstract ideas.

O'Connor's talk is the hallmark of his character and an important clue to understanding his role. He brings to mind at once Melville's confidence-man who is described (125) by a character he meets as "a talking man—what I call a wordy man. You talk, talk," and as a "punster" who puns "with ideas as another may with words."7 Like Melville's protagonist he assumes different guises. Even his profession, compulsions, and sexual inclinations suggest that they are parts of a persona more than real aspects of a character. O'Connor is a degenerated and vulgarized form of the confidence-man as conceived by Melville. He lacks the control and mastery over experience and people and the sense of purpose that distinguishes the original character. The difference between the two characters appears in the way their talk functions in each novel and the effect it produces on the ethos of their world. In The Confidence-Man, talk takes the form of a colloquy in which the confidence-man, by the adept use of words, brings a person to his position and persuades him to accept his assumptions about the human condition or, failing this, exposes the inconsistency and absurdity of the other's situation. By this procedure the confidence-man strips the community of its prejudices and pretensions and brings out the evil in man's heart, revealing at the same time the snares of language and thought that lay waiting to trap and lead astray the unwary and the simple. But the confidence-man's activity and its result imply that there is shared language and values between the trickster and his victims—even if they are revealed to be false values. Not so in Nightwood. There is no true communication between the novel's confidence-man and those he tricks into listening to him. Sometimes we feel that Barnes deliberately intends that the difficulty and vagueness of O'Connor's speeches should alienate the reader in order to stress the absence or impossibility of communication in the modern world. The doctor often seems to be speaking to himself even when he is addressing other people, and we get the impression that his talk is developed independent of and uninfluenced by his listener. But if we take his talk seriously and examine it carefully, we discover that it addresses current topics and the plights of his listeners, although in an abstract manner, often commenting on them obliquely. For example, his stories and parables of Nikka, Mademoiselle Basquette, and his parents and his views of the Catholic and Protestant churches in the first chapter express in imaginative and intellectual terms the sense of Felix's predicament as a Jew and an outcast, which has been presented in the preceding pages. O'Connor's main effort, however, is to comprehend and contain experience so that he is not swallowed by it. He is, finally, a confidence-man who plays his own tricks on himself. He says, characterizing himself effectively: "I am my own charlatan" (96).

By serving as the alternative to Robin, O'Connor completes the picture of American expatriation. Whereas the motive of Robin's expatriation is to embrace the experience that would awaken her humanity, the purpose of O'Connor's expatriation is to live and maintain a free and uninhibited life and, at the same time, by rationalization and the exercise of pure reason, to endeavor to keep it from overwhelming and shattering his being. O'Connor is the American intellectual and artist who seeks to be free of the American repression of the mind and the imagination by migrating to Europe, accomplishing, at best, an intellectualism unconnected to any meaningful experience and a verbalism that blunts the mind and dims the imagination. But O'Connor, aware of the futility and desperate essence of his position, is ill at ease in it. His desire to be a woman, expressed practically and verbally several times, indicates this uneasiness as well as a yearning for the self-contained innocence of Robin. The strongest expression of his longing for innocence occurs when he treats Robin for her fit of fainting. He engages in a series of "honesties" while using her perfume and rouge and stealing her money. Symbolically O'Connor attempts to rob Robin of her innocence and identity and wear them himself.

O'Connor's concentration on himself, which his talk and his homosexuality express, shows that he is, as alienated in Europe as Robin and the other American characters. This fact stares him in the face when his American compatriots and Felix bring their miseries to him. In the end, pursued and touched by the American experience as when Nora comes to him with her questions about the night, he disintegrates. His volubility proves useless before the onslaughts of reality, and he finally breaks down when he realizes the emptiness and senselessness of his life. The spiritual and emotional hollowness that O'Connor reaps from his expatriation is no better a fate than Robin's bestiality, because it, too, implies a forfeiture of one's humanity.

In drawing O'Connor's character Barnes clearly echoes T. S. Eliot, especially in "The Waste Land" and "The Hollow Men," and the writers that influenced these poems, notably Dante and Conrad. O'Connor's Tiresias-like character is an appropriation to modern experience and a vulgarization of the ancient seer. Barnes uses Tiresias similarly to Eliot's use in "The Waste Land": as a consciousness that comprehends the experience she deals with.8 O'Connor owes his hollow character—his "deliberate disguises" and his end "not with a bang but with a whimper"—to "The Hollow Men." The similarities to Eliot's poems are abundant, and the debt to Eliot is obvious. But such a comparison is not the important point. It is significant that Nightwood does not end with O'Connor and Europe to compel us to give these similarities great weight and to conclude that the novel is another modernist text that repeats the characterization of life between the two wars and the apocalyptic sense peculiar to modernist literature. That the novel ends with Robin and Nora in America indicates that it is more concerned with the experience of the United States during a time of crisis after the old certainties and values have been tested and proved inadequate.


1. A number of critics refer to expatriation in Nightwood without seeing it as the main theme of the novel. Walter Sutton maintains that the "chief burden is the oppressive time-consciousness of a particular place and time in history—the cosmopolitan world of displaced Europeans and expatriated Americans in the post-World-War-I years—the place and time which also formed the poetry of Eliot and Pound to a very marked degree" (120). Sharon Spencer states that "Expatriation is another life condition that is shared by Miss Barnes's characters and is revealed by their drifting from one European capital to another, and from Europe to America and back again" (43), Louis F. Kannenstine observes that Nightwood "holds up as a rendering of continental bohemia of the twenties, a distillation of the despair and estrangement of expatriation …" (103-104).

2. See Charles Baxter 1176 and Alan Williamson 66.

3. Andrew Field reports that "Berenice Abbott asked Barnes why she had chosen to open the novel with this strongly etched portrait of someone who turns out to be so unimportant in the novel. She answered quite directly that it was done simply to confuse and draw some attention away from the lesbian love between Nora and Robin that looms so large in Nightwood" (78). Surely, Barnes's view of the first chapter of her novel cannot be taken seriously. It is obvious, as I argue in this essay, that, when placed in the context of the novel, Felix's story is an appropriate and necessary introduction to a tale of alienation and disintegration. If Nightwood were a realistic novel, then not only Felix but also O'Connor would be unnecessary distractions. Andrew Field, making this fundamental error, remarks: "Given what we know about the way in which Barnes used the story of Felix Volkbein as a distraction from the too painful centre of her short tale, it may well be that the figure of Dr. O'Connor was strategically deployed to be a distraction as well" (140).

4. Kannenstine notes that "Robin is seldom directly available to the reader but is nearly always presented in terms of the sensations she arouses in those with whom she becomes involved" (91).

5. "The majority of expatriates did not read European writers and did not have or use the opportunity to meet them, either. William Carlos Williams asked Robert McAlmon to present him to some young French modern poets when he came to France in 1924 and was puzzled when McAlmon replied that he didn't know any" (Field 39).

6. Kenneth Burke says of the fourth chapter of Nightwood: "built upon the portrait of Nora's rival, Jenny Petherbridge, 'The Squatter' is most accurately characterizable as invective" (340).

7. A. Robert Lee describes The Confidence-Man in a way that suggests its obvious similarity and relevance to Nightwood: "The Confidence-Man, willfully (or knowingly, at least) eschews plot, character in any conventional sense, even action; it offers instead talk, irrepressible, necessary human talk, as plausible yet as inconsistent and equivocal as human kind at large, and all of it worked into a superb dissonance of voices, a colloquium at once literal-seeming and fantastical …" (159).

8. Cf. T. S. Eliot's note to line 218 of "The Waste Land": "Tiresias although a mere spectator and not indeed a 'character' is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest…. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem" (72).

works cited

Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood, New York: New Directions, 1961.

Baxter, Charles. "A Self-Consuming Light: Nightwood and the Crisis of Modernism," Journal of Modern Literature, 3 (1974).

Burke, Kenneth. "Version, Con-, Per-, and In- (Thoughts on Djuna Barnes's Novel, Nightwood," Southern Review, 2 (April 1966).

De Vore, Lynn. "The Backgrounds of Nightwood: Robin, Felix, and Nora," Journal of Modern Literature 10 (March 1983).

Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems, 1909–1962. New York: Harcourt, 1966.

Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Stein, 1982.

Field, Andrew. Djuna: The Life and Times of Miss Barnes. New York: Putnam's, 1983.

Frank, Joseph. "Spatial Form in Modern Literature," Sewanee Review 53 (1945).

Greiner, Donald J. "Djuna Barnes' Nightwood and the American Origins of Black Humor," Critique 17 (1975).

Kannenstine, Louis F. The Art of Djuna Barnes: Duality and Damnation. New York: New York UP, 1977.

Lee, Robert A., Ed. Herman Melville: Reassessments. London and Totowa, N.J.: Vision and Barnes, 1984.

Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern UP and the Newberry Library, 1984.

Nelson, Gerald. Ten Variations of America. New York: Knopf, 1972.

Spencer, Sharon. Space, Time, and Structure in the Modern Novel. New York: New York UP, 1971.

Sutton, Walter. "The Literary Image and the Reader: A Consideration of the Theory of Spatial Form," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 17 September 1957.

Williamson, Alan. "The Divided Image: The Quest for Identity in the Works of Djuna Barnes," Critique, 17 (1975).

Anne B. Dalton (essay date Fall 1993)

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SOURCE: "'This Is Obscene': Female Voyeurism, Sexual Abuse, and Maternal Power in The Dove," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 117-39.

[In the following essay, Dalton discusses the role of incest and child abuse in Barnes's work, especially in her play, The Dove.]

In 1963 when she was seventy-one, Djuna Barnes referred to herself as "the most famous unknown of the century."1 By old age, Barnes was profoundly aware that while she had been respected decades earlier as an innovative modernist writer, her work remained largely unread. Worse still, when it was read, it typically provoked a mixture of admiration and bafflement or outright rejection. One critic stated that her writing "suffers from that most irritating offense of difficult writing—the mysterioso effect that hides no mystery, the locked box with nothing in it."2 I would argue that Barnes's work is more like Pandora's box: once one manages to open it, the contents stream out irrepressibly. Yet the long-standing critical confusion makes sense since Barnes focused on exploring the position of daughters within incestuous families. Until the past decade, such discursive terrain has remained mostly uncharted, in keeping with the social taboos barring discussion of both the subject of childhood sexual abuse and the vulnerability of daughters within patriarchal structures.

Barnes's work seems to have been all the more mystifying because she was remarkably ambitious in her exploration of the forms and effects of incest. While portraying incidents of father-daughter incest and their aftereffects throughout her oeuvre, she also explored how every member of a dysfunctional family can become implicated in and/or vulnerable to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. In the course of this lifelong examination, Barnes's scrutiny of mother-daughter relationships and grandmother-granddaughter incest was particularly perceptive and critically confounding.

In The Antiphon, the last play that Barnes published, the daughter, Miranda, describes herself as a stunned insect saved up for fodder to articulate the effects that the father's incestuous abuse, and the mother's collusion with him, had upon her. Unlike her namesake in Shakespeare's last drama, whose mother is long lost, this Miranda exhorts her mother to hear her and nurture her in spite of their long estrangement:

     Hear me:
     And if you hear, when you hear
     The infinitely distant, pining voice
     Of any creature punished in the web
     Find her, if you find her, turn her;
     Stroke out misfortune's fortune.


Like "the creature punished in the web," the daughters in many of Barnes's earlier texts feel that they are inseparably linked to maternal figures by the traumatic past, even as they are estranged by the older women's denial of it. When Miranda says these lines, she could speak them on behalf of the many abused children and young women Barnes depicts throughout her works.

I will first analyze the nexus of abuse Barnes herself experienced as a child and young woman and then focus on her early drama The Dove, which has received little critical attention.4 This play is crucial to examine because in it Barnes began to explore the ties and estrangements between daughters and maternal figures within dysfunctional households. By delving into the meaning of domestic violence, repressed lesbian desire, voyeurism, sexual exploitation, and maternal collusion in The Dove, Barnes began to investigate the issues that would preoccupy her throughout her literary career.5

Writing the Best-Kept Secret

Djuna Barnes's father, Wald, was both bizarre and abusive.6 Both Andrew Field and Mary Lynn Broe have written about some of the violence Barnes confronted while young. Field suggests that Djuna's mother, Elizabeth Chappell Barnes, divorced Wald in 1912 after (and partially because) he had given Djuna as a sexual sacrifice to Percy Faulkner, his mistress's brother.7 Broe refers to a constellation of traumatic events, including "the father's attempted rape, his 'virginal sacrifice' of the daughter, then his brutal barter of his daughter-bride" to Faulkner.8 All of these events most likely occurred when Barnes was between sixteen and eighteen, and Barnes was to grapple with their aftereffects throughout her life, depicting versions of them and the trauma they engendered in her major works, Ryder (1928), Nightwood (1936), and The Antiphon (1958). The central father figures within these texts are violently destructive, and in keeping with these fictionalized portrayals, the few descriptions of Barnes's father that exist in her letters also characterize him as persistently invasive.9

During his marriage to Djuna's mother, Wald had at least one long-term mistress who, along with her children fathered by him, lived in the family's Cornwall-on-Hudson household. Wald's mother, Zadel Barnes, was also a permanent member of first the Cornwall and then the Long Island farm household. Zadel Barnes was a powerful member of the family, providing much of the financial support and the bulk of material necessities for the household during Djuna's childhood. She also supervised Djuna's education. However, Zadel most often used her power not to protect the children from her son's abusive practices but to shore up his authority within the polygynous household, and to wield her own.10

Barnes was intensely affected by her family members during her childhood, in part because her father isolated her and the other children from outside influences, including public schooling. At the same time, Barnes's father, mother, and paternal grandmother had a wide range of artistic interests and they encouraged the children to write, draw, and study music; to some extent, these activities may have served as a creative release in face of the abuse within the family. Responsible for a range of farm work, Barnes also labored hard during these years, since "What Wald Barnes didn't or wouldn't do, his women and his children did for him. As a young girl Miss Barnes not only sewed and baked, but also planted and plowed fields" (Field 184).

The evidence in the family papers suggests that Barnes's mother colluded with Wald during Djuna's childhood, perhaps out of a sense of her own powerlessness and out of fear of losing her already tenuous position in the polygynous household. Like many mothers in dysfunctional families, for years Elizabeth Chappell Barnes was apparently willing to sacrifice the welfare of her children to maintain her relationship with her husband. Elizabeth's letters to Djuna (her only daughter), written after the breakup of her relationship with Wald, are punctuated by covert displays of her envy at her daughter's artistic success and by manipulative and detailed reports of her own suffering, sacrifice, and hopelessness.

As is often the case in recent research concerning mothers in incestuous households,11 Barnes characterizes the maternal figures throughout Ryder, Nightwood, and The Antiphon as women who choose to deny and repress their memories of the past, and who feel threatened by the daughter's desire to remember and exorcise the trauma engendered by the family. In keeping with these dynamics, the letters Barnes received from her mother reveal similar tensions: "No! I do not have any wish to go back into the past to recover any of the memories I have and am trying [to] put behind me. And even if I did do so, the best facts are enof [sic]. Uppermost I have forgotten so much. What I do remember is not worth the trouble to put on paper and then too, I do not feel after Ryder, that I want anymore of me exploited" (Elizabeth Chappell Barnes to Djuna Barnes, 30 April 1941. McKeldin). Like Augusta, the mother in The Antiphon, Elizabeth seems to have been an expert at repression. Since Djuna had what Emily Coleman called "a fearful tie"12 to her mother, it is not surprising that she found her mother's denial alienating and destructive. As is often the case with abused children grown to adulthood, the mother's subsequent denial of past trauma could easily constitute another betrayal, intensifying the effects of the original ones.13

The children in Barnes's natal household confronted a powerful nexus of abuse; the father isolated them from outside influences, intensifying the effect of his self-aggrandizement as prophet, his physical and sexual abuse, and both parents' inability to provide material security. The mother's acquiescence in face of these dynamics, and the grandmother's sanctioning of the father's practices through her economic and emotional support of him, left the children remarkably vulnerable to the father's power. The fact that Barnes struggled for decades to portray the father's sexual abuse, and the ways in which her mother and paternal grandmother colluded with him, suggests the profound degree to which these events traumatized her. At a much earlier point in her career, however, Barnes was able to depict, albeit in masked form, the sexual abuse to which her grandmother Zadel subjected her, as well as her mother's collusive role in these transgressions.

Although father-daughter incest is a problem of epidemic proportions, and mothers and other female relatives often collude with the fathers' transgressions, cases of mother-daughter or grandmother-granddaughter incest seem to be relatively rare (see Russell 71-74). In their groundbreaking analysis of father-daughter incest, Herman and Hirshman offer an explanation for this disparity:

It is the refraction of the incest taboo through the institutions of male supremacy and the sexual division of labor which results in the asymmetrical application of the taboo to men and women….

The greater the domination of the father, and the more the caretaking is relegated to the mother, the greater the likelihood of father-daughter incest. The more democratic the family and the less rigid the sexual division of labor, the less likely that fathers will abuse their daughters. (62-63)

Barnes's post-1927 work illustrates and supports many of the issues discussed by feminist theorists writing about father-daughter incest. However, Barnes's earlier portrayals can serve as a reminder that victim disclosure rates in cases of incest perpetrated by female relatives could be quite low.

Disclosure in cases of father-daughter incest has increased dramatically in recent years, in part due to the increased support for victims stemming from social and legal reform (Russell 76-84). But with the culturally ingrained resistance to acknowledging childhood sexual abuse, and the idealization of maternal figures in Western culture, it is possible that even if a child reported incestuous abuse by a female relative, the disclosures might not register. Of course, the difficulty of indicting maternal figures14 itself could also be prohibitive.15 In Barnes's case, most critics seem not to have registered the indictments of either her grandmother or her father that she made in her fiction and plays.16

The distinct record through letters of Barnes's abuse by her grandmother is unusual in cases of incest; although only one letter from Djuna to Zadel is currently in the collection, many letters from Zadel to Djuna are available.17 Written over a period of eighteen years, from the time Djuna was six to twenty-four, the letters reveal the grandmother's conflated efforts to nurture and exploit her granddaughter. Zadel's letters are a peculiar mélange—of advice to Djuna on how she should eat, exercise, study, and subordinate her will to ensure the well-being of the family; of practical advice on groceries and chores; of lavish endearments that seem carefully designed to manipulate; and of a regressive, highly euphemistic language that expresses her erotic desire for her granddaughter, referring in detail to past sexual encounters between them. As early as 1903, when Barnes was eleven and when she and her grandmother shared the same bed, Zadel referred to sexual interactions between them and expressed the erotic nature of her desire for Djuna.18 Not only do the letters reveal the way in which Zadel colonized Djuna to serve her sexual needs, but they also provide evidence that the other adults in the family had a matter-of-fact attitude towards this abuse.

Zadel Barnes's sexual discourse in letters addressed to Djuna is often preceded or followed by instructions Djuna was asked to pass on to her mother and father about household matters. The juxtaposition implies that the letters to Djuna may have been read by her parents. At times, Zadel would send messages for the other children in the letters to Djuna-which reinforces the impression that the letters were shared with others. The fact that the parents, Wald and Elizabeth, mention in their own letters one of the nicknames, "Flitch" (a euphemism for genitalia), that Zadel used for herself when writing to Djuna, further suggests that they were aware of the grandmother's transgressions.

The letters are especially jarring because of the ways in which Zadel would juxtapose practical instructions about such matters as supplies she was sending to the farm household with passages about her own breasts, erotic pleasure, and her desire for access to Djuna's body. Zadel often illustrated her letters with drawings of disembodied breasts to express her desire; she also used a range of euphemisms to refer to her own and Djuna's breasts-at times calling them "Misriss Pink Tops" or "Quick Tops," while referring to her aroused nipples as "pebblums on the beachums."

In one letter, sent when Djuna was seventeen, Zadel writes:

Oh Misriss! When I sees your sweet hands a huggin' your own P.T.'s [Pink Tops]—I is just crazy and I jumps on oo! X like dis-(Zadel to Djuna Barnes, 4 March 1909, McKeldin)

The first drawing shows a pair of disembodied breasts approaching a thin female figure sitting upright in a chair, and the second shows the young girl and the chair knocked flat on the ground, the figure's arms spread downward as if she has no means to resist the disembodied breasts looming above her. The cartoonish drawings depict the granddaughter as she is overwhelmed by a force she cannot resist while the grandmother's regressive prose masks her authority in the exchange (cf. Broe 1989, 42).

Although Zadel's erotic discourse was mostly breast-centered, she used a whole panoply of sexual euphemisms, especially in the closing of her letters. To give just one example, she closed a letter dated 1 October 1908 to Djuna by writing, "Bless my Sexes … Dorations, Snickerterbitz—Corkerdit-Pink Tops and your own loving thatch of Bacon Cakes." The reference to the "thatch of Bacon Cakes" is easier to decode than some of the others; thatch refers to the granddaughter's pubic hair, while "Bacon Cakes" is a metaphor for the girl's labia, likening them to strips of pork.

Zadel's letters to Djuna show that she conditioned the child to serve her own erotic needs at a young age; they also suggest the means by which Zadel may have done so. For example, while Barnes was growing up, Zadel was intermittently away from the family, and often during these periods, she would arrange for food stuffs to be delivered to the Cornwall-on-Hudson household. Zadel's letters show that she used her power as the family's provider of groceries to purchase special foods for Djuna (see also Broe 1989, 42). Mention of treats often precedes the erotic passages, and the juxtapositions suggest that Zadel used her power as provider to bribe Djuna into acquiescing to the sexual abuse.

In light of this breast-centered sexual abuse, it seems especially significant that Zadel's and Wald's letters reveal that Djuna had an eating disorder during her childhood and young adulthood. It may be that Barnes tried symbolically to protest her grandmother's use of her body for oral gratification by curtailing her own oral consumption. Many of Zadel's and Wald's letters instruct Djuna on the importance of eating sufficient amounts of food, implying that she would not eat if they did not remind her. Barnes's eating problems make sense, since during her childhood she was figuratively and literally treated as a commodity to be consumed by the adults in her family.

