The Façade of Gender and Identity in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood
In Nightwood, Djuna Barnes investigates the thin separation between love and obsession and their tendency to become one. With a narrative primarily carried through the ramblings of Doctor Matthew O’Connor, the novel explores relationships (between Robin Vote and Nora Flood, and the Doctor and the people around him) and seeks to observe the ugly feelings of fixation and unbearable passion—feelings that ultimately do not receive any resolution. Through the struggles of Robin and the Doctor, it is unclear if Barnes believes actual reinvention of the self can ever be healthily realized, but she asserts that this “true, hidden self” that is contrary to any given societal identity will ultimately find a way to make itself known.
Robin wanders both physically and existentially, constantly dispelling her given identity and expectations by society. Her first depiction describes her in stasis as if she were a plant rather than a sleeping woman: “About her head there was an effulgence as of phosphorus glowing about the circumference of a body of water—as if her life lay through her in ungainly luminous deteriorations—the troubling structure of the born somnambule, who lives in two worlds—meet of child and desperado” (Barnes 38). The somber, innocent sense her description evokes parallels directly to the passivity of her personality when she is awake. Robin’s sense of arrested development in a childlike state emerges consistently for the rest of the novel and emphasizes how events happen to her rather than being choices of her own will.
Rejecting motherhood as well as committed relationships with her three different significant others, Robin seeks to find something or someone that does not project a premeditated identity onto her when she herself is conflicted about what it means to be a queer woman. First, in her marriage to Felix, she completely dissociates from any realization or action against her pregnancy as if she were asleep during it. Following the birth, she leaves Felix after slapping him and proclaiming she did not want the child—her most aggressive action in her relationship with Felix and perhaps for a majority of the novel. Robin performs more actively in her passionate relationship with Nora Flood. However, her unhinged, drifting nature still makes itself clear to her lover: “Nora was informed that Robin had come from a world to which she would return” (Barnes 63). Nora knows that there is nothing she can do to keep Robin from wandering away and ultimately leaving her, but the realization does not keep her from becoming obsessed and attached to Robin. Robin cannot be encompassed just by the word “lesbian;” she participates perhaps more actively in her relationships with women, but women still project their desires onto her much like Felix did by pushing her into marriage and motherhood. Robin looks for a relationship that does not project an identity upon her, culminating in her final ritualistic encounter with a dog, mirroring the animal’s movements until she falls asleep.
Likewise, Barnes explores gender and the issue of queerness through the character of Matthew O’Connor in his quiet rejection of his given male sex. When a heartbroken Nora visits the Doctor’s home to ask him about the night, she stumbles into a messy and conflicted depiction of his identity. The room gives the impression that his “feminine finery had suffered venery” (Barnes 85) amongst the squalid, poor condition of his abode with various odd instruments and books in disarray. Amongst this torn picture of his psyche is the Doctor himself, lying in bed adorned in women’s clothes, makeup, and a wig. Nighttime in the novel serves as a medium for people’s true selves to become known, as the Doctor had here “evacuated custom and gone back into his dress” (Barnes 86). The Doctor expressing a different gender identity than his given one unsettles Nora at first, shown by her comparison of him to the wolf in bed in Little Red Riding Hood. He reveals in his narrative that his male persona is, in fact, a performance, his birth as a male was “God’s mistake,” and that perhaps he had turned up as “something” that he should not have been. While he knows this of his identity, he still meets a bitter end, drunkenly screaming in a bar, angry and weeping (Barnes 175) about the darkness that accompanies people seeking his help for their problems and their projection of this upon him. In a way, the Doctor becomes an embodiment of the literary trope of the “fallen woman,” not in the sense that he has faced social ruin but perhaps that he feels ruined himself, not quite having what he desires no matter how much he dresses up.
