Although characters in the novel, with the exception of Sabina, tend to be shadowy, having little or no separate identity apart from their relationship to her, they function variously as lovers, confidants, or composite beings symbolic of Sabina’s divided personality. In musical counterpoint, each character is symbolized by a particular piece. Alan, Sabina’s husband, cares deeply for her, allows her freedom to pursue her erotic adventures, but cannot dominate her will. Modeled after Nin’s husband, Hugh Guiler (also known as Ian Hugo), Alan functions as Sabina’s point of refuge; her reaction to him is symbolized by Claude Debussy’s Ile Joyeuse.
Philip, Sabina’s first romantic encounter, a handsome operatic tenor, is an authentic Don Juan, in contrast to her failed Dona Juana. Virile and assertive, his musical symbol is Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Mambo, the black musician, seems to Sabina to be a “primitive,” but he rejects her condescending attitude; his musical symbol is the drum. John, the aviator, suffers from malaria and perhaps battle shock that has driven him nearly to madness. Sabina identifies him with the moon (earlier she had been touched by Debussy’s Claire de Lune). Donald, whose caresses lack passion, offers Sabina calm to ease her “fevers.” His effect on her is the opposite of the mood evoked by Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite.
Jay, the painter-philosopher and former lover of Sabina, reminds her of “Vienna-as-it-was-before-the-war,” music of Bohemian gaiety; he introduces her to an understanding of her multilayered self, represented by Marcel Duchamp’s painting Nude Descending a Staircase. In this Cubist painting she sees herself: “Eight or ten outlines of the same woman, like many multiple exposures of a woman’s personality, neatly divided into many layers, walking down the stairs in union.” Finally, Djuna restores Sabina to her inner core of serenity with Beethoven’s Quartets (probably the last Quartets, with their dense organization and the “great fugue”); from this music she discovers her essential harmony deriving from complexities.