Places: Nightwood

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1936

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological surrealism

Time of work: 1920’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Vienna

*Vienna. NightwoodCapital city of Austria, in which the novel opens with a flashback from 1920 to 1880, when one of its central characters, Felix Volkbein, is born. The very first paragraph describes Felix’s mother, Hedvig, giving birth while “lying upon a canopied bed of a rich spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin on which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms.” The ornate richness and highly self-conscious quality of the language of this passage, perhaps the most accessible of the novel’s many physical descriptions, is indicative of the novel’s style.

Opening the story in Vienna serves two related purposes. Since Vienna was psychologist Sigmund Freud’s city, it serves to prefigure the most important of the novel’s Surrealist themes–the primacy of sleep and dreams over reason and waking “reality”–and it announces the author’s “mythopoeic” intention. For Felix, readers soon learn, is not simply one person, a historical being, among others cast in a realistic drama of human passion. Rather, he is a modern embodiment of a mythic archetype–he is once called a “wandering Jew”–and so are all the other characters.

Berlin circus

Berlin circus. Subject of a brief flashback within the Vienna section of the novel that introduces a circus performer, the duchess of Broadback. This woman is also known as Frau Mann, a mannish woman whose name announces the subtheme of the paradoxes of gender. Her purpose is to allow a discussion of one of the favored surrealist themes: the superiority of circus life to “normal” life.

A favored subject of many then avant-garde artists of Djuna Barnes’s era, such as painter Pablo Picasso, the circus is associated with the illicit life of the night and particularly with sexual license. In this regard, it contrasts with the falsity and “bad faith” of the lives of the comfortable bourgeoisie audience that it entertains.

The Berlin flashback also introduces the formidable Dr. Matthew O’Connor, an Irish American expatriate who, as a homosexual and a self-styled gynecologist, is one of the novel’s many “outsiders.” Through his extraordinary talent for talk, O’Connor becomes the story’s chief moral intelligence. Berlin seems very much like Vienna, and serves to introduce a number of highly eccentric characters, all of whom suggest the theme of the polyglot quality of modern urban life.


*Paris. France’s capital city is the novel’s central setting, but it, too, is wrapped in surrealist eccentricity. For example, readers never meet a French person there, but only a variety of expatriates. While a number of real landmarks and streets are named, none is ever given a detailed description. As the novel’s title suggests, Barnes is interested in the psychological and cultural implications of the metaphor of “night,” and especially the myths about it that her Surrealist predecessors (notably Andre Breton, the founder of the Surrealist movement) had invented.

Paris seems to be the central literary place in the novel primarily because it was the center of the European avant-garde at the time. The novel’s central event–the meeting and the lesbian love affair between the American expatriates, Robin Vote and Nora Flood–happens here. Robin’s chapter is titled “La Somnambule” and she is a fictional projection of that favored Surrealist figure, the sleepwalker. Perpetually bewildered by consciousness, truly alive only within the mysterious folds of night, Robin is the novel’s emblem of intrigue and almost unfathomable sexual attraction to the novel’s other female characters, Nora Flood and Jenny Petherbridge.

Robin is also a tragic figure, an archetype of the lost soul who will be destroyed by her own psychological contradictions. Paris is a place that, due to its great age, has created a complex and decadent culture that alone can sustain the lives of characters, like Robin, who are so eccentric as to be irredeemably outside the bourgeois norm. Famous as the City of Light, Paris is also the city of night; in its acceptance of all the mystery, paradox, and abnormality that the human race can produce, it is the antithesis of the puritanical American possessiveness and mania for regularity and for soul-denying clarity that is symbolized by New York City.

*New York City

*New York City. The story ends with Robin and Jenny, now her lover, in New York City, where Robin aimlessly wanders the nighttime streets, haunting train terminals and out-of-the-way Roman Catholic chapels. Like the novel’s other cities, New York is another symbol of the night, a dark landscape of somnambulant wandering in which sensual desire predominates over conscious self-control.