In his ramblings to Nora, the Doctor states: “Every day is thought upon and calculated, but the night is not premeditated” (Barnes 87). It is in the night that Robin Vote and Matthew O’Connor seek to dispel their premeditated and given identities in search of what is actually their own. The Doctor, given a prominent voice in the novel, asserts his plans and wishes if he had been born a woman and obviously seeks to realize this identity through putting on stereotypically woman’s dress. While it may seem like he dresses up, his male performance during the day time is actually the “dressing up,” and the night allows his true self to be revealed. However, Robin is not given an equal narrative voice to the Doctor’s, and her plans and wishes are much more unknown and up to interpretation (particularly in her final scene with the dog). Robin and the Doctor cannot actively put on their true personhood during the day, but it appears to them in the night. Barnes struggles with the idea of whether the self can be entirely reinvented, but she advocates that regardless it exists, no matter how passively or hidden.
Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. New York: New Directions Publishing, 2006. Print.
Doctor O’Connor in His Labyrinth: Unreliable Narrators in Nightwood
In response to the horrors of World War I, the modernism movement rose and rejected previous movements like romanticism. Alienation, fragmentation, and shell shock influenced modernist writers to create complex characters, stream of consciousness, and satirical plots. This later influenced surrealism and the exploration of the complex unconscious mind. However, a theme not often discussed is the insincere nature of modernist characters which is partly due to unreliable narrators. Characters like Doctor O’Connor from Nightwood (Barnes 1936) never truly say or do what they mean, and it is this deceptive nature that makes the characters insincere. So, through an unreliable narrator characters from Nightwood are exhibited as inauthentic which leads to an emotional disconnect between readers and characters.
In Nightwood, Doctor O’Connor is the most inauthentic character who says things just to say things but it’s unclear if he has any meaning behind any of it. Nora Flood directly addresses this when O’Connor is talking to Felix and she asks, “are you both really saying what you mean, or are you just talking?” (Barnes 21). Doctor O’Connor’s Surrealist monologues serve multiple purposes like revealing hidden truths and forcing both reader and characters to find meaning in his ramblings. It’s because of this that Doctor O’Connor is Nightwood’s melancholic narrator who rejects the authority of the third person omniscient narrator.
Barnes’ third person narrator is the one the reader is first introduced to and used to trusting. This is the narrator that, “we continue to read, hoping for the “shaping order” of the narrator, a guide past the novel’s problem storytellers and abject figures” (Fama 44). However, Doctor O’Connor constantly disrupts this narrator by claiming its role and speaking for himself. O’Connor is aware that, “people desire the authority of the narrative function, preferring both deception and narrative submission to disorder” (Fama 47). So, he rejects the power of the main narrator and assumes the role for himself to force the reader to submit to his view of the plot. He also complicates the novel and what we can believe through his incoherent ramblings. He tells Nora (and the reader), “I have a narrative, but you will be put to find it” (Barnes 104). Overall O’Connor only offers readers, “a mix of insight and detail that defies the filtered, ordered, plotted action of finished meaning” (Fama 26), and he rarely moves the plot forward during his ramblings. And it is through this that Doctor O’Connor not only becomes the prominent narrator voice, but also the deceptive narrator that the reader can’t depend on.
O’Connor’s melancholic narration is the lens that shapes how the reader views many of the characters like Robin, Felix, and Nora. He manipulates the other characters by, “[guiding them] to an expression of mourning and the uses of melancholia” (Fama 46). When Felix, Nora, and O’Connor first meet, O’Connor begins his ramblings almost immediately. During one of his speeches O’Connor offers Felix a drink. Felix responds with he doesn’t drink and O’Connor states, “You will” (Barnes 26). Then he continues claiming that, “there’s one thing that has always troubled me…this matter of the guillotine” (Barnes 26). For modernist characters drinking your sorrows and problems away is common. By O’Connor encouraging Felix to drink, he is guiding Felix to the popular form of mourning for his own problems. O’Connor then continues a melancholic speech about death and execution.
In addition, Nora again points out O’Connor’s role as the melancholic narrator when she states, “you argue about sorrow and confusion too easily” (Barnes 25). O’Connor’s ramblings often take a dark turn to sorrow like the guillotine story. This creates not only confusion in the meaning behind his stories, but also insincerity in his words, especially when he talks about other characters. However, because of his insincere dialogue, there is an emotional disconnect between the reader and those characters. The reader is forced to be less empathetic towards the characters based on O’Connor’s presented view of them.
