Djuna Barnes Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Djuna Barnes came from a very eccentric family. Do any aspects of her subject matter or style reflect this background?

Like a number of other talented young writers, Barnes seemed to be trying to shock her readers. To what pitfalls is such an approach liable?

Barnes applied a demanding technique—stream of consciousness—to the explication of characters who are themselves unconventional and difficult to fathom. Was she expecting too much of her readers, or might they regard these difficulties as a compliment?

Barnes’s work is called “an important example of lesbian writing.” Explain who you think can profit most from her writing: gays or straight people?

Was Barnes “ahead of her time” in the 1920’s or 1930’s, or more attuned to her time than her critics?

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although primarily known for her singular novel Nightwood, Djuna Barnes wrote in many genres throughout her long life. She initially earned her living in New York City as a freelance reporter and theater critic, publishing articles in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, New York Morning Telegraph, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, New York Press, The Dial, and other periodicals. Her artistic skills showed in her drawings, some of which appeared as early as 1915 in The Book of Repulsive Women, her first published chapbook. Her artwork also appeared as illustrations for Ladies Almanack, a roman à clef about lesbian circles in Paris, a book she cleverly structured in the format of an almanac. Another collection of her drawings was published in 1995 as Poe’s Mother: Selected Drawings of Djuna Barnes. Her first collection of short stories, A Book (1923), was reissued as A Night Among the Horses in 1928 with a number of additional stories.

Barnes also was a dramatist. Her one-act plays were performed at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, New York City. She wrote and rewrote the full-length verse drama, The Antiphon, over a twenty-year period before poet T. S. Eliot, in his position as a literary editor with publisher Faber and Faber, approved the manuscript for publication. The action of the play occurs in a fictional township in England during World War II, as family members from America reunite; family drama ensues. Their memories of love and aggression probably reflect Barnes’s own upbringing and family dynamics.

Barnes’s last book before she died was Creatures in an Alphabet (1982), a collection of short rhyming poems. Since her death in 1982, collections of her journalism, short fiction, poetry, short plays, previously published work, and manuscript selections have appeared, confirming her versatile talents in many literary and artistic forms.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Djuna Barnes was initially known as a literary modernist, someone who wrote formally and linguistically complex and allusive works. In the 1970’s, critics began to examine her work in the context of feminist studies and feminist literary theory. They also began researching Barnes, long known for her role in the American expatriate literary scene in Paris in the 1920’s. Like Gertrude Stein, Barnes is now appreciated as a formative figure in studies of modernism and of lesbian and gay cultural history. The concessions she made to adhere to U.S. censorship regulations are less widely known, but the published typescript of Nightwood shows what Eliot deleted while editing. Ryder, in this regard, also was problematic, and Barnes used asterisks in the text to indicate the changes that she was forced to make.

Because her protagonists often refer to individuals that Barnes knew from her years in Paris or from childhood, her books lend themselves to biographical, psychobiographical, and life-writing approaches. Barnes was knowledgeable about women’s rights, and her fiction investigates the nature of sexuality, gender, sexual expression, equality, and choice. Barnes received recognition for her role in American literature when she was elected in 1961 to the National Institute of Arts and Letters.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Allen, Carolyn. Following Djuna: Women Lovers and the Erotics of Loss. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. Examines theories of representation and difference in lesbian literature.

Barnes, Djuna. Interviews. Edited by Alyce Barry. Washington, D.C.: Sun & Moon Press, 1985. A collection of forty-one interviews written between 1913 and 1931, accompanied by Barnes’s original illustrations. Subjects range from Diamond Jim Brady to James Joyce. Taken in total, a useful memoir of the period in which Barnes developed as a writer.

Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank, 1900-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Classic biocritical study of women artists, writers, and intellectuals. Chapter seven covers Barnes’s life and writing while she lived on the Left Bank of Paris, a thriving center for American expatriates.

Broe, Mary Lynn, ed. Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. Pivotal collection of essays that emphasize the feminist and communal aspects of Barnes’s life.

Chait, Sandra M., and Elizabeth M. Podnieks, eds. Hayford Hall: Hangovers, Erotics, and Aesthetics. Carbondale: Southern University Illinois Press, 2005. Critical essays examine the characters living and learning at Hayford Hall, the Devonshire estate in England where Barnes lived for a time.

Field, Andrew. Djuna: The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1983.

Field, Andrew. Djuna, the Formidable Miss...

(The entire section is 710 words.)