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Nightwood-Cover-New Destinations.jpg
Cover of the 2006 edition
Author Djuna Barnes
Cover artist Sigrid Rothe
Country United States
Language English
Genre Modernist
Gay novel
Publisher Harcourt Trade Publishers
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 180
ISBN 978-0-8112-1671-5 (New Directions Publishing Paperback Reprint)
OCLC 70107094
813/.52 22
LC Class PS3503.A614 N5 2006

Nightwood is a 1936 gay novel by Djuna Barnes first published in London by Faber and Faber. An edition published in the United States in 1937 by Harcourt, Brace included an introduction by T. S. Eliot.[1]

Nightwood is one of the earliest novels written by a well-known writer to portray explicit homosexuality.[2] It is also notable for its intense, gothic prose style.[2] T. S. Eliot wrote in his introduction, "only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it."[3] As a roman à clef, the novel features a thinly veiled portrait of Barnes in the character of Nora Flood, whereas Nora’s lover Robin Vote is a composite of Thelma Wood and the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.[4]


Author Charles Henri Ford typed an early version of the manuscript for Barnes during the summer of 1932, and it took Barnes several years to find a publisher.

Plot summary[edit]

Nightwood focuses on Robin Vote, a woman in constant search of "secure torment". Robin's story begins in Europe, where she meets and marries the false Baron Felix Volkbein, who wants nothing more than an heir to carry on his family name and uphold the traditions of old European nobility. The birth of their son, Guido, causes Robin to realize that she does not wish to carry on this life. She moves to America, where she begins a romantic relationship with Nora Flood. The two move to Paris together. But Robin is unable to remain peacefully with Nora. She feels driven by the conflicts of "love and anonymity", and spends her nights away from home, having flings with strangers while Nora waits nervously for her lover's return. During one such night Robin meets Jenny Petherbridge, a widow four times over, who "gains happiness by stealing the joy of others". Jenny turns her attention to stealing Robin away from Nora, and succeeds. In her despair, Nora (like Felix before her) turns to the counsel of Dr. Matthew O'Connor to recover from the loss of Robin.

Some time later, Nora has returned to America, and is camping in a forest with her dog when she discovers Robin kneeling before an altar in an abandoned church. Attempting to enter, Nora hits the doorjamb, and is knocked unconscious. Robin and the dog frolic on the floor before finally succumbing to sleep.


The major characters are:

  • Baron Felix Volkbein: The only son of Guido, who hid his Judaism and pretended to be a Baron. Felix is driven by his desire to maintain the beauty of old-world Europe in the continued traditions of the nobility. When his son, also named Guido, is born, Felix is forced to give up on his ideas of nobility to help the disabled child enter the church.
  • Nora Flood: A salon keeper and lover of Robin.
  • Dr. Matthew O'Connor: A transexual who pretends to be a doctor, performing both deliveries and abortions in a futile struggle for legitimacy. A native of San Francisco, he was a soldier during World War I, but notably remarks that he wishes to have been the female lover of a soldier. Despite his removal from the novel's primary action, O'Connor's seemingly aimless philosophical babblings provide the backbone of the novel's dialogues. Writer Jane Rule claims that O'Connor is the main character of Nightwood and that his "ironic cynicism and self-pity" set the novel's tone.[5] The character was based on Dan Mahoney, who was also the basis of a character in the writing of Robert McAlmon in stories collected in Miss Knight and Others.[6]
  • Jenny Petherbridge: Four times a widow, she has lost the ability to know what she wants out of life. She spends her life stealing happiness from others in order to acquire some for herself.
  • Robin Vote: Robin flies chaotically through the lives of Felix, Nora, and Jenny, eternally trying to get away from what makes her unhappy without realizing what makes her happy.

Reception and critical analysis[edit]

Roger Austen notes that "the best known, most deeply felt, and generally best written expatriate novel of the thirties dealing with gay themes was Djuna Barnes' Nightwood".[1] Austen goes on to advance the notion that Barnes's depiction of Dr. O'Connor probably confounded a number of American readers because he was neither a "scamp or a monster" nor does he pay a "suitable penalty" for leading a "life of depravity".[7]

Because of concerns about censorship, Eliot edited Nightwood to soften some language relating to sexuality and religion. An edition restoring these changes, edited by Cheryl J. Plumb, was published by Dalkey Archive Press in 1995.[citation needed]

Dylan Thomas described Nightwood as "one of the three great prose books ever written by a woman", while William S. Burroughs called it "one of the great books of the twentieth century". It was number 12 on a list of the top 100 gay and lesbian novels compiled by The Publishing Triangle in 1999.[8]

Nightwood is considered by Anthony Slide, a modern scholar, to be one of only four familiar gay novels of the first half of the twentieth century in the English language. The other three are Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar, Carson McCullers' Reflections in a Golden Eye, and Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms.[9]


  1. ^ a b Austen, Roger, Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1977, p. 82
  2. ^ a b Young, Ian, The Male Homosexual in Literature: A Bibliography, Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1975, p. 153.
  3. ^ Barnes, Djuna, Nightwood, New York, NY: New Directions Publishing, 2006, introduction.
  4. ^ Gammel, Irene (2002). Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 357.
  5. ^ Austen, Roger, Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1977, p. 83
  6. ^ Niven, Debra (2007), Fictive Elements within the Autobiographical Project: Necessary Conflation of Genres in Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, Department of English, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, 
  7. ^ Austen, Roger, Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1977, p. 81.
  8. ^ The Publishing Triangle's list of the 100 best lesbian and gay novels
  9. ^ Slide, Anthony. Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century, (Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press), p. 2.
  • Austen, Roger (1977). Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America (1st ed.). Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company. ISBN 978-0-672-52287-1. 
  • Barnes, Djuna (2006). Nightwood (reprint ed.). New York, NY: New Directions Publishing. 
  • Gammel, Irene (2002). Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Slide, Anthony (2003). Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century (1st ed.). Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press. ISBN 978-1-56023-413-5. 
  • Young, Ian (1975). The Male Homosexual in Literature: A Bibliography (1st ed.). Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-0861-4.