After meeting Robin Vote, Felix sits with O’Connor at a café and begins to think about marriage. He reveals to O’Connor that he wants a son who felt strongly about the great past and nobility like him. O’Connor responds with a long dialogue about nobility which ends with, “the last muscle of aristocracy is madness—remember that…the last child born to aristocracy is sometimes an idiot” (Barnes 44). Throughout his whole speech O’Connor is almost mocking Felix’s desire to have a son to carry on his legacy. His tangent also leaves the reader confused as to what the point of his speech is, besides suggesting Felix’s son would be “the last muscle of aristocracy”. This distracts the reader from the meaningful hopes that Felix reveals which normally a reader could sympathize with. O’Connor’s tool of confusing the reader removes the emotion from Felix’s desires making it hard for the reader to empathize with him. This also shows O’Connor’s ability to deceive the reader and be unreliable when it comes to portraying the characters.
Additionally, characters like Nora and Felix struggle to make sense of O’Connor’s dialogue: “Felix reinterprets the doctor’s text, and Nora requests its meaning” (Fama 47). However, very often these characters aren’t fully successful at their goal. Because O’Connor’s dialogue is melancholic and confusing for the characters to make sense of, Felix tries to reinterpret it in terms of nobility which is a topic that makes sense for him. During one of O’Connor’s monologues, Felix tries to mimic his melancholic speech by stating, “I like the prince who was reading a book when the executioner touched him on the shoulder telling him that it was time, and he, arising, laid a paper-cutter between the pages to keep his place and closed the book” (Barnes 25). Felix turns the topic of the church into discussion of the prince to try to fit what O’Connor is saying into terms he can better understand. Felix is successful at providing the distraction from meaning that often follows O’Connor’s speeches. However, Felix’s story doesn’t fully match O’Connor’s melancholia and is a lot easier to understand compared to the doctor’s stories. It also doesn’t seem to fully relate to O’Connor’s previous dialogue, showing that Felix can’t fully understand O’Connor’s ramblings despite trying to put it into his own terms.
Felix later tries again at reinterpreting the doctor by stating, “his manner was that of a servant of a defunct noble family, whose movement recall, though in a degraded form, those of a late master. Even the doctor’s favourite gesture—plucking hairs out of his nostrils—seemed the “vulgarization” of what was once a thoughtful plucking of the beard” (Barnes 33). Felix tries to evaluate the complex doctor in terms of nobility so that he can understand the doctor’s mannerisms and dialogue. However, Felix’s interpretation isn’t completely correct because he doesn’t understand O’Connor in terms of being the melancholic narrator.
Nora, on the other hand, asks for meaning from O’Connor and understanding about Robin. On a particular night Nora comes to O’Connor’s room and explains, “Doctor, I have come to ask you to tell me everything you know about the night” (Barnes 86). However, Nora does not mean “night” literally, she wants to know about Robin who wanders the streets at night. But O’Connor either doesn’t understand this or ignores this as he goes on to say, “have you…ever thought of the peculiar polarity of times and times; and of sleep?” (Barnes 87). Nora’s sorrowful search for meaning is put to a halt and distracted by another melancholic monologue by O’Connor. This is also another example of how O’Connor distraction from a character’s struggles contributes to the loss of emotional attachment and empathy the reader has for them. Under normal circumstances, a reader could sympathize to Nora’s pain and love for Robin who abandons her. However, O’Connor’s ramblings deceive the reader about the point of Nora’s visit, which causes a disconnect in the meaning and emotion behind Nora’s sorrow.
O’Connor also deceives the reader when it comes to characterizing Robin Vote, who on the surface is arguably the second most inauthentic character in the novel. She “proves a target for the aspirations of the narrator and fellow characters” (Fama 48). Robin is criticized for being a cinema vamp who, “posses the ability, usually described as masculine, to divorce her sexual behavior from her capacity to think and feel” (Levine 278). She goes from Felix, to Nora, and finally to Jenny as sources of partners and at night leaves them to wander the streets. She doesn’t show permanent attachment to any of the characters who reversely are depicted as being in love with Robin.
