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?

Works Cited

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.

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