Essays About Nightwood

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.

Robin’s Silence in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood


             In this paper I use reader-response criticism, mainly the reception theory, filtered through some feminist ideas to attempt an understanding of the character Robin in Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood.  Through the act of reading and re-reading I come to realize that the position I allotted to Robin in the beginning, a position influenced by critics’ evaluation of her character, is shaken and eventually reversed.  By trying to read the gaps and silences that the text leaves around Robin I come to see her character not as deteriorating but rather as gaining its strength, a strength that she had at the beginning but that which was jeopardized as she comes in contact with patriarchal society.  Robin moves from her former state of innocence to one of corruption as a result of her interaction with society, until she finally succeeds in returning to her former innocent self.  Innocence here is linked to the irrational, the subconscious, and the animal; all states that are sometimes associated with the realm of the feminine.  As Robin succeeds in returning to these states, the text emerges as a sort of feminist victory rather than a degradation of its main female character.


This paper was an ongoing project for a class I took last year.  I owe a lot of it to my classmates and of course my professor as we helped each other shape and reshape our ideas.  It’s somewhat personal as I describe in it my reading process but it’s also theoretical as I had to use reader response criticism to support my reading.  I apologize in advance if the theory makes it indigestable.

I’ll begin by reading a poem by Emily Dickinson as I see it as an avid description of how the novel depicts the position of women in a patriarchal society: Emily Dickenson writes:

   A loss of something ever felt I--

   The first that I could recollect

   Bereft I was--of what I knew not

   Too young that any should suspect

   A Mourner walked among the children

   I notwithstanding went about

   As one bemoaning a Dominion

   Itself the only prince cast out--

            In her book The Resisting Reader, Judith Fetterley further illustrates this condition of women in society in the following excerpt:

Bereft, disinherited, cast out, woman is the Other, the Outsider, a mourner among children; never really child because never allowed to be fully self-indulgent; never really adult because never permitted to be fully responsible; forever a “young mourner,” a “little woman”; superhuman, subhuman but never simply human. (ix)

This is the position of Robin in Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood.  I don’t know if anyone has read this novel. It’s written in 1936 and its about the main character Robin and her relationships starting with Felix who she marries and bears a child from, she then leaves her husband and child and has a lesbian relatioship with Nora and then Jenny. Finally in the last chapter of the book, one that amazed and shocked everyone in class, it is Robin’s relationship with a dog. In a church she finally gets down on all fours and starts what appears to be a communication with this dog.  This chapter is seen by most critics as the final degradation of her soul and in this paper I try to prove that it is not so. At least this is not what the novel is saying.  In this novel Robin fits Fetterley’s description of women.  She is indeed “superhuman, subhuman, but never simply human” and no where is this more apparent than in the continuous allusion to the animal - and plant life - that surrounds her.  She is, moreover, characterized as the “Other” in the novel, never having a voice herself but more often projected through what the other characters say of her.  Yet it is not enough to say that the novel is about Robin’s other-ness without diving deeper into the reasons for casting her as such; that is the reasons the book gives her that position and the reasons the reader sees her in that position.

            This is where I bring reader response theory in my paper .  I wite of  Wolfgang Iser, a reception theorist, who explains that a text employs two aspects of the reader: the “implied reader” and the “actual reader”.  The actual reader is the one who brings his/her experiences to the act of reading in order to color the reading process. The implied reader is the one created by the text through what Iser calls “response-inviting structures” which make readers read in a certain way (Selden 121).  In  Nightwood, the “implied reader” within us has to be stressed.  Whatever experience we bring into Nightwood is manipulated by the text to give us a different perspective of it.  Norms of behavior that we expect from characters are not found in Nightwood.

            By distinguishing between the two readers, implied and actual, Iser shows that meaning is not in the text or the reader alone, it emerges by the interaction of the two entities.  The text applies the use of triggers or gaps in order for each reader to interact with it and to form new meanings. In reading Nightwood I was especially aware of these gaps in the text causing me to question what is happening and why.   The characters are left unwritten as much as possible and the reader has to fill in the blanks of this or that..  This is the kind of reading that I needed to employ in order not to be taken into 'other-ing' the characters.

