Nightwood Summary

Djuna Barnes


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Nightwood Summary

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Nightwood is a 1936 novel by Djuna Barnes that is among the very earliest novels to present a story of an explicitly homosexual relationship between two women. It is written in the gothic style using modernist literary techniques and was praised by prominent modernist T.S. Eliot, who contributed an introduction to the 1937 edition of the book. Eliot raved that Nightwood is,“…so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it.”

The central character is Robin Vote, who is seeking what she calls “secure torment” and whose story begins in Europe. Robin brings turmoil to the lives of those around her. She is always trying to escape what makes her unhappy, although she never really figures out what would make her happy. Dr. Matthew O’Connor introduces Robin to Felix Volkbein, a supposedly rich baron. Matthew O’Connor is a transsexual who is posing as a doctor. He conducts deliveries and abortions in an attempt to seem legitimate. Robin and Felix marry and have a child. Felix is motivated to marry by a desire to imitate the ways of old European nobility, and by so doing he hopes to provide a feeling of security for Robin and validate his own family name.

After the birth of Guido, Robin and Felix’s disabled son, Robin feels dissatisfied in her relationship with her husband and flees to America. Once in America, she meets a woman named Nora Flood and they enter into a romantic relationship. Nora is a salon keeper who, much like Robin, always seems to be searching for satisfaction in her life. Soon they move to Paris together, where they both hope to find security. Robin’s personality means she keeps Nora at arm’s length, emotionally, and she begins spending nights away from Nora while having encounters with strangers. Nora, meanwhile, waits at home for Robin to return. In spite of her numerous affairs, Robin finds them all boring and none of them brings her the fulfillment that she craves. Ultimately Robin’s actions and interest in others leads to the breakup of her relationship with Nora.

Among the women with whom Robin has encounters is Jenny Petherbridge. Jenny is a widow who has been married four times. She finds satisfaction in “stealing the joy of others.” Nora, in the same way that Felix did before her, turns to Matthew O’Connor for advice in getting over Robin. Robin does not find any more comfort in her relationship with Jenny than she did in any of her other encounters, and spends her nights wandering around aimlessly. During this time, Felix is focusing his attention on his son, which helps him forget about Robin. Nora is not as successful at moving forward and continues to grieve the loss of Robin.

The timeframe jumps forward and finds Robin and Nora having returned to America, where they have an unusual encounter. Nora is camping in the woods and finds Robin in an abandoned church. Robin is on her knees in front of an altar. As Nora enters the church, she falls and is rendered unconscious. Robin plays with Nora’s dog on the floor and eventually falls asleep, at which point the novel ends.

It is perhaps not surprising that Publishers Weekly named Nightwood among its list of the Top 10 Most Difficult Books saying, “Dylan Thomas called Nightwood ‘one of the three greatest prose books ever written by a woman,’ but in order to behold this greatness you must master Barnes’ tortuous, gothic prose style. In his introduction to the novel, T.S Eliot described Nightwood’s prose as ‘altogether alive’ but also ‘demanding something of a reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give.’ Nightwood is a novel of ideas, a loose collection of monologues and descriptions. What will keep you going: The cross-dressing Irish-American ‘Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante O’Connor,’ who, when not wandering Paris, drinking heavily, or dressing in nighties, rouge, and wigs of cascading golden curls, is expounding great rambling sermons that fill most of the book. These are funny, dirty, absurd, despairing, resigned—even hopeful in a Becketty I-can’t-go-on-I’ll-go-on kind of way.”

The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature says of Nightwood and its author, “Djuna Barnes remains a fascinating and critical enigma of the Lost Generation. Since she eschewed fame and success in her lifetime, it would seem only too easy to forget her. Yet she is the author of the masterwork Nightwood, a novel that begs to be remembered. In addition to T. S. Eliot’s stamp of approval as the author of its introduction, Dylan Thomas called Nightwood ‘one of the three great prose books ever written by a woman.’ In addition, even in a day when the literary canon is being reformed, Nightwood continues to be one of the only novels by a woman, if not the only one, regularly taught in courses on American modernist literature. Indeed, Nightwood has often been cited as a very influential novel for subsequent writers.”