Barnes's eating disorder is also in keeping with some of the lifelong aftereffects typically suffered by survivors of incest (Blume 151-56). As is the case for many survivors, it seems that when Barnes felt she was losing control of her life, she would try to impose a sense of order by strictly limiting her food intake. In both her young adulthood and old age when she was living on insufficient funds, Barnes would try to "manage" the financial difficulties by eating less.

One of Barnes's first professional assignments casts further light on the dynamics concerning orality, consumption, and power at work in her relationship to her family and her writing. During the first years after she left the household headed by Wald and Zadel, Barnes allowed herself to be force-fed as research for writing a newspaper article "in simulation of the force-feedings which the English suffragists were then undergoing" (Field 53). The fact that Barnes underwent the procedure and wrote the article suggests that she may have been more successful at describing and locating the forces that control women than at protecting herself from them. By participating in the force-feeding, Barnes was engaged in a destructive, yet revealing, form of acting out. Barnes's position in the "voluntary simulation" was a symbol of her former position in her family—in which the father and grandmother conflated nurture and violence in their violation of her bodily integrity. Physicians force-fed suffragists ostensibly "for their own good," but also to break their spirit; the dynamics in this oral-centered form of ritual rape reverberate with the oral dynamics involved in Zadel's use of her role as family provider to coerce Djuna into submitting to her breast-centered sexual abuse.

By participating in the simulation, then writing an account of it for publication, Barnes publicly exposed a form of abuse that was remarkably similar to what she had suffered as a child and adolescent. However, Barnes's public exposure of the horror of force-feeding is an extreme contrast to the silencing she experienced in her family. By participating in the "simulation," Barnes may have been covertly testing her family members to see if they would recognize the parallels between the two forms of abuse. We can only speculate on what Barnes's reaction may have been when she received a letter from her father in which he congratulated her on the article, paternalistically expressed concern for her, and wrote that he wished he could beat up the physicians who force-fed her, seemingly oblivious to the parallels between the doctors' actions and his own (Wald Barnes to Djuna Barnes, 12 September 1914, McKeldin).

In most families in which there is incestuous abuse, children face a range of silencing forces; molesters may threaten to kill their victims or condition children to believe they will be to blame for the breakup of the family if they disclose the abuse. Often, sexual abusers can silence children by suggesting that they will lose the adult's love if they do not behave as required.19 Many of the letters Zadel wrote to Djuna during her childhood show that the grandmother used similar tactics to condition her to subordinate her interests to maintain the status quo in the family. Highlighting this dynamic, one letter from Zadel instructs Djuna to be silent about family problems even if they directly affect her. She then explains that through such silence Djuna will not only "be happier," but also more fully loved.

You will please me very much … if you will take yourself strongly in hand, not to "butt in" in anything that is not really your very own business and not even then, unless it is very important. If you overcome this bad habit, you will escape a lot of trouble—prevent a lot of trouble,—you will be happier and be really a much nicer girl and be more beloved. Try hard my darling × I believe you can do anything you really resolve to. (Zadel to Djuna Barnes, 20 February 1906, McKeldin)

It is not clear how Barnes felt about her grandmother's sexual abuse while she was a child and teenager living in the Cornwall and then the Long Island households. But by the time Barnes published The Dove in 1923, she had written several works that portray relationships between older women who are maternal figures and young women or children.20 These fictional accounts suggest that Barnes felt profoundly ambivalent about her grandmother's molestation, and that, at least at times, she felt overwhelming rage as a result of the trauma.

There is one piece of direct biographical evidence, dating back to the period of Zadel's sexual abuse, showing Barnes's response to her grandmother's demands…. Zadel's letters frequently urged Djuna and other family members to write more often when she was away from the household on business. On one occasion, she complained bitterly:

Imagine my emotion this morning when the morning mail brought nothing from you! And after spending nearly all day Sunday writing to you and "ma" and "pa" and Fanny [Wald's live-in mistress]! If that is to be the effect of such devotion. I'll hang my pen on the willow tree, and I'll off to the deuce again—the writer's life has no charms for me. (Zadel to Djuna Barnes, 23 February 1909, McKeldin)

Djuna's response was deeply conflicted, marked by a mixture of rage, despair, and fear; her immediate retraction of her expression of hatred suggests that she could not bear the consequences of expressing her anger to Zadel. The letter also demonstrates a form of "splitting off" common among incest survivors (Bass 42-43), as Djuna addresses Zadel both as "Grandmother" and through metonymic references to her nipples and breasts.

Dear Pink Top Pebblums and Grandmother:

Imagine my feelings when the mail brought nothing from you, for me!!! This is the way I looked immediately, You is a nasty Pink Tops and Grandmother Flitch and I hate you—oh no I don't I love yer! ha! ha! Now really wouldn't that give you a "pain"? (Djuna Barnes to Zadel Barnes, 26 February 1909, McKeldin)

Barnes's letters to and from family and friends repeatedly show that she was caught in a matrix of forces—pressured not to protest the transgressions within the family, threatened with loss of love if she did not behave as her father and grandmother willed, and conditioned by the adults to serve the sexual needs of the father and grandmother. Since many survivors of childhood sexual abuse struggle throughout their lives to remember what they have suffered, it is not surprising that it took Barnes decades to tell the story of her father's sexual abuse in Ryder, Nightwood, and The Antiphon. What is surprising is that as early as 1923 she was able to explore the meaning of Zadel's sexual abuse and her deeply conflicted relation to her grandmother and mother in her play The Dove.

"The Creature Punished in the Web": Domesticity, Maternal Power, Voyeurism, and Sexual Abuse in The Dove

Although Barnes published The Dove in 1923 as part of A Book, the play was first staged at Smith College in 1926. The characters within the play are two sisters, Amelia and Vera Burgson, and a young woman whom the sisters name "The Dove" after they meet her in the park and invite her to live with them (148-50). The highly charged name appropriately signals The Dove's situation in the older women's household. The Christian tradition associates doves with peace, holiness, and purity. However, Barnes may also have had another meaning in mind. During the pre-Christian era, the dove "was a primary symbol for female sexuality. In India, the name of the dove-goddess meant 'lust.'"21 These connotations are appropriate, since The Dove is the object of desire for the two sisters. As is often the case with Barnes, it is an obscure meaning of the word that proves the most revealing. In keeping with the Christian imagery, "dove" can be a term for a "gentle, innocent, or loving woman or child."22 This definition may have been uppermost in Barnes's mind, much as it was in Tennyson's, when he wrote, "O somewhere, meek unconscious dove / … Poor child, that waitest for thy love!"23 The polysemic associations generated by the young woman's name contribute to sexualizing her, while also stressing her purity and vulnerability, foreshadowing the tensions at work when the Burgson sisters attempt forcibly to incorporate her into their erotic practices. The description of The Dove, an accurate one for the playwright herself, signals that the character is Barnes's fictionalized representative: "a slight delicate girl … as delicate as china with almost dangerously transparent skin. Her nose is high-bridged and thin, her hands and feet are also very long and delicate. She has red hair, very elegantly coiffured" (148).24 The stage directions also suggest that The Dove expects danger at any moment: "When she moves [seldom] the slightest line runs between her legs, giving her the expectant waiting air of a deer" (148).

The opening dialogue indicates that the two Burgson sisters are significantly older than The Dove. Although the sisters are not related to the younger woman, the age difference, coupled with the fact that they take her in, casts them as her adopted maternal figures. Throughout Barnes's writing, as in folktales about child theft, adoption by pseudomaternal figures often proves ominous.25 Certainly, in this case, the way in which the older women "mother" the girl seems sinister at best.26

The stage directions indicate that as soon as the curtain rises, the set reveals some of the major tensions within and among the characters.

The decoration is garish, dealing heavily in reds and pinks. There is an evident attempt to make the place look luxuriously sensual. The furniture is all of the reclining type.

The walls are covered with a striped paper in red and white. Only two pictures are evident, one of the Madonna and child, and one of an early English tandem race.

There are firearms everywhere. Many groups of swords, ancient and modern, are secured to the walls. A pistol or two lie in chairs, etc. There is only one door, which leads out into the back hall directly back centre. (147)

Symbolically, the set seems to be a perverse womb—one which conflates the relations among sensuality, violence, and mothering.27 As the play opens, Vera and The Dove are talking while The Dove polishes "the blade of an immense sword." The dialogue reveals that Amelia had asked the girl to clean "blood stains" off of it. Although Vera's comments suggest that Amelia had imagined the stains and would in fact be afraid to use the sword, the exchange implies that someone may have been abused before the action of the play began.

Vera's speeches reveal that the two older women are extremely repressed voyeurs, at once obsessed with sexuality and violence and with denying their obsession. In fact, Vera's speech reveals that their "entire education" has consisted of a discourse on sexual expression, perversion, violence, domesticity, and repression. In spite of their obsession with sexuality, the passage makes clear that both women do not engage in any active form of sexual practice except for the voyeuristic. The final image in the paragraph suggests that Amelia's violence is linked to repressed lesbian desire:

"[W]e collect knives and pistols, but we only shoot our buttons off with the guns and cut our darning cotton with the knives, and we'll never, never be perverse though our entire education has been about knees and garters and pinches on hindquarters—elegantly bestowed—and we keep a few animals—very badly—hoping to see something first-hand—and our beds are as full of yellow pages and French jokes as a bird's nest is full of feathers—… It's wicked! She keeps an enormous blunderbuss in the corner of her room, but when I make up her bed, all I find is some Parisienne bathing girl's picture stuck full of pin holes." (151, 153)

When Vera questions The Dove about why she remains in the peculiar household, the young woman's comments about her "unnatural" life with family members on a farm echoes Barnes's own rural childhood—again signaling that The Dove is a fictionalized representative for the author. During the course of this exchange between Vera and The Dove, while Amelia is out on an errand, Vera recounts a dream, one similar in content to passages from Barnes's other works in which a mother speaks to a daughter about sexuality and danger: "I dreamt I was a Dresden doll and that I had been blown down by the wind and that I broke all to pieces—that is, my arms and my head broke all to pieces—but then I was surprised to find that my china skirt had become flexible, as if it were made of chiffon and lace" (153).

Although the play condemns the older women's voyeurism, this dream suggests that a range of forces beyond their control may have alienated the women from themselves and from their own desire. The dream reveals that Vera's subjectivity has been undercut to such an extent that she sees herself as a doll, a thing without feelings and without the power to control its body. Rather than suggesting that the women have imposed "restrictions upon themselves" (Scott 57), such passages imply that a range of forces outside the domestic situation have affected the psyches of the sisters and The Dove. In the dream, the wind seems to be a metaphor for an overwhelming erotic force, one which blows the doll down and breaks it "all to pieces" (153). As the head and the arms of the doll break, symbolizing the destruction of the woman's identity and means of resistance, the china skirt becomes "flexible," implying that it could then be manipulated by others.

Vera's dream reverberates most fully with a story Julie's mother in Ryder tells her daughter about two sister-dolls who die after they are molested. This thinly veiled (and often prophetic) terrorism under the guise of instruction is emblematic of the relations between all the maternal and daughter figures throughout Barnes's work. In Ryder, the mother's bedtime story is a frightening cautionary fable about the dangers of girlhood and of aspiring to feminine ideals. She describes an eerie process of biological and cultural destruction in which two sisters become more perfectly feminine and doll-like until both are dead.

Felice had little hands, Alix had smaller; Felice had a tiny waist and two breasts as delicate as the first setting of blanc mange. Alix's waist was only a hand's span and her bosom was no greater than two tears set low. Felice had golden hair, Alix's was fine and thin and curling.

Felice had a little skeleton as chipped of angles as a Ming, and as light as ash. Alix's flesh covered her bones as thinly as ice on a tree. Felice's ankles were faultless, Alix's were as weightless as cuttlebone and as fragile. (155)

As in Vera's dream, the story implies that the production of women is a process of systematic destruction. The story in Ryder seems especially gruesome because it is told to the daughter by her mother, who is being systematically destroyed by her husband's demands. Much as in Vera's dream in which her head is broken "all to pieces," symbolizing the loss of her identity, the molestation of the two sisters also results in their erasure, since the story leads to their death. By saying "And that's the end of the two little sisters, thank God," after their molestation leads to their simultaneous pregnancies and destruction, the mother in Ryder implies that she finds the sisters in her story shameful because they were abused:

Felice cried for a tiny doll, Alix got a smaller. They sat together in bed and the two dolls sat up before them….

The manager called and took Felice in his right arm and Alix in his left. He pinched them both at once and equally, and they both kissed him at the same moment, and he put them back to bed.

Felice said:

"At twenty minutes past ten, on April fourth, I shall be a mother."

Alix said:

"At twenty-one minutes past ten, on April fourth, I shall be a mother."…

They had four little circles under their four blue eyes.

And on April fourth, at twenty minutes past ten, Felice died.

One minute later Alix died. (155-56)

Amelia's fantastical report of the abuse of the sisters connects imagistically with Vera's description of herself as the shattered Dresden doll. When the mother describes the sisters as becoming increasingly doll-like and then reduces the impregnating events to the manager's "pinch" and his "put[ting] them back to bed," her rendering implies that the sisters are helpless to resist their manipulation and that their bodies can betray them without Alix and Felice comprehending the significance of what has transpired. When the two sisters die after their molestation, their fate ironically predicts that of Julie, the daughter in Ryder, who dreams repeatedly of her death after she is molested by her father.28 The maternal figures' revelations in both the novel and the play are followed by a symbolic reenactment of the abuse of the daughter figures.

In The Dove, soon after Vera describes her dream, Amelia returns from errands. She then tries to draw The Dove and Vera into participating in her voyeuristic habits by inviting them to look at her reproduction of Carpaccio's Deux Courtisanes Vénitiennes, but she fails to do so. Just as lines earlier in the play reveal that Amelia displaces her desire for an interactive sexual practice by staring at "farm animals" and playing in bed with "some Parisienne girl's picture," in this scene, gazing at the portrait functions as a substitute for erotic encounters in which her power, particularly her controlling gaze, might be compromised. Of course, by drawing attention to the way Amelia gazes at the portrait, attempting to derive erotic pleasure from the spectacle, Barnes also makes an implicit and sly comment on her audience's position, gazing upon the spectacle of the play as a whole.

Carpaccio's Deux Courtisanes Vénitiennes functions as a key element in The Dove in other ways as well. Barnes's imagination seems to have been fired by its conflation of domestic, violent, and erotic symbols, and by the central figures' attention to an eerily unrepresented drama. The original painting was cut on both the right and left sides some time before the nineteenth century,29 and what remains of it, with its strikingly absent sections is structurally similar not only to The Dove, but to Barnes's many renderings of her family history in which central elements are obscured, edited out, or only metaphorically represented. Like The Dove, the painting has three central figures: two middle-aged women who appear to be related dominate the canvas, while near the left edge is a young boy who might be a page. Commentary on the two women in the painting is remarkably similar to some of the first critical commentary on Vera and Amelia; one art historian noted that "Their vacant, apathetic faces, devoid of any spiritual animation and individuality, possess a strange fascination for the modern onlooker; the mask of studied indifference seems to hide vice and perversion."30 Animals fill the scene: doves on the balustrade, dogs in the foreground, and a peacock and a dark crowlike bird near the left center; yet the two women are oddly detached from the animals that surround them. In much the same way, The Dove's references to animals highlight the fact that Amelia's and Vera's lives are marked by repressions as they are at once obsessed with and surrounded by, yet separate from, creatures within the world around them. Deep maroonish reds and pinks dominate Carpaccio's canvas, most likely inspiring Barnes's comment that such colors should "heavily" mark The Dove's setting. Carpaccio's use of the deep red tones contributes to the painting's sexually laden atmosphere and forms a jarring contrast to the apparent boredom and apathy of the two female figures. By having one of the female figures tug on a crop or whip clenched in the teeth of a feral dog, while both of the women gaze fixedly past this spectacle, Carpaccio reinforces the feeling that a violent or visually arresting event is taking place beyond the edge of the canvas. But ultimately, because the painting is truncated, the nature of this central, yet unfigured, drama is impossible to decipher.

At points throughout The Dove, Vera and Amelia refer to the painting's place in their entryway, but it is not until the final moments of the action that Amelia brings it onstage. Then, in much the same manner as the figures' and the viewers' gaze reaches beyond the limits of the canvas, transfixed by some action that is not represented, the audience's gaze in The Dove is directed beyond the limits of the stage by The Dove's unrepresented and mysterious final acts.

The end of the play is like a vision from a dream. Instead of resolving tension, the climax serves as a summarizing symbol defining the conflicts within and among the women. In the course of the final action, The Dove confesses to Vera that she loves Amelia; the girl's attraction to the woman who asks her to polish enormous swords and who sticks pins in pictures of Parisienne bathing girls reveals that she has been conditioned into desiring her own victimization. As the three women talk, Amelia becomes agitated and eventually begins a long speech in which she expresses her rage and her narcissism: "I'm in an excellent humour—I could talk for hours, all about myself—to myself, for myself. God! I'd like to tear out all the wires in the house! Destroy all the tunnels in the city, leave nothing underground, or hidden, or useful …" (162). Amelia's speech leads to the final events on stage; she insists that The Dove give her the sword and her frantic demands imply that she intends to use it on herself or on The Dove. As she attempts to find the sword, she instead grasps The Dove's hand, and "clutches it convulsively." Slowly, The Dove "bares Amelia's left shoulder and breast and leaning down, sets her teeth in. Amelia gives a slight, short stifled cry…. The Dove stands up swiftly, holding a pistol. She turns in the doorway hastily vacated by Vera." A moment later, The Dove shouts out, "For the house of Burgson!" and fires the pistol offstage. Amelia runs out, presumably to see if The Dove has killed herself, leaving Vera alone onstage. Amelia reappears "in the doorway with the picture of the Venetian courtesans, through which there is a bullet hole" (163). Responding to Vera's question, "What has she done?", Amelia refers to the picture, then says, "This is obscene" (168).

The meaning of the scene is multilayered and ambiguous. The young woman's action of baring and biting the older woman's breast suggests that she craves nurture from the maternal figure, while also expressing The Dove's anger at Amelia for having threatened her with the sword (and perhaps for other abuses as well).

After attacking Amelia, The Dove may leave with the pistol because she intends to commit suicide, but it remains uncertain at the end of the scene whether or not The Dove has either injured or killed herself. In fact, as Amelia rejoins Vera onstage during the final moment of the play, The Dove's continued absence suggests a wide range of possibilities. She may have shot the picture and left the house-hold, perhaps permanently; she may have simply shot the picture and remained near the entry, just out of the audience's view; or she may have injured or killed herself at the same time the bullet punctured the picture.

Amelia's final line, "This is obscene!", is also polysemic. In one sense, Amelia's comment suggests that she may have realized the obscene nature of her own voyeurism; but the fact that The Dove does not appear on stage again implies that Amelia may have had her realization at the cost of the young woman's life. Even if we interpret the final events on stage in the most positive manner possible, they still seem to signify disaster for The Dove.

If Amelia's final line does mean that she has realized the implications of her voyeurism, and if we conclude that The Dove did not shoot herself, but only the picture, the end of the play still indicates that Amelia's actions have had tragic consequences. Even if The Dove has left the household after the gunshot, ultimately, The Dove's violent exit suggests that she may not be able to escape from the patterns of violence and displacement learned from the sisters.

On a symbolic level, by having The Dove shoot the picture, Barnes shows the young girl adopting the older woman's role, but in a more extreme form. Instead of ending Amelia's voyeurism, The Dove's gesture recalls the older woman's habit of sticking pins in and putting holes through "some Parisienne bathing girl's picture." Not only is The Dove's act of shooting the gun psychosexually charged with phallic implications, but so is the description of Amelia "sticking pins in and putting holes through" to express her lesbian desire. Of course, the imagery concerning Amelia's voyeurism also seems jarringly domestic—as it calls to mind crewelwork or the process of tatting. The descriptions suggest that in the world of the play, Amelia's, as well as The Dove's, lesbian desire can only be expressed in a form that merges the conventionally phallic, the domestic, and the perversely destructive. The use of the phallic images also hints at the patriarchal regulation that forms the bedrock supporting domestic abuse.

A far more dire reading is also possible; in this case, The Dove's absence at the end of the play signals that she has killed herself, puncturing the picture in the process. Then, Amelia's exclamation, "This is obscene!", made after seeing the girl's body, would show her more concerned with the picture than with the dead girl. In finding the damaged representation, rather than the girl's corpse, "obscene," Amelia would be revealing the profound degree of her repression and peculiar voyeuristic fixation. In spite of the ambiguity of the ending, The Dove as a whole nonetheless shows that for Amelia the symbols are more important than the things themselves. She is perversely fixated on something once removed from reality like a traumatized patient obsessed with a symbolic screen memory that occludes the true source of trauma.

It seems especially fitting that Barnes transgressed injunctions against disclosing incestuous abuse through the creation of what amounts to a dramatic reenactment. Indeed, in light of the biographical evidence about Zadel Barnes's sexual abuse of Djuna, it is impossible not to see The Dove's final biting of Amelia's breast as a sign of Barnes's fury at her grandmother, and, of course, The Dove's ambiguous exit suggests the disruption of subjectivity Djuna, the child, might have experienced as a result of Zadel's sexual colonization. By writing and publishing The Dove as an adult, Barnes responded to her grandmother's attempts to manipulate her into lifelong silence. Describing The Dove's destruction may have enabled Barnes to begin unearthing her buried grief and rage resulting from incest.

