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Nightwood Summary Analysis Essay

Nightwood, Djuna Barnes’ 1936 novel, has quite the reputation; it’s both a modernist and a lesbian classic, it’s notoriously difficult, and it comes with a commendation from Mr T.S. Eliot himself. While I can confirm that the novel does take some persistence, and that it is indeed modern, and that the foreword speaks for itself, I can’t quite wrap my head around why it is that Nightwood has become some kind of lesbian cult novel.

Granted, it has lesbians in it. But does that make it a lesbian novel? I’m not going to pretend that I have any grasp of the qualities that might make some kind of lesbian literary style or aesthetic, nor am I going to dwell on the age old preconception that if something has lesbians in it, it will be consumed by lesbians (why do we think The L Word was such a success?). What I am going to do is assert that viewing Nightwood merely as a “lesbian novel” (whatever that means) has its shortcomings, and that it may create a sort of tunnel-vision that disregards some of Barnes’ most compelling statements.

Barnes’ goal throughout Nightwood is not to assert a solid and unwavering lesbian symbolic; rather, Barnes explores the trials of those who fail to enter the symbolic (as a result of deviant gender or sexuality), and who feel that any attempt to do so is futile. As the title of the novel’s first chapter suggests, the characters of Nightwood must “Bow Down” to the ‘unknowable’ and acquiesce to an existence between the lines, where language does not, and cannot, articulate. In spite of this inadequacy, Barnes acknowledges the defining and excluding powers of language. The restrictive yet broad nature of the symbolic functions to homogenize the majority, excluding the few who fail to function within its parameters, or “approximate the norm.”  In fact, Barnes’ cynicism towards the reliability of language and her acknowledgement of the social regulation of identity give the novel surprisingly post-modern and post-structuralist themes.

The treatment of gender in Nightwood, much like its treatment of language, is way ahead of its time. Characters such as Frau Mann, Robin Vote and Matthew O’Connor can quite easily be described as genderqueer, and Barnes’ narrator avoids defining their sexual and gender identities with any labels. That is, with the exception of Robin who is referred to as a member of the “third sex”. Interestingly, this is also a term that is occasionally found in relation to queer theory. Robin’s androgyny, however, is a step away from third wave feminist and queer theories relating to gender. She’s “a woman who is beast turning human,” “an infected carrier of the past”, and her skin is “the texture of plant life”. These descriptions imply that Robin’s gender, or androgyny, is intrinsically linked to her primal nature; Barnes strongly suggests that Robin pre-dates the concept of gender, or, more specifically, the gender binary. This association places Nightwood quite distinctly within the realms of female modernism; “utopian ceremonial androgyny”, as Sandra Gilbert terms it, being typical of writers of female modernism. Furthermore, Judith Butler, a prominent third wave and queer theorist, emphasises that “there is no subject who precedes or enacts” gender, a statement which Barnes’ description of Robin clearly contradicts.

Robin is not Nightwood’s only androgynous character; Frau Mann is an aerialist whose gender signifiers have been replaced by the bodily and superficial markers of her profession. This displacement of gender signifiers would go far to effectively “unsex” Frau Mann, when considering Butler’s assertion that gender replaces sex as a form of social currency; in relation to Frau Mann, profession, instead of gender, replaces sex as an identifiable social currency. However, Mann’s physical description is significantly masculine:

Her trade– the trapeze – seemed to have preserved her. […] Something of the bar was in her wrists, the tan bark in her walk, as if the air, by its very lightness, by its very non-resistance, were an almost insurmountable problem, making her body, though slight and compact, seem much heavier than that of women who stay upon the ground. […] She seemed to have a skin that was the pattern of her costume: a bodice of lozenges, red and yellow […] – one somehow felt they ran through her as the design runs through hard holiday candies, and the bulge in the groin where she took the bar, one foot caught in the flex of the calf, was as solid, specialized and polished as oak. The stuff of the tights was no longer a covering, it was herself; the span of the tightly stitched crotch was so much her own flesh that she was as unsexed as a doll. The needle that had made one property of the child made the other the property of no man.

Through her attempts to surpass gender and create a “sexless” description, Barnes highlights one of the main problems with androgyny as a method to transcend the gender binary: androgyny necessarily refers to the very dichotomy it attempts to undermine.