            Through the ocontinuous class discussion we came to realize that a text like Nightwood provides new interpretations every time it is read.  Louis Rosenblatt in The reader, The Text, The Poem, says that “successive reading of a text by an individual reader . . . will also usually differ, since the first organized experience will influence the expectations and sensitivities which the reader brings to the second reading, and so on”(122-23).  In my first reading of the text I approached it triggered with the editors remarks that it is a book about “Robin Vote and those she destroys”.  Therefore I was very attentive to the book’s portrayal of her as an animal or an evil thing, “a woman who is a beast turning human,” and “who is eaten death returning”(36), a woman who thinks “unpeopled thoughts” and whose prayer is “Monstrous”(43).  When she finally becomes one with the dog in “The Possessed” I saw this as the final degradation of her soul.  Some critics write that “Robin’s collapse at the end of the novel signals a kind of defeat of the feminine by the masculine order, the feminine’s inability to overcome or persistently coexist with the masculine”(48). It is the terms collapse and defeat that I disagree with.

            After resolving to the idea of Robin’s final degradation, I tried to understand the reasons for what happened and for Robin’s actions.  In successive readings of the novel, now approached with the intention of finding Robin’s motives, I was ‘triggered’ by the gap left by Robin’s silence. the book is described as being “the story of Robin Vote and those she destroys: her husband “Baron” Felix Volkbein and their child Guido, and the two women who love her, Nora Flood and Jenny Petherbridge.”  In my first reading of the novel I agreed with the editors in seeing Robin as the cause of misfortune to these people.  However, when I re-read it, I paid closer attention to Robin as a person as opposed to my starting perception of her as a “destroyer”.  Although Robin is the cause of all the pain inflicted on the other characters, we hardly see her character in the book, and when seen it is through the eyes of the other characters.  She is often spoken of but almost never speaks.

            I decided that in order to understand the work I had to fill in these blanks, to fill in Robin’s silence.  To be able to fill in these blanks, to ‘speak’ for Robin I must know more about her.  I am here forced by her silence to enter her position of 'other'.  The book however, did not give me enough information to try to fill in these blanks.  I didn’t know Robin.  The text would describe how she looks, how she is walking (39), and what she is wearing (40), but we very rarely read what she is thinking or feeling.

            Robin’s silence is felt everywhere in the novel. In her relationship with her husband Felix we read only of what he wants and only what he feels.  Their marriage seems to be a thing suggested by Felix and submitted to by Robin. Even her meeting with Felix was not of her choice.  She was actually lying unconscious in bed when he first met her (34), and later it was Felix following her until finally running into her  (39).  When they were together “Felix was happy.  He felt that he could talk to her, tell her anything, though she herself was silent” (39).  It is Felix again who decided that they should have a child and so “Robin prepared herself” (42).  Finally when the time came for birth, we read that “Robin was delivered” (44 she was submissive.  She was not the person to do things but the one who has things done to her.  One critic actually describes Robin as “the passive center of all of the narrative’s events” (Kannenstine, 116).

            When Robin and Nora meet it is again Nora’s initiative in holding Robin’s hand that begins their relationship.  Robin’s relation with Nora is even more puzzling than that with Felix. Nora seems desperate to keep Robin by her side, and “to keep her . . . Nora knew that there was no way but death. In death Robin would belong to her” (52).  Robin is silent in this relation as well, and when she tries to express herself she is not understood. She sings but Nora does not understand her singing.

            Finally Jenny comes into Robin’s life, stealing her from Nora.  And when Robin starts associating and talking with other women, Jenny silences her by ordering the carriages to take them out.  In the end it is through Jenny’s abuse of Robin that Robin succumbs to her:

Jenny struck Robin, scratching and tearing in hysteria, striking, clutching and crying. Slowly the blood began to run down Robin’s cheeks, and as Jenny struck repeatedly Robin began to go down as if brought to the movement by the very blows themselves, as if she had no will, sinking down in the small carriage, her knees on the floor, her head forward as her arm moved upward in a gesture of defense. (66)

            Robin moves from one strange relation to another, the strangeness increasing each time.  She is never heard to say how she feels or what she wants.  The relationships seem to be dictated to her by Felix, Nora, and Jenny.  Because her voice is silenced, it is almost impossible to know her motives and to understand her, so it is our job as readers to understand the reason of her silence.  One way I was able to do that was by looking at the novel as a work portraying minorities in a society.  We do not see any stereotypical society members here, they are all silenced voices or oppressed groups, from Felix the Jew to doctor Matthew the cross-dresser to Jenny and Nora the lesbians.  Yet it is not these voices that are silenced in the novel.