The Critical Key to the Locked Box

The Dove can encourage critics not only to reread Barnes, but also to raise questions about the significance fictionalized portrayals of childhood and young adulthood might have in understanding modernist texts as well as contemporary incest theory. What Barnes's work suggests is that the roles of maternal figures (both as molesters and as those who collude with them) may be more complex than previous analyses have shown. Barnes's life and work also offer support for recent developments in psychological theory that argue that incest is a sign of a dysfunctional structure within the family as a whole and not just a dynamic between the molester and the victim. Barnes's oeuvre confirms and yet also adds a caveat to the arguments of some recent social scientists concerning "mother blame," a phrase used in describing the fact that female incest victims tend to direct blame and hostility at their mothers for their victimization by their fathers. Janet Jacobs argues that

In the case of incest victims, the need for separation becomes crucial because the daughter has internalized her mother's sense of powerlessness…. Anger at the mother provides a means through which separation and individuation can be facilitated, with rage and rejection acting as a source of empowerment for the victimized child…. The mother-directed rage represents a first stage in coping with the intense feelings engendered by the abuse. A later stage, in which anger is appropriately focused on the perpetrator, is more likely to occur once the daughter acknowledges and understands her initial reaction to the mother's perceived role.32

Since Barnes was molested by her father and her grandmother, some might attribute the antimaternal hostility in The Dove, in keeping with Jacobs's argument, to her first stage of coping. However, both the biographical evidence and the complexity of the dynamics in The Dove suggest that such an explanation cannot adequately account for the hostility. The dynamics in Barnes's family and in The Dove suggest that we should interpret the hostility in more concrete terms—as anger towards someone who was, in fact, guilty of collusion with a molester and/or guilty of molestation itself. In other words, although ascribing antimaternal feelings to the process of separation described in ego psychology may often be useful, Barnes's writing and life can remind us that, in some cases, mother blame, or grandmother blame, is an appropriate response to actual transgressions by women.

The fact that many critics found Barnes's texts to be "the locked box" ultimately reveals more about cultural conditioning—and the unspoken injunctions against discussing or even perceiving the prevalence of incest or its aftereffects—than it does about Barnes's writing. In this sense, Barnes's dramatization of incest, which has been culturally unspeakable, created a text which was culturally unreadable. Only recently, with the proliferation of scholarship and popular works dealing with sexual abuse, has the cultural climate permitted rereadings of texts like Barnes's. As Louise DeSalvo's recent book on Virginia Woolf and the effects of childhood sexual abuse eloquently shows, scholars need to confront the meaning of critical silences and rechart the patterns within turn-of-the-century families if we are to account for the ways in which childhood experience shaped the lives of modernist writers and had enduring effects on the texts they produced.33

Ironically, the very factors responsible for the critics' misreading or inability to read Barnes's texts may account for why she was able to write about grandmother-granddaughter incest at an early point in her career; this particular form of sexual abuse was so culturally unimaginable that it did not fit into any extant category of taboo, and thus was practically invisible. For Barnes, such "invisibility" created a situation in which she could dramatize an incident based on personal trauma, and yet deny it at the same time, because the latent content would have been indecipherable to her audience. On the other hand, perhaps it took Barnes longer to write about father-daughter incest because of the strong and explicit cultural injunctions both against this form of sexual abuse and against indicting the father.34

The lesbian relationships in Barnes's work contrast with the more celebratory (albeit often coded) portrayals by Stein, H. D., and Woolf. Perhaps feminists have been slow to investigate the meaning of Barnes's work, in contrast to the feminist reevaluation of other modernist women's texts that has taken place during the past decade, because of this difference. Barnes's repeated portrayals of sexual violence in lesbian relationships can be mystifying unless we keep in mind that they are often examining some aspect of the grand-mother-mother-daughter constellation of her childhood. For example, Nightwood, in the course of telling the story of the lovers Robin and Nora, explores the complex dynamics of repetition compulsions stemming from childhood abuse. Nora projects the repressed elements of her family trauma onto Robin, reexperiencing her molestation by her father and grandmother through her. Just as Amelia, in The Dove, is a symbol for Barnes's abusive grandmother, Nora's key dream in Nightwood, of the leering grandmother figure in a billycock and corked mustache, further explores the effects of incestuous abuse and the resulting longing for maternal nurture.35

In cases of father-daughter incest, "focusing anger on the mother allows the daughter to externalize her feelings" (Jacobs 512). The Dove, with its role-playing elements, dramatized, and in a sense actualized, Barnes's repressed feelings about both her grandmother's and mother's betrayals. Paradoxically, depicting the destruction of The Dove thus constituted the first stage of what was to become Barnes's lifelong writing cure.

Like a seed crystal that starts the formation of an intricate structure, this articulation of the mother's and grandmother's role in her family constellation enabled Barnes to write about the father's molestation and its aftereffects later in her career. In fact, Barnes's oeuvre constitutes a progressive investigation of incest trauma. Following the thinly veiled representations of the grandmother-mother-daughter relationship, Ryder tells the story of Barnes's childhood, presenting fictionalized versions of each of her family members. Through dream sequences and euphemistic language, the novel shows a young girl unconsciously grappling with the effects of father-daughter incest and maternal collusion. In Nightwood, Nora, an adult survivor of incest, explores on both the conscious and unconscious levels the lifelong effects of her grandmother's and father's molestation. Finally, The Antiphon is Barnes's most explicit rendering of the family dynamics involved in incest trauma. The play summarizes all the issues that Barnes grappled with throughout her literary career; it refers both explicitly and symbolically to the incest traumas in Barnes's own life as well as those she had presented in masked form in earlier texts. By portraying a "family reunion" and stylized reenactments of incestuous abuse, Barnes writes the abused daughter's therapy.

Although critics such as Broe and DeSalvo have begun to address the issue of critical misreadings and silence regarding Barnes's treatment of incest, further work remains. Perhaps only by assessing the relationships among Barnes's cross-textual portrayals of incest and its aftereffects may the import and intricacies of her oeuvre become clear—that her works as a whole constitute one of the most compelling explorations of the lifelong effects of childhood trauma in all of modern literature. Throughout her career Barnes created works that scrutinize the meaning of silences, repressions, and denials within families and especially within those abused by their families. With The Dove, Barnes began to reveal her vast knowledge of the many meanings of what one dare not tell, as well as the many meanings and tremendous power of silence.


1. Djuna Barnes to Natalie Barney, 31 June 1963, Correspondence of Djuna Barnes, Special Collections, McKeldin Library, University of Maryland, College Park: hereafter designated as McKeldin. Unpublished material used by permission of Herbert Mitgang of the Authors League Fund and University of Maryland, College Park.

2. Review of Djuna Barnes's Selected Works, Time, 20 April 1962, 108.

3. Djuna Barnes, The Antiphon (London: Faber and Faber, 1958), 79-80.

4. There are brief discussions of The Dove in Louis Kannenstine, The Art of Djuna Barnes (New York: New York University Press, 1977), 135-37; James Scott, Djuna Barnes (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976), 56-59; Cheryl Plumb, Fancy's Craft: Art and Identity in the Early Works of Djuna Barnes (Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1986), 35, 40, 45-48. In Mary Lynn Broe's Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991). Ann Larabee (37, 40, 42-44) and Joan Retallack (48-49) also comment on The Dove in essays on Barnes's early plays.

5. The Dove appears in A Book (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923). Further references to this edition are noted parenthetically in the text.

6. Unless otherwise indicated, the description of conflicts within Barnes's natal family is informed by my reading of the Djuna Barnes Papers at the University of Maryland, particularly letters to and from Djuna Barnes and her immediate family members.

7. Andrew Field, Djuna: The Formidable Miss Barnes (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985), 43; hereafter cited parenthetically.

8. Mary Lynn Broe, "My Art Belongs to Daddy: Incest as Exile, The Textual Economics of Hayford Hall," in Women's Writing in Exile, ed. Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 56. Further citations noted parenthetically as Broe 1989.

9. For example, in a letter to Emily Coleman written in adulthood, Barnes made an oblique reference to her father's physical abuse. Her use of the word naturally suggests that such behavior was probably commonplace, while her use of the endearment is typical of her irony when describing family trauma: "[S]till its [sic] the way the rope went out in a long leaping line and the open loop at the end taking the quarter you had decided on that was fun. [N]aturally, my dear dad caught me and the rest of the children in loops with his, and dragged us about" (25 June 1939, McKeldin).

10. Throughout her writing, Barnes explores the complicated allegiances of paternal grandmothers—to their son's authority and desires, to the grandchildren's well-being, to their own erotic desires and will to power, and to daughters-in-law. As was the case in Barnes's own life, in Ryder and Nightwood there is a notable conflation of paternal authority and maternal presence whenever paternal grandmother figures appear. Zadel's correspondence suggests that she cast herself as a maternal figure, both within the Barnes household and without, in order to manipulate others to her will, much as does Sophia, the paternal grandmother in Ryder.

11. For example, see Sue E. Blume, Secret Survivors: Uncovering Incest and Its Aftereffects in Women (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1990); Judith Lewis Herman and Lisa Hirschman, Father-Daughter Incest (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981); and Diana Russell, The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women (New York: Basic Books, 1986).

12. Emily Coleman to Djuna Barnes, 16 November 1935, McKeldin.

13. Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 133-48.

14. The use of the term "maternal" is meant broadly, connoting any older female figure (not necessarily a relative) who casts herself in a nurturing, protective, or caretaking role in relation to a younger woman. It is in this sense that Barnes's paternal grandmother, and the characters Barnes based upon her, may be defined as "maternal figures."

15. Russell discusses the many reasons why reported cases of incest only comprise "the tip of the iceberg" (85). She also discusses a range of factors that affect incest disclosure rates (31-37).

16. Lynda Curry's 'Tom Take Mercy': Djuna Barnes' Drafts of The Antiphon" and Louise DeSalvo's "'To Make Her Mutton at Sixteen': Rape, Incest, and Child Abuse in The Antiphon" in Broe's Silence and Power discuss Barnes's treatment of incest in The Antiphon, Barnes's most explicit and final published work on the subject. My own forthcoming analysis The Book of Repulsive Women: Childhood Sexual Abuse in the Work of Djuna Barnes also addresses this critical silence.

17. I am grateful to Jane Marcus for bringing the Zadel Barnes letters to my attention and for Mary Lynn Broe's "My Art Belongs to Daddy," the first essay to assess the relations between Antonia White, Emily Coleman, and Djuna Barnes at Hayford Hall, and the Zadel—Djuna Barnes correspondence.

18. Broe sketches the range of abuse Barnes experienced in her natal household and points out a range of aftereffects that Djuna may have experienced as a result. However, she offers an optimistic assessment of the meaning and effects of the erotic correspondence between Zadel and Djuna Barnes. Broe argues that it formed "a purification ritual of sorts within the family, a matriarchal text in the margins outside time. Their only syntax is that of the eternal present where a mythical world of breasts merges with breasts in the fullness of puissance feminine. Zadel and Djuna are empowered to triumph imaginatively over all outside threats. Temporarily safe from the violations of the patriarchal household, Zadel and Djuna played in their symbolic, marginalized world, a queendom of 'nanophilia'" (1989, 53).

19. See Bass and Davis, and Blume, for multiple examples of these dynamics.

20. A range of Barnes's short stories, most notably "Cassation" and "The Grande Malade," use a narrative frame in which a younger woman is recounting her experiences to an older woman. These works are similar to The Dove in their thematic emphasis on voyeurism, explorations of sexual and emotional violence, veiled attention to incest dynamics, and scrutiny of relationships between young women and pseudomaternal figures. See Carolyn Allen's "Writing Towards Nightwood: Djuna Barnes' Seduction Stories" in Silence and Power, 54-65, for the most thorough discussion of these dynamics to date.

21. Barbara Walker, The Women's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 399.

22. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 621. See also Plumb (48) for her comments on the Christian symbolism.

23. In Memoriam 6: 25-28.

24. See Field, 37, 103, and 119 and Shari Benstock, The Women of the Left Bank (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), 234, 239, and 253-54 for their descriptions of Barnes's appearance.

25. As I refer to Amelia and Vera of The Dove as maternal figures, it is important to remember that in Barnes's oeuvre maternal figures are not simply nurturing, older women, but symbols that include their own opposites, often to a perverse degree. Such contradictory and polysemic associations were strikingly apparent in Zadel Barnes's behavior, as she simultaneously cast herself as her granddaughter's spiritual and intellectual mentor, loving protector, provider, and authority figure, while also molesting her and manipulating her into silence about abuses within the family.

26. Amelia's voyeuristic fixation on a set range of images, her attraction to instruments of violence, and her use of them as decorations in the domestic setting cast her as a figure parallel to Sophia, the paternal grandmother in Ryder, Barnes's most straightforwardly biographical work. One of the oddest details relating to Sophia concerns the pictures she displays on her walls: "There were prints of all she abhorred, the rack, the filling of the belly, known as the Extreme Agony, the electric chair, the woman-who-died-of-fright, the woman-who-could-no-longer-endure-it, the man-with-the-knife-in-his-heart …" (Ryder [Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990], 13; hereafter cited parenthetically).

27. I am using the term "perverse" as defined by Kaja Silverman in "Masochism and Male Subjectivity," Camera Obscura 17 (1988): 31-66. As she notes, "Perversion also subverts many of the binary oppositions upon which the social order rests; it crosses the boundary separating food from excrement (coprophilia); human from animal (bestiality); life from death (necrophilia); adult from child (pederasty); and pleasure from pain (masochism)" (33).

28. For further exploration of these dynamics, see my "Escaping from Eden: Djuna Barnes' Revision of Psychoanalytic Theory and Her Treatment of Father-Daughter Incest in Ryder," Women's Studies 22.2 (1993): 163-80.

29. Jan Lauts, Carpaccio: Paintings and Drawings, trans. Erica Millman and Marguerite Kay (London: Phaidon Press, 1962), 251.

30. Lauts 28; Scott 57-58.

31. I am indebted to Morton Levitt for suggesting this interpretation.

32. Janet Jacobs, "Reassessing Mother Blame in Incest," Signs 15.3 (Spring 1990): 512. Additional citations are noted parenthetically as Jacobs.

33. Louise DeSalvo, Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work (New York: Ballantine Books, 1990).

34. The very fact that Zadel Barnes expressed her sexual desire for her granddaughter through letters may also help explain why Barnes was able to fictionalize the grandmother-granddaughter relationship at an earlier point than she could the father-daughter dynamics. Unlike many incest survivors who doubt the validity of their memories of abuse and are left desiring proof after they leave their families, Barnes had proof: Zadel's letters functioned as a form of concrete testimony to her past experience. Also, through the letters, Zadel had transgressed cultural injunctions against textualizing incest; although these were limited disclosures directed only to her granddaughter, they may have nonetheless provided Barnes with a sense that it was possible to transgress family and cultural injunctions against disclosing the grandmother's incestuous abuse.

35. Nightwood (New York: New Directions, 1961), 63.

Peter Mailloux (essay date Fall 1993)

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SOURCE: "Djuna Barnes's Mystery in Morocco: Making the Most of Little," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 141-48.

[In the following essay, Mailloux uses Barnes's correspondence to reconstruct a significant period in the writer's life.]

Djuna Barnes would seem in most ways to be an ideal subject for a biography. First of all, she lived a fascinating life. She did important things, she knew important people, she lived in exotic places. Second, she provided a record of that life, both in her fiction and in her extensive personal correspondence. (It helps too that many of her friends were comparably logocentric.) And third, she presents "problems" to the biographer, questions that are difficult to answer but that also seem extraordinarily suggestive, questions that guarantee new ground to be uncovered and new centers around which to construct a personality. One of Emily Dickinson's poems begins "The Riddle we can guess / We speedily despise." Djuna Barnes was never one to be despised.

The major problems for her would-be biographers are fairly well-known. There is, for instance, the question of why Barnes, at the apparent height of her creative power, should suddenly withdraw from life and writing, turning herself, in her own description, into a kind of Trappist monk. Or there is the question of whether or not she was sexually abused by her father, or whether or not she was married and how many times, or what exactly happened during her relationship with Thelma Wood. These, moreover, are just the beginning. The more one learns about Barnes, the more the questions seem to proliferate.

One of the minor mysteries is a problem that this would-be biographer first stumbled upon while examining the Emily Coleman papers at the University of Delaware. I was reading a letter Barnes had written Coleman on 30 August 1935, one of the long and sometimes delightful, sometimes painful, letters that Barnes then wrote Coleman, usually in response to the always incredibly long and often less delightful letters that Emily wrote her. Emily's letters picked at and probed every scab and sore spot she could find on her own psyche. Barnes's were usually more gossipy and if they told of troubles, told of physical troubles. (The particular physical "trouble" in this letter was that Barnes felt she was fat, having gone from 118 pounds to 140 pounds, even though, as she also complained in the letter, her poverty prevented her from eating breakfast.) But she also occasionally revealed herself in ways that she never did to any other correspondent. In this letter, for instance, along with news of friends, including the sad news that Dan Mahoney (the model for Matthew O'Connor in Nightwood) had cancer of the stomach, and worrying about Nightwood, which was still called Bow Down then, there was a peculiar passage in which Barnes claimed, apropos of nothing in particular, that she should have been the "Madame" of a poorhouse where drink would be passed out to the men while she, "like a carrion crow," would take notes from the balcony on what they said. This thought then led her to think of writing as scavenging and to wonder what exactly had turned her into a scavenger, into someone at home in the night. "Thelma?" she wondered. "Dan?" "Or Morocco?" She then concluded, "All my horrors have been good."1

Thelma Wood and Dan Mahoney were familiar to me even at that point in my research: Djuna had lived with Thelma for ten years in Paris and claimed that she was the one significant love of her life; Mahoney was a friend from essentially the same period. The conjunction of them with horrors was not new either. But the allusion to Morocco was less clear, and therefore intriguing. It became still more intriguing when I discovered two more references to Morocco in later letters, both making the same point. In the first, after telling Emily that her praise for and help with Nightwood during the past year had saved her mind, Barnes wrote: "I thought I was dead and done for. I thought the same, in a different way, in Tangier, and behold, here I still am, and trying another book."2 A little later in the same letter, while talking about Emily's attitude toward bullfights, Barnes wrote further: "I should see one, a bullfight, just because I don't want to, it's the way we learn anything—like Morocco." A few sentences later still she added, "So you are right, no one should go through a horror unless they can make something of it." "Everything horrible seems to be the chief value," she reiterated in a letter from 20 March 1936. "Look what I learned with Morocco and other horrors."

That something had happened in Morocco, something horrible, was now fairly clear, and that alone made it interesting. (Of course, Barnes's insistence that she had learned something important from the experience made it more interesting—and potentially significant—still.) The question was what had happened. In the remainder of the Delaware letters there were no further clues, not even to when the what might have happened. But when I looked back at the notes that I had taken while examining the huge Barnes collection at the University of Maryland I found several references that were suggestive. The first was in a letter from her mother dated 12 February 1926, which congratulated Djuna on finding a house "to suit your peculiar needs." "But how about insects, dear," the letter went on. "Africa swarms with every kind of ugly bug and vile reptile…." Another letter to her mother sent in April confirmed that Djuna was indeed in Africa3 (a squib in the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune, dated 27 April 1926, that mentioned that Djuna Barnes had just returned from Africa was further confirmation still), and there was finally a daybook entry from 7 April, which suggested that Thelma was then in Algiers and a photograph, supposedly taken in March, that showed Thelma and Djuna together. But that was the end of the trail. No mention of Morocco. No mention of horrors. No solution to the problem. At best, in fact, there was only another small problem. In the same daybook, Barnes wrote on 28 April: "My new lover is not much to look at cross eyed but I think he's grand—he has such innocent teeth…." She also referred several times to a mysterious Harry, in entries going forward as far as late July. Was this truly mention of a new lover, or just a stab at the beginning of a story? And who was Harry? And what, for heaven's sake, were innocent teeth? There remained, meanwhile, only three other references to Morocco in the material. One was in an October 1934 letter from Charles Henri Ford, a man who would eventually be a novelist, a poet, an editor, a photographer, and a filmmaker, and who had been a friend (and, occasionally, nurse and lover) of Barnes since at least 1930. He answered, vaguely, a question about Tangier that Barnes had, for reasons unknown, apparently asked him. The second item was three typed pages of notes on Tangier, written in 1930, giving a brief history and description of the place, also for reasons unknown. And the third was an article on Arab marriage, published in Cosmopolitan in 1934. Although what it described was far from ideal, it seemed to reveal nothing about Barnes's personal horror.

Fortunately, there were still other sources. Letters from Barnes to Ezra Pound, Edmund Wilson, Gertrude Stein, and Robert McAlmon were at Yale. Other letters, mostly to Charles Henri Ford, were at the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. And there were also secondary sources, books or articles by and about her friends, which turned out to provide several interesting clues. Jacqueline Weld's biography of Barnes's friend Peggy Guggenheim, for instance, mentioned that Barnes, after a summer with Guggenheim and other friends, had left for Tangier in the fall of 1932, the manuscript of Nightwood tucked neatly under her arm.4 Parker Tyler, in his biography of Charles Henri Ford's lover Pawel Tchelitchew (the search for answers can sometimes carry one rather far afield), provided more information. He said that Ford had gone to Tangier with a lady friend sometime after the summer of 1932, but that she had "lost her heart" to another while there. Ford therefore had invited Barnes to join him, which she did, a romance had sprung up between them, and the two had eventually moved back to Paris together. This, Tyler said, occurred in midsummer of 1932, after "rats ate the poor lady's clothes" in Tangier.5 (The denouement, for those interested, was that Ford soon became re-interested in Tchelitchew and moved in with him in the fall of 1933.)