Barnes’ eccentric Dr Matthew O’Connor embodies both sides of the gender dichotomy in a different way: he appears, at first, to be a transvestite. The Doctor finds himself surprised by Nora while he is cross-dressing in his room, which is “a cross between a chambre à coucher and a boxer’s training camp”, and quite clearly expecting some one else. At first, this encounter seems to echo the assertion that drag is an offensive mockery of women, used to bring a man’s masculinity to the forefront; Barnes describes O’Connor, through Nora, as the wolf in the bed, implying he is both unattractive and intimidating. This explanation of drag figures it as an act of (or, at least, an act that results in) lauding  power over women; the man in drag highlights that he possesses what women lack – the phallus, which represents social power.

However, the condition of O’Connor’s room implies quite the opposite. “The feminine finery had suffered venery,” “every object battled its own compression”: it seems that the room serves as a metaphor for O’Connor’s conflicted identity. The psychological “feminine” side of O’Connor’s identity is fighting a battle that is confined within the external limits of his masculine body, as well as being confined to an inexpressible space that language does not accommodate. It is quite possible that O’Connor’s character is in fact transgender. He may talk of his wish to be a woman in stereotypical, and at times dismissive, terms but his admission that he “turned up this time as [he] shouldn’t have been” is compelling. Moreover, these dismissive and sometimes witty comments may even serve to further Barnes’ points on the inadequacy of language. The Doctor employs these comments (“toss up a child”, “some good man”, etc.) in the same we he employs the parodic and comedic qualities of drag: to shield himself from the reprobation his femininity may entice. Language is inadequate to convey his misery, and so he doesn’t try to convey it. Language is O’Connor’s tormentor, it isolates him and renders him invisible.

Of course, as Nightwood rails against language itself, the conclusion of the novel is more of a collapse. Robin surrenders not only her identity but also her humanity in order to become free of the constraint of language, and finally collapses playing and barking with Nora’s dog. Still, Nightwood is a beautifully written and complex novel that contemplates the complex relationship between language and gender in a way that is surprisingly close to post-structuralist, third wave feminist and queer ideas. Still relevant today, Nightwood highlights the enormity of the journey towards empowerment for LGBT individuals, and some of the structures that have contributed to their exclusion.

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Siri Hustvedt is the author of a book of poetry, two books of essays and four novels, most recently, The Sorrows of an American. She has been known to sing in her sleep, loudly. Her last known somnambulant outburst was a raucous rendition of the Mary Poppins favorite: "Supercali- fradgelisticexpealadocious." Marion Errlinger hide caption

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Marion Errlinger

The spring after I turned 24, I discovered Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, a slender, dense novel that I read with the aching intensity of a person possessed.

It wasn't about my world — I had grown up in a small town in Minnesota and then moved to New York City. Nightwood is set mostly in a Paris Barnes knew intimately in the 1920s, a city inhabited by ex-pats, drifters and poseurs. And yet, the story of passion and grief, of exile and loneliness, spoke directly to me, a young woman who, for some reason, had never felt she quite belonged anywhere.

I carried the book around with me, reread passages, pondered their meanings, and suffered with Nora Flood, whose liaison with the wild, amoral Robin Vote, becomes her abiding anguish. And I pored over the speeches delivered by my favorite character, the novel's bombastic but tender bard, Dr. Matthew O'Connor — a cross-dresser, petty thief, inveterate liar and tragic anti-hero.

One afternoon, that same spring, I found myself sitting next to an elderly woman on the subway. She looked down at the volume in my lap, and said, "Oh, Djuna Barnes. I know her. Would you like to write to her?" She gave me the author's address, and I sat down to write a page-long testament to the power of Nightwood.

A year and a half later, I received a reply: "Your letter," Barnes wrote, "has given me great difficulty."

That was all. A couple of months later, I read in the newspaper that the 90-year-old Barnes was dead. I realized that her letter to me must have been one of the last things she wrote.

Almost 30 years have passed since then, and I've always been a little afraid to return to Nightwood. What if the book was a folly of my youth? What if I found it overwrought and shallow, rather than rich and deep?

