NIGHTWOOD by Djuna Barnes | Review

Published in 1936 despite numerous rejections from editors and critics alike, Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood is a sprawling narrative of love, lust, and loss. Set against the bustling backdrop of several iconic cities (Paris, Berlin, Vienna, etc.), the story follows a tangled web of characters all struggling to fully express their identities in a society within rigid expectations of who they should be and how they should behave. In his written introduction to the novel, T.S. Eliot describes Nightwood as possessing “the great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterization, and a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy.” I can’t think of a better way to articulate the experience of reading such a bizarre, haunting, beautiful, decidedly modernist novel.

Although I love reading modernist literature, particularly that written by American writers, I had never heard of Djuna Barnes or her work prior to being asked to read Nightwood for one of my tutorials. Now that I’ve read some of Barnes’s work I can’t help but feel as though it is a great shame that she is not featured in more reading lists or is not more widely read in general. While the novel’s reliance on experimental narrative structure and a modernist style may initially seem intimidating to some readers, it can actually feel freeing to read such a rambling story. (In fact, some literary critics in the past have claimed that Nightwood should not even be considered an actual novel in form.) You never know where the narrative will turn next– a new character? a new city? a leap in time? In this way, Nightwood is incredibly engaging, engrossing, and captivating.

If you’re like me and adore stories that are motivated by characters rather than plot, then you’ve come to the right place. There is little to no discernible plot in this novel; rather, the text is primarily character-driven with dialogue that almost feels as though the characters are talking at one another rather than conversing with each other. Nearly all characters in this novel struggle with some form of their identity that is not accepted by traditional mainstream culture. Notably, this novel is incredibly important in studies of lesbian literature as well as fiction that challenges the traditional male/female binary in general. Although Judith Butler coined the term “gender performativity” in 1990 in her book Gender Trouble, Barnes had already been discussing the concept of performing gender decades earlier in Nightwood. From masculine Robin in a relationship with Nora and Jenny to Matthew, a man who pretends to be a doctor and cross-dresses in his bedroom, numerous figures in this novel challenge the rigid stereotypes of masculinity and femininity that have permeated society for centuries.

Overall, Barnes’s Nightwood is a strange but remarkably valuable novel that more people should be encouraged to read. In the male-dominated realm of early twentieth century English modernism, Djuna Barnes’s voice is a welcome change.

What are your thoughts on Nightwood? Have you ever read Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble? Let me know in the comments section below!




8 responses to “NIGHTWOOD by Djuna Barnes | Review”

  1. I had never heard of this, but I am so intrigued! Great review

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I had never heard of it before I was assigned to read it either, but I’m so glad I was 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This book sounds very interesting, and I’ve also never heard about it nor its writer… Holly, would it be possible to share with us the list of required reads for your classes? I am sure it would be a valuable inspiration list for those interested in reading something else than the mainstream books 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can definitely do that! 🙂 thanks so much for the suggestion!!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I was given this book for Christmas but haven’t had time to open it yet! Your lovely review has really piqued my interest, it sounds fascinating. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad! Hope you enjoy it whenever you get around to reading it!


  4. I haven’t read this book, but I like your point about characters talking “at” each other rather than “to” each other. Makes your point very vividly. 😉 Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much!! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: