Metaphor and the Other: The Language of Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Jessie Widner
Editing by Maria Elena Torres-Quevedo

Art: Mäda Primavesi’ by Gustav Klimt

How does one write about a novel that has already been prefaced by T.S Eliot and Jeannette Winterson? A novel described so perfectly as, “It is like drinking wine with a pearl dissolving in the glass. You have taken in more than you know, and it will go on doing its work. From now on a part of you is pearl-lined,” (Winterson). Both were fascinated with the dark poetics of the novel, the quality and rhythm of its language, and its immersive atmosphere.

Nightwood  (1936) is a thoroughly modernist novel, based on Barnes’ real life relationship with Thelma Wood. The novel travels, like its author, from America to Paris, then back again, but the overwhelming texture is that of interiority, and the space the reader is invited to inhabit is the inner world of each character: Robin Vote, Felix Volkbein, Nora Flood, Jenny Petherbridge, and the Doctor—Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O’Connor. There is a sense of dread in the novel, a claustrophobia. Above all, and somewhat obviously, it is concerned with night-time, with darkness, with the ability to make oneself elusive. The Jew, the Lesbian, and the Transvestite. Each of them is Other, and the language of the novel reflects this otherness. It is never openly stated nor analyzed; it is woven into the book’s genetics.

I first encountered Nightwood in a class at the University of Toronto called “The Lost Generation: Americans in Paris,” taught by Dr. Michael Cobb. It was taught alongside such stalwarts as The Great Gatsby  A Moveable Feast, The Sun Also Rises, and The Autobiograpy of Alice B. Toklas. The first interest I took in Nightwood could not be described as scholarly. It was overwhelming, and creative in nature.

For me, three years later, Nightwood still has no parallel. It is a disturbing read. It is dark, and it is unrelenting, even grotesque. We meet each character in their most desperate moments: Nora Flood tailing her lover, Robin Vote, through seedy bars, willing to forgive anything; Jenny Petherbridge’s manipulations, her theft of Nora’s happiness. The language has little in common with that of Hemingway or Fitzgerald, which, even in scenes of darkness, retain clarity and masculinity. The language of Nightwood brims with metaphor, which can be overwhelming at times. Robin, the figure on whom the novel pivots, is “the infected carrier of the past: before her the structure of our head and jaws ache—we feel that we could eat her, she who is eaten death returning, for only then do we put our faces close to the blood on the lips of our forefathers” (Barnes, 41). Though often beautiful, the language of Nightwood can be ugly and frightening as well. There are times it borders on horror. Each character struggles to find meaning in a society that has rejected them, and this search does not always result in moral or ethical actions.

After Robin leaves her, Nora arrives, broken-hearted, to the home of the false Doctor, Matthew O’Connor. She finds him in bed, dressed in a woman’s nightgown, wearing a blonde wig, and heavily made up, having “evacuated custom and gone back into his dress” (86). Nora asks, “Doctor, I have come to ask you to tell me everything you know about the night.” (86). This “night” is not simply temporal or environmental. It is the space of otherness, and each character inhabits it in their own way.  Nightwood is less a novel about toxic love affairs than it is about diaspora, about surviving in a world that is inhospitable and hostile. Each character turns to the night not only as a distraction, but as a shield.

Felix Volkbein, the orphaned son of an Italian Jew disguised as a Viennese Baron, doesn’t know the truth of his heritage, but is still controlled by it, “for the step of the wandering Jew is in every son” (10). He meets Matthew O’Connor, an Irishman by way of San Francisco, and a dubious medical practitioner, who leads him to Robin Vote, whom he marries. Their son, unwanted by his mother, suffers from an unidentified mental disability. After leaving Felix, Robin enters into an intense affair with Nora Flood, and drives her mad with her alcoholism and unfaithfulness. Robin leaves Nora and lives for a time with the thrice-widowed Jenny Petherbridge. None of these characters would be mentioned in a novel by Hemingway or Fitzgerald, despite sharing a locale and time period. In a world of heterosexuality, of hyper-masculinity, they are outcast.

The language in Nightwood then, must bend to the world that these characters live in. It is a world where things cannot be spoken of plainly, where desire must be shrouded and ornamented with metaphor. When Barnes was writing the novel, in the early thirties, this was the only way to tell it. It is a language chosen specifically for the night-time, language repurposed to communicate the unrepresented world of the other, of those who cannot move freely in daylight.

While Nightwood is a natural choice for a class on Modernism, or on American expatriate writing, there is a great lesson to be learned from it for creative writing students. The publishing industry is still dominated by those who are male, straight, and white, and this is reflected in the reading lists of many creative writing courses. To tell a story that is reflective of personal experience, or simply to find and hone our individual voices, the lessons of western, masculine storytelling cannot always suit our purposes. As writers, we must learn to shift language to our purposes, to make the form express the content, thus achieving the alchemic moment of inner life becoming outer.

Works Cited

Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. New Directions. 2006.
Winterson Jeannette. “Creatures of the Dark.” The Guardian. 31/3/2007. Accessed 7/2/2017.

About the author:

Jessica Widner has a BA in English Literature from the University of Toronto, and is currently completing an MSc in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh. Primarily a writer of fiction, her work has appeared in Potluck Mag, Lantern Magazine, and Klipspringer Magazine.

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