The problem with Tyler's story, aside from his vagueness about dates, was that he provided no documentation, but his account was corroborated somewhat by Paul Bowles's version of the story in his autobiography, Without Stopping. He too claimed that Ford invited Barnes, although he said that before her arrival Ford was with a couple, not a woman (the story gets murkier; the sexual arithmetic starts to become higher mathematics). He added that Ford and Barnes stayed at first at his house, a house he used only to work in, with the understanding that they would always be out by 1:30 in the afternoon, but that they soon moved to a house a few hundred feet away, where they lived Moroccan-style (in other words, on the floor). Bowles also mentioned that Djuna liked to appear at a café in Tangier wearing blue, purple, and green makeup, and to startle patrons and passersby with an impromptu imitation of the painter Sir Francis Rose.6

This was a certain amount, except that it still didn't answer what had happened, or even exactly when. The when became clearer when I learned that Bowles was not in Tangier in the fall of 1932, when Weld had Barnes there, but was there in the spring of 1933.7 As for the what, Andrew Field in his biography of Barnes provided the first explanation I had seen, an explanation fully as startling as Djuna Barnes must have been in her blue, purple, and green makeup. He agreed that Ford and Barnes were in Tangier together in early 1933, although he had them living in three houses, not two, the third being a splendid two-level house overlooking the bay and built around a magnificent inner courtyard dominated by a giant fig tree. It was in this house, according to Field, that Barnes realized that at the age of forty-one she was pregnant. The father, still according to Field, was not the obvious suspect, Charles Henri Ford, although Ford did propose to Barnes that they have the child together. Rather, it was the French painter Jean Oberle, with whom Barnes had supposedly had an affair in late 1932. Once she learned that she was pregnant, Field concluded, Barnes and Ford left Morocco for Paris, where Barnes had an abortion.8

Although I would have felt more comfortable with Field's story if he had provided a few footnotes to explain how he had learned it (instead, he only mentioned a letter from Barnes to Mina Loy, and hinted at interviews with Ford, Janet Flanner, and perhaps another, as he described her, "expatriate, lesbian lady"), the events he described were certainly disturbing enough to justify Barnes's later reaction. The mystery was close to solution, I thought, until I examined the letters from Yale and Texas. The Yale letters included one from Barnes to Robert McAlmon, dated 22 April 1933, and sent from Tangier: leaving out the possibility of some inexplicable subterfuge, that took care of the when, although the letter was still vague about the what. "'Goings' with me are fairly lousy just at the moment," Barnes began. She then said that she had been in Tangier for about a month, and described the place as "not particularly amusing, nor comfortable, nor so cheap considering what one gets for it." Nevertheless, she was planning to stay, working on her book on the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (a friend from Barnes's Greenwich Village days), until July, if she could afford it.

Except for mentioning that she was depressed because "everyone seems to be dying" (she was thinking particularly of the death of a former lover, and perhaps husband, Courtenay Lemon, on 2 April, and of Hart Crane's recent suicide), Barnes gave no further hints in this letter about her condition. But four letters in the Texas collection, all to Charles Henri Ford, fleshed out the story a bit more. The first to mention Tangier was sent in September 1933 from on board the ship Augustus which Barnes was taking back to America. It said simply, "Three days out nearing that awful Tanger, which I had hope of never seeing again," and was signed, "Always, D." The second, sent a month later from New York, was short and concluded: "I miss Europe like the devil! No one here as poor, apparently, as they have an idea they are; at least to me, who survived Tanger, it looks like God's left foot." The third sounded the same note. Again she mentioned the "rumors" of people starving in the gutters, something she had not seen, she said, and again she contrasted this supposed poverty with what she had experienced in Morocco: "… [S]o I am contented," she concluded. "In fact I am so contented with nothing since I've been back—having had so much less in Morocco—that everyone thinks I am a little mad…."9

Finally, in the fourth letter, from July 1934, Barnes asked Ford a series of questions about Morocco, for a story she said she was writing about Tangier. (This was the letter to which I had read the answer, way back at the beginning of my search.) She could, it seemed, remember none of the details she needed, causing her to lament: "My God, what a condition I must have been in, was in."

So where does that leave one? The discrepancies between Field's conclusions and these letters are clear. The problem the letters suggest is squalor, not sex. Even the tone Barnes adopts with Ford is surprisingly casual, given the presumed circumstances. But there is nothing definitive, nothing that would either prove or disprove that Barnes had an abortion, that would solve, for now and forever, the mystery of what exactly happened in Morocco. Of course, a few options still remain. One might talk with Charles Henri Ford. One might find still other letters. One might consult a Ouija board.

Or … one might accept the mystery as a mystery and go on from there. A few conclusions are, after all, possible, even at this stage. It seems clear, for instance, after looking so closely at this minor problem, that there are no minor problems. Everything connects, as E. M. Forster might have said: begin with Morocco and whatever happened there, look for links to other events in Barnes's life, and you can end up almost anywhere. You can go back to Thelma Wood, who on the one hand led to Charles Henri Ford (and Morocco), and on the other led to Nightwood, which Barnes just happened to begin rewriting immediately after returning from Morocco, even though she had announced to McAlmon in April that it was finished. You can also go back, given the coincidence of his dying at just this time, to Courtenay Lemon, the supposed husband, who followed from Percy Faulkner, another supposed husband, who followed from Wald Barnes, father and supposed abuser. Or, if you prefer, you can go forward, from Charles Henri Ford (and perhaps Oberle) to Peter Neagoe to Scudder Middleton to Silas Glossup, a litany of failed loves. Or you can connect the horror of Morocco with the horrors that were still to come, particularly the breakdown of 1939, that was followed by the return to America and the self-imposed isolation that would extend for the rest of Djuna Barnes's life.

Another conclusion, only slightly more speculative, is that the questions that arise so frequently about Djuna Barnes, questions like what happened in Morocco, may themselves be answers. The mysteries, without being solved themselves, could in fact provide the key to understanding Djuna Barnes. There is no doubt, after all, that the mysteries are not just historical accidents. Barnes's later-life dislike of biographers and their questions (not to mention what she called "idiot children working on Ph.D.'s"10) is legendary. "Biographies sadden me," she wrote to Willa Muir in 1967. "Expositions write us away, commentaries have killed us all."11 To stop the carnage, she made it a point never to help those who wanted to write about her or even about people she knew or had known. (At the same time, interestingly, she was often curious about these works. She inevitably demanded to see books about her before they were published; she also seems to have checked the indices of books about friends and in at least one case penciled in her name where it should have been.12) On several occasions she describes in letters a day spent destroying notes and letters.13 She spent a good part of one autumn trying (unsuccessfully, as it turned out, which is how we know she tried) to retrieve her letters from Emily Coleman so she could destroy them.14 And if all else failed, she simply changed the record. Her insistence to Hank O'Neal at the end of her life that she had never lived with Charles Henri Ford is just one example of this.15

As Barnes grew older, her addiction to obfuscation also grew, but her reticence actually started long before biographers began their presumptuous probing. Margaret Anderson claims that the Barnes she knew in the twenties would never talk and would never allow herself to be talked to, that she was in fact "not on speaking terms with her own psyche."16 John Holms, who met Barnes at Hayford Hall in 1932, thought much the same, and even Emily Coleman, to whom Barnes eventually revealed so much, began by complaining constantly in her diary that Barnes would not talk about herself, would not write about herself, would not be honest even with herself. "There's a vacuum in her head,"17 she said then, although she later amended her opinion. Djuna Barnes, one of the foremost writers of the twentieth century, could think, she decided. She just wasn't willing to express what she thought.

Of course, part of this was probably Barnes keeping herself for herself. Like Kafka, she was her own best subject, particularly as she progressed as a writer. (It is ironic that both Kafka and Barnes, although obsessed with privacy, at one point considered writing their life stories, although neither did.18) No matter how often or how profoundly she explored her life in her fiction, however, Barnes made sure that she revealed as little as possible as obscurely as possible, at least on the surface. Her procedure when writing Nightwood (as far as we can tell from the manuscripts that survive, at any rate) is representative. With each draft, she pared more scenes and more details. The novel became shorter and, perhaps more to the point, the story became more muted, more implicit. To put it another way, Barnes, by making her art more obvious, made herself less obvious. That she eventually, in editing the manuscript, had the "help" of T. S. Eliot, himself no stranger to hiding behind a text, is (depending on one's perspective) just one more historical accident, one more irony, or one more complication to add to the plot.

So where does that leave one, I ask yet again. The pattern that emerges is clear, I think: Barnes was someone who spent, not just the last years of her life, but nearly all of it, obfuscating her own past. The result is that what we know, what she lets us know, may very well be the least important things about her. Perhaps, to return to our beginning, the questions, the events she tried to conceal from others, that she may even, whether consciously or unconsciously, have tried to conceal from herself, are the real answers. If, despite the vast amount of material available to help us understand her, Djuna Barnes remains an especially elusive prey, a pleasure to pursue certainly, but also a constant warning of the limitations of biography, of the care that must be taken in trying to track her, perhaps the better strategy is to look at what we don't know, to create what might be called a biography of gaps. After all, as Barnes herself is always there to remind us: "Facts? Where are facts? Who remembers a life, even his own?"19


1. All quotations from the copyrighted letters of Djuna Barnes are used with the permission of the Authors League Fund. The letters I have quoted are housed in four main collections: The Barnes Papers at McKeldin Library, University of Maryland at College Park; The Emily Holmes Coleman Papers at the University of Delaware; The Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin; The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. I wish to thank all of them for their assistance, and especially Dr. Blanche Ebeling-Koning at Maryland and Timothy Murray at Delaware.

2. Djuna Barnes to Emily Coleman, 8 November 1935.

3. Djuna Barnes to Elizabeth Chappell Barnes, 7 April 1926.

4. Jacqueline Weld, Peggy, the Wayward Guggenheim (New York: Dutton, 1986), 97.

5. Parker Tyler, The Divine Comedy of Pawel Tchelitchew (London: Hammond, Hammond, 1961), 356, 358.

6. Paul Bowles, Without Stopping (New York: Ecco Press, 1985), 165-66.

7. Michelle Green, The Dream at the End of the World (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 6.

8. Andrew Field, Djuna (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985), 165-66.

9. Djuna Barnes to Charles Henri Ford, 16 December 1933, Ford Papers.

10. Djuna Barnes to Natalie Barney, 28 March 1967, Barnes Papers.

11. Djuna Barnes to Willa Muir, 23 January 1967, Barnes Papers

12. Djuna Barnes's personal library included a copy of Peter Butter's biography of Edwin Muir in which she had thus altered the index.

13. See, for instance, Djuna Barnes to Emily Coleman, 6 November 1950, Barnes Papers.

14. Letters from Djuna Barnes to Emily Coleman, 22 October, 9 November, 11 December 1967, Barnes Papers.

15. Hank O'Neal, "Life is painful, nasty and short …" (New York: Paragon House, 1990), 152.

16. Margaret Anderson, My Thirty Years' War (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971), 181.

17. Emily Coleman's diary, 2 December 1932, 210, Coleman Papers.

18. See, for instance, Djuna Barnes to Emily Coleman, 8 September 1936, Coleman Papers.

19. Djuna Barnes to Louis Sheaffer, 9 July 1962, Barnes Papers.

Frann Michel (essay date Fall 1993)

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SOURCE: "'I Just Loved Thelma': Djuna Barnes and the Construction of Bisexuality," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 53-61.

[In the following essay, Michel analyzes the role of sexual identity in Barnes's life and works.]

When asked about her sexuality, Djuna Barnes is reported to have answered, "I'm not a lesbian, I just loved Thelma."1 Given Barnes's apparent uneasiness with categorization, it is perhaps not surprising that readers of her work are divided over whether she is best read as a lesbian or as a homophobic writer. In particular, critics have debated whether Ladies Almanack celebrates or attacks lesbians. But the current move to include the identity "bisexual" within queer politics may provide a new way of approaching these questions. Although Barnes never identified herself as bisexual, her position was fluid throughout her life and from book to book.

Moreover, there are some intriguing similarities between characterizations of Barnes's writing and recent characterizations of bisexuality. Critics interested in the sexuality manifest in Barnes's works, and activists concerned with the place of bisexuality in queer politics, seem both to have been working from similar ideas about form, content, and the production of meaning. Because of the stylistic complexity of Barnes's works, it can sometimes be useful to translate those texts into more easily comprehensible summaries, finding a linear narrative of a young girl's development in Ryder, for instance, or an autobiographical correlative for the incest narrative in The Antiphon. To rest with these translations, however, can be to accept an implicit division of form and content, to posit form as the container or the disguise of content or meaning. But as I will argue, Barnes's presentations of sexuality posit meaning not as contained in a stable form, but as produced by a vibrant interplay of varied forms.

The discussion of Barnes's sexuality, as well as of the sexuality of her work, has gravitated toward dichotomous positions. In 1973 Bertha Harris celebrated Barnes as a lesbian role model: in 1984 Tee Corrine described Barnes as homophobic.2Ladies Almanack, in particular, has been characterized by Susan Sniader Lanser as the work of an insider to the lesbian Natalie Barney circle, and by Karla Jay as the "venomous" work of an outsider.3 Like much of the critical commentary on Barnes's work, these discussions tend to assume a division between form and content. In such views, Barnes was really a lesbian, but denied this true identity because of homophobia. Similarly, Catharine Stimpson has described Barnes's style as "evasive," Marie Ponsot has called its charms "superficial," and Louise DeSalvo has found in Barnes's work a style "which simultaneously masks and reveals."4 What is masked or evaded, revealed or hidden beneath a superficial style is apparently the true identity of the text, the real story, the content.

Yet Barnes insisted, in a notebook entry, that "The truth is how you say it, and to be 'one's self' is the most shocking custom of all."5 The ironic stance of Ladies Almanack, in particular, illustrates that unity of matter and manner. "July," for example, consists of a complaint about the excesses of women's love language to each other, "the Means by which she puts her Heart from her Mouth to her Sleeve, and from her Sleeve into Rhetorick, and from that into the Ear of her beloved."6 The chapter thus suggests a double disdain for the idea of being "one's self" both in its critique of an earnest, humorless sincerity, a "witless" pouring out of one's heart, and in its elaboration of the lengthy route the heart actually takes through mouth, sleeve, and rhetoric.

The chapter ends: "twittering so loud upon the Wire that one cannot hear the Message. And yet!" (46). The narrator's complaint implicitly includes the love letter of her own text: ornate, elaborate, Barnes's style might seem to obscure a clear message. And yet the irony of the chapter's complaint depends upon its sly ostentation. To omit the "And yet!" or to translate it into a direct statement would obscure precisely the "Humor" that the chapter critiques women's love letters for lacking. The "truth" of the chapter lies precisely in how it is written.

Further, the quotation marks Barnes places around "one's self" call our attention to the discursive status of this construct. Being "one's self" is a performance; the pose of sincerity can become a way of shocking others. For Barnes, then, one chooses the role one plays, and while the pose of sincerity or identity may be useful, there is no stable identity outside these roles. As a discursive construct, "one's self" exists only in a larger context, an exchange with present interlocutors or future readers.

If Barnes's work repeatedly warns us away from dichotomizing its form and content in service of arguments that it is "really" lesbian or homophobic, then we need other ways of discussing the sexuality manifest in that work. Recent bisexual activism and consequent public discussions on bisexual identity make available conceptual tools useful in mediating debates on the sexuality of Barnes and her work. Barnes herself is known to have been sexually involved with both men and women, and by some accounts loved men as well as women. In that sense, the most apt identification of Barnes would be bisexual.

There are, of course, multiple ways of understanding bisexuality. It can be characterized and critiqued in ways that divide form and content, preserving the analogous binarism of heterosexual and homosexual, or queer and straight. Yet if bisexual positioning is understood as one way of acknowledging the complexity of sexuality—of the interplay of desire, fantasy, behavior, social affiliation, emotional connection—then it serves as a challenge to essentializing dichotomies, a challenge also evident in Barnes's works.

Some arguments both "for" and "against" including bisexuality in queer movement can fall prey to problems of the same form/content divisions that vex accounts of Barnes's writing. Anxious lesbians and gay men insist that bisexuals are really just not out of the closet; earnest bisexuals claim that sex between bi men and bi women is nonetheless queer.7 But both of these positions neglect the production of meaning in ongoing social discourses.

If the truth is how you say it, then bisexuals are not just stuck on the threshold of the closet. If being "one's self" is a "custom," then it is not simply the declaration of an individual monad free of culture and context. Some queer observers have been rightly skeptical of the way the bisexual label can be used to reinterpret queer figures in heterocentric ways. As Rebecca Ripley notes, the "idea that anybody is essentially, basically, really gay doesn't go down easily with straight Americans. They'd rather think that everybody is bi and therefore 'partially straight.'"8 In a September 1992 Nation review, for instance, Charlotte Innes critiques recent representations of Vita Sackville-West, Violet Trefusis, and Harold Nicolson that have glorified the Sackville-West-Nicolson marriage at the expense of their same-sex relationships, and that have thus obscured as well as recapitulated the impact of homophobia on their stories. Identifying a writer as lesbian, or celebrating a lesbian text, can help provide the conceptual leverage needed to break free of such heterocentric readings.

But ideas about who or what is a lesbian or a lesbian text are as culturally and historically specific as are the dangerous uses to which a bisexual identification can be put. Indeed, if "to be 'one's self' is the most shocking custom of all," we would do well to keep in mind the risks entailed in any essentializing claims to authenticity of identity, even as we keep in sight the more palpable dangers entailed in presenting a self that for many still has the power to be shocking.

The distinction I am drawing here between a critical approach based on questions of identity and one moving toward increasingly textured understandings of sexuality can also be understood as a distinction between lesbian-feminist and queer theory. Anti-foundationalist, queer theory moves through poststructuralist articulations of the construction of subjectivity by diverse systems of power. Thus, whereas lesbian-feminist theory postulates an unproblematic continuity between the terms on either side of its hyphen, queer theory, in contrast, disarticulates sexual and gender politics. Yet while queer theory promises a movement beyond identity politics, the queer movement is pulled back to questions of identity by immediate political battles.

Opposition to the recent spate of measures that would block or rescind legal recognition of gay and lesbian rights has tended to crystallize around appeals to the idea of a genetic basis for sexual identity. Like arguments for the "real" content of a literary work, this genetic argument presumes an unchanging, essential identity. It has presumably had the tactical value of reassuring straight parents that gays in the schools are not going to be recruiting their children, and indeed of assuring all heterosexuals that their sexual identities are secure. Yet the genetic account of sexual identity has precluded the possibility of arguing that it would be OK to choose one's sexual identity if one felt such a choice was possible, and has excluded from public discourse the possibility of arguing that heterosexuality, too, is a constructed institution rather than a biological inevitability.

These exclusions of choice and of construction constitute an exclusion of bisexuality, which is frequently associated with the possibility of choosing one's sexuality. One lesbian-identified woman reports in an interview with Dvora Zipkin, "I suppose in some kind of pure sexual sense, I am bisexual … it really does feel like a choice. I know that choice is a bad word in queer circles these days, but I think there's a lot of choice involved in our sexual identity."9 Bisexual activists also frequently stress the experience of sexual identity as fluid rather than fixed, the product of ongoing social construction rather than of a roll of the genetic dice. Amanda Udis-Kessler notes that "Constructionism … [posits] that everyone has, if not the experience of living a bisexual life, at least the potential to do so" and "that one's sexuality is not necessarily firmly set at age five, or even at age fifty."10 Indeed, the public emergence of bisexuality as an issue in queer movement is partly a result of prominent lesbians like writer Jan Clausen becoming involved with men. The woman who writes under the name "Eridani" states that she uses the word "bisexual" as "shorthand for 'not having a sexual orientation.'"11 The term "bisexuality," then, despite its nominal stability, still points toward a more flexible and finely grained understanding of all sexuality. While the polarization of political positions for or against legal measures is inevitable, the polarization of available sexualities into homosexual or heterosexual is not, and indeed misses the full shape of the construction of female sexuality in Barnes's works.

In Ladies Almanack, Evangeline Musset, "developed in the Womb of her most gentle Mother to be a Boy" (7), approximates the sexological accounts, dominant in the twenties, of female homosexuality as innate gender inversion—the precursor to the genetic argument, as it were. But Saint Musset's role as evangelist for the sect demonstrates that she can win converts. Indeed, the ease with which she comes to do so suggests the historical variability of women loving women.

"In my day," said Dame Musset … "I was a Pioneer and a Menace, it was not then as it is now, chic and pointless to a degree, but as daring as a Crusade…. What joy has the missionary,… when all the Heathen greet her with Glory Halleluja! before she opens her Mouth, and with an Amen! before she shuts it!" (34)

While Musset's comments might indicate that some opponents of lesbian and gay rights are correct in their suspicions that social acceptance of same-sex eroticism can lead to more of it, her dismay at its newly chic status is differently motivated. Despite her disappointment at the ease of her recent seductions, however, the text does not confirm the view of her Crusade as "pointless." The frontispiece to the text depicts Dame Musset "out upon that exceeding thin ice to which it has pleased God, more and more, to call frail woman, there so conducting herself that none were put to the chagrin of sinking for the third time!" One of the drowning women appears to be drowning with a man, and Dame Musset's salvation of women from the frigid waters of heterosexual relations appears both heroic and, as the caption informs us, "endearing."

Think now of the narrator of the Buffalo Oral History Project who pointed out that in the 1940s "There was a great difference in looks between a lesbian and her girl."12 The comment calls our attention to a range of positions historically available to women who have been retrospectively recast as uniformly "lesbian." Think of Stephen Gordon and Mary Llewellyn in The Well of Loneliness. Think of Thelma Wood calling herself "Simon" when writing to Barnes.13 Is the lesbian's girl a lesbian? Is Stephen's? Is "Simon"'s? Well, no, not exactly. But to describe her as somehow "really" heterosexual would seem equally to miss the point.