            All these characters are very expressive and are portrayed as the norms in the text against which Robin’s character is set.  Robin is a character who is not especially attentive to other people’s needs, she abandons her husband and her son among others who showed they love her.  Yet a closer reading shows that she was not understood by any of these people and hence was silenced.  The characters of Felix, Nora, Jenny and the doctor are used to represent ‘normal’ society members and it is Robin who stands out against them.  The other characters are always ready to speak and pursue what they want, yet Robin, when she does so, does it too late.  When her voice is heard it is usually too late.  After the doctor and Felix come into her room to try to revive her she wakes up saying “I was all right” (35), only after the doctor has been called. Years after her baby is born she tells Felix “I didn’t want him” (45).

            As the story progresses, Robin speaks more often but still not often enough.  Finally, in the most bizarre of all chapters, “The Possessed” Robin gets down with the dog, communicating with it, it seems, better than she did with any of the other human characters.  Tracing her silence I would see that the more outspoken she becomes, the stranger the relationship she is in, finally leading to the most strange of all, her ‘relationship’ with the dog.  Is the book saying that the voice of someone like Robin needs to be silenced, that such character needs to be controlled so as not to sink to the level of animals?  Or does Robin, in associating with the dog, finally reach what she wants, and is this text saying that one should speak whether what s/he says is accepted or not?

            I believe that what needs to be done here is to establish what Robin stands for.  Since all the characters in Nightwood are ‘society outcast’, we should find out what Robin’s character stands for and what makes her different.  What intrigues me here, aside from her silence, is her innocence.  There were many references in the text to Robin’s innocence and this is most clearly felt in her association with the animals. It is actually Felix himself who mentions her need for “someone to tell her that she was innocent”(99).  Robin is “frequently associated with childhood,” and has “more natural and comfortable connections . . . with the very young”(Kaivola, 88). But her innocence is not only a child’s innocence, it is also because she is “outside the ‘human type’--a wild thing caught in a woman’s skin”(121).  This position is supported by some critics who agree that:  “Robin represents a simple and common form of American expatriation.

            Coming up with the realization that Robin’s character is an embodiment of innocence, I now wonder at other descriptions of her as an animal and if her animal side is no longer to be taken to mean a corruption to her soul but actually an insistence on her innocence.  She is an animal and a child and is thus innocent of what goes on around her and if animal is a portrayal of innocence why should I take her last action of becoming a dog as any less than her returning to, or winning her innocence.  Her turning into a beast might be an indication of her innocence, and if that is the case, is she innocent only in the end or has she always been innocent but her role in the society forced her to change?

            It was interesting to link that idea with another explanation of the novel suggested by one of my classmates.  Through applying the idea of the “quest for transformation” to Nightwood, this student saw that Robin is reversing the traditional order of this quest; Departure, Wandering, Arrival, explaining that from the eyes of society, Robin moves backward in this quest as she begins her quest a ‘normal’ being having a heterosexual relationship with a husband and ends associating with a dog in what could be considered bestiality.  Rosenblatt suggests that we “consider the text as a more general medium of communication among readers.  As we exchange experiences, we point to those elements of the text that best illustrate or support our interpretation” (146).  I would also suggest that what is pointed out to us helps in forming our understanding of a text.  Therefore, when considering the possibility of the innocence of the beast I could look at these three stages of the quest and rethink what was said.  In the beginning of the novel Robin was lost, she had a problem of fitting in her society.  When I read the line “she was afraid she would be lost again,” I thought primarily that she was lost since leaving Felix (50).  She chooses Felix in an attempt to be part of the society, but when she realizes that this problematic for her she continues her wandering from Felix to Nora to Jenny, in each trying to find her place.  That phrase did not refer to her feeling of loss away from Felix but actually to her loss in the role that she was forced to play.  Her wandering finally leads her to the point of arrival in which she finds herself, or finds the animal inside her.  However, this animal signifies purity and innocence not depravity or bestiality.  By turning into a beast and associating with it, Robin finally ends her quest successfully by reaching her ‘self’.  In a celebrated reversal of hierarchies, Robin progresses from the rational to the irrational.

