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.
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