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.)