Instead of trying to explain Robin’s actions, O’Connor plays into this idea especially when “comforting” Nora. O’Connor states that, “every bed [Robin] leaves, without caring, fills her heart with peace and happiness” (Levine 278). O’Connor depicts Robin’s love and actions towards the other characters as inauthentic lies that bring her joy. To further this point when Nora asks him, “was it a sin that I believed her?”, O’Connor responds, “Of course, it made her life wrong” (Barnes 149). O’Connor deceives Nora and the reader that Robin’s actions are simple and don’t have deeper purpose behind them. As Fama states, “as a counterpoint to the novel’s narrator, O’Connor will not play Freud to Nora’s Dora” (50).
O’Connor as the unreliable narrator fails to reveal that, “Robin’s will is nonexistent” (Levine 279). His deception forces the characters to “perceive in her the vamp she only approximates” (Levine 279). She wanders because she consistently bends to the will of the other characters, and she is desperately trying to find her own will. When Felix asks Robin to marry him, “he was taken aback to find himself accepted, as if Robin’s life held no volition for refusal” (Barnes 46). This results in Robin having a child she doesn’t truly want and leaving Felix to later find Nora. However, this shows that Robin in fact isn’t as cruel as O’Connor depicts her. She does not accept Felix’s proposal to receive joy at later leaving him, she accepts because her lack of will forces her not to deny his offer. Robin’s wanderings and leaving Felix mark her journey to her slowly piecing together her will throughout the novel.
In addition, readers don’t see the meaning behind Robin’s wanderings and see her as more than a vamp until the very end of the novel. This is also part of the novel where the third person narrator takes back control of the story from O’Connor. The narrator reveals that Robin, at the end of her wandering, is in a church with a dog. She begins to act like the dog and runs around the church with him. The narrator then tells the readers, “the dog too gave up then, and lay down, his eyes bloodshot, his head flat along her knees” (Barnes 180). This symbolizes the end of Robin’s journey for power as the dog, who is the only character who submits to Robin, gives Robin what she has been searching for all along: her own will. Instead of bending to the other character’s power, Robin is finally able to amass her own power to make a character bow to her. This is also the first time in the novel that the reader can finally emotionally connect to a character and empathize with Robin. The final relief and closure at the end of the novel is only given by the more reliable third person narrator.
O’Connor as the previous narrator prevented the readers from truly understanding Robin because of his depiction of her as a vamp. This shows that readers can’t rely on O’Connor as a narrator due to him feeding into the surface misunderstandings the characters present. He forces the readers to view the characters as inauthentic, but also forces the characters to look at each other as insincere like Robin. And in the case with Robin, this makes it hard for the other character’s to emotionally connect with Robin.
Doctor O’Connor is Nightwood’s unreliable and melancholic narrator who portrays the other characters as inauthentic. This inevitably prevents readers from emotionally connecting with any of the characters which is a key feature to modernist literature. O’Connor’s ramblings lead a reader to initially question the point of the novel and muddle any clear meaning a normal narrator could provide. However, O’Connor’s ramblings are specific to Nightwood and can be arguably not the reason for the lack of emotional connection in other modernist novels. This leads to the question: what are other reasons for the lack of emotional disconnect between reader and characters in modernism?
Barnes, Djuna, et al. Nightwood. New Directions , 2006. Levine, Nancy J. “‘I’ve Always Suffered From Sirens’:The Cinema Vamp and Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood.” Women’s Studies , vol. 16, ser. 3-4, 1989, pp. 271–281. 3-4. Fama, Katherine A. “Melancholic Remedies: Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood as Narrative Theory.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 37, no. 2, pp. 39–56.
