Gender and Sexuality in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood

by R.C.

Nightwood, Djuna Barnes’ 1936 novel, has quite the reputation; it’s both a modernist and a lesbian classic, it’s notoriously difficult, and it comes with a commendation from Mr T.S. Eliot himself. While I can confirm that the novel does take some persistence, and that it is indeed modern, and that the foreword speaks for itself, I can’t quite wrap my head around why it is that Nightwood has become some kind of lesbian cult novel.

Granted, it has lesbians in it. But does that make it a lesbian novel? I’m not going to pretend that I have any grasp of the qualities that might make some kind of lesbian literary style or aesthetic, nor am I going to dwell on the age old preconception that if something has lesbians in it, it will be consumed by lesbians (why do we think The L Word was such a success?). What I am going to do is assert that viewing Nightwood merely as a “lesbian novel” (whatever that means) has its shortcomings, and that it may create a sort of tunnel-vision that disregards some of Barnes’ most compelling statements.

Barnes’ goal throughout Nightwood is not to assert a solid and unwavering lesbian symbolic; rather, Barnes explores the trials of those who fail to enter the symbolic (as a result of deviant gender or sexuality), and who feel that any attempt to do so is futile. As the title of the novel’s first chapter suggests, the characters of Nightwood must “Bow Down” to the ‘unknowable’ and acquiesce to an existence between the lines, where language does not, and cannot, articulate. In spite of this inadequacy, Barnes acknowledges the defining and excluding powers of language. The restrictive yet broad nature of the symbolic functions to homogenize the majority, excluding the few who fail to function within its parameters, or “approximate the norm.”  In fact, Barnes’ cynicism towards the reliability of language and her acknowledgement of the social regulation of identity give the novel surprisingly post-modern and post-structuralist themes.

The treatment of gender in Nightwood, much like its treatment of language, is way ahead of its time. Characters such as Frau Mann, Robin Vote and Matthew O’Connor can quite easily be described as genderqueer, and Barnes’ narrator avoids defining their sexual and gender identities with any labels. That is, with the exception of Robin who is referred to as a member of the “third sex”. Interestingly, this is also a term that is occasionally found in relation to queer theory. Robin’s androgyny, however, is a step away from third wave feminist and queer theories relating to gender. She’s “a woman who is beast turning human,” “an infected carrier of the past”, and her skin is “the texture of plant life”. These descriptions imply that Robin’s gender, or androgyny, is intrinsically linked to her primal nature; Barnes strongly suggests that Robin pre-dates the concept of gender, or, more specifically, the gender binary. This association places Nightwood quite distinctly within the realms of female modernism; “utopian ceremonial androgyny”, as Sandra Gilbert terms it, being typical of writers of female modernism. Furthermore, Judith Butler, a prominent third wave and queer theorist, emphasises that “there is no subject who precedes or enacts” gender, a statement which Barnes’ description of Robin clearly contradicts.

Robin is not Nightwood’s only androgynous character; Frau Mann is an aerialist whose gender signifiers have been replaced by the bodily and superficial markers of her profession. This displacement of gender signifiers would go far to effectively “unsex” Frau Mann, when considering Butler’s assertion that gender replaces sex as a form of social currency; in relation to Frau Mann, profession, instead of gender, replaces sex as an identifiable social currency. However, Mann’s physical description is significantly masculine:

Her trade– the trapeze – seemed to have preserved her. […] Something of the bar was in her wrists, the tan bark in her walk, as if the air, by its very lightness, by its very non-resistance, were an almost insurmountable problem, making her body, though slight and compact, seem much heavier than that of women who stay upon the ground. […] She seemed to have a skin that was the pattern of her costume: a bodice of lozenges, red and yellow […] – one somehow felt they ran through her as the design runs through hard holiday candies, and the bulge in the groin where she took the bar, one foot caught in the flex of the calf, was as solid, specialized and polished as oak. The stuff of the tights was no longer a covering, it was herself; the span of the tightly stitched crotch was so much her own flesh that she was as unsexed as a doll. The needle that had made one property of the child made the other the property of no man.

Through her attempts to surpass gender and create a “sexless” description, Barnes highlights one of the main problems with androgyny as a method to transcend the gender binary: androgyny necessarily refers to the very dichotomy it attempts to undermine.

Barnes’ eccentric Dr Matthew O’Connor embodies both sides of the gender dichotomy in a different way: he appears, at first, to be a transvestite. The Doctor finds himself surprised by Nora while he is cross-dressing in his room, which is “a cross between a chambre à coucher and a boxer’s training camp”, and quite clearly expecting some one else. At first, this encounter seems to echo the assertion that drag is an offensive mockery of women, used to bring a man’s masculinity to the forefront; Barnes describes O’Connor, through Nora, as the wolf in the bed, implying he is both unattractive and intimidating. This explanation of drag figures it as an act of (or, at least, an act that results in) lauding  power over women; the man in drag highlights that he possesses what women lack – the phallus, which represents social power.

However, the condition of O’Connor’s room implies quite the opposite. “The feminine finery had suffered venery,” “every object battled its own compression”: it seems that the room serves as a metaphor for O’Connor’s conflicted identity. The psychological “feminine” side of O’Connor’s identity is fighting a battle that is confined within the external limits of his masculine body, as well as being confined to an inexpressible space that language does not accommodate. It is quite possible that O’Connor’s character is in fact transgender. He may talk of his wish to be a woman in stereotypical, and at times dismissive, terms but his admission that he “turned up this time as [he] shouldn’t have been” is compelling. Moreover, these dismissive and sometimes witty comments may even serve to further Barnes’ points on the inadequacy of language. The Doctor employs these comments (“toss up a child”, “some good man”, etc.) in the same we he employs the parodic and comedic qualities of drag: to shield himself from the reprobation his femininity may entice. Language is inadequate to convey his misery, and so he doesn’t try to convey it. Language is O’Connor’s tormentor, it isolates him and renders him invisible.

Of course, as Nightwood rails against language itself, the conclusion of the novel is more of a collapse. Robin surrenders not only her identity but also her humanity in order to become free of the constraint of language, and finally collapses playing and barking with Nora’s dog. Still, Nightwood is a beautifully written and complex novel that contemplates the complex relationship between language and gender in a way that is surprisingly close to post-structuralist, third wave feminist and queer ideas. Still relevant today, Nightwood highlights the enormity of the journey towards empowerment for LGBT individuals, and some of the structures that have contributed to their exclusion.