Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

Summary

Rather than the traditional love triangle, Nightwood revolves around what we might call a love quadrangle, with Robin Vote as the primary node and Nora, Jenny, and Felix as the periphery points. The novel begins with the Baron Felix’s story. He is a Viennese Jew, from a family that has tried to fabricate a gentile history. Felix falls in love with Robin, who frequents the Café de la Marie du VIe. They have Guido, an invalid boy together. Robin resents giving birth and having had the child. We learn that she leaves Felix and Guido for long stretches. In addition to the life Robin has with the Baron, we also learn that she has had a tumultuous affair with Nora Flood. Nora, in turn, learns that Robin has been having an affair with Jenny, a middle aged, shabby, women of wealth. Like Felix, who runs around Europe searching for Robin, Nora goes on her own love-sick search.

Doctor Matthew O’Connor, a sham doctor, is the link between all these characters; he is a mutual friend of all and a gossip of sorts. Nora seeks advice from the doctor. She is in love with Robin, but Robin is unfaithful. Much of the novel centers around the Doctor’s long philosophical observations he makes in conversation with Nora or Felix, that often read more like monologues. One evening when Nora comes to speak to the Doctor late at night, she finds him with a face full of make-up, a wig, and in a woman’s dress. The Doctor mentions a number of times to Nora that he should have been born a woman; that his male body was really a mistake.  The doctor is both confidante and gossip: all reveal their darkest secrets to him, and in one of the final chapters he reveals the Nora/Robin/Jenny/Felix quadrangle. The novel ends with Robin going off to America with Jenny. Robin as usual finds herself wandering in the middle of the night. One night she finds herself in a wood and then in a chapel. A dog barks. This awakens Nora. Nora is unanswerably in the area. She walks to the chapel and sees Robin sprawled out on the chapel floor with the dog. Robin hits the dog. The dog growls and Robin begins growling.

Characters

Robin Vote (the Baronin)

Nora Flood

Jenny

Baron Felix

Guido I : Felix’s Jewish father

Hedvig: Felix’s Jewish mother

Guido II: Felix’s invalid son with Robin

The Doctor

Response

I started reading Nightwood over winter break, unsure if it would be relevant to my prelims. I didn’t know much about it, except that it’s a really important example of lesbian fiction.  Little did I know that there was an important love quadrangle (not to be mistaken with a triangle), that involves one Jewish Baron and 3 women. In the novel, Jewish masculinity is entangled in the world of women who love each other. I’m hesitant to call this a “lesbian fiction.” I mean, it’s clearly about women who love each other sexually, but the use of the term “lesbian” forecloses possibilities, I think.

The novel begins by introducing the Baron’s personal history and his Jewish lineage. Baron Felix’s father purchases paintings with false ancestors in order to overwrite their Jewish history. My question is, why does this story of female love and betrayal begin with, and entangle, a Jewish man and his family? Why is the male Jew entangled with the female queer? Most importantly, the Jew and the queer reproduce: Robin gives birth to Guido, an invalid child, who is devout and wishes to join the church. What is the novel doing to Jewish identity and how is Jewish lineage re-inscribed with a queer, gentile mother? What happens to the Jewish family in this novel, and by extension, what happens to the queer identity? Are Jews and Queers being defined by one another in this novel? Are they mutually exclusive? Daniel Boyarin, Daniel Itzkovitz, and Ann Pellegrini have edited a collection on Queer Theory and the Jewish Question that has been formative for my own work and would be especially pertinent as I try to answer these questions. In the introduction, they argue for a discussion of “queer Jews” that explores “the complex social arrangements and processes through which modern Jewish and homosexual identities emerged as traces of each other.” As they note: the nineteenth century “witnessed not just the emergence of the modern Jew but the emergence also of the modern homosexual,” which is “more than historical coincidence” (3). Thinking about the emergence of the Jew as racial category and the homosexual as categories 19th-century scientific categories might help explain why the lesbian triangle needs a fourth node that is Jewish and male.

On a side note (or maybe not so side), the question of Jewish lineage and its relationship to matrilineality is really important in this novel. Nightwood is full of goyish mothers with men, instead, being the bearers of Jewishness. It is an inversion of sorts: Felix’s father Guido marries Hedvig, a Christian woman. Felix, in turn, marries Robin Vote, another Christian woman. But the Jewish stain lingers. Throughout the novel, Felix’s Jewishness is hailed and its relationship to his child is suggested. So another question that is important is this: with the emergence of the notion of a Jewish race, how does Jewish lineage change? How might the importance of patrilineal blood (like a one drop rule) be related to this? Another question: what do we do with the absence of Jewish mothers in this novel and the replacement of queer Christian women?

Important Quotes

“And childless he had died, save for the promise that hung at the Christian belt of Hedvig. Guido had lived as all Jews do, who, cut off from their people by accident or choice, find that they must inhabit a world whose constituents, being alien, force the mind to succumb to an imaginary populace. When a Jew dies on a Christian bosom he dies impaled. When a Jew dies on a Christian bosom he dies impaled. Her body at that moment became the barrier and Guido died against the wall, troubled and alone” (5).

“What had formed Felix from the date of his birth to his coming to thirty was unknown to the world, for the step of the wandering Jew is in every son. No matter where and when you meet him you feel that he has come from some place—no matter from what place he has come—some country that he has devoured rather than resided in, some secret land that he has been nourished on but cannot inherit, for the Jew seems to be everywhere from nowhere. When Felix’s name was mentioned, three or more persons would swear to having seen him the week before in three different countries simultaneously” (10).

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2 comments

  1. I am currently reading this book for a sophomore English class and really liked your comments/perspective, even more so as a Jewish lesbian ❤

  2. How lovely! Jewish queers represent!

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