Nightwood by Djuna Barnes [...] justify the book as a postmodern novel. "Nightwood" is a postmodern novel in every respect, from the stream-of-consciousness style of writing to the underlying sexual and homosexual themes that could only exist in postmodern writing of the twentieth century. "Nightwood" is unique, compelling, and disturbing all at the same time, yet it is difficult for the reader to put down. While it has been long touted as a classic lesbian novel, Barnes herself fought this label, wishing it only to be remembered as a classic postmodern work, not a sexually motivated treatise on women who love women.
Author Djuna Barnes was born in 1892 in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York. Her mother was a violinist, and her father was a farmer and painter. Her parents instilled a love of the arts early in her life, and her father's free-spirited enthusiasm also greatly influenced her and her work. Her mother and grandmother were the main caregivers in her life, and she was schooled outside the school system of the time. She attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and the Art Students League, briefly. Her parents divorced during this time, and she began working as a journalist and freelance illustrator, and moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where she lived a "Bohemian" life. She began to write poetry, plays, and wrote for several newspapers, too. It was during this time that she began to drink quite heavily, and she was hospitalized several times in her life for drinking problems. (It is interesting to note that many of the characters, especially Robin and the doctor, also drink to excess in the book, and it leads to their most emotional moments, such as the doctor's drunken acknowledgement that his life is meaningless, and Nora's recognition that she was closest to Robin when Robin was dead drunk and passed out.) She remembered, "She was mine only when she was drunk, Matthew, and had passed out. That's the terrible thing, that finally she was mine only when she was dead drunk'" (Barnes 346). This problem with alcohol may have added to her despondency over losing her lover, which is why she seems to have woven it so thoroughly through "Nightwood."
In 1920, she moved to Paris and began to work seriously on publishing books. She also lived with and loved Thelma Wood, an artist. In 1928, she published anonymously "Ladies Almanack,' an erotic pastiche of lesbian life. It was arranged by month and was illustrated with the author's own drawings. Barnes used the style of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries added with neologism and Joycean wordplays ("Djuna"). In 1936, she published "Nightwood," the story of a young orphan Viennese boy who marries Robin Vote, a young American girl. Nora Flood, the advance publicist for a circus, is Robin's lover, and the book follows their relationship, along with the constant interplay of Dr. Michael O'Connor, a transvestite gynecologist from Ireland transplanted to San Francisco's Barbary Coast ("Djuna").
Barnes returned to America in 1940, and lived an obscure life until her death in 1982, and she is still relatively unknown in the world of writing, although one biographer notes, "In spite of feminists' interest in Barnes's work in the 1970s and 1980s, she is still called the unknown legend of American literature" ("Djuna"). Her book "Nightwood" remains her most famous and her most admired. To explore the novel, the reader must first understand the author's life, and know that "Nightwood" is partly her own story of her love of Thelma, which ended in 1931, but influenced her throughout her life. She insisted "Nightwood" was not a lesbian novel, and she herself was not a lesbian. One reviewer wrote,
She grew increasingly resistant to lesbian interest in her work and its place in a tradition of lesbian writing. "I am not a lesbian," she insisted in the 1970s, "I just loved Thelma." However, given that in 1936, she had been able to write, "Please do not think of it -- I was not offended in the least to be thought lesbian -- it's simply that I'm very reticent about my personal life," her later denial may say more about differences in what it means to identify oneself as lesbian at different historical moments than about Barnes's sexuality (Moyes).
The reader must make up their own mind after reading and digesting this complex and often convoluted novel, but Barnes does leave some scattered clues throughout the short novel. At one point the doctor muses, "Love of woman for woman, what insane passion for unmitigated anguish and motherhood brought that to the mind?" (Barnes 292). In passages such as these, she seems to question her own penchant for women, and her own loves gone bad. Thus, the novel becomes more than "lesbian" fiction, it transcends that to become women's fiction, the fiction of love, loves lost, and loves found. The novel, however, is not really about love, but the destruction of love, and that can happen to anyone regardless of sex or their own longings. As the doctor notes near the end of the book "So love, when it has gone, taking time with it, leaves a memory of its weight'" (Barnes 333). Just about everyone has felt this weight of love, and so, this book sooner or later touches a chord with just about everyone who reads it. Again, this indicates this is not simply a work of lesbian fiction; it is a work of fiction on love and the complexity of relationships, no matter who they are with. The doctor's relationships in this novel are just as convoluted as Robin's, and just as unsatisfying in the end, another clue this book is not geared only to female readers.
The novel is written in a stream-of-consciousness style that is often composed of long, rambling speeches by the doctor, which is sometimes difficult to decipher. As T.S. Eliot noted in his introduction to the novel, it often reads like prose or poetry (Barnes 228). Another critic notes, "Barnes's style in 'Nightwood' emerges from Symbolist and Decadent aesthetics. The text's elaborately worked surface, its string of nonevents, its endless detailing of decor and costume, and its cast of exuberant 'degenerates' takes the practices and preoccupations of these movements to an extreme. The text, like its writer, is overwrought" (Moyes). The style adds to the overall mystique of the novel, but is also quite common, and even expected, in postmodern fiction, which attempted to explore the very leading edge of fiction, and how far writers could go before readers rejected their work. Numerous publishers rejected "Nightwood" before T.S. Eliot convinced Farar in New York to take on the book.
There are many who may dispute the author's remarks that this book is not a "lesbian" piece of fiction, but the author did not want it remembered as such, she simply wanted it to be remembered as a classic work of fiction. The characters are all so eccentric that this work can take on many more roles than simply lesbian. Dr. O'Connor, for all his ranting, is quite the philosopher, and he really acts as a father figure to young Felix, who considers himself a "baron" but is really quite naive about the world and the people in it. He falls for Robin, a cruel woman who ruins every life she touches. Early on he recognizes this, when he notes, "When she smiled the smile was only in the mouth and a little bitter: the face of an incurable yet to be stricken with its malady" (Barnes 265). He marries her, but neither of them is happy, and she leaves him after giving birth to a son, and takes up with Nora Flood. She leaves Nora for Jenny, and moves through her relationships like a sleepwalker, never actually seeming to take part in them, and leaving as soon as her partners gains a bit of comfort or disgust in the relationships.
Robin is an enigma. She seems unhappy, removed from those around her, and unlovable, and yet she draws the characters to her as fire draws moths to the flame. One critic notes, "Robin, a character whose constant movement thwarts the attempts of other characters to possess her, is a figure of desire. Barnes withholds any stable representation of Robin, leaving the configurations of desire as open as possible" (Moyes). It is as if Robin must destroy others as she moves toward her own goal of self-destruction. She flits from lover to lover, never really attaching herself to the people who attach themselves to her. She is detached, unloving, and yet extremely lovable to those who care about her, and yet her character is so utterly devoid of anything even remotely charming or lovable, it is difficult if not impossible to see why so many others throw their lives away as a result of losing her love. She affects even the enigmatic doctor, and his last scene in the book is a drunken and weeping acknowledgment that…