If ever a story depended more on its telling than on the tale, Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood is that story. The plot of Nightwood contains traditional elements such as an array of interesting characterizations, narrative twists that are suspenseful if no doubt also puzzling, and a not inconsiderable measure of humor and insight into the human condition. Yet those elements seem to be present only in the most elliptical manner, as if the author’s real aim is not to be telling a story at all.
Barnes is, by most definitions of the term, a modernist writer essaying modernist themes and issues. Like other avant-garde literature of the period, Nightwood includes confrontations of cultural values; breakdowns in the social order as traditional class structures decay; daring sexual-psychological interpretations of human character and motivation; and a keen, almost morbid attention to eccentric and morally outrageous behavior. Even Nightwood’s surrealism, as in O’Connor’s monologues, is in keeping with contemporary literary trends and techniques.
Yet Nightwood is a rare creation even for an epoch of experimentation in fiction. The novel nags the reader with the suggestion of a meaning that is, like that of the more traditional novel, inherent in the characters and in the way they work out their moral dilemmas. It is possible that Nightwood’s real achievement is the almost perfect blending of...
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