That the category "lesbian" was not always defined, understood, and experienced as it is today should remind us that sexual identity is culturally constructed and historically variable. There may be more value in making use of any formulations that challenge heterosexism and heterocentrism than in determining what constitutes a "real" lesbian identity or in pursuing dichotomized debates about Barnes's relation to the closet. Even if a work enacts patterns of what we would today recognize as homophobia, even if its representation of same-sex desire is less complete or complex than some readers would prefer, still it may offer its queer audience considerable readerly pleasures and powers. Thus, for example, the catalytic node of what Barnes called "the Proustian chronicle" is a chapter that, as Eve Sedgwick points out, most readers find reductive and sentimental, and that invites as well as repels what Sedgwick calls "the by now authentically banal exposure of Proust's narrator as a closeted homosexual."14

Barnes's 1972 foreword to Ladies Almanack describes the work as

Neap-tide to the Proustian chronicle, gleanings from the shores of Mytilene, glimpses of its novitiates, its rising "saints" and "priestesses," and thereon to such aptitude and insouciance that they took to gaming and to swapping that "other" of the mystery, the anomaly that calls the hidden name. (3)

The description of this almanac of female same-sex eroticism as "gleanings from the shores of Mytilene" alludes of course to Sappho, who represents, as Susan Gubar observes, "all the lesbian artists whose work" has been lost or misread, and more specifically to the Sappho whose legend provided the background for the relationship between Renée Vivien and Natalie Barney, who traveled together to Mytilene.15 Embracing lesbianism as a kind of geographical identity, moreover, seems to put in question essentializing models of sexual inversion or innate sexuality. If, as we learn later in Ladies Almanack, "The very Condition of Woman is so subject to Hazard, so complex, and so grievous, that to place her at one Moment is but to displace her at the next" (55), then perhaps any Woman might choose to displace herself to the shores of Mytilene. Asking Richard Aldington to publish Ladies Almanack, Natalie Barney wrote to him that "All ladies fit to figure in such an almanack should of course be eager to have a copy, and all gentlemen disapproving of them. Then the public might, with a little judicious treatment, include those lingering on the border of such islands and those eager to be ferried across."16 The idea of sapphic sexuality as a location suggests that it may be understood as a position, a perspective from which one might critique the whole map of sexuality as it is currently drawn.

Barnes's "Foreword" also calls into question the borders of that map. Shari Benstock identifies "that 'other' of the mystery" with the Lacanian Other and with the "woman of man's dreams."17 But its relation of apposition with "the anomaly that calls the hidden name" seems to connect it with "the love that dare not speak its name." The anomalous "other," then, seems rather to be the figure Matthew O'Connor and Nora Flood in Barnes's Nightwood discuss as "the third sex," the invert who, like Evangeline Musset, is born that way. But then who is gaining "aptitude and insouciance" and doing the "gaming" and "swapping"? In the "Foreword," as in the text, Barnes's presentation of the residents of Mytilene is broadly inclusive.

Even in Nightwood, which seems to deploy the geneticist model of the "third sex" more fully than does Ladies Almanack, definitions of the content of sexuality are uncertain. Though Nora and the Doctor discuss Robin as an exemplum of the third sex, it is Robin who marries and has a child. Nora, in contrast, is not discussed as a member of the "third sex," though she is the only major female character whose only sexual relationship in the book is with another woman. Thus Nightwood, too, indicates the explanatory limits of essentialist, identity-based models of sexuality. If Robin "has come from place that we have forgotten and would give our life to recall," perhaps she's come from Mytilene.18

If the emergence of bisexuality as a description of sexual identity helps put into question essentialist, genetic models that permitted an analogy between sexual and racial identity, Barnes's partially constructionist model in Ladies Almanack opens up the possibility of another politically useful analogy. The language of "saints," "priestesses," and "novitiates" might remind us that religious freedom is also a civil right. Beliefs, like desires, cannot be chosen by a simple act of will, but they may change and evolve. Not everyone has a religious vocation, of course, but then, as Eridani suggests, not everyone has a sexual orientation, either.

The discussion of the sexuality manifest in Barnes's life and works has, of course, not been entirely dichotomous or always rested with a division of form and content. Those critics who have attended most closely to the finely grained presentation of female sexuality in Barnes's work and who have examined the ways that it produces meaning have pointed the most fruitful directions for Barnes scholarship. Frances Doughty, for instance, suggests the "issue is not whether Barnes was a lesbian or a heterosexual, but that she was neither."19 Carolyn Allen notes that the biographical record reveals Barnes's assertion that she was not a lesbian, she "just loved Thelma," but observes that some of Barnes's works remain "classics of lesbian imagination" nonetheless.20 In these views, Barnes becomes a lesbian writer, and might arguably become a bisexual writer, not because of what she or her writings really did or said, but because of their apprehension by critics and other readers for whom Barnes provides productive critiques of compulsory heterosexuality and generative imaginings of alternative sexualities.


1. Andrew Field, Djuna: The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes (New York: Putnam, 1983), 37.

2. Cited in Carolyn Allen, "Writing Toward Nightwood: Djuna Barnes' Seduction Stories," in Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes, ed. Mary Lynn Broe (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), 54.

3. Lanser, "Speaking in Tongues: Ladies Almanack and the Discourse of Desire," in Broe, 156-68; Karla Jay, "The Outsider among the Expatriates: Djuna Barnes' Satire on the Ladies of the Almanack," in Broe, 186.

4. Stimpson, "Afterword," in Broe, 371; Ponsot, "A Reader's Ryder," Broe, 94; DeSalvo, "'To Make Her Mutton at Sixteen': Rape, Incest, and Child Abuse in The Antiphon," Broe, 301.

5. Barnes, quoted in Broe, front jacket flap.

6. Djuna Barnes, Ladies Almanack (New York: New York University Press, 1992), 43; hereafter cited parenthetically.

7. Ara Wilson, "Just Add Water: Searching for the Bisexual Politic," Out/Look: National Gay and Lesbian Quarterly 4.4 (Spring 1992): 27.

8. "The Language of Desire: Sexuality, Identity and Language," in Closer to Home: Bisexuality and Feminism, ed. Elizabeth Reba Weise (Seattle: Seal Press, 1992), 95.

9. "Why Bi?" in Weise, 59.

10. "Bisexuality in an Essentialist World," in Bisexuality: A Reader and Sourcebook, ed. Thomas Geller (Ojai, CA: Times Change Press, 1990), 58.

11. "Is Sexual Orientation a Secondary Sex Characteristic?" in Weise, 174.

12. Quoted in Madeline D. Davis and Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, "Oral History and the Study of Sexuality in the Lesbian Community: Buffalo, New York, 1940–1960," in Unequal Sisters: A Multi-Cultural Reader in U.S. Women's History, ed. Ellen Carol DuBois and Vicki L. Ruiz (New York: Routledge, 1990), 388.

13. Cited in Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900–1940 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), 256.

14. Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 223.

15. "Sapphistries," in The Lesbian Issue: Essays from "Signs," ed. Estelle B. Freedman et al. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 94, 95-96.

16. Cited in Benstock, 249.

17. Benstock, 247.

18. Djuna Barnes, Nightwood (New York: New Directions, 1946), 118.

19. "Gilt on Cardboard: Djuna Barnes as Illustrator of Her Life and Work," in Broe, 149.

20. Allen, in Broe, 54.

Michael Dirda (review date 12 November 1995)

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SOURCE: "A Legend in Her Own Time," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 25, No. 46, November 12, 1995, p. 5.

[In the following review, Dirda discusses Phillip Herring's Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes and the reprinting of Barnes's Nightwood.]

As it happens, a friend of mine lives in Patchin Place, the little courtyard in Greenwich Village where Djuna Barnes (1892–1982) spent the last 40-some years of her amazing life. Two decades ago, when Barnes was still alive, I used to think of ringing her doorbell and genuflecting or kissing her hand or presenting her with a bottle of Scotch. After all, she was one of the last surviving giants of 20th-century literature, author of the legendary Nightwood, and a woman who counted James Joyce among her drinking buddies and T. S. Eliot among her admirers. Make that fervent admirers: Eliot kept her picture above his desk (next to that of Yeats), addressed her as "dearest" in letters, and once declared her the greatest living writer.

Moreover, Eliot was hardly alone in his enthusiasm. Dylan Thomas used to read from Nightwood on his speaking tours of America. Samuel Beckett, whom Barnes scarcely knew, sent her part of the royalties from Waiting for Godot. Even Dag Hammarskjold, secretary general of the United Nations, valued her work so highly that he helped translate her versedrama, The Antiphon, into Swedish. Rumor has it that he was pulling strings to get her the Nobel Prize when his plane was shot down over Africa.

I never saw her, and doubtless she would have growled at me to go away even if she bothered to open the door. For most of her life Barnes was essentially a "cult" author, esteemed by a small coterie that kept Nightwood in print, savored the brocaded prose of her early autobiographical novel Ryder, and guffawed over the Rabelaisian lesbians of Ladies Almanack (its various ribald characters were based on Parisian notables like salon-keeper Natalie Barney, journalist Janet Flanner, and poets Romaine Brooks and Renee Vivien). In recent years, feminist scholars have begun to mine Barnes's work—the University of Maryland, which houses her papers, held a major conference a few years back. (Unfortunately, those talks, reprinted in a special issue of the Review of Contemporary Literature, are, for the most part, dully academic when comprehensible.) It is, thus, clearly the right time for both a good new biography and a modestly priced scholarly edition of Barnes's greatest prose work.

Phillip Herring, a Joyce expert by training, provides a straightforward chronological account of this once-neglected writer's family, friends and career. By comparison with the ill-organized, highly anecdotal 1983 life produced by Andrew Field (oft vilified—sometimes justly—for his early biography of Nabokov), Herring's work seems a little pedantic, the product of a sabbatical rather than the spillover from a passion. The phrase "thoroughly sound" comes irresistibly to mind and might normally be enough to sink the book, except for one small fact: If the soaps ever need any new plot lines, Djuna Barnes's life and work will supply plenty of naughty ideas.

For starters, Barnes's father, Wald, lived with wife, mistress and mother, not to mention assorted offspring, in a big, unhappy family. As a believer in the freest sorts of free love, Dad either raped the teenaged Djuna and/or gave her as a present to an elderly neighbor to deflower. Through most of her childhood the future author slept in the same bed with her grandmother and would seem to have engaged in some level of sexual play with the older woman (surprisingly graphic letters exist). At 17 she was even talked into a common-law marriage with a 52-year-old soap peddler. It only lasted a few months.

Not surprisingly, Barnes was happy to escape from her family to New York, where in the years just before and after World War I she became a well-paid, sought-after young journalist (and occasional illustrator, all too obviously in thrall to Aubrey Beardsley). In one stunt piece she described the ordeal of being force-fed through a tube shoved down her throat, a then common method for preserving the life of fasting suffragettes. Soon she was hanging out with the Provincetown Players, where she came to know Eugene O'Neill, John Reed and other bohemian notables. But, eventually, like so many of the artistically ambitious, the would-be novelist hied herself to Paris and the Left Bank, where she got to know … everybody, including Pound. Stein, Hemingway and Joyce—or Jim, as she was allowed to call him.

In her youth Barnes was a striking, if somewhat severe auburn-haired beauty, attractive to both men and women. Although most of her affairs were heterosexual, she always called Thelma Wood the central passion of her life. "I'm not a lesbian. I simply loved Thelma." The liaison lasted eight or so years, and when it was over, Barnes memorialized her lost love in a great work of lamentation, Nightwood. In prose of haunting musicality and splendor, she describes the havoc wreaked by Robin Vote, i.e., Wood, on the people who care for her. Here is the book's August and intricately wrought opening sentence:

Early in 1880, in spite of a well-founded suspicion as to the advisability of perpetuating that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapproval of the people, Hedvig Volkbein, a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed, of a rich spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin on which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms,—gave birth, at the age of forty-five, to an only child, a son, seven days after her physician had predicted that she would be taken.

Barnes doesn't always write with such oracular, slightly humorous gravity; she can also be quite vulgarly funny, as when a character describes another "whipped with impatience, like a man waiting at a toilet door for someone inside who had decided to read the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." In fact, most of the novel's grandest rhetorical flights belong to Dr. Matthew O'Connor, a drunken Irish Tiresias and advisor to the disconsolate, at once swishy, witty and pitiful. As O'Connor explains, "just being miserable isn't enough—you've got to know how." When Nora, the Barnes stand-in, complains about her loneliness, the doctor quickly one-ups her: "A broken heart have you! I have falling arches, flying dandruff, a floating kidney, shattered nerves and a broken heart." O'Connor is quite unforgettable, as are the book's starting final pages; Robin, always associated with beasts, is glimpsed in an abandoned chapel, down on her hands and knees, making strangely sexual overtures to her former lover's pet dog.

Shocking, confusingly structured, lyrical and haunting, Nightwood didn't precisely sell itself to prospective publishers. Indeed, Cheryl Plumb provides an enthralling account of its publishing history in her introduction to the novel's "original version," crediting Barnes's friend Emily Coleman with astute editorial advice and great cleverness in persuading T. S. Eliot to read the manuscript. Eliot, then working as an editor for the British publishers Faber and Faber, insisted on some 13 pages of cuts, which are here restored. In general, his editing "blurred sexual, particularly homosexual, references and a few points that put religion in an unsavory light. However, meaning was not changed substantially, though the character of the work was adjusted, the language softened." Besides presenting Barnes's original vision of her masterpiece, Plumb's edition also provides useful textual and explanatory notes, as well as reproductions of the surviving typescript pages.

Soon after Nightwood appeared in 1936 Barnes's life fell apart: She started to drink heavily, love affairs went sour, money nearly dried up. Back in New York she rented a small apartment on Patchin Place and settled down to years of crankiness, alcohol and writer's block. Perhaps not the normal kind of block, for she composed reams of poetry and worked sporadically on various projects, but it wasn't until 1957 that she was able to finish The Antiphon, a play that virtually no one could understand. Written in a kind of Elizabethan blank verse and reminiscent, by turns, of Waiting for Godot, The Family Reunion and Long Day's Journey into Night, this sorrowful drama builds on its author's unresolved anger toward her family, her persistent sense of betrayal and sexual exploitation. It ends with a mother crushing the skull of her Barnes-like daughter.

Barnes thought The Antiphon her masterpiece. Maybe. Sometimes it seems brilliantly Shakespearean in its diction, rhythm and syntax; at other times, it seems as kitschy as Ronald Firbank. In either case, I find it quite irresistible. What's a little thing like meaning compared to such word-music as this:

     Yet corruption in its deft deploy
     Unbolts the caution, and the vesper mole
     Trots down the wintry pavement of the prophet's head.
     In the proud flesh of the vanished eye
     Vainglory, like a standing pool,
     Rejects the thirsty trades of paradise.
     The world is cracked—and in the breach
     My fathers mew.

Elsewhere Barnes evokes her father "flanked by warming-pans, bassoons and bastards" and gives her murderous brothers these conspiratorial lines: "We'll never have so good a chance again; / Never, never such a barren spot, / Nor the lucky anonymity of war." I think a production of The Antiphon could be a triumph. Or a hoot.

Djuna Barnes died in 1982 one week after her 90th birthday. Even now, I wish that I had had the courage to ring her doorbell at No. 5, Patchin Place. Real creators, no matter how wayward their genius, deserve our thanks and our homage.

Georgette Fleischer (review date 20 November 1995)

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SOURCE: "Light on Nightwood," in Nation, Vol. 261, No. 17, November 20, 1995, pp. 628-32.

[In the following review, Fleischer praises Phillip Herring's Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes for its accuracy, but complains that Cheryl Plumb makes too many assumptions about the editing of Barnes's Nightwood in her republication of the original version.]

We've never known what to do with our literary geniuses, particularly blasphemous parodists like Emily Dickinson (coy) and Gertrude Stein (mannish), who subvert gender conventions and radically alter literary forms—perhaps the former is prerequisite to the latter. Djuna Barnes is no exception.

Or is she? Unlike Dickinson and Stein, almost everything Barnes wrote that she considered complete was published in her lifetime, and her 1936 novel Nightwood has never since its 1946 reissue by New Directions been out of print. Then why, when Dickinson's stature matches Walt Whitman's and Stein's cachet supersedes Ernest Hemingway's, does the name Djuna Barnes—"the most famous unknown of the century," she dubbed herself—still evoke perplexed expressions? (Like Stein, who welcomed Hemingway in her rue de Fleurus salon but snubbed Barnes, she was an American expatriate in Paris during the 1920s.)

The first wave of feminist criticism largely passed Barnes by, but since her death in 1982, she has become a feminist cause célèbre: "Canonization" by male Modernists such as T. S. Eliot had been "[mis]appropriation," but "lesbian cult status" had minimized her; her brilliance had been underrated, but her work had also been "reduced to stylistics." In the midst of this maelstrom of contrary currents, the most vocal feminists extol Nightwood as the representative text of the "modernism of marginality" or of "sapphic modernism." Have these co-optings done right by Barnes?

They limit the appeal and therefore the readership for Barnes's work in ways that her work itself is not limited. They impute to Barnes politics she did not profess. Zealotry has spawned gross factual errors and irrational readings that have inflated within an insular critical field and emerged as full-blown myths. This has cheapened Djuna Barnes. It never would have happened in her lifetime. (Offended by Kenneth Burke's reading of Nightwood, Barnes told him off in several letters and withheld permission to quote.)

Both books under review are the products of extensive, painstaking research and go a long way toward correcting the factual errors that have so vexed Barnes scholarship in the thirteen years since she died, a week after her 90th birthday, in the company of a nurse, in a tiny Patchin Place apartment in Greenwich Village where for more than forty years she had increasingly withdrawn. Her early life was contrastingly lurid.

By the time Barnes was 5 years old, her father's mistress, Fanny Faulkner, had joined their household—which had relocated from Barnes's birthplace, Storm King Mountain, near Cornwall-on-Hudson, to a Huntington, Long Island, farm—and was producing half-siblings in tandem with mother Elizabeth, both women often pregnant at the same time, once giving birth twelve days apart. "Father and his bastard children and mistresses had thrown me off marriage and babies," Barnes wrote in 1938. In addition to helping care for her prodigal father's offspring, there were other pressures.

For years Barnes shared her father's mother's bed, and correspondence dating from when she was 13 years old is illustrated by grandmother Zadel with cartoons of breasts stretched out like penises and one nude woman atop another breast-to-breast. Here Phillip Herring provides fresh perspective, though he does so in a frustratingly mild manner:

It is not necessary to go as far as to argue, as Mary Lynn Broe does, that the Zadel-Djuna relationship was incestuous and therefore beneficial as a refuge against patriarchal violence. Broe confuses a number of issues. She says: "Temporarily safe from the violations of the patriarchal household. Zadel and Djuna played in their symbolic, marginalized world, a queendom of 'nanophilia.'"

Here Broe's jubilant "marginality" and "sapphism" crash through the looking glass where irrationality reigns. In a perverse double standard, a father's penis is patriarchal violence but a grandmother's breast stretched out like a penis is loving protection. In the six years since this piece was published no critic has ever in print pointed out that it is improper and injurious for any family member to press sexual needs on a child, physically or emotionally, actually or in pornographic cartoons. This is not a gender issue.

Aside from exhaustive archival research, Herring's Djuna has the benefit of fresh material provided by Barnes's "cooperative but cautious" family. The new material is a strength but gives rise to a persistent bias. For example, a later chapter describes Barnes's alcoholism after her return from Europe:

In March [1940], at their wits' end, her family sent her to a sanatorium in upstate New York, thus perpetrating what Djuna Barnes considered to be yet another violation of her person. Zendon [second of four brothers] had led her to believe she would be going to Arizona [where her friend Emily Coleman lived], then Saxon [third brother] brought her to Tratelja, on Diamond Point. Lake George. Outrageous! To Thurn [elder brother] she was just a "drunkard" who must be made to come to her senses. Nobody seemed sympathetic. Djuna contemplated revenge in a family biography.

Was deceptively luring Barnes to a sanatorium not a violation? (Once there, Barnes refused to "talk" to the psychiatrist, though she was amenable to discussing Proust.) Other of Herring's commentaries are downright puritanical. Regarding her first book of poems: "If one truly cared for Djuna Barnes, one would say very little indeed about The Book of Repulsive Women, for she and others often wished that these eight disgusting 'rhythms' accompanied by five drawings had never been published." Yet despite censorious residues. Djuna is a strong and in other respects generous biography: "This biography derives from a particular moment in time, when, in 1988, I was looking for more novels by women for my Modernism course. I wanted to teach Nightwood but felt frustrated by my futile efforts to understand it; before I could understand the novel, I believed, I had to understand Djuna Barnes." It is to be hoped that the modesty of his feminism will not be scoffed at. Herring spent seven years on this project, and with few exceptions he has gotten the facts right. While I frequently disagree with his assessments of Barnes's work. Herring has integrated her life and work persuasively, delivering a full-fledged critical biography and a fascinating read.

It was in Paris in the 1920s that Djuna Barnes fell in love with Thelma Wood—another American expatriate, a sculptor and silverpoint artist—because, Barnes would later say, Thelma reminded her of grandmother Zadel. "She was that terrible past reality," Barnes wrote in 1936, "over which any new life can only come, as a person marching up and over the high mound of a grave…. I have had my great love, there will never be another."

Barnes worried that after Nightwood, which she wrote about Thelma Wood, there would never be another great artistic achievement either. And there never was, not that great. Composing Nightwood was an arduous process undertaken during one of the most peripatetic periods of Barnes's life: six years of writing at least three versions, only to have her efforts repeatedly rejected on both sides of the Atlantic, including three rejections from the editor who had published three of her previous books. Then T. S. Eliot stepped in.

Eliot's role as Barnes's editor has been the single greatest controversy in Barnes criticism, which is why Cheryl Plumb's Original Version and Related Drafts is so important to scholars. Repeated assertions of Eliot's "text bashing" that "reduced Nightwood to a third of its original size" are immediately put to rest. Working from the version Eliot accepted for publication, Plumb restores eight pages of 139. Her introduction identifies several lobbyists for pruning the character Dr. Matthew-Mighty-Grain-of-Salt-Dante O'Connor's "raffish going on," as Barnes called it. The restored passages deepen our understanding of Nightwood. I do not think the restored version should supplant but should rather supplement the published one. I concur with T. S. Eliot's judgment here:

Not that the Doctor's conversation flags at all, but simply because I think that too much of it distorts the shape of the book. There is a good deal of the book besides the Doctor, and we don't want him to steal everything. [August 12, 1936, to Barnes. Emphasis added. Reprinted with permission of Valerie Eliot.]

