36 pages 1 hour read

Djuna Barnes