            One of the aspects of the feminist movement is to question the patriarchal order of society.  The patriarchal order, with all its significations should be turned over. A traditional, patriarchal point of view would distinguish between rational and irrational, conscious and subconscious, reason and passion, mind and heart, always valuing the former over the latter.  In a feminist reversal of hierarchies, mind, passion, subconscious and irrational would replace their opposites and take the higher position in the hierarchy.  When Robin finally turns into the irrational beast, she is actually elevated to a higher position.  It is indeed a departure from the patriarchal, rational world and an arrival into the more acclaimed feminine, irrational one.

            With all this in mind I reread the paragraph that first introduced the reader to Robin, accompanied by that which ended the novel.  From the beginning, the words “confusion” and “dishevelled” “silencing” and “threatened consciousness” surround Robin. It is not that her consciousness was threatened, but it was threatening to Robin for her consciousness to be in control.  The first two words seemed to belong to the second set of binary opposites that I have just suggested, the irrational one.  Therefore I can see that the novel begins with Robin actually in this state of irrationality but drifts away from it as a result of getting in touch with society (Felix and Matthew).  She moves away from Felix, to Nora, to Jenny in an attempt to relocate herself.  After Jenny, “Robin now head[s] into Nora’s part of the country.  She circle[s] closer and closer” (138Robin is indeed going into a full circle to head back to where she started at the beginning; the state of “confusion”.

            Attempting to return to her world, Robin goes through this quest for transformation, yet it is not transformation she is seeking, but a return to her individual being.  Even her quest does not take the linear form of departure, wandering, arrival.  It actually goes in a circle; departure, wandering, arrival (into a world in which she doesn’t belong), wandering, and finally departure (into her own world).  Robin goes full circle in her quest.  Her physical status at the beginning and the end of the quest support this idea.  We first see her lying in bed, with her face turned and her hands beside her.  In the end she returns to her starting position, “lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned" (139).

            So let me now explain how I see the novel after all this.  I return to Wolfgang Iser who believes that reading is “an active process of becoming conscious of otherness, as it brings about a questioning and probing of the validity of received norms and systems. In brief it is an event of personal and social significance, an expansion of the self” (Freund 147).  Nightwood is a celebration of the irrational, basically because it goes against the traditional, patriarchal order of things.  Robin’s silence, therefore, is no longer a silence but expression in another language, a language not easily understood by anyone who follows the traditional (limited) way of perception.  The reader has to speak Robin’s language if s/he wants to understand the novel.  No longer is my task as a reader to fill the gaps, but it is to understand the language spoken by Robin that can only be read in these gaps and silences.

            I no longer see the ending as a tragedy of Robin’s collapse, I now see it as a victory.  Robin was able finally to come back to her self and to come in terms with the animal inside her.  Through her wandering into the world of the humans; male and female, she was finally able to return to her original self, to her bestiality.  But here the term bestiality is not used negatively. The words used in the novel do not carry their usual sense of reference.  The human is not applauded in the novel, nor is the beast condemned.  It is actually quite the opposite.  It is the beast who is applauded for its innocence and its resort to nature while human is corrupted by its desire to fit in a society that does not welcome the natural and the innocent.  Robin’s final change into the dog is her victory over the society that tries to take her away from her natural self and make her as human as possible, even if it meant making her something other than she is.



Works Cited

Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. 1936. Ed. Cheryl J. Plumb. Illinois: Dalkey Archive, 1994.

Fetterley, Judith.  The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction.  Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978.

Freund, Elizabeth. The Return of the Reader. London: Methuen, 1987.

Kaivola, Karen. All Contraries Confounded. Iowa: U of Iowa P, 1991.

Kannenstine, Louis F. The Art of Djuna Barnes: Duality and Damnation. New York: New York UP, 1977.

Michel, Frann. “Displacing Castration: Nightwood, Ladies Almanack, and Feminine Writing.” Contemporary Literature. 30 (1989):33-56.

Nimeiri, Ahmed. "Djuna Barnes's Nightwood and 'the Experience of America'." Critique. 34:2 (1993): 100-112.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem. Illinois: Southern Illinois U., 1994.

Selden, Raman. Practicing Theory and Reading Literature: An Introduction. Kentucky: Kentucky UP, 1989.


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