"Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world." — Angela Carter

Gender and Sexuality in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood

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.


Literary Maps by Geoff Sawers

These are literary maps of the UK, USA and Wales designed by Geoff Sawers. They would look great on the wall, and make me feel a little patriotic (God forbid) towards this little island of ours.

In Sylvia Plath Country by Erica Jong

The skin of the sea

has nothing to tell me.

I see her diving down

into herself—

past the bell-shaped jellyfish

who toll for no one—

& meaning to come back


In London, in the damp

of a London morning,

I see her sitting,

folding & unfolding herself,

while the blood

hammers like rain

on her heart’s windows.

This is her own country—

the sea, the rain

& death half ryhming

with her father’s name.

Obscene monosyllable,

it lingers for a while

on the roof

of the mouth’s house.

I stand here

savoring the sound,

like salt


They thought your death

was your last poem :

a black book

with gold-tooled cover

& pages the color of ash.

But I thought different,

knowing how madness

doesn’t believe

in metaphor.

When you began to feel

the drift of continents

beneath your feet,

the sea’s suck,

& each

atom of the poisoned air,

you lost

the luxury of similie.


Gull calls, broken shell,

the quarried coast.

This is where America ends,

dropping off

to the depths.

Death comes

differently in California.

Marilyn stalled

in celluloid,

the frame stuck,

& the light

burning through.

Bronze to her platinum,

Ondine, Ariel,

finally no one,

What could we tell you

after you dove down into yourself

& were swallowed

by your poems?

Erica Jong in Women’s Studies, Vol. 2 No. 1 (1974)

Yes, we who are full to the gorge with misery, should look well around, doubting everything seen, done, spoken, precisely because we have a word for it, and not its alchemy.

This is a quote from Dr Matthew O’Connor in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood. It’s easily one of my favourite novels after studying it for my dissertation. I should be reviewing/analysing it next week, I’m not sure which yet.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

After a three-year hiatus of reading exactly what I want, when I want, Nights at the Circus was the second book I decided to pick up. I’d been having some trouble getting into the swing of things; after my dissertation my mind seemed to work at two polar extremes: “READ ALL THE BOOKS!” at one end, and “Mmm… I’ll pick it up later” at the other. I’m quite certain that I have Angela Carter‘s Nights at the Circus to thank for restoring my mental status quo when it comes to reading. I simply couldn’t put it down, and when I had to I’d spend the intervening hours anticipating picking it up again.

The plot concerns Fevvers, or “The Cockney Venus”, as she’s billed on the posters for Colonel Kearney’s circus. She is peroxide blonde, over six feet tall and, unlikely enough, makes her living as a world-famous aerialiste at the turn of the nineteenth century. One more thing you should know (and I use the term “know” in the most relaxed sense possible) about Fevvers: she has wings.

The story opens as Fevvers charms journalist Jack Walser with her life story during an interview in her London dressing room. Hatched from an egg, raised in a brothel, conned into slavery by the owner of an erotic freak show, and finally led to the trapeze by an old acquaintance, Fevvers’ story requires the ultimate suspension of disbelief. Walser, being rather cynical, is unaccustomed to this sort of demand and joins the circus to uncover the truth, whatever it may be.

Taking us through Russia and Siberia, Carter introduces us to a veritable menagerie of eccentric characters (she does have a whole circus to get through) and their weird and wonderful back stories. A stretch of the imagination to begin with, Carter’s narrative moves further and further from reality as the novel progresses, and is all the more charming for it.

The novel, much in line with Carter’s usual style, is distinctly postmodern, and full to the brim with magical realism. The surreal playfulness of Nights at the Circus, along with the generally transitory feeling of the novel, works as a vehicle for Carter to contend with issues of individualism and the need for connection, feminism, time and reality. Towards the end of the novel, Carter invokes Foucault’s metaphor of the panopticon quite literally. The women of the prison, however, are able to escape due to the silent yet powerful bonds developed between the guards and the inmates, proposing an optimistic and feminist possibility for escape from modern disciplinary society.

Carter’s prose is magnetic and lyrical, her story captivating and her characters totally enchanting. Just as Fevvers walks the tight rope between fact and fiction, Carter skilfully creates a prose that is simultaneously fabulously entertaining and deeply sincere.

Top line: “In a secular age, an authentic miracle must purport to be a hoax, in order to gain credit in the world.”

You won’t find elsewhere: Waltzing tigers, fortune-telling pigs, a beautiful and detailed deconstruction of clowning, a cockney version of the winged victory.

Low point: If you’re not accustomed to reaching for your dictionary on occasion, Carter’s style may not be for you.