The Mother and the Self: Rejection of Motherhood in Barnes’s Nightwood & Plath’s The Bell Jar
The female or female-identifying writer must often acknowledge motherhood in her writing, as men often project and expect women to act like their mothers even in sexual relationships. No matter what wave of feminism, motherhood is still seen as something central to the upbringing of children, whether it is something present or absent. While much of Freudian theory for the development of young women is father-centric, the role of the mother is crucial to who women (particularly women writers) choose to become. Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, while being anything but a traditional text, exemplifies how a woman rejects a motherhood role while also looking for a mother in her relationships in her relationships with other women. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar alternatively investigates the relationship between female domestic incarceration in Cold War-era United States to the entrapment of the asylum and mental health double standards. This essay discusses the significance of motherhood and maternal values in the texts as well as the ultimate rejection of traditional motherhood roles. The blatant rejection of motherhood by Robin in Nightwood and Esther’s embrace of birth control to assuage her fears of becoming pregnant in The Bell Jar serve to expose the foundation of Modernist “New Woman” archetypes in Robin and Nora’s relationship and their evolution to proto-feminist ideas in Esther’s narrative. While not necessarily in conversation with each other, Barnes and Plath both expose what it means to be a woman but also in relation to other people, whether it be men, other women, and children.
Beginning with Barnes, Nightwood (1936) gives a taste of the complicated and charged power dynamics between women and investigates the thin separation between love and obsession and their tendency to become one. With a narrative primarily carried through the ramblings of Doctor Matthew O’Connor, the novel explores relationships (between Robin Vote and Nora Flood, and the Doctor and the people around him) and seeks to observe the ugly feelings of fixation and unbearable passion—feelings that ultimately do not receive any resolution. Through the struggles of Robin and the Doctor, it is unclear if Barnes believes actual reinvention of the self can ever be healthily realized, but she asserts that this “true, hidden self” that is contrary to any given societal identity will ultimately find a way to make itself known. Robin wonders both physically and existentially, constantly dispelling her given identity and expectations by society. Her first depiction describes her in stasis as if she were a plant rather than a sleeping woman: “About her head there was an effulgence as of phosphorus glowing about the circumference of a body of water—as if her life lay through her in ungainly luminous deteriorations—the troubling structure of the born somnambule, who lives in two worlds—meet of child and desperado” (Barnes 38). The somber, innocent sense her description evokes parallels directly to the passivity of her personality when she is awake. Robin’s sense of arrested development in a childlike state emerges consistently for the rest of the novel and emphasizes how events happen to her rather than being choices of her own will. Rejecting motherhood as well as committed relationships with her three different significant others, Robin seeks to find something or someone that does not project a premeditated identity onto her when she herself is conflicted about what it means to be a queer woman. First, in her marriage to Felix, she completely dissociates from any realization or action against her pregnancy as if she were asleep during it. There is little about Robin’s character that changes during her pregnancy; she drinks and smokes heavily and continues to wander freely during the night, completely ambivalent to her child. She finally has her baby, in one of the strangest depictions of pregnancy in literature: “Amid loud and frantic cries of affirmation and despair, Robin was delivered. Shuddering in the double pains of birth and fury, cursing like a sailor, she rose up on her elbow in her bloody gown, looking about her in the bed as if she had lost something. ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’ she kept crying like a child who has walked into the commencement of a horror” (Barnes 52). Robin “was delivered” rather than delivering the baby herself, emphasizing through the passive voice the extent to which the pregnancy was not her choice. The entire childbirth is a train wreck, posing the question of how someone can bear a child when they themselves only perhaps have the mental capacity of a child.
