Nightwood


Finding its origins in the 1920’s, Surrealism was a movement within the arts dedicated to the dreams and the imagination, defying conscious control of reason and all convention. A product of Modernism, Surrealists purposefully centered their works upon the rejection of tradition. They relied heavily on symbols and associations, and were also highly influenced by Freudian theories. Visual artists within Surrealism - for instance, Dalí, Magritte, or Ernst - depicted elaborate dreamscapes including visual symbols. Surrealist authors, in addition to instigating dreamlike and irrational images, were focused upon the connotations of words rather than upon the explicit meanings - a method which tends to bring attention to the language itself instead of the plot. Djuna Barnes was one such author, penning the Surrealist masterpiece, Nightwood. The setting of Nightwood is quite dreamlike in itself, situated in places that resound of darkness and despair. The narrator is, apparently, a rational individual, creating an illusion of an existence without the quality of logic. Because of its stream-of-consciousness orientation, rationale is of secondary importance. The occurrences and descriptions included in Nightwood are thus decidedly outlandish and extremely imaginative, stimulating images much like those of a dreamlike state. Not unlike the Surrealist visual arts, Nightwood promotes a distinct, although intensely personal and difficult set of symbols within it. The title itself represents the “wood” of the Christian cross, while “night” is intended to conjure up darkness and deviant sexuality, all of which are recurring images within the novel. The characters’ names are also highly symbolic: “Nora Flood”, for instance, is intended to prompt within the readers’ minds the biblical story of the flood of Noah. The symbols within Nightwood are obscure and not easily received by the reader. However, symbolism recurs in the Surrealist movement, especially within the Surrealist visual arts. When symbols are searched for in Nightwood, it is a fairly uncomplicated feat to identify them. The literary Surrealist movement was mainly concerned with the associations and implications of words rather than their literal meanings. Nightwood is overtly so, placing language and diction as the center of interest, while the narrative, although present and meaningful, is purposefully obscured and downplayed. Barnes is explicit in her attempts to break with tradition, creating a decidedly Bohemian environment for her plot structure by constructing the language to call attention to itself. Although Barnes has constructed a narrative, it is a decisively dissonant one, where the elements have been forced into a crooked section of events. Barnes’ plot and characters in Nightwood exemplify Freudian theory very intently: a common thread within the Surrealist works. The main conflict is not one of the evident plot, but of the psychological inner conflict of the characters involved. Thus, the reader is brought directly into the psyche of the character. Repression, psychological degeneration, intense love of the self, and the intense desire to be loved are all recurring themes in the roles of the characters. They all suffer from self-absorption; pining for, yet not wholly loving one another, while excessively loving themselves. (The one exception to this is Nora Flood, who is the Also, they all have great identity problems and sexual inversions: Guido thinks he is a woman, The Doctor is not a doctor at all, Felix is identifies himself with European history, and all of the characters - with the exception of Felix - are homosexuals. Repression is the main conspirator against the characters, illustrating the degenerative effect the re-emergence of repressed human impulses have on individuals. This is best seen in the end scene, where Robin is found regressing to a primordial state, hunched over on all fours, growling like a dog. All of the characters in Nightwood are clearly mentally unhealthy: despairing, alienated, and experiencing loss. They are purposeless and wandering without solution or end, excepting that of degeneration.