Dr. O'Connor is one of the most flamboyant characters in literature, and one of the most poignant. He is a homosexual and transvestite, afflicted by being a woman trapped in a man's body. An illegal abortionist who haunts the pissoirs when looking for love, a liar and a thief, he is a glorious raconteur. Ultimately frustrated, all his speeches in the published version are meant to solace his variously afflicted friends. The restored speeches are without exception onanistic. Nor do they have, except in brief, the verbal and imagistic intensity of the published version. The following account of a visit to the palace of King Ludwig II ("the mad Wittelsbach"), a Roman Catholic and homosexual like O'Connor, comes closest:

Up there in the palace there's an attendant wandering the great empty rooms with their plush chairs and pillars, throne-room and ballroom (that seems like a terrific terminal and no trains coming in), who remembers him still and for a mark will tell you how he was his valet—and you look out of the corner of your eye to see if he knows what that might mean—and if he knew, if he remembers. He said the king was so tall that he himself, six foot three, had to stand on the tips of his shoes to get at his tie. So suddenly I myself rose on tip-toes, right in the middle of that great fine room, and whispered. "Was he large?" and it went echoing and bellowing through all those rooms like a great bull getting madder and madder the harder he ran; there had been no grandeur in that place for so long that echo couldn't be stopped. I stood there all dumbfounded, my eyes getting frightened, and he said, "Oh very!" but did he know what I meant or was he thinking of character? To draw his mind off I said in a little whisper. "Now my good man, where are the toilets? For dear's sake, I don't see so much as a toureen or a tea caddy, much less a pot."

"Lesen Sie österreichische Geschichte," he says, giving me a look of utter contempt. A bit of imperial and secret commode work I'll never know anything about.

There are many things we will never know about Nightwood: what transpired in three meetings between Barnes and Eliot in London during June of 1936 when most of the editorial decisions were made, what the early manuscripts of Nightwood were when whole. Cheryl Plumb's edition, which also appends all surviving pages of the early drafts, contains almost everything we can know.

Her textual notes and annotations are helpful, but the latter could have been more sumptuous and more accurate, Morpheus is not the "Greek god/personification of sleep" but one of the sons of old Somnus, able to assume the shape of any man, announcing a drowning in Ovid's Metamorphoses by appearing naked and dripping from the sea at the bedside of the bereft wife. "Girls that the dreamer has not fashioned himself to want, scatter their legs about him to the blows of Morpheus" has far more interesting connotations than the one implied by the mistaken identification. The care taken to "restore" Barnes's punctuation in the textual emendations is, really, much ado about not too much. Barnes herself edited different proofs differently, so Eliot's and proofreaders' corrections of her punctuation are nothing like the egregious bowdlerizations of Emily Dickinson's poems; yet they are treated as such. There is a related and equally questionable assumption underlying the commentaries on the restorations:

This three-page passage was deleted by Eliot, a deletion suggested by Coleman. In the margin of TSC2 Barnes had written [a note to Eliot], "From here to 32 can be cut if you think there are too many doctor's stories—see Coleman on other ms." The block has been included in this edition because letters to Coleman indicate her reluctance to have anything deleted, unless Eliot confirmed it. Presumably, then, she acquiesced in the decision, but regretted the deletion.

To say that Barnes regretted this and other deletions presumes too much. (There is not a shred of evidence in her subsequent correspondence that she did.) Besides, the interest of the restored passages needs no further justification. Why portray this as a rescue mission?

It comes down to the penis, I suspect; anatomy as critical destiny. Eliot has been reviled as the high priest of patriarchal Anglican High Modernism, and Barnes shall be rescued from him, whether she would or no. "We got on like a couple of priests with only one robe," Barnes wrote at the start of their alliance, which became a friendship that lasted thirty years. Must this be seen as a misalliance?

What are the consequences for the field of Barnes criticism, and consequently her readership, and consequently future alliances, literary and otherwise, that cross gender lines?

"A little-known genius," I now explain, whenever I mention Djuna Barnes and encounter yet another blank stare.

Miranda Seymour (review date 26 November 1995)

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SOURCE: "So Much Genius, So Little Talent," in New York Times Book Review, November 26, 1995, p. 12.

[In the following review. Seymour asserts that while "[Barnes] has been partly revealed [in Phillip Herring's Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes]: a bigger and bolder exposure is still needed."]

Few authors have achieved so much celebrity with one novel as the elegant, exotic Djuna Barnes, without whom no account of Greenwich Village in the teens, or the Left Bank in the 1920's, is complete. That one novel was Nightwood. Overwritten and self-indulgent, it carries off its flaws with splendid nonchalance. Admired by Joyce, Nightwood is as important to the history of the 20th-century novel as Finnegans Wake—and more readable.

It was published in 1936, when Barnes was 44 and still overwhelmed by the departure of her lover, Thelma Wood. Wood appears in the book as the elusive, promiscuous Robin Vote, reduced in the final chapter to letting herself be seduced at an altar by a dog. Barnes never makes clear whether Robin is obsessed by self-degradation or simply reverting to her instinctive level; throughout the novel, Barnes stresses the narrowness of the line between humankind and animals. A circus girl catches the eye of a dilettante aristocrat, not for her beauty but because he relishes her similarity to the lion she tames. The grotesque cabaret performers who act as a chorus and audience in the book are "gaudy, cheap cuts from the beast life, immensely capable of that great disquiet called entertainment."

The aristocrat, Baron Felix Volkbein, languid, melancholy and preoccupied with the history and culture of nobility, was Barnes's private nod to Proust. The character of Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O'Connor owed everything to the extraordinary raconteur and abortionist Daniel A. Mahoney. In his biography, Djuna, Phillip Herring has much to say about her friendship with Mahoney and the care with which she recorded his pronouncements in her notebooks. In Nightwood, the funny, horrifying monologues of Dr. O'Connor seem at first no more than a device to unify the wandering narrative. A closer reading shows that O'Connor uses his fantastic imagination to keep reality at bay. His outpourings are a lifeline he throws to his desperate friends. When, finally, he goes mad, he does so recognizing that he has failed to save them from themselves. "I've not only lived my life for nothing, but I've told it for nothing," he whispers for his own grim epitaph.

T. S. Eliot, who edited Nightwood, was the first to notice the significance of O'Connor's role. But readers hoping to discover from the Dalkey Archive Press edition more about Eliot's contribution to the book are in for a disappointment. In a 75-page appendix, the editor, Cheryl J. Plumb, who teaches English at Pennsylvania State University, includes some unpublished drafts from the original 670-page manuscript, but the 1995 Nightwood is unexcitingly close to the 1936 version. Most of the emendations are picky; a few are revealing, but at the end of the day I shall continue reading my old copy of Nightwood, not least because the long, cramped, asterisked lines of the annotated edition hide the flow of a prose that stands at the brink of poetry.

Mr. Herring, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is, astonishingly, only the second biographer of Barnes. (The first was Andrew Field.) His book is less gossipy and more reliable than its predecessor, but the reader is still left with an awful lot of questions about their witty, beautiful, difficult subject.

Barnes's novel was only slightly more bizarre than her life. Her father, Wald, treated procreation as a religious duty and went on riding expeditions with a sponge to clean himself up after random sexual encounters. At home, his wife and children lived with his mistress and his second brood.

Wald, a weak man, was authorized to live in this way by his remarkable mother, Zadel, a spiritualist who believed in free love. Correspondence between Zadel and her granddaughter suggests that she and Djuna may have had an incestuous relationship. Certainly Barnes worshipped her. "I always thought I was my grandmother, and now I am almost right," she wrote in 1935. There are hints in her work that she thought her father had raped her, but Mr. Herring concludes that Wald is more likely to have acted as a spectator after procuring her for a friend. With Zadel's support, Barnes fled home at the age of 17 in 1909 to live—for two months—with a middle-aged suitor. At 21, she arrived in Greenwich Village.

Nightwood led many of Barnes's admirers to suppose she was an evangelist for lesbianism. Given that the novel was devoted to an obsessive love affair between two women, Lady Ottoline Morrell could hardly be blamed for writing to praise Barnes's courage in defending same-sex love. Barnes was furious. She had never regarded herself as a lesbian. Her first great love affair was with Ernst Hanfstaengl, the grandson of a Yankee general in the Civil War, to whom she was engaged from 1914 in 1916. His rejection of Barnes as an unfitting mother for his German child was painfully recorded in a section deleted from Nightwood that is included in Ms. Plumb's edition.

In 1921, some months after being sent to Paris on a lucrative commission for McCall's magazine, Barnes met and fell in love with Thelma Wood, a tall, seductive woman to whom all the pleasure was in conquest. Vanquished, Barnes condemned herself to eight years of trailing after Wood through a variety of bedrooms and bars. Wood was an alcoholic; Barnes took to drink for solace and did not shake the habit until she was almost 60. By then, Thelma had been exorcised in Nightwood, and Barnes was ready to embark on her most autobiographical work, The Antiphon. Dag Hammarskjold thought enough of this curious play to arrange a Swedish premiere; Eliot, who published it, contributed a blurb (later withdrawn), noting that "never has so much genius been combined with so little talent." Barnes, who acknowledged only the genius, was understandably displeased.

Next to Baron Corvo, it is hard to think of a writer who so ferociously bit every extended hand. As Mr. Herring notes, Peggy Guggenheim, Barnes's most consistent supporter, was regularly informed that the rich had a duty to provide for great writers, who in turn could do as they pleased. To Guggenheim's credit, she remained unwaveringly supportive. Eliot also remained helpful and affectionate: some of the most intriguing pages of Djuna concern Barnes's friendship with his second wife, Valerie, and describe a 1969 reunion arranged by her between the elderly Barnes and a former admirer, Ezra Pound. The account is Mrs. Eliot's own, and it conveys the quality in Djuna Barnes that gives Mr. Herring the most trouble—her wit.

Barnes's elegant asperity was legendary. Her wit was of the spontaneous, topical, punning kind, which does not convert to reported speech. Sadly, in trying to celebrate it, Mr. Herring only leaves us wondering how anybody could have laughed at such weak jokes. But laugh they did. Joyce, who greatly influenced Barnes's style, was devoted to her. Samuel Beckett was fond enough to send a check for $3,400 when she was short of money. Her photograph was one of the five Eliot kept in his Faber & Faber office.

One of Barnes's blacker observations was that at the age of 75 she had become "the most famous unknown of the century." To younger writers, obscurity seemed to have been her choice. When she died 15 years later, in 1982, she was best known as a poverty-stricken recluse. Mr. Herring does valuable work in reassessing this image. Barnes was neither so poor nor so misanthropic as has been supposed. Approached with several lucrative offers for the film rights to her work, she lost them only by insisting on total personal control of the productions. She could afford to be highhanded. The sale of her papers in 1972 to the University of Maryland had been profitable: she had some $180,000 in the bank. A series of young men (including Mr. Field, the first biographer) readily consented to act as her secretaries, her shoppers and—most important to a woman who delighted in talking—her audience. Her nurses, however, left in droves, unable to bear her insults.

"Nothing is so abominable as a sweet old lady," Barnes wrote in Nightwood. There was no danger of her becoming one. "Make sure they pay you!" was one of her last recorded comments (to a young illustrator) before her death.

Enjoyable though Mr. Herring's biography is, I have reservations about it. We are told far too much about Barnes's friends and acquaintances, even when they have only a faint connection to her; they are the pillars and supports of a book in which the main figure is only glimpsed as a shadow flitting from arch to arch. It is particularly frustrating to find that the last 30 years of her life have been so hastily dismissed. It is as if, having reported on the failure of The Antiphon in 1958. Mr. Herring had reached the limits of his interest. Yet Barnes wrote poems until almost the end of her life, and she was, as Mr. Herring clearly indicates, not a wholehearted hermit. She has been partly revealed here; a bigger and bolder exposure is still needed.

Corinne Robins (review date October-November 1996)

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SOURCE: "Stop, Look and Reread," in American Book Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, October-November, 1996, p. 24.

[In the following review, Robins discusses what the drawings in Poe's Mother: Selected Drawings of Djuna Barnes, edited by Douglas Messerli, say about society during Barnes's era.]

What is style besides being fashion's blood?—a distinctive look, a phrase evocative of a time, an attitude. Douglas Messerli's Poe's Mother: Selected Drawings of Djuna Barnes at first glance is replete with all of the above. Drawn tongue-in-cheek, a stylized Poe's mother as a slightly naughty vision of the 19th-century actress she was, adorns the book's elegant jacket cover and also occupies the next to last page of its more than a hundred drawings, including quick sketches, wood cuts, and black-and-white caricatures all displaying the professionalism and talent of a facile 1920s newspaper reporter/illustrator possessed of no coherent style except for an occasional out and out homage to Beardsley. These drawings were done to order for newspapers and the Theater Guild Magazine, and their chief appeal today lies in the fact that they were executed by the writer Djuna Barnes and, in turn, are the occasion for Messerli's exquisite explanatory notes, many of which end by serving up potent examples of the Barnes wit. And, as such, they have the charm, consistency, and staying power of an after dinner mint.

Douglas Messerli tells us in his introduction that. "The drawings of Djuna Barnes must be understood within the context of her other writings. In particular, her masterpiece Nightwood … in which Barnes creates a hierarchical world." In an effort to do justice to Poe's Mother, I took out my copy of Barnes's New Directions classic, published in 1937 reprinted in 1949, with endorsements on the jacket cover by Dylan Thomas calling it one of the three great prose works ever written by a woman" and an excerpt from T. S. Eliot's introduction that reads, "What I would leave the reader prepared to find is the great achievement of a style, the brilliance of wit and characterization." Today, rereading Barnes's masterpiece thirty years later, I find the book's brilliance something of a mixed bag. The novel begins in the 1890s and ends sometime in the 1920s. The first chapter, "Bow Down," introduces one of the book's secondary characters, Guido Volkein, a Jew of Italian descent, and his son Felix, both of whom read like characters who have wandered out of the 19th-century classic of anti-Semitism The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. On page three, Barnes's authorial voice tells us, "Guido lived as all Jews do, who, cut off from their people by accident or choice, find that they must inhabit a world whose constituents being alien, force the mind to succumb to an imaginary populace. When a Jew dies on a Christian bosom he dies impaled." As for Felix, Barnes tells us, "No matter where and when you meet him you feel that he has come from some other place—no matter from what place he has come—some country that he has devoured rather than resided in, some secret land he has been nourished on but cannot inherit for the Jew seems to be everywhere from nowhere." And three pages on, apropos of Felix, Barnes continues in this vein: "A Jew's doing is never his own, it is God's; his rehabilitation is never his own, it is a Christian's etc., etc."

Nightwood, a kind of Elizabethan classic of inversion, centers upon the history of an unhappy love affair between two women, Norah and Robin, which has masochistic overtones woven into the author's descriptions of the streets of Paris and Vienna, and a weird demimonde of circus performers mixing with a falsely titled European royalty. Male characters are secondary witnesses to the main drama of Robin and Norah's unhappy affair. The book's most important male character, Dr. Matthew O'Connor, is, I suspect, Barnes's answer to the genius of James Joyce. Dr. O'Connor, giving his take on a decadent Europe, speaks in a marvelous quasi-Elizabethan cadence. For example, he treats us to the following disquisition on race:

"The Irish may be as common as whale-shit—excuse me—on the bottom of the ocean—forgive me—but they do have imagination and," he added, "creative misery, which comes from being smacked down by the devil and lifted up again by the angels. Misericordioso! Save me, Mother Mary, and never mind the other fellow! But the Jew, what is he at his best? Never anything higher than a meddler—pardon my wet glove—a supreme and marvelous meddler often, but a meddler nevertheless." He bowed slightly from the hips. "All right, Jews meddle and we lie, that's the difference, the fine difference."

Barnes, born in upstate New York, was educated at home, one presumes by a fine Christian family, who evidently taught her prose cadences courtesy of the King James Bible. Barnes's sentences, as above and throughout the novel, have a unique rhythm as witnessed by Messerli's quotes from her early stories that accompany the drawings. As reproduced in Poe's Mother, aside from the newspaper quick sketches of Irvin Cobb, Marsden Hartley, James Joyce etc., Barnes's drawings all borrow from Art Nouveau with a soupçon of 19th-century illustration, and lack the individualism to achieve the level of becoming visual curiosities in the way Nightwood has achieved its status of literary curiosity and/or classic. For example, accompanying the Barnes heading "She had read to a world Ruled by Fairies," Barnes draws a stylized Japanese-type female figure with a fantastic hairdo emerging from the naked head of a sad aging woman. The drawing is, to say the least, flaccid compared to Barnes's accompanying note: "She was always finding herself in love with the hero and heroine of some novel. She came out of them into her own life with a little gasp of sorrow, and she went back into them with a sigh of content."

Djuna Barnes and T. S. Eliot were literary gods while I was growing up, and one ignored their matter and worshipped their manner or tried to. Thus, reading Poe's Mother and reexamining Nightwood is for me an act of reparation to a younger Jewish self who read and glossed over that book's content feeling at once confused, ashamed, and slightly afraid.

I am grateful, nevertheless, to Douglas Messerli for the dedicated professionalism with which he addressed the task of gathering and in some cases literally rescuing this material. The drawings in Poe's Mother allow us to examine from our own perspective the manners and mores adhering to the geniuses and instant celebrities of another era.

Susan Edmunds (essay date Winter 1997)

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SOURCE: "Narratives of a Virgin's Violation: The Critique of Middle-Class Reformism in Djuna Barnes's Ryder," in Novel, Vol. 30, No. 2, Winter, 1997, pp. 218-36.

[In the following essay, Edmunds asserts in a discussion of Barnes's Ryder, that "Barnes makes repeated, figurative use of the narrative of a virgin's violation to foreground the ultimate complicity between middle-class reformers and the structures of oppression they would reform, while eschewing the scandalous appeal to fact on which such projects depend."]

In her first novel, Ryder (1928), Djuna Barnes recasts her own family history as the story of the freewheeling Ryder family, whose outrageous actions at once parody and overturn the conventions of middle-class domestic fiction. Embracing the maverick ideals of polygamy, idleness, and freethinking, the Ryders not only fail to exemplify dominant norms of domestic conduct; they actively dispute the social mandate to uphold such norms. This dispute largely takes place in rural New York during the period between 1890 and 1910. As I will argue in some detail, it takes form as a complex battle over the legacy of middle-class reformism. Wendell Ryder and his mother Sophia defend a long-standing reformist tradition of social experimentation in the face of contemporary reformist efforts to bring their domestic practices under the rule of the wage economy and the welfare state. In this battle between reformers, no party emerges unsullied. Instead, Barnes uses the action of the novel to call the whole project of middle-class reformism into question.

In reading the novel as a satire on the checkered history of middle-class reformism, this essay both engages and disrupts existing trends in the critical reception of Ryder and Barnes criticism more generally. Critics have long regarded Ryder as a protest novel, though there is significant disagreement as to what, exactly, the novel is protesting against. Cheryl J. Plumb sums up one position in characterizing the novel as "a protest against a repressive middle-class ethic" of conformity (86).1 Anne B. Dalton, on the other hand, contributes to a growing body of Barnes criticism in her reading of the novel as an encoded incest narrative written in protest against Barnes's own early history of sexual abuse.2 Taken together, these readings pose a contradiction which my own argument seeks to historicize: in one, Wendell Ryder stands as an emancipatory hero of nonconformity, while in the other, he stands as a domestic and sexual predator whose practices merit suppression.

The metamorphosing impulse to read Ryder as a protest novel has gone hand in hand with an insistence on the novel's basis in autobiographical fact. Indeed, feminist analyses of the incest theme in Barnes's work must posit a proliferating series of connections between her autobiography and her art as the necessary ground for their own critical project of sociopolitical protest and reform. Yet here again, scholars disagree about where and how to locate the factual in a highly mannered work of fiction. Phillip Herring detects autobiographical fact everywhere at the surface of Barnes's first novel and consequently "take[s] the liberty of drawing on Ryder for biographical information" not available elsewhere (Djuna 1, 313 n2).3 In contrast, Dalton proposes that in Ryder Barnes buries the most significant autobiographical events—and her protest against them—in cryptic metaphorical passages which the critic must unearth and translate back into fact (Dalton, "Escaping" 163-67).

No historical approach to Barnes's novel can divest itself entirely of a faith in historical fact. But in shifting the frame of reference from biography to social history, my reading of Ryder reopens the question of the relation between fact and figure which previous critics have closed rather quickly. I propose that the defining events of the Ryder family history participate in and comment critically upon wider sociopolitical discourses associated with the history of middle-class reformism, and that they do so in ways that exceed and destabilize the strict status of autobiographical fact currently assigned to the novel's contents. The "facts" of the plot—in particular, the shadowy fact of a young girl's sexual violation—take on symbolic and figural functions which help to define and organize the critique of middle-class reformism which the novel presents. Reversing the move to read from the fictive and figural to the factual, I track the shifting and/or multiplying targets of the novel's protest in the unstable play of its figurations; through the patterning of such play, Barnes mobilizes the uncertain details of a particular family history to call society at large to account.

Barnes is able to use the story of the Ryder family in this way because she positions its antinormative domestic project at the intersection of a number of wider sociohistorical struggles. As Michel Foucault and Jacques Donzelot persuasively demonstrate, the family has served as a crucial site of social struggle and social control throughout the modern period. Foucault argues that the family becomes "the privileged locus of emergence for the disciplinary question of the normal and the abnormal" with the rise of the modern state (216). In turn, Donzelot has worked out for the French case the process by which the state came to present the middle-class family with a choice: it could preserve its "autonomy through the observance of norms that guarantee … social usefulness" or "become an object of surveillance and disciplinary measures in its own right" (91-92, 85). A similar process was well underway in the United States by the 1890s. This process was furthered, but also significantly complicated, by a strong and heterogeneous tradition of social experimentation and moral crusading on the part of private citizens. For as Barnes dramatizes quite vividly, the U.S. reformist tradition generated a number of competing models of what could and should constitute normative domestic and social conduct.