For all the purposes that the delivery of the child, Robin is still the baby, crying like a scared child. Following the birth, she leaves Felix after slapping him and proclaiming she did not want the child—her most aggressive action in her relationship with Felix and perhaps for a majority of the novel: “One night, coming home about three, he found her in the darkness, standing, back against the window, in the pod of the curtain, her chin so thrust forward that the muscles in her neck stood out. As he came toward her she said in a fury, “‘I didn’t want him!’” Raising her hand she struck him across the face.” (Barnes 53). Though Felix does not seem to be a character with a malicious agenda, he still as a male tries to hedge Robin into a role that she obviously does not want and does not even have the ability to fulfill outside of bearing a child itself. Completely dissociated from her experience, she rejects the role that Felix projects on her, as the omniscient narrator notes, “She grinned, but it was not a smile” (Barnes 53). From this, the reader feels that though she easily walks away from this, Robin is still affected in some painful, unspeakable way from her experience. Robin performs more actively in her passionate relationship with Nora Flood. However, her unhinged, drifting nature still makes itself clear to her lover: “Nora was informed that Robin had come from a world to which she would return” (Barnes 63). Nora knows that there is nothing she can do to keep Robin from wandering away and ultimately leaving her, but the realization does not keep her from becoming obsessed and attached to Robin. Robin cannot be encompassed just by the word “lesbian;” she participates perhaps more actively in her relationships with women, but women still project their desires onto her much like Felix did by pushing her into marriage and motherhood. While Robin is significant in the novel in her rejection of motherhood, she, by casting off a mothering role, simply just casts the role onto other people and often allows people to “mother” her even in her sexual relationships. In “The Erotics of Nora’s Narrative in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood,” Carolyn Allen argues that the relationship between Robin and Nora often imitate the struggle between mother and child (Allen 178). She describes their relationship: “Nora as ‘mother/wife’ worries about Robin’s safety but provides a center of stability; Robin as ‘child/husband’ has a home to which to return, but only when she chooses to do so” (Allen 187). While Robin’s wandering at night perhaps scripts her in a masculine role, she still is drawn back to Nora like a child would be. Nora takes a maternal role, but she still is forced to defer to Robin’s freedom and desire. Furthermore, when Nora reveals more about their relationship to Doctor O’Connor, she shows just how childlike Robin can be: “Sometimes…she would sit at home all day, looking out of the window or playing with her toys, trains, and animals and cars to wind up, and dolls and marbles, and soldiers. But all the time she was watching me to see that no one called, that the bell did not ring, that I got no mail, nor anyone hallooing in the court, though she knew that none of these things could happen. My life was hers. Sometimes, if she got tight by evening, I would find her standing in the middle of the room in boy’s clothes, rocking from foot to foot, holding the doll she had given us—‘our child’—high above her head, as if she would cast it down, a look of fury on her face” (Barnes 156-157). Robin regresses to childlike state with her different toys, as well as demanding and manipulating Nora into seeing no one but her (even though Robin freely goes out and sees other people). It is clear that Robin needs a mother role filled and seeks that in her relationship with Nora.
Furthermore, the reader can easily forget during sequences like this that Robin herself is a mother in the biological sense. However, she consciously rejects the role for herself in the same manner that she holds contempt for the doll, holds it above her head, and eventually destroys it. In many ways, Robin enslaves Nora (though willingly), and though Nora ends the relationship, it is clear that Robin still holds all of the power. The mother is left, forgotten and in suffering. Doctor O’Connor comically puts it that Nora “should have had a thousand children, and Robin should have been all of them” (Barnes 107). As lovers, they haunt each other, but as mother and child, they ruin both themselves and the other, leaving Nora melancholic and Robin lost. Though Robin is perhaps atypical because she is not persecuted for her lesbianism (at least in the text) and is able to travel and roam freely, her character serves as an outlet or expose for the vulnerability a lot of women face when pushed into motherhood at a young age, when they themselves may still feel like children. Her rejection of motherhood could be read as heartless, but alternatively, it is an act of aggression in voicing her own desires despite her pattern of passivity and fragility. Robin looks for a relationship that does not project an identity upon her, culminating in her final ritualistic encounter with a dog, mirroring the animal’s movements until she falls asleep.
Switching from Nightwood, Esther Greenwood’s personal yet analytical narrative voice in The Bell Jar (1963) constantly refers to her feelings and confusion about motherhood and her distaste for it. For the first half of the novel, the reader follows along as Esther closely observes a childbirth and the mother figures she comes in contact with (her own, Mrs. Willard, Dodo Conway). The childbirth is the crux of her narrative commentary and critique of the societal manipulation of women into maternal roles. Buddy Willard takes her on a “date” to a childbirth at his medical school. As Buddy informs Esther of what the woman is experiencing, Esther closely sees the mother in front of her as the picture of something much bigger of the female experience: Later Buddy told me the woman was on a drug that would make her forget she’d had any pain and that when she swore and groaned she really didn’t know what she was doing because she was in a kind of twilight sleep. I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn’t groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again” (Plath 66). This is Esther’s first complete thought about her view of motherhood. Viewing everything as black and white, Esther sees the drugs that women are given during childbirth are essentially gaslighting women to forget their pain and suffering to begin working to have another child, paralleling to men tricking women into giving away their autonomy. She exhibits women as victims who do not even have a full understanding of what is happening to their bodies, stuck in a cycle of childbearing that should “give them pride” but strips them of having any different life than one of motherhood.
