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Nightwood-Cover-New Destinations.jpg
Cover of the 2006 edition
AuthorDjuna Barnes
Cover artistSigrid Rothe
CountryUnited States
Lesbian literature
PublisherHarcourt Trade Publishers
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
ISBN978-0-8112-1671-5 (New Directions Publishing Paperback Reprint)
813/.52 22
LC ClassPS3503.A614 N5 2006
Preceded byLadies Almanack 
Followed byThe Antiphon 

Nightwood is a 1936 novel by Djuna Barnes first published in London by Faber and Faber.

Nightwood is one of the earliest prominent novels to portray explicit homosexuality between women, and can be considered lesbian literature.[1][2]

It is also notable for its intense, gothic prose style.[2] The novel employs modernist techniques such as its unusual form or narrative and can be considered metafiction,[3] and it was praised by other modernist authors including T. S. Eliot, who wrote an introduction included in the 1937 edition published by Harcourt, Brace.

Eliot wrote in his introduction that "... it is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it."[4] 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.[5]


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.[citation needed]

Plot summary[edit]

Nightwood follows Robin Vote, who is in constant search of "secure torment". The story begins in Europe, where the false Baron Felix Volkbein is introduced to Robin by Dr. Matthew O'Connor. Felix seeks Robin's hand in marriage in order to emulate traditions of old European nobility, seeking to grant validity to his own fake family name and help Robin feel secure. After the birth of their son, Guido, Robin realizes that she regrets having the child and does not wish to carry on this married life. Felix seeks the counsel of O'Connor, who attempts to comfort him and turn his attention towards his disabled son.

Robin moves to America, where she begins a romantic relationship with Nora Flood. They eventually move to Paris together. Both Nora and Robin seek security in their companionship, but Robin's nature strains their relationship and prevents them from remaining at peace. 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 O'Connor to recover from the loss of Robin.

Robin's relationship with Jenny is as fruitless as her previous relationships, and she continues to wander aimlessly through the nights. Felix is able to turn his attentions towards his son and begin to forget Robin, but Nora continues to long for her missing companion.

Some time later, both Nora and Robin have returned to America. While camping in the woods, Nora discovers Robin kneeling before an altar in an abandoned church. In the ambiguous scene, Nora attempts to enter only to accidentally fall unconscious. Robin frolics on the floor with Nora's dog, mimicking its bestial actions, before finally falling asleep.


The major characters are:

  • Robin Vote: Robin wanders chaotically through the lives of the other characters, trying to get away from what makes her unhappy without ever realizing what makes her happy. She serves as a source of fascination for the other characters, and the plot follows the interactions of other characters with her. Robin is the love interest of Felix, Nora, and Jenny.
  • Baron Felix Volkbein: The only son of Guido, a European Jew who hid his Judaism and created a fake lineage to pretend to be a Baron. Felix is driven by his desire to maintain the ideals of old-world Europe in a false effort to continue traditions of the nobility. He seeks Robin for these reasons, but eventually lets her go. 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 Robin's second lover. She seeks security in her relationship with Robin, but is unable to control Robin's wandering tendencies. Robin's depression and manipulative behavior begins to drag Nora down as well. Nora continues to search for satisfaction after Robin leaves her, unable to settle down much as Robin is.
  • Dr. Matthew O'Connor: A transgender person, assigned male at birth, 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 babbling provides 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.[6] The character was based on Dan Mahoney, who was also the basis of a character in the writing of Robert McAlmon.[7] O'Connor also elevates the novel to metafiction, as he frequently discusses the nature of narratives, acting as both the narrator and the pseudo-author of the text for long stretches.[3]
  • 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 leaves Nora to be with Jenny, but Jenny soon falls victim to the same depression that affects both Robin and Nora. She has been discarded by Robin by the end of the novel.

Reception and critical analysis[edit]

Roger Austen notes that "the best known, most deeply felt, and generally best written expatriate novel of the 1930s 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".[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

Nightwood is considered by Anthony Slide, a modern scholar, to be one of only four familiar gay novels of the first half of the 20th 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.[11]


  1. ^ a b Austen, p. 82
  2. ^ a b Young, p. 153.
  3. ^ a b Fama, Katharine A. (2014). "Melancholic Remedies: Djuna Barnes's Nightwood as Narrative Theory". Journal of Modern Literature. Berlin: 39.
  4. ^ Barnes, Djuna (2000) [1937]. "Introduction". Nightwood (Modern Library ed.). New York: Random House. p. xxviii. ISBN 0-679-64024-X.
  5. ^ Gammel, p. 357.
  6. ^ Austen, p. 83
  7. ^ Niven, Debra (2007). Fictive Elements within the Autobiographical Project: Necessary Conflation of Genres in Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (PDF) (Thesis). Department of English, University of North Carolina at Wilmington. pp. 43–44. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  8. ^ Austen, p. 81
  9. ^ Pekar, Harvey (November 6, 1995). "All About Nightwood: A New Edition, As Complete As Possible". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  10. ^ "100 Best Lesbian and Gay Novels". The Publishing Triangle. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  11. ^ Slide, p. 2.

Works cited[edit]

  • Austen, Roger (1977). Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America (1st ed.). Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company. ISBN 978-0-672-52287-1.
  • Gammel, Irene (2002). Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity: A Cultural Biography. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-07231-1.
  • Slide, Anthony (2003). Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century (1st ed.). Binghamton, New York: Harrington Park Press. ISBN 978-1-56023-413-5.
  • Young, Ian (1975). The Male Homosexual in Literature: A Bibliography (1st ed.). Metuchen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-0861-4.