Ryder stages the competition between divergent models of normative conduct by condensing diffuse and long-ranging sociohistorical struggles into a series of direct and densely symbolic confrontations between representative individuals. Through such acts of condensation, the unorthodox homelife of the Ryder family comes to stand as the site at which old and new reformist philosophies vie for the authority to determine social norms. Throughout the novel, powerful representatives of capital and the state attempt to expose the Ryders' domestic activity as a set of secret and deviant practices in scandalous need of reform. But Wendell and Sophia successfully combat this threat to their autonomy by turning the same charges against their attackers. They parodically invoke the reformist philosophies of an earlier era in order to refigure their antinormative domestic practices as alternative and even superior models of normality. And they use these earlier philosophies to demonstrate that it is not they, but their attackers, whose secret misconduct should be exposed and disciplined.

Barnes performs a further act of condensation on her materials by making the narrative of a virgin's violation central to each of the struggles staged between rival reformers. The narrative of violation serves a dual figurative function in these episodes. On the one hand, sexual violation serves as a figure for the reformer's act of penetrating and scandalizing the secret of another person's purported misconduct. On the other hand, sexual violation serves as a figure for the deviant and/or wrongful contents of the secret itself. In this way, Barnes locates a disturbing symmetry at the heart of her critique, whereby the targets and the agents of social reform are assigned an equal power to abuse. The mirroring relation thus established is further evidenced in the structure of the struggles staged in the novel, in which reformers vie to reform one another, if only to elude reform themselves.

In this essay, I examine four episodes in which the narrative of a virgin's violation figures decisively in the action of the larger plot. In the first three episodes I consider, the dramatic question of whether a virgin has been or will be violated is linked to local skirmishes in the more general historical struggle between old and new philosophies of reform. Thus, a major part of my purpose in considering these episodes will be to analyze their complex historical resonances. As I indicate above, my further purpose lies in demonstrating the distinctly figurative uses to which Barnes puts the narrative of sexual violation in these scenes. This demonstration provides a necessary context for evaluating the more ambiguous and troubling relationship between fact and figure posed by the fourth episode I consider. In this last episode, Wendell Ryder's eldest daughter, Julie, has a cryptic dream of violation in which her father stands obscurely accused.

Here, I take issue with a feminist-psychoanalytic method of reading, most fully developed by Dalton, which refers the encoded contents of Julie's dream to postulated incidents of abuse which Barnes suffered at her own father's hands.4 In contesting this reading. I do not dispute the substantial evidence which suggests that Barnes was sexually abused in childhood and/or adolescence (perhaps by her father, almost certainly with his consent), and that she labored to give representation to such abuse in her art. My objections lie elsewhere. In its confident appeal to fact, such a reading discloses a scandalous autobiographical truth lurking inside all the secrets which characters negotiate throughout the novel. But this shocking act of disclosure reproduces a long-standing reformist strategy which the novel examines only to reject. Furthermore, it shuts down the figural play of meaning through which the novel's narratives of violation indict the very project of middle-class reformism.

Barnes's indictment of middle-class reformers complicates, although it need not invalidate, a feminist evaluation of her work. Rather, it might induce us to inspect more closely the assumptions and aims of our own critical project. Much of the interest and the challenge that Ryder poses to its feminist readers. I would argue, lies in its historically acute analyses of reformers' vexed implication in the oppressive structures they would reform. Resisting appropriation as a text that proleptically affirms the reform agendas of contemporary academic feminists. Ryder engages its readers in an unsettling and open-ended process of social and self-critique that refuses univocal positions and clearly charted political solutions. If the severity of this refusal makes Barnes a poor champion of liberal and/or radical social causes (feminist or otherwise), it also makes her a provocative interlocutor in an ongoing conversation about the envisioned ends and unenvisioned consequences of organized social change.

Sophia's Nothing

As Barnes's narrator points out early in the novel, the reformist spirit of New England runs in the Ryder's very blood. Sophia Ryder is a descendent of "a great and a humorous stock" of "the early Puritan," and she has "in her the stuff of a great reformer or a noisy bailiff" (Ryder, 9). Like Barnes's grandmother, Zadel Barnes, on whom she is closely modeled. Sophia divides her time between an eclectic assortment of utopian ventures, radical causes, and reform efforts: during her years in London, she moves "among the Pre-Raphaelites" and befriends Oscar Wilde (34, 18); in the States, she writes "manly editorials for the Springfield Republican" and accompanies Elizabeth Cady Stanton on her public speaking tours (154, 18).5 But Sophia manifests her greatest commitment to the cause of reform in her unstinting support for her son's "noble philosophy in the home" (168).

This philosophy has several components. First, there is the commitment to polygamy and free love, which leads Wendell to take a second wife, Kate-Careless, upon returning to the States with his British bride, Amelia. After the two women reluctantly set up housekeeping together on the family's Long Island farm, Bulls'-Ease, Wendell busies himself seducing as many more women as wit and circumstance permit. Second, there is the commitment to freethinking, which leads Wendell and Sophia to educate his many children at home. Finally, there is the commitment to idleness. Disenchanted with his brief, youthful employment as "a drug-clerk," Wendell vows "never, never again to battle as a self-supporting unit!" (18). As a result, the family does its best to survive outside the wage economy. What Wendell's wives cannot produce through subsistence farming, Sophia procures on lucrative begging trips to the city.

Sophia keeps "her family from ruin" through an ingenious writing scheme which she conducts on the sly. She addresses "hundreds" of heartbreaking appeals to wealthy capitalists and statesmen, and then drops by in person, disguised as an old beggar woman, to collect their alms. "[A] mendicant of the most persistent temerity," she has thus "lied and wept and played the sweet old woman to the partial undoing of every rich man in the country, and of one of the Presidents of the States" (14). On the whole, her scheme works very well. But when she tries it out on a magnate named Boots, he fights back. Correctly suspecting that she's only pretending to be poor, he prepares to lift up the skirts of her beggar costume to reveal the layers of expensive petticoats beneath. It is at this point that Sophia invokes the narrative of a virgin's violation, both to protect her own ruse from scandalous exposure and to discredit the motives of the man who assaults her.

Sophia's begging act and the crisis to which it gives rise comment satirically on the long and divided history of the social benevolence movement in the United States. In the showdown between Sophia and Boots, rival philosophies of relief work vie for authority. Sophia parodically revives mid-nineteenth century scripts of charitable giving associated with the sentimental cult of domesticity, while Boots works from a later cultural script in which social and moral supervision of the poor takes precedence over the distribution of alms. The condensations at work in their encounter are multiple and will take some unraveling.

In the antebellum period of Sophia's youth, the sentimental cult of domesticity provided middle-class women with the rationale for their escalating participation in all the philanthropic reform movements of the day. During these years, women's benevolent work was rhetorically equated with housework; divinely appointed to set God's house in order, women reformers sought to reconstruct society on the Christian principles of love and charity (Ginzberg 5, 59-60). Like other reform-minded women of her day. Sophia models her conduct on sentimental ideals, though usually to grotesque effect. For instance, in her first act as a young married woman, she lays down "the foundations … of relief" which will define her role throughout the novel. These foundations turn out to be a set of "five fine chamber-pots," which spell out in succession: "Needs there are many, / Comforts are few, / Do what you will / Tis no more than I do / … Amen" (11). As the rhyme suggests, Sophia founds her domestic order on "a passionate and precarious love of family" and a healthy tolerance for the natural man (16).

Decades later, Sophia comes to her family's rescue with the bold decision to recruit the nation's richest men into her domestic order in the capacity of loyal sons. To this end, she deploys the sentimental script of virtuous maternity to deliver an appeal that only a brute could resist. Her letters of beggary master all the tear-jerking conventions of sentimental fiction, "and always, with unerring faithfulness to her original discovery of the way to the heart of man, they were signed 'Mother'" (15). In these letters, sentimental altruism serves as a cover for Sophia's actual motives of self-gain in much the same way that her beggar costume serves as a cover for her expensive petticoats: both the letters and the costume reach back to dominant discursive strategies of her youth in order to cast a thin normative sheen over her decidedly antinormative plan to preserve her family in idleness. As Boots's assault will demonstrate, neither cover is impenetrable. Yet Sophia is able to maintain the upper hand in her encounters with her wealthy "sons" because the sentimental script of benevolence has come to serve their interests as much as it serves her own.

This point becomes clear when we examine the shift in the history of the social benevolence movement which takes place after the Civil War. During the 1870s and 1880s, the movement underwent reorganization, strengthening its recently forged ties with the state as well as its widely recognized ties with corporate capitalism. These alliances gave rise to arguments favoring fewer handouts and greater surveillance of the poor, who were newly suspected of faking their distress.6 Nevertheless, the sentimental script of benevolent self-sacrifice continued to legitimate the activities of reformers and capitalists alike, allowing the wealthy to recast their own schemes for personal gain as loving service to the public good.7

In posing literal, blood relations between the sentimental fiction writer and the corporate capitalist. Sophia's letters of beggary circulate a fiction of virtuous maternity that cuts both ways: it is impossible for her unlucky "sons" to expose the fraudulence and dishonesty of her investment in such a fiction without simultaneously exposing their own. This is the bind in which Boots finds himself when Sophia enters his corporate "sanctum" "to sweep up her gains" (176, 15). Given the nature of her advantage, the episode is best read not as an errand of charity but as the delicate encounter between a blackmailer and her victim.

Ranked by his twelve "disciples" in an enterprise which uneasily conflates the Gospel of Christ with the Gospel of Wealth, Boots confronts a woman whose business sense and religious piety match his own. Sophia opens her petition by offering Boots a vacuous, if vaguely menacing, sentimental blessing: "there is a world without end, and I fully believe in it. And what is there in that world for you, my dear, what shall I promise you?" (177). The very emptiness of the gesture suggests that Sophia here offers Boots a mother's blessing not to provide him with any practical benefit which he would otherwise lack, but to threaten him with the disaster that would ensue should such a blessing be withdrawn. In effect, she proposes that if Boots and his ilk want to insure her anonymous assent to the transparently false sentimental script of the capitalist's and the statesman's filial piety and benevolence, they will have to pay for it—up front and in person.

Boots responds, somewhat rashly, by attempting to deploy the more recent philanthropic script which casts the poor as undeserving impostors. When his twelve disciples recommend that he "toss" Sophia "from wall to wall, and from the midst of her nefarious skirts you'll hear the mother cry," Boots agrees:

An there be a battle and no old woman found among her clothes, connivance and no mother look.—for even praying you can tell the mother bottom.—why, we will set her out at the gate, that the citizens may witness so heinous a thing! I am all charity an the supplicant be truly tattered to the skin and the skin well parched, but whole cloth estranges me, as a patch of well-fed stomach throws me off scent! (178)

As Boots detects, the "double set of real Irish linens" which Sophia wears under her "pauper's cloak" gives the lie to her posture of indigence (177, 15). yet when he and his men finally resolve "to try her," Sophia is able to exploit the proposed scenario of her own exposure for its unsuspected power to reestablish her dissembling body as newly, if grotesquely, truthful. Should her body be turned upside down and inside out before the citizens "out at the gate," her bottom would back up her face as a portrait of helpless and deserving poverty. Thus, Sophia supplies her genital lack, which must also come to view in any attempt to "tell the mother bottom," as the culturally indisputable sign of a motherly "need" and "nothing else." "This is the hour when men seek a girl among your skirts!" she cries out in conference with herself, before addressing Boots:

Why, find her then, catch her on the flicker, for she asks forever only help, and reeks of that condition. Tear her into pieces adequate for the glutting of your suspicion, and every rag will speak the selfsame story, for there's nothing else about. (178)

Unable to expose Sophia's worldly all without also revealing her sexual "nothing," Boots and his men find themselves trapped by appearances if not by intent in the scandalous scenario of gang-rape implied by their desire to try her. When Sophia calls out in warning to "the girl" among her skirts, she invokes the narrative of a virgin's violation to refigure the meaning of Boots's proposed investigation in two ways. The reformist project to expose a pauper as a fraud reappears as the criminal project to rob an honest woman of her virtue. At the same time, the crime of rape serves as an all too fitting figure for the rapacious greed at work beneath capitalists' own show of benevolence and warm family feeling. In this way, Sophia uses the narrative of a virgin's violation to deflect the threat of scandal away from her family's antinormative scheme to live off the labor of others, and onto corporate capitalism's all too acceptable scheme to do exactly the same thing.

The ultimate success of Sophia's venture in this scene lies in her ability to seize the power of publicity from her would-be attackers. For while it would cost Boots very little to violate the girl among her skirts in the privacy of his office sanctum, coverage of the event in the contemporary sensationalist press would cost him a lot.8 The implicit threat of exposure through newspaper coverage is, in the end, what structures the chiastic doubling of safely kept secrets in this scene, insuring that neither party will tell on the other. Once again, the "nothing" of Sophia's genitals embodies the terms of their pact, standing as the grotesque bodily emblem of a self-serving hollowness at the center of both their investments in the sentimental script of benevolence. For Sophia such hollowness proves to be the key to her gain, for it unlocks the purse of corporate charity without opening her family to the intrusions of public surveillance. But for Boots such hollowness is only emasculating. As he extracts from his "left trouser pocket" "a bill of no mean proportions," Sophia exclaims,

Who is pauper here now? Not I, though I've been, so the two conditions have buzzed within the hour. I bring you, Boots, my most dear, many things therefore. Farewell, then, and cry, "Mother, mother, mother!" for it is a word that comes up to me ever. (178-79)

Wendell's All

Sophia's funds, procured like so much in the Ryders' lives through a love of family, allow her son Wendell to throw body and soul into his philosophy, unhampered by the petty routines of wage-earning. The scope of his leisurely endeavors is considerable, for, as Anne Dalton remarks, Wendell "imagines himself to be the new Adam and casts himself as artist, social iconoclast, and prophet and founder of a new religion" ("Escaping" 166). In this, he too stands as the direct descendent of several mid-nineteenth-century social reformers and social philosophers. The tenets of his philosophy perhaps stand closest to those of the Transcendentalists. Wendell shows more sympathy for Thoreau's aversion to labor than for Emerson's endorsement of industry and ambition, and he rejects both men's valorization of self-reliance. But he amply shares their regard for nature, their impatience with the shackles of social custom, and their high hopes for the world-transformative power of original genius. Where both Emerson's and Thoreau's enthusiasm for the natural man carefully skates above a condoning of his baser impulses, Wendell's regard for nature embraces all that is low in man and beast alike. In this sense, Wendell's philosophy can be read as a grotesque parody of Transcendentalism, one which both degrades and revives its loftier sentiments (see Bakhtin 21).

"He is nature in its other shape," confides his wife Amelia, who thinks him "great oftener than anything else"; "[h]e is a deed that must be committed" (241). His mother agrees, telling Wendell, "[Y]ou are nature, all of you, all of you, and nature is terrible when law hunts it down" (238). "The world is nothing, the man is all; in yourself is the law of all nature," Emerson says, and repeats: "No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature." "There are no fixtures in nature," he proposes further. "The only sin is limitation" (Emerson 70, 262, 403, 406).9 To his mother Wendell explains, "I sport a changing countenance. I am all things to all men, and all women's woman" (164). And to one of many lovers, he confides, "I, my love, am to be Father of All Things." With this latter declaration, he announces his intention to give rise to a "Race" of Ryders which will encompass the earth in its human variety, "though never one" shall be "bourgeois or like to other men as we now know them" (210).

Blending sex and religion in his visionary ideas of a world to come. Wendell moves away from Emerson and Thoreau and closer to such prophets as Ann Lee, John Humphrey Noyes, and Joseph Smith, who all founded utopian communities built around alternative religious and sexual norms in the mid-nineteenth century. The "complex marriage" practices of Noyes's Oneida Community and the Mormon endorsement of polygamy offer direct parallels to Wendell's domestic philosophy.10 But they also play a central role in the creation of historical conditions that severely limit his ability to practice it.

Thus, in an 1879 ruling on Mormon-initiated test case, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed polygamy, arguing that monogamy stood as "the very foundation of the democratic state." The Oneida Community gave up the practice of complex marriage in the same year. The Mormon response was less compliant, and female reformers initiated a vigorous, nationwide antipolygamy crusade in the wake of the Court's ruling. The fruit of this crusade was the passage of laws that opened the way for systematic federal intervention in Mormon private life. In 1890, the Mormon Church withdrew its endorsement of plural marriage, conceding defeat in its battle for the legal right to promote alternative norms of sexual and domestic conduct.11

This historical context lends urgency and poignancy to Wendell's conversation with Sophia about his practice of polygamy, undertaken in the very years when lawmakers and reformers aggressively organized against it. Sophia notes, "It is very advanced, very old, and very nice, perhaps … but we must keep it from the public, at all costs." In his reply, he wonders, "[W]ho is to eat me? The authorities of the state and the wiseacres of the nation?" (168-69). Wendell's principled refusal to conform his sexual practices to the dictates of monogamy makes him an enemy of the state. His only weapon of self-defense is obscurity, and this weapon is understandably hard to wield when his overarching ambition is to people the world anew. As Barnes's narrator reports. Wendell has "trouble in keeping [his] life out of the papers," and the mayor wants him in jail. Eventually, the law hunts him down in his own home. When a "delegation … headed by a social worker" arrives to inquire about his two wives, Wendell rightly predicts, "I am about to be infested with scrutiny" (213).

In the meantime, however, it is not Wendell's extra wife but his children's truancy that runs him afoul with the state. Where the social worker's visit spells doom for the Ryder philosophy, forcing one wife and her children out on the street. Wendell emerges as the victor in his encounter with the school authorities. Once again, this success is due to his skillful deployment of the narrative of a virgin's violation to discredit the charges lodged against him. Like his mother before him. Wendell forecloses the scandalization of his private life by threatening the public domain with scandal in kind. Like her, he does so by taking up reformist arguments of an earlier era in order to resist and condemn the leading reform agendas of the present-day.

Wendell's battle with the public school system occurs after a shift in its organization that parallels the shift reviewed above in the social benevolence movement. The common schooling movement began in the 1830s as a middle-class reform effort; however, it was only after 1890, when a quiet bureaucratic revolution took place, that adequate procedures were in place nationwide to enforce attendance laws and hold schools to a single standard. At the same juncture, different strands in the ideology of public education took on new strength as states secured their control of the system. This ideology has been variously interpreted. Some point to public education's role in creating an efficient and tractable workforce, others to its role in promoting religious piety and loyalty to the state (see Tyack and Gordon).

Wendell incorporates many of these points in a speech he delivers to an investigating school authority and a crowd of his neighbors after he is called to the town schoolhouse to account for his children's truancy. Rejecting the ideological aims of the latest wave of educational reform, he reaches back to the ideas of an earlier reformer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, to defend his own position. In "Self-Reliance." Emerson grows impatient with a system of education built upon the principle of imitation rather than originality. "Every great man is a unique," he insists; "Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare" (279). Similarly, Wendell condemns the school authorities for "trying to make scrub-oak of my sons' trees" through an uninspired curriculum devoted to rote memorization of religious and state propaganda. He complains, "The Board of Education" would have children memorize "dates and speeches, half forgotten, of dead statesmen," and learn to "render Hamlet backward, and the Commandments sideways." And he defends his children's truancy on the grounds that it offers them "[i]mmunity … from the common and accepted conditions of life, as taught in the parochial schools" (130-31).

Yet it is the beauty of the investigating official's self-sought mediocrity that such arguments are "Greek and a tomb to him"; any success that Wendell might hope to have in this encounter must be sought on other ground. The school's case against the Ryders, on the other hand, is simple and predictable. The investigating official informs Wendell that "there are laws in this country, and one of them is that children must attend school." And he contends that children who don't go to school "will grow up … deflowering women, and defaming God" (130). With this latter charge, virginal violation comes to stand for the more general threat of social havoc posed by children whose upbringing is not supervised by the state. In his reply, Wendell adroitly takes up the same figure and uses it to represent a moral threat which the state itself poses to the children it ostensibly guides and protects.

In making his second critique, Wendell concedes the need to send his children to school for the new leverage it allows him as a concerned parent. "[I]f you insist," he tells his interlocutor, "I, being but a humble citizen, can but submit, but I may warn you that Ryder as an outlaw is less trouble than citizen Ryder" (131). He goes on to play the part of a good citizen scandalized by the hidden pockets of corruption he finds on state property. He first focuses attention on the school drinking well, whose common cup communicates the taint of "three rats and one cat" festering in its depths (132). He then turns to the school privy: "its double-seated grandeur two black pits, the wood carved over with hearts and arrows, and successive generations' initials twined therein." Positioned in front of the schoolhouse's only window, the "gaped, doorless" structure of the privy offers its graffiti as a rival scene of instruction to the black-board within (129).

In his new role as public watchdog. Wendell reveals the school's pure well of knowledge to be an "abyss of disease and filth." And he indignantly refuses to "permit my daughter to learn of love as it is written on yonder privy ring" (132). With the latter remark, Wendell conjures up the image of a young girl violated by lessons in love learned with her pants down in a public privy in order to expose an ineradicable moral threat emanating from the public domain. The Emersonian complaint originally lodged against the school's blackboard curriculum—that it will infect his children with "the common and accepted conditions of life"—reemerges as mock outrage against the degrading commonness and defiling vulgarity of the privy's adjoining pedagogy. Wendell here reveals the public school system as the propagator of the very kind of common viciousness that it was designed to reform. In doing so, he draws public attention to scandalous instances of neglect and hypocrisy on the part of the school authorities. But he also points to a more deepseated eagerness on the part of the state-educated public to constitute itself as a public by reading and writing about the very activities it would forbid him to practice in private.

Faced with these disclosures, the crowd rushes forward to attack the school official. In the ensuing tumult of righteous indignation, Wendell makes a quiet escape, resuming the role of outlaw which his unexpected success in the role of citizen newly affords him. The next time the law catches up with him, however, he is not so lucky. In a midnight conference with his mother held shortly after the social worker's visit, he decides to ask Amelia, his legitimate wife, to leave with her five children so that he might bring his marriage practices in line with federal law. Unsurprisingly—for she has always been "good and dependable"—she agrees (241).