Esther refutes this representation again when she discusses Mrs. Willard’s braiding of a rug out of strips of wool from Mr. Willard’s old suits (Plath 84). When the mat becomes flattened and indistinguishable like any other kitchen mat, Esther draws a parallel to female maternal roles: “And I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out under his feet like Mrs. Willard’s kitchen mat” (Plath 85). Esther grapples with her own sexuality and observes the marriages in front of her dissolve to something sinister and unfair. Kate Baldwin in “The Radical Imaginary of The Bell Jar” asserts that the American women’s relationship is connected to national narrative of the time that “place, displace, and replace women in an international, geopolitical world order as it does about the relationship between U.S. domestic incarceration and the asylum” (Baldwin 23). This female domestic incarceration is something Esther observes and becomes extremely disillusioned with, unable to grapple with the cold reality of marriage and motherhood for so many people and as she fears for herself. This parallels to the conservative Cold War politics of the time, showing societal double standards about women and men as a national narrative, as well as the double standard in terms of treatment in mental health issues. Dodo Conway, Esther’s neighbor, furthermore serves as a grotesque representation of the domestic incarceration and motherhood Esther has become disillusioned with. While Esther nervously lounges around her house, she observes the neighbors while constantly feeling her own gaze being thrown back at her. Looking out the window, Esther sees a pregnant woman with a “grotesque, protruding stomach,” wheeling a baby carriage down the street with two other children walking beside her (Plath 116). This woman, Dodo Conway, seems to a religious aura about her, and it is significant that she is a Catholic and thus not using birth control methods. Dodo represents everything about suburban motherhood with her three small children with one on the way, with a chaotic yard littered with children, toys, and puppies.
Dodo Conway’s name alone shows Plath’s symbolism. “Dodo,” or the dodo bird, perhaps seeks to show old conventions of motherhood that are gradually becoming extinct, as well as a morbid stupidity in following these conventions, and “Conway” literally translate that perhaps women are being conned or scammed by these societal standards of happiness for the woman. Esther sees all of these women in front of her as a dark mirror of what could be for her life, and it disenchants and sickens her: “I watched Dodo wheel the youngest Conway up and down. She seemed to be doing it for my benefit. Children made me sick” (Plath 117). This sincere distaste for children and motherhood reduces women in Esther’s mind to the inferior other, and she desperately wants to avoid fulfilling this stereotypical female role. Dodo Conway, an ambivalent “baby machine” in Esther’s eyes, has been scammed into a tradition that exploits her rather than empowers. Motherhood, in turn, means an end to creativity, success, and authorship. As Esther examines the sexual double standard between men and women, she expresses her feelings about becoming sexually active and subsequent fears of pregnancy. She realizes that Buddy Willard embodies everything about men that she comes to hate. The turning point in their relationship when Buddy becomes less appealing to Esther is when she discovers he is not as “innocent” as he had presented himself. She is appalled that Buddy had the freedom to have sex with a woman before her as they do not have the same threat and are not held to the same standard of chastity. In her time at the private institution, Doctor Nolan calls the “vow of chastity” fed to women a form of propaganda, challenging Esther to show that women do not have to hold themselves to the virgin-whore dichotomy that even Esther herself is susceptible to. Doctor Nolan refers Esther to a gynecologist to receive a fitting for a diaphragm. Esther comments on the broken idea of virginity and purity: “Ever since I’d learned about the corruption of Buddy Willard my virginity weighed like a millstone around my neck. It had been of such enormous importance to me for so long that my habit was to defend it at all costs. I had been defending it for five years and I was sick of it” (Plath 228). She begins to understand the extent to which she has been fed standards that entrap her and limit her knowledge rather than extend it. Rather than buying into the virgin-whore dichotomy, Esther ultimately realizes that she cannot escape the convention of womanhood by becoming a woman-hater herself but rather embracing her options and different avenues.
