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.)