It is at this point in the plot that Barnes's disillusionment with the whole project of middle-class reformism becomes most clear. In a late interview, Barnes comments disparagingly on Wendell: "Ryder is one of those impossible people who are going to save the world—how can anyone save the world?" (qtd. in Field 185).12 Wendell and Sophia offer to save the world from the dubious salvation foisted upon it by a reform-minded state and corporate bureaucracy. For most of the novel, they successfully resist and expose the hypocrisy and self-interest underwriting their opponents' ostensibly altruistic devotion to the public good. But in the last pages of the novel, they too succumb to new depths of hypocrisy and self-interest, sacrificing family for the sake of family. As far as Amelia and her children are concerned, Wendell, Sophia, and the state finally appear as identical dispensers of ruin. In the Ryders' ultimate complicity with the social worker's delegation, Barnes points up the continuity between the mid-nineteenth-century models of reform that the Ryders embrace and the turn-of-the-century reform measures that they would ostensibly use such models to overcome or defy.

Julie's Share

In their brutal bargain with the social worker, Wendell and Sophia abandon their own policy of principled resistance to the state. They also seem to close off possibilities of successful resistance for Amelia and her children. But in fact this foreclosure begins much earlier, when Wendell and Sophia appoint themselves to act as the family's sole representatives in the public sphere. In the last section of the essay, I want to turn attention to two characters who are particularly ill-served by this arrangement: Amelia herself, the good wife who gets thrown out on the street, and her daughter Julie, namelessly invoked in her father's debate with the school authorities. They too bear potentially scandalous secrets that gain representation through narratives of a virgin's violation. Yet they fail to deploy these secrets, even momentarily, as a means of personal gain or political protest. Cut off almost entirely from the outside world, they lack the free passage across the public/private divide on which scandal depends. Consequently, their secrets fail to empower them, but instead enforce and deepen their initial lack of power.

Hemmed in by the "magnificen[ce]" of Sophia's nothing and Wendell's all (9, 168), the remaining women in the Ryder household command a share of the family's greatness only insofar as they grow great with child. The illegitimate wife, Kate-Careless, a lusty and affable woman, finds the terms of such a bargain to her taste. "I've become infatuated with the flavour of motherhood," she tells Wendell; "you poked it under my nose, and I've learned to like it" (170). But Amelia and Julie never learn to like it, which may be why the pregnancies they bear in the novel are both, in some sense, false. These pregnancies also serve as vehicles for muffled protest, providing the occasion and the terms through which each woman attempts to speak the secret of her own resistance. At the time of Amelia's lying-in, she is convinced she will die and warns Julie never to "let a man touch you, for their touching never ends, and screaming oneself into a mother is no pleasure at all" (95). When the baby is born, Wendell cries out, "The babe is black!" But the transvestite midwife, Dr. Matthew O'Connor, assures him, "Bile alone is father of its colour" (97).

The scandalous possibility that Amelia has taken a black man as her lover, though quickly invalidated by O'Connor, returns in the next chapter. There, Amelia dreams of a virgin's averted violation. In her dream, she stands at the key-hole before an ornate chamber lined with the trophies of Western culture. Inside the chamber, a black ox approaches the bed of a white woman, asking that he be given "a place in your Savior." She refuses, saying "Go away and do not try to defile me, for I have time in which to think, but you must labour." The ox replies that her God "will damn himself in me," but when he kneels before Christ's crucifix at the end of the dream, he says simply, "Remember the woman" (99).

This dream of averted violation, like most dreams, gives representation to a contradictory assortment of hidden wishes. And it borrows two preexisting cultural scripts, both associated with the caused of racial reform, in order to do so. Thus, the narrator initially aligns Amelia's dream with the Christian and sentimental discourse of the antebellum abolitionist movement, glossing the dream as an attempt to "set a mighty wrong to rights, to get the black man the attention of the Lord, and a place in his mercies" (98). Yet the text of the dream, with its transparent allusion to the threat of miscegenation, exposes the limits of white abolitionists' merciful love for black slaves. Indeed, in its recourse to images of black defilement, the dream is more readily aligned with the racist discourse of white supremacy which flared up violently during and after Reconstruction. Linking the imminent fall of Western civilization to black men's bestial lust for white women, Amelia's dream reproduces the major contemporary script used to revoke the fragile political, social, and economic gains which blacks had accrued since the Civil War.13

Why does Amelia have such a dream at such a juncture? What does the plight of the black man have to do with her fear of childbirth or her aversion to her husband's touch? Matthew O'Connor's comment that "bile alone is father" of the baby's color provides a place to begin. O'Connor's diagnosis refers back to the medieval theory of the four humors, in which bile denotes irascibility, gloominess, and ill humor. In this sense, Amelia's black baby grotesquely embodies and renders visible its mother's "bilious" unhappiness within her marriage. In the overdetermined and contradictory logic of the dream's imagery, this unhappiness takes further form as a fantasy of protesting against the injustice of her fate through sexual and political union with a black man. At the same time, however, Amelia's dream calls upon the racist script of a pure white woman resisting defilement by a black beast to condemn and punish her own husband's amorous advances. In the figure of the black ox at the bedside, the black man's mythical offense—interracial rape—and his exacted punishment—castration—find simultaneous representation.14 Once again, the narrator suggests that this ready-made cultural script serves as a cover for protests more properly lodged elsewhere; the dream represents "an effort to retake Wendell," king of the yard at Bulls'-Ease, "in his own colours" (98).

In the two explanations of her baby's color, Amelia finds a way to connect her individual anger and suffering with the group anger and suffering of African-Americans. But the contradictions in the dream that follows (born of the black ox's double status as wronged victim and punished sexual aggressor) lead her to reject the very alliance which gives voice to her own resistance. Through the body of her newborn child, Amelia's bilious anger at her lot takes on the sign of miscegenation, while her dream's adherence to the taboo against miscegenation signals her unwillingness to acknowledge and act upon that anger. Her baby's dark coloring invokes the historic suffering of blacks to make the secret of her marital suffering scandalously visible; but her subsequent dream of a virgin's averted violation refuses the potential union between black grievances and her own.

The text of Amelia's dream, like the texts of Sophia's encounter with the magnate and Wendell's encounter with the school official, stages a confrontation between old and new scripts of social reform. But the external, interpersonal conflicts dramatized in those episodes reappear in Amelia's dream as an internal conflict waged over the very question of whether or not she will speak out in protest on her own behalf. Ironically, it is precisely the virgin's successful resistance to violation in the dream's narrative which comes to represent Amelia's self-defeating resolve to keep quiet. Appropriating and conflating central tropes drawn from competing discourses of racial (or racist) reform, Amelia's dream ultimately betrays its own aim to "set a mighty wrong to rights." Fittingly, the dream occurs in a self-contained chapter. Amelia, a country-girl "well rounded in restrictions," reports its contents to no one (98).

Julie is less willing to remain silent on her mother's account. At one point, she lashes out against Kate-Careless who manifests the "disease … emanating directly from her father" "to the torment of her mother" (143). But when Julie gives representation to her own torment, she, like Amelia, resorts to a false pregnancy and a grotesquely deformed sentimental dream. As such a parallel would suggest, her protest has no great effect on her position within the Ryder household. In Chapter 24, "Julie Becomes What She Had Read" (106). Schooled at home on the literary diet of Sophia's youth, she dreams of tiny Arabella Lynn: another beautiful Little Eva dying a sentimental death, but with a grotesquely exaggerated bad conscience because she has doubted the existence of God. By the end of the dream, Arabella joins a parade of pregnant "little girls" as they fall through the sky. Julie then wakes to find Sophia protecting her from Wendell's blows as he bitterly rejects her, crying, "she is none of mine. Did I not hear her deriding me greatly?" (109-10).

Anne Dalton's feminist-psychoanalytic reading of Julie's dream plausibly establishes it as an encoded incest narrative. But the larger claims of her argument cannot be derived from a reading of the dream-text alone, depending instead on a projected second narrative (to which, she claims, Barnes herself may or may not have had conscious access) concerning Barnes's own father's sexually abusive treatment of her. Dalton's argument includes an account of why incest narratives are encoded in the first place, and what social and moral obligations fall to the literary critic in the face of such encoding. She contends that the "metaphorical descriptions of father-daughter incest" in Julie's dream reflect the pressures of psychic and social censorship; unable to accuse her father directly, Barnes resorts to fiction and to figuration to convey her traumatic life story. The responsible critic must read past the dream-text's figures to uncover and condemn the "real" acts of violation (to Julie and to Barnes herself) that lie behind them. Anything less, according to Dalton, serves "to perpetuate the silencing of those who have suffered from child abuse" ("Escaping" 167-68).

If we accept the terms of Dalton's argument, we might read Julie's dream as the final secret which the text presents, one which lends its narrative to all the other secrets in the novel. Yet Julie's secret, like her mother's, has been forcibly displaced from the social border between secrecy and scandal to the psychic border between fantasy and fact. We might thus understand Julie's anger as the anger of a young girl with a secret she cannot publish. Julie lives in a house papered over with literary and newspaper images of incest and rape (14). But where her grandmother Sophia can silently rely on newspaper clippings of "the pretty girl untimely raped" to guard her skirts during her encounter with Boots in the public domain,15 such a clipping provides Julie with no protection in the private domain of her family. Julie's experience, like her mother's troubles the otherwise very gratifying fantasy of unregulated middle-class privacy which Wendell and Sophia fight to defend. The pain of these two women reminds us that privacy is never a reliable privilege for those who lack firm access to a public voice and a public hearing.

But as soon as we get this far in such a line of argument, problems arise. Dalton assumes that the critic can (indeed must) supply what Julie lacks in the text itself. She offers a reading that speaks out publicly on behalf of the abused child and on behalf of the facts, and she "corrects … misreadings and 'nonreadings'" by earlier critics which have failed to do likewise ("Escaping" 168). In effect, she rescues Barnes's novel from both its silences and its silencers. In Dalton's reading, the interpretive strategies of the literary critic fuse with the self-authorizing strategies of the social reformer: the appeal to fact, the exposure of secrets, the declared devotion to another's welfare, and the self-appointed mission of correction equally characterize both enterprises. Yet Ryder itself meticulously examines these discursive strategies and the reformist agendas they legitimate, only to reject them.

Dalton's act of reading uncovers evidence that "incriminate[s]" Wendell Ryder (or Wald Barnes) as a child molester ("Escaping" 165). Within the novel itself, however, Wendell's and his mother's own acts of reading incriminate social reformers for interventions in family life which shore up the coercive and exploitative power of the wage economy, heterosexual monogamy, and the welfare state. The novel does not lend itself to stable oppositions between criminal projects and projects of correction. Indeed, it repeatedly foregrounds the morally suspect and historically variable nature of that very distinction.

Moreover, two episodes in the novel openly question how well justice is served by the combined forces of scandalous publicity and moral reformism in cases of alleged sexual misconduct. As we have seen, Ryder uses the dream-text of Julie's mother, Amelia, to dramatize a dangerous readiness to cast the black man, sooner than the white, as the offending "bull" in the rape scenarios of the nation's cultural imagination. The only other "bull" to be publicly condemned for a sexual crime in the novel is Oscar Wilde, tried and imprisoned on charges of sodomy. In the same conversation with his mother in which she reiterates the need to keep his polygamous practices secret, Wendell remembers seeing Wilde in London after

[t]he scandal had burst, and though he was the core, the fragrant centre of a rousing stench, in a month he was a changed man, not changing, sitting within his cell, weeping, writhing, plotting 'De Profundis,'… a bull caught and captured, sentenced, hamstrung, marauded, peered at, peeped upon, regarded and discovered to be a gentle sobbing cow. (166)

For Barnes, who dedicated Ryder to "T. W." in cloaked tribute to her lesbian lover Thelma Wood, the memory of Wilde's fate and its testimony to the quality of justice served in the name of guarding sexual innocence, was likely to have been quite chilling.

The extent to which Barnes distrusted the efficacy of public exposure as a tool for justice in cases of sexual misconduct is further suggested by an anecdote she reported to Hank O'Neal in her old age. Between the time she left her parents' farm and the time she wrote Ryder, Barnes herself had a successful career in sensationalist journalism. According to O'Neal,

She finally quit the papers because of a rape case in which a girl in her teens had been raped six times. The editor of the Journal American wanted an interview with the victim and suggested that Miss Barnes contrive a story to gain access to the girl. She managed to sneak past the guards at the hospital, entered the girl's room, made up some wild tale, and got an interview, but when it was over felt guilty about what she had done. When she told her editor she would never cover another rape case and would not write a story about this one or give the information to anyone else, he fired her on the spot. (52)

In this anecdote, Barnes narrates a moment of protracted and painful decision in which she finally chooses to perpetuate the silence of a victim of sexual abuse rather than publish the facts on her behalf (and against her will). At this moment, she seems to expose and refuse the suspect nature of her own moral, political, and/or economic investment in the reformist potential of scandalous publicity. Of course, until the anecdote is repeated, such an exposure carries little critical force for anyone other than Barnes herself since it finds its medium in silence. Yet we might use the grim choice of total silence with which Barnes marked her departure from investigative journalism better to measure what she achieves through the porous silences, the paraded secrets, which distinguish the investigative forays of her fiction.

In Ryder's narratives of a virgin's violation, Barnes creates a third alternative to the limiting choice of total silence or full factual disclosure presented in her anecdote to O'Neal. It is important, I believe, to examine this alternative for what it achieves in its own right, rather than reading it as a product of compromise or failure, an index of the debilitating effects of social and psychic censorship. For Ryder calls into question the assumption that full factual disclosure is the best (because most therapeutic, most politically progressive) way to narrate a story of sexual violation. One can argue further that the figural and fictive deployment of the narrative of violation provides Barnes with the means for commenting critically on this very assumption.

In keeping secret the exact nature of Julie's relationship to the novel's proliferating narratives of a virgin's violation, Barnes refuses to disclose a "real" originary event to which the figural play of her text might be referred and through which it might be contained. Lodging formal accusations against no single attacker on Julie's behalf, Ryder conducts no trial and brings no guilty party to justice. But by the same token the novel resists the sensationalist impulse to confine the sources of social horror to the supernaturally corrosive effects of isolated agents whose practices fail to conform to the current dictates of normality.

Barnes pays a price, both for her refusal to moor Julie's dream of protest in a verifiable scene of wrongdoing, and for her wider refusal to ground her protest novel in a coherent and circumscribed set of social and political grievances. Withholding final judgment on where blame is to be laid—and for what—her novel cannot lend the weight of its critique to a specific program of change. But this is only to say that Barnes writes her protest novel to lambast, rather than serve, the cause of social reform. Indeed, the very impossibility of pinning down a "real" crime of incest or rape against Julie in Ryder makes possible a metaphorical widening of the field of suspects and of crimes in the recurring dream-scene of her violation. Barnes makes repeated, figurative use of the narrative of a virgin's violation to foreground the ultimate complicity between middle-class reformers and the structures of oppression they would reform, while eschewing the scandalous appeal to fact on which such projects depend. Instead, she promotes figure over fact to implicate society at large in a scandal that cannot be localized.


1. For related discussions, of Ryder and Nightwood respectively, see J. Scott and Marcus.

2. See Dalton, "Escaping." For related discussions of the incest theme in Barnes's other works, see Broe, "Art"; Curry; Dalton, "This"; and DeSalvo, "Make" and Conceived, ch. 4. For the leading biographical evaluation of Barnes's abusive sexual history (whose details, in key areas, are still uncertain and/or disputed), see Herring, Djuna 53-64, 268-71.

3. In justification of his decision, Herring cites Barnes's own comment to "James Scott and others that her novel Ryder was completely autobiographical" (313-14 n2).

4. See Dalton, "Escaping." For an earlier reading of Julie's dream which hints at the possibility of Wendell's abuse, see Ponsot.

5. For an account of the reform efforts which Barnes's grandmother supported through her journalism, see Herring, "Zadel" 108, 111.

6. Thus, a leading philanthropic reformer, Josephine Shaw Lowell, declared that society should "refuse to support any except those whom it can control." Her colleague S. Humphreys Gurteen concurred, declaring that the "fundamental law" of charity organization "is expressed in one word: INVESTIGATE." See Boyer 145-49 and Ginzberg 189-93, 197-200.

7. In a 1915 interview with Mother Jones, Barnes reports the famous labor activist's low opinion of postbellum philanthropy: "It's relief work made possible through slavery, it's charity through chains. It's a rotten system, kept up by your high-class robbers." See Barnes Interviews 102, Barnes's grandmother also criticized the "narrow charity" of this period in print. In an 1873 piece for Harper's she contrasts the sentimental ideal of "love-ruled, intelligently regulated homes" for the urban poor to the black contemporary landscape of "almshouses, prisons," "asylums" and "hospitals." See Buddington 239.

8. Sophia pays tribute to the power of the press on the walls of her writing room back home, which are "covered over," like her petticoated body, with a thick layer of images. The uppermost layer consists of "clippings from newspapers" and includes the photo of a "pretty girl untimely raped" (13-14).

9. These citations are drawn from "The American Scholar," "Self-Reliance," and "Circles."

10. For an account of these religious communities, see Foster. For biographical material linking Wald Barnes to the Mormons, see Herring, Djuna 31-32.

11. See Clayton 51; Iverson 126-27; and Lyman 22-26, 124-43.

12. Field goes on to note Barnes's declaration that the break-up of the family through state intervention was the one part of her novel she made up (185). This adjustment to her family history further underlines Barnes's distrust of reformist efforts to save the world.

13. Fredrickson links the Increasing prevalence of the construct of "the Negro as beast" to "the ideology of extreme racism that … engulf[ed] the South after 1890" (256, 262).

14. As B. Scott notes, the dream ox is a castrated bull (111). For an analysis of the frequent recourse to castration in the lynching of black men, see Wiegman. For a complementary historical account, see Hodes.

15. See my footnote 8.

works cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Barnes, Djuna. Interviews. Ed. Alyce Barry. Washington: Sun and Moon, 1985.

――――――. Ryder. 1928. Lisle, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1990.

Boyer, Paul. Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820–1920. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978.

Broe, Mary Lynn. "My Art Belongs to Daddy: Incest as Exile, The Textual Economics of Hayford Hall." Women's Writing in Exile. Eds. Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram. Chapel Hill: The U of North Carolina P, 1989. 41-86.

Broe, Mary Lynn, ed. Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1991.

Buddington, Mrs. Zadel B. "Where is the Child?" Harper's New Monthly Magazine 46 (1873): 229-39.

Clayton, James L. "The Supreme Court, Polygamy and the Enforcement of Morals in Nineteenth Century America: An Analysis of Reynolds v. United States." Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12.4 (1979): 46-61.

Curry, Lynda. "'Tom, Take Mercy': Djuna Barnes's Drafts of The Antiphon." Broe, Silence 286-98.

Dalton, Anne B. "Escaping from Eden: Djuna Barnes' Revision of Psychoanalytic Theory and Her Treatment of Father-Daughter Incest in Ryder." Women's Studies 22 (1993): 163-79.

――――――. "'This is obscene': Female Voyeurism, Sexual Abuse and Maternal Power in The Dove." The Review of Contemporary Fiction 13.3 (1993): 117-39.

DeSalvo, Louise A. Conceived with Malice. New York: Dutton, 1994.

――――――. "'To Make Her Mutton at Sixteen': Rape, Incest, and Child Abuse in The Antiphon." Broe, Silence 300-15.

Donzelot, Jacques, The Policing of Families. Trans, Robert Hurley, New York: Pantheon, 1979.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Lectures. New York: Literary Classics, 1983.

Field, Andrew. Djuna: The Formidable Miss Barnes. Austin: U of Texas P, 1985.

Foster, Lawrence. Women, Family and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1991.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Fout, John C., and Maura Shaw Tantillo, eds. American Sexual Politics: Sex, Gender, and Race Since the Civil War. Chicago: The U of Chicago P. 1993.

Fredrickson, George M. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1987.

Ginzberg, Lori D. Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics, and Class in the Nineteenth-Century United States. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.

Gordon, Mary McDougall. "Patriots and Christians: A Reassessment of Nineteenth-Century School Reformers." Journal of Social History 11(1978): 554-73.

Herring, Phillip. Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes. New York: Viking, 1995.

――――――. "Zadel Barnes: Journalist." The Review of Contemporary Fiction 13.3 (1993): 107-16.

Hodes, Martha. "The Sexualization of Reconstruction Politics: White Women and Black Men in the South after the Civil War." Fout and Tantillo 59-74.

Iversen, Joan Smyth. "A Debate on the American Home: The Antipolygamy Controversy, 1880–1890." Fout and Tantillo 123-40.

Lyman, Edward Leo. Political Deliverance: The Mormon Quest for Utah Statehood. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1986.

Marcus, Jane. "Laughing at Leviticus: Nightwood as Woman's Circus Epic." Broe, Silence 221-50.

O'Neal, Hank. "Life is painful, nasty and short—in my case it has only been painful and nasty": Djuna Barnes 1978–1981: An Informal Memoir. New York: Paragon, 1990.

Plumb, Cheryl J. Fancy's Craft: Art and Identity in the Early Works of Djuna Barnes. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP, 1986.

Ponsot, Marie. "A Reader's Ryder." Broe, Silence 94-112.

Scott, Bonnie Kime. Refiguring Modernism: Postmodern Feminist Readings of Woolf, West, and Barnes. Vol. 2. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995.

Scott, James B. Djuna Barnes. Boston: Twayne, 1976.

Tyack, David B. "Ways of Seeing: An Essay on the History of Compulsory Schooling." Harvard Educational Review 46(1976): 355-89.

Wiegman, Robyn. "The Anatomy of Lynching." Fout and Tantillo 223-45.


Barnes, Djuna (Vol. 11)


Barnes, Djuna (Vol. 29)