Esther constantly searches for another female with whom she can identify, and in turn, both the mother figures and career women seem to fall short. She cannot see them as her role models, but rather their lives as avenues that hers could take. However, she keeps scrutinizing all of the paths she could take, until their flaws balloon into something grotesque and blur the manifestation of any happiness. Virginia Woolf claimed that women must kill the “angel in the house” in order to write, with the angel being the sympathetic, selfless standard of a voiceless feminine mother (Woolf). During Plath’s and Barnes’s slightly overlapping eras, women often faced the conundrum of writing being seen as an act of masculine activity rather than feminine creativity. This is often expressed in both of their texts: Robin wanders freely at night and refuses monogamy with Nora or any of her lovers, and Esther harshly criticizes both the mothers and the career women she interacts with. Both authors show flawed women with a full stream of emotions and desire, which in tandem allows for the questioning and ultimately a rejection of motherhood. Their protagonists in turn, whether in their passive dissuasion or action rejection, are at war with institutionalized motherhood and institutionalized marriage. In her novel Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution,” Adrienne Rich describes the normative reality women face in marriage and motherhood: Institutionalized motherhood demands of women maternal “instinct” rather than intelligence, selflessness rather than self-realization, relation to others rather than the creation of the self. Motherhood is “sacred” so long as its offspring are “legitimate”—that is, as long as the child bears the name of a father who legally controls the mother (Rich 42). Esther and Robin are both women who lack this maternal instinct. Through Esther’s personal yet analytical first person narrative, the reader understands her intellectual prowess and distinctive writing abilities (as well as Plath’s) and sees her actively reject motherhood through her choice against a marriage with Buddy Willard. Robin is a much more thickly veiled character; rather than formulating thoughts and looking at the world the way Esther and Plath do, she is much more the object that is looked at and projected upon. However, she still does reject this gaze and in a lot of ways seeks to create some sense of self, even if it is through veiled and unconventional means. Both women reference the overall movement of women becoming uncomfortable with the roles projected onto them and seeking to find a different role in the world. Rich clearly asserts the quandary: “In order to live a fully human life we require not only control of our bodies (though control is a prerequisite); we must touch the unity and resonance of our physicality, our bond with the natural order, the corporeal ground of our intelligence” (Rich 39). Robin directly rejects motherhood by leaving her child while Esther takes advantage of preventative measures, showing progress from Djuna Barnes’s time to Plath’s, but still emphasizing how much the struggle does not pass away.
Both Barnes and Plath create complex female protagonists whose true selves are hidden behind masks and must ultimately be realized, and these selves cannot be realized through motherhood. In “The Mother, the Self, and the Other: The Search for Identity in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Takahashi Takako’s Congruent Figure,” Yoko Sakane asserts the essential concern regarding motherhood and authorship: “For women writers who are daughters of mothers and often mothers themselves, the mother-daughter relationship is one of the central issues often faced and come to terms with.” (Sakane 27). Motherhood naturally is mythicized in both of the texts, but the ambivalence of the authors’ attitude toward actual mothers shows both of their attempts to recreate it as something outside the patriarchal realm, and furthermore, as a choice. While motherhood may still be central to conversations and narratives by and about women, the significance of Robin and Esther rejecting motherhood in their respective texts creates sympathy from their readers and establishes their humanity as something individual, concrete, and autonomous, separate entirely from the identity of motherhood.
Allen, Carolyn. “The Erotics of Nora’s Narrative in Djuna Barnes’s “Nightwood”.” Signs (1993): 177-200. Document.
Baldwin, Kate A. “The Radical Imaginary of “The Bell Jar”.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction (2004): 21-40. Document.
Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. New York: New Directions Publishing, 2006. Print.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005. Print.
Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1976. Print.
Sakane, Yōko. “The Mother, the Self, and the Other: The Search for Identity in Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” and Takahashi Takako’s “Congruent Figure”.” U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal (English Supplement) (1998): 27-48. Document.
Woolf, Virginia. “Professions for Women.” Woolf, Virginia. The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974. 5. Document.