But when I read it again, I loved it, and again found myself amazed by its prose. In his introduction to the novel when it was first published in 1937, T.S. Eliot called Barnes' language "astonishing." He was right.

"Ho, nocturnal hag, whimpering on the thorn, rot in the grist, mildew on the corn," the doctor says to Nora during a lyrical tirade. A page later, his diction drops when he confesses that he was born in the wrong body: "I never asked better than to boil some good man's potatoes and toss up a child for him every nine months."

But the wonder of Nightwood is not only stylistic. It lies in the range and depth of feeling the words convey. There is irony here and humor, too, but in the end, the novel is a hymn to the dispossessed, the misbegotten and those who love too much. At one time or another, I suspect that those adjectives describe most of us.

The letter I wrote to Djuna Barnes was the only letter I have ever written to an author I didn't know, and despite her cryptic reply, I am glad I sent it. It turns out that the aging, settled person I have become was just as overwhelmed and impressed by Nightwood as that young woman who rode the subway years ago, feeling a little lost in a big, new city.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'Nightwood'

By Djuna Barnes
Paperback, 208 pages
List Price: $12.95

Jenny Petherbridge was a widow, a middle-aged woman who had been married four times. Each husband had wasted away and died; she had been like a squirrel racing a wheel day and night in an endeavor to make them historical; they could not survive it.

She had a beaked head and body, small, feeble, and ferocious, that somehow made one associate her with Judy; they did not go together. Only severed could any part of her have been called "right." There was a trembling ardour in her wrists and fingers as if she were suffering from some elaborate denial. She looked old, yet expectant of age; she seemed to be steaming in the vapours of someone else about to die; still she gave off an odour to the mind (for there are purely mental smells that have no reality of a woman about to be accouchée. Her body suffered from its fare, laughter and crumbs, abuse and indulgence. But put out a hand to touch her, and her hand moved perceptibly with the broken arc of two instincts, recoil and advance, so that the head rocked timidly and aggressively at the same moment, giving her a slightly shuddering and expectant rhythm.

She writhed under the necessity of being unable to wear anything becoming, being one of those panicky little women who, no matter what they put on, look like a child under penance.

She had a fancy for tiny ivory or jade elephants; she said they were luck; she left a trail of tiny elephants wherever she went; and she went hurriedly and gasping.

Her walls, her cupboards, her bureaux, were teeming with second-hand dealings with life. It takes a bold and authentic robber to get first –hand plunder. Someone else's marriage ring was on her finger; the photograph taken of Robin for Nora sat upon her table. The books in her library were other people's selections. She lived among her own things like a visitor to a room kept "exactly as it was when." She tiptoed, even when she went to draw a bath, nervous and andante. She stopped, fluttering and febrile, before every object in her house. She had no sense of humour or peace or rest, and her own quivering uncertainty made even the objects which she pointed out to the company, as, "My virgin from Palma," or, "The left-hand glove of La Duse," recede into a distance of uncertainty, so that it was almost impossible for the onlooker to see them at all. When anyone was witty about a contemporary event, she would look perplexed and a little dismayed, as if someone had done something that really should not have been done; therefore her attention had been narrowed down to listening for faux pas. She frequently talked about something being the "death of her," and certainly anything could have been had she been the first to suffer it. The words that fell from her mouth seemed to have been lent to her; she had been forced to invent a vocabulary of two words, "ah" and "oh." Hovering, trembling, tip-toeing, she would unwind anecdote after anecdote in a light rapid lisping voice which one always expected to change, to drop and to become the "every day" voice; but it never did. The stories were humorous, well told. She would smile, toss her hands up, widen her eyes; immediately everyone in the room had a certain feeling of something lost, sensing that there was one person who was missing the importance of the moment, who had not heard the story; the teller herself.

She had endless cutting and scraps from her journals and old theatre programmes, haunted the Comédie Française, spoke of Molière, Racine and La Dame aux Camélias. She was generous with money. She made gifts lavishly and spontaneously. She was the worst recipient of presents in the world. She sent bushel basket of camellias to actresses because she had a passion for the characters they portrayed. The flowers were tied with yards of satin ribbon, and a note accompanied them, effusive and gently. To men she sent books by the dozen; the general feeling was that she was a well-read woman, though she had read perhaps ten books in her life.

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