Nightwood Summary

Baron Felix Volkbein first meets Robin Vote at a hotel in Paris, where an unlicensed physician named Matthew O'Connor revives her after a fainting spell. Felix marries Robin, hoping to join European high society, from which he feels estranged because he's Jewish. After the birth of their son Guido, Robin withdraws from Felix and eventually disappears.

  • Months later, Robin resurfaces in Paris with her girlfriend Nora Flood, an American who runs a kind of literary salon. Robin and Nora have a passionate, tempestuous affair complicated by Robin's drinking. Nora starts following Robin at night, desperate to hold on to her.
  • One night, Nora catches Robin with another woman. Robin moves in with her lover, Jenny, a jealous, bird-like woman who can't tie Robin down either. Nora turns to Matthew O'Connor, arriving at his tiny apartment one night while he's dressed up in women's clothes, waiting for a lover. His advice offers no real solace.
  • Eventually, Robin breaks up with Jenny. One night, Nora follows her dog to a small church near her property, where she finds Robin kneeling at the altar. Robin and the dog circle each other, growling and nipping. Finally, they collapse, exhausted, and readers are left to wonder if Nora and Robin reconcile.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Nightwood is Barnes’s most important work and the one most frequently read and discussed. Although it has a reputation as a difficult novel, it has been widely and enthusiastically admired by important literary figures, most notably perhaps Eliot, who was instrumental in securing its publication, and the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. The primary focus in Nightwood is not plot but rather psychology, in that the narrative focuses upon the emotional reactions of its characters and their responses to Robin Vote. The novel’s prose is dense and richly metaphorical, and two of its eight chapters consist solely of long conversations on the nature of lesbian love and sexuality.

The novel begins by considering the familial background of Felix Volkbein, the son of a Jewish Viennese merchant, who feels estranged and excluded from the snobbish world of European culture and society. Volkbein meets Robin Vote in the company of Dr. Matthew O’Connor, who is called to assist Robin after she has collapsed in a Paris hotel. Barnes’s description of Robin consistently emphasizes her lack of volition; in this instance, for example, she is surrounded in her hotel room by exotic plants, and her skin is said to have a texture that is normally associated with plants.

Mistakenly reading Robin’s lack of volition as a sign of malleability, Volkbein later marries Robin in order to fulfill his aspiration of founding a familial dynasty. After the birth of their child, however, Robin withdraws into a solitary life of travel and immerses herself in Catholicism. Abandoning her child and husband, she reappears some months later in Paris with her lover, Nora Flood. Two features of these events are particularly significant for an...

(The entire section is 711 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Felix Volkbein is no sooner born in Vienna in 1880 than his mother, Hedvig, dies. His father, Guido, a descendant of Italian Jews who had tried to overcome the burden of what he took to be an ignoble past by pretending to be of noble birth, died six months earlier. The orphaned Felix is left with a rather substantial upper-middle-class household and the fictitious title of Baron Volkbein.

About thirty years later, Felix, a nominal Christian, owns little more than his spurious title and two “family portraits” that are in fact paintings of long-forgotten actors procured by Guido in his effort to create an aristocratic past for his family line. By 1920, Felix is making a living in international banking in Paris. Here he indulges in his real obsession, the nobility, aristocracy, and royalty of Old Europe. Without legitimate claims to noble blood, he envies the nobility from a discreet distance. To exercise his propensity for make-believe, he becomes a habitué of the night world of the circus and theater. Among these “night people,” many of whom are also “titled,” Felix meets Dr. Matthew O’Connor, an Irishman from San Francisco, and Nora Flood, an American who is in Europe as a publicist for a circus.

O’Connor is a lively and talkative eccentric with an opinion or observation to make on everything and everyone. He and Felix meet again in Paris a few weeks later. The doctor is called to assist a young woman who had fainted, and Felix is on hand when O’Connor brings her around. She is Robin Vote, mistress of this world of the night, and in her half-awakened state a beast turning human.

It is in that half-awakened state that she agrees to marry Felix when, in rather short order, he proposes to her to produce an heir to continue the Volkbein line. Felix moves Robin to Vienna, where she sleepwalks through her pregnancy, coming to, as it were, upon the birth of the child. She abandons Felix and the boy, a sickly baby, and ends up in the company of Nora Flood.

Robin is with a circus in New York in 1923 when she first meets Nora, and the two become constant companions. Although Robin is incapable of forming lasting attachments, Nora falls tragically under her spell,...

(The entire section is 909 words.)