The focus of American writer Djuna Barnes
' stream of consciousness
novel Nightwood is Robin Vote, a disturbingly debauched woman whose eccentric behavior embodies elements of the sensuous and the primitive. All of these features make her an aesthetically alluring object of attraction for Paris's bohemian community that thrives on the extraordinary.
Throughout the course of the novel the, Robin Vote becomes romantically engaged with three art-loving bohemians, all of whom she ends up abandoning. The first is the assimilated Venetian Jew Felix Volkbein
, who compensates for his alienation from his ethnic heritage by associating himself with nobility and consuming objects of art
from all over Europe. The second is Nora Flood, an American expat in Paris who hosts salons to socialize with the local artists. Last but not least is pretentious socialite Jenny Petherbridge
who learns everything about books and tries to pass herself as an intellectual by repeating the little tidbits that she has memorized.
There's one compelling reason that Paris
ian bohemians and art lovers are drawn to Robin: the young woman herself is very much like a walking talking work of art. Unpredictable because she operates by instinct, Robin's every gesture delights her companions. As she unexpectedly breaks out into song
, her vocal chords conjure up voices of strangers and convoke their spirit
s into her presence. "The song would be taken up again from an inner where.. entered with Robin's.. snatches of harmony... a company of .. people, debased and haunting."
Robin appeals to the bohemians with her outdated clothing that evokes different time periods, fashions, and even paintings. Her first lover Felix Volbein encounters her buying a custom-tailored dress made in an antique shop
: "pricing a small tapestry
in .. a
shop facing the Seine, he saw Robin reflected in a door mirror
of a back room, dressed in a heavy brocaded gown ...." Felix, the art connaisseur, perceives Robin as mirroring art styles of Renaissance
as well as statues. He goes on to describe her as a renaissance-style angel: Her "pale head with its short hair growing fat on the forehead and .. with curls on the level with finely arched eybrows gave her the look of cherub
s in renaissance theaters." He also compares Robin's beauty
to that of a statue in a museum
was gracious and yet fading, like an old statue in a garden
, that symbolizes the weather through which it has endured."
Robin's sensuous indulgence
is accompanied by an equally passionate indulgence for drink. She roams around the city during night and day, imbibing unbelievable amounts of alcohol
and blacking out wherever she happens to be. Her second lover Nora Flood has to take care of Robin after her self-destructive bouts of drinking.
She confides her distress about Robin's addiction to her friend Dr. Matthew O.Connor:"Yes one night she ran behind me in the Montparnasse quarter where I had gone looking for her because someone had called me saying she was sick and couldn't get home."
Far from appreciating Nora Flood's caretaking, Robin berates her for intervening in her life: she wishes that Nora would leave her to be happy with her drunken misery. One time when Nora finds Robin to take her back home and nurse her from her hangover, Robin points out an elderly female street beggar
as the paragon of what it means to be happy and what she herself would like to be. Upon "seeing a poor wretched beggar
of a whore
.." Robin said, "give her some money, all of it. She threw the francs into the street and bent down over the filthy garbage
and began stroking her hair with the dust of years saying, 'they are all god forsaken and you most all, because they don't want you to have your happiness. They don't want you to have your drink."
Nora suspects that Robin deceives her with other women as she wanders about Paris drunk
. She is horrified at the potential desires swarming around in her beloved's mind as the two of them lie next to each other in bed. Sleep itself becomes a kidnapper of Robin, taking her away from Nora into another realm where she entertains thoughts of her other lovers, while forgetting the one whose bed she is sharing.
Dr. Matthew O'Connor describes Robin's deceitfulness in her sleep
in a long rambling monologue
: "The sleeper is the proprietor of an unknown land. He goes about another's business in the dark - and we, his partners, who go to the opera, who listen to gossip of café friends, who walk along the boulevards, or sew a quiet seam, cannot afford an inch of it; because, though we would purchase it with blood, it has no counter and no till."
Sleep becomes a place of freedom where Robin fulfills her erotic
desires: "When she sleeps, is she not moving her legs aside for an unknown garrison?
," asks Dr. O'Connor.
Nora is only too aware that Robin has goes away to a land of debauchery and drunkedness when she plunges into slumber. Unfortunately, Nora cannot penetrate Robin's dreams and drive the demon
s of self-destructive desire
from her consciousness. The barrier between Nora's waking state and Robin's sleepful one is unbroachable. Nora describes this harsh truth in sad, despairing words: "I tried to come between her and save her, but I was like a shadow
in her dream
that could never reach her in time, as the cry of the sleeper has no echo, myself echo struggling to answer; she was like a shadow walking periously close to the outer curtain, and I was going mad because I was awake and seeing it, unable to reach it, unable to strike people down from it."
Nora's directs her cries of despair to her supportive friend, Dr. Matthew O'Connor, who always answers with philosophical retorts that amplify and refract the story. Dr. Matthew O'Conner's role in the novel is to reframe his friend's experience in the mythical categories of sleep
, and debauchery.
However, Nora's listener is also an interesting character in his own right. As a personality, O'Connor is a walking contradiction. On the one hand the doctor is saintly: he doles out bits of wisdoms about the pain of love. As a fervent Catholic
, he discuses the sacred
and the expiation of sin
. On the other hand he is a pervert. Wishing he were a woman, he decks himself out in dresses in the privacy of his own stench and squalor-filled apartment. He also inserts perverted and grotesque stories into his monologue.
O'Connor's contradictions reflect those of the novel itself. On the one hand, Nightwood is sickening. The novel is a macabre Jerry Springer like spectacle of Robin's crude, malicious, and grotesque behavior. On the other hand, it is also about Nora Flood's selfless, infinitely forgiving devotion
and attachment to the cruel and abusive Robin. Some may sneer at Nora and dismiss her as stupid for sticking with such a treacherous lover
. She may not be worth of anymore more than pity in the same way that a dog
that returns to the master
that beats it time after time. However, because the narration does not treat Nora's "unreasonable attachment to Robin" as pathological but as normal, the reader really does come to share Nora's feelings.
Commiseration with Nora is not hard if we come to understand love as an attachment that knows no reason. That really is the only way to make sense of Nora's deep and abiding affection for Robin. The narrator describes Nora's bond to Robin as literally physical. It's as if Robin has become a part of Nora's body. When her beloved is away, Nora feels as if a part of her body
has been suddenly taken away from her: "Robin's absence, as the night drew on, became a physical removal, insupportable, irreparable. As an amputated hand
cannot be disowned because it is experiencing a futurity, of which the victim is its forebear, so Robin was an amputation
that Nora could not renounce. As the wrist longs, so her heart
longed, and dressing she would go out into the night (so) that she might be beside herself, skirting the café
in which she could catch a glimpse of Robin."
Note: Nightwood was published in 1936. Djuna Barnes has lived in Paris as an expatriate and based her novel on her romantic experiences with sculptor and silverpoint artist Thelma Wood.
The source of this biographical tidbit is http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/dbarnes.htm
P.S: Many critics believe Nightwood to belong to the genre of lesbian fiction. The female protagonist, however, is probably bisexual rather than lesbian since she has a relationship with a man at the beginning of the novel.