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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 272

Djuna Barnes's Nightwood is a modernist masterpiece and a classic of lesbian literature. Important themes throughout the novel include gender, sexuality, and the intersections of pleasure and pain.

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The protagonist, a woman named Robin Vote, moves through Europe and America, as well as through a string of lovers, looking for "secure torment"—she needs to be miserable in order to be happy. One telling quote on the subject of pain and pleasure is, “The unendurable is the beginning of the curve of joy.” That joy is presented as a curve is the reason for Robin's quest and her inability to stay in one place, or with one person, for too long. She's trying to find a passion and torment that is sustainable.

A few more quotes that shed light on what it is exactly that Robin wants are the following:

  • "There's something evil in me that loves evil and degradation—purity's black backside! That loves honesty with a horrid love; or why have I always gone seeking it at the liar's door?"
  • "None of us suffers as much as we should, or loves as much as we say. Love is the first lie; wisdom the last.”
  • "God, children know something they can't tell; they like Red Riding Hood and the wolf in bed!”

This last quote is especially illuminating. The idea is presented that children are more in touch with taboo desires than adults, who have had longer to internalize societal norms and concepts of morality. Following this line of logic, Robin's search for pleasure and pain is not "depraved" (as some might see it) but rather a return to childish innocence.

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