A sudden leap–typical of the novel’s effort to create the sense of life’s essential lack of logic, no transition from one place to another is provided–finds Robin suddenly wandering the rural New York countryside. She is unconsciously winding her way, slowly and tortuously, toward Nora’s country home. There she enters the estate’s decaying chapel–a place of candlelight and flickering shadow reminiscent of T. S. Eliot’s use of the same image in his poem The Waste Land (1922)–and descends into madness in a scene that is one of the strangest and most interesting, if disturbing, conclusions to a novel in literature. The countryside is no more realistically described than the city–they are indistinguishable as physical places since neither is treated in any detail–but Barnes’s unique style creates an eerie sense that life is most fully lived at night and in the dark, that “surreality” is more important than daylight “reality” or consciousness. Barnes’s treatment of place in Nightwood, like the other aspects of plot and character development, is at the service of the novel’s dark and deeply ambiguous, but ultimately quite moral, theme: that “Man was born damned and innocent from the start, and wretchedly–as he must–on those two themes–whistles his tune.”

BibliographyBroe, Mary Lynn, ed. Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. An invaluable collection of essays on Barnes and her work, many of which are written from a feminist perspective. Includes many reproductions of Barnes’s artwork. A bibliography and extensive notes are included.Eliot, T. S. “Introduction” to Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovano-vich, 1936. Eliot’s encomium in his introduction to the first edition of Nightwood secured the novel the recognition it deserved but might otherwise never have attained. Brief and to the point, Eliot singles out that one feature of Barnes’s prose style, its poetry, that continues to make the novel a classic of modernist technique.Field, Andrew. Djuna: The Formidable Miss Barnes. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985. A corrected and revised edition of the biography that first appeared in 1983, frustrating in its lack of notes but highly inventive in form and approach–an ideal match of biographer and subject. Provides extensive information on the composition and background of Nightwood. Includes illustrations (including some reproductions of Barnes’s artwork) and an extensive list of sources.Frank, Joseph. The Widening Gyre: Crisis and Mastery in Modern Literature. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1963. Contains Frank’s influential essay “Spatial Form in Modern Literature,” which originally appeared in 1945 and which discusses Nightwood along with works by Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce.Kannenstine, Louis F. The Art of Djuna Barnes: Duality and Damnation. New York: New York University Press, 1977. This scholarly and critically ambitious work on Barnes concludes that Barnes is a transitional writer, difficult to classify and therefore missing the attention her art and work deserve. Defines Nightwood, her masterpiece, as a study of mixed being and of the estrangement that results from confused identity.Kennedy, J. Gerald. Imagining Paris: Exile, Writing, and American Identity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993. Examines the importance of expatriation in twentieth century American literature–a highly important theme in Barnes’s writing. Kennedy discusses Nightwood and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is the Night in the chapter “Modernism as Exile: Fitzgerald, Barnes, and the Unreal City.”Plumb, Cheryl J. Fancy’s Craft: Art and Identity in the Early Works of Djuna Barnes. Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania: Susquehanna University Press, 1986. Points out that Barnes deliberately rebelled against naturalist techniques in her writing, borrowing instead from methods of narrative exposition developed out of symbolist poetry. Nightwood, her greatest achievement, presents difficulties for scholars and readers alike precisely because it is the purest realization of these goals.Scott, James B. Djuna Barnes. Boston: Twayne, 1976. A good introduction to Barnes. Points out that the writer as she matured sought to mix and then fuse genres and styles. Nightwood, Barnes’s one attempt at a “popular” novel, succeeds by fusing elements of a lurid realism with an engagingly poetic style.Williamson, Alan. “The Divided Image: The Quest for Identity in the Works of Djuna Barnes.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 7, no. 1 (Spring, 1964): 58-74. Concludes that Barnes is a brilliant if minor writer and that Nightwood underscores a recurrent theme of day-night duality, whereby the ordinary truths and values of the daytime world are subverted and exposed as falsehoods.
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