Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

At its most basic level, Nightwood is the record of the disastrous impact Robin Vote has on the people around her—her husband Felix Volkbein and her lovers Nora Flood and Jenny Petherbridge. These characters are, in turn, acquaintances and confidantes of Matthew O’Connor, who offers a running commentary on the novel’s action. Djuna Barnes pioneered the treatment of lesbianism in literature, dealing with the subject as early as The Book of Repulsive Women in 1915. Nightwood is her major study of love between women, written in the aftermath of an affair with the sculptor Thelma Wood, but it cuts across many hierarchies and dichotomies other than that of gender: good and evil, animal and bestial, and so on.

Nightwood is arranged in roughly chronological fashion but frequently doubles back to clarify earlier events. These events are explained not so much in terms of cause and effect as through the interaction of image and metaphor. The novel is divided into eight suggestively titled chapters. In the first, “Bow Down,” Barnes introduces Felix Volkbein and gives an account of his birth in Vienna in 1880 and his background. Felix next appears in Paris in 1920. Having failed to insinuate himself into legitimate aristocracy, he has come to identify with the sham aristocracy of theater and circus. As Felix makes his way through this “society,” he meets Nora Flood and the louche “Dr.” Matthew O’Connor.

In the next chapter, “La Somnambule,” Matthew and Felix are discussing the lot of Irishman and Jew in a café when...

(The entire section is 650 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although Nightwood is not the first novel to deal with lesbianism, Barnes did pioneer the treatment of the subject with an early collection of poems and drawings, The Book of Repulsive Women, in 1915. A more substantial work, Ladies Almanack, appeared in 1928. This is a mannered but thinly veiled satire on the lesbian community in Paris. Neither of these volumes had a wide distribution, although Barnes’s novel Ryder (1928), a tragicomic version of her family history, was a bestseller for a short time.

By general agreement, Nightwood is her major work, although it was rejected by a number of publishers before being accepted by an editor at the English firm of Faber and Faber: noted poet T. S. Eliot. Eliot insisted on substantial cuts, thus softening the book’s sexual content, but thought so highly of it that he wrote an introduction comparing its tone to that of Elizabethan tragedy.

Nightwood initially received mixed reviews. It was frequently attacked for its content and for what was seen as its “decadent” character, but it has since developed a reputation among many critics as one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century. It has also had an important impact upon the work of other writers, including William Faulkner, Anaïs Nin, John Hawkes, and Lawrence Durrell.

Nightwood is significant not only for its exploration of female sexuality but also for the manner in which it challenges the conventions and modes of thought that constrain female sexuality. It is not, however, a defense of a particular way of life or a piece of propaganda. It anything, it is nearly merciless in its bleak view of human life and love.

Barnes seems to have held ambivalent attitudes about sexuality and social change. She wrote Nightwood in the aftermath of a passionate and painful love affair with another woman, but she maintained that she was not a lesbian—she had simply loved the other woman. She was also dismissive of the women’s movement, suggesting, perhaps not entirely jokingly, to her biographer Andrew Field that feminists should stay home knitting their husbands’ socks.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Vienna. Capital city of Austria, in which the novel opens with a flashback from 1920 to 1880, when one of its central characters, Felix Volkbein, is born. The very first paragraph describes Felix’s mother, Hedvig, giving birth while “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.” The ornate richness and highly self-conscious quality of the language of this passage, perhaps the most accessible of the novel’s many physical descriptions, is indicative of the novel’s style.

Opening the story in Vienna serves two related purposes. Since Vienna was psychologist Sigmund Freud’s city, it serves to prefigure the most important of the novel’s Surrealist themes—the primacy of sleep and dreams over reason and waking “reality”—and it announces the author’s “mythopoeic” intention. For Felix, readers soon learn, is not simply one person, a historical being, among others cast in a realistic drama of human passion. Rather, he is a modern embodiment of a mythic archetype—he is once called a “wandering Jew”—and so are all the other characters.

Berlin circus

Berlin circus. Subject of a brief flashback within the Vienna section of the novel that introduces a circus performer, the duchess of Broadback. This woman is also known as Frau Mann, a mannish woman whose name announces the subtheme of the paradoxes of gender. Her purpose is to allow a discussion of one of the favored surrealist themes: the superiority of circus life to “normal” life.

A favored subject of many then avant-garde artists of Djuna Barnes’s era, such as painter Pablo Picasso, the circus is associated with the illicit life of the night and particularly with sexual license. In this regard, it contrasts with the falsity and “bad faith” of the lives of the comfortable bourgeoisie audience that it entertains.

The Berlin flashback also introduces the formidable Dr. Matthew O’Connor, an Irish American expatriate who, as a homosexual and a self-styled gynecologist, is one of the novel’s many “outsiders.” Through his extraordinary talent for talk, O’Connor becomes the story’s chief moral intelligence. Berlin seems very much like Vienna, and serves to...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Broe, Mary Lynn, ed. Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. An invaluable collection of essays on Barnes and her work, many of which are written from a feminist perspective. Includes many reproductions of Barnes’s artwork. A bibliography and extensive notes are included.

Eliot, T. S. “Introduction” to Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovano-vich, 1936. Eliot’s encomium in his introduction to the first edition of Nightwood secured the novel the recognition it deserved but might otherwise never have attained. Brief and to the point, Eliot singles out that one feature of Barnes’s prose style, its poetry, that continues to make the novel a classic of modernist technique.

Field, Andrew. Djuna: The Formidable Miss Barnes. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985. A corrected and revised edition of the biography that first appeared in 1983, frustrating in its lack of notes but highly inventive in form and approach—an ideal match of biographer and subject. Provides extensive information on the composition and background of Nightwood. Includes illustrations (including some reproductions of Barnes’s artwork) and an extensive list of sources.

Frank, Joseph. The Widening Gyre: Crisis and Mastery in...

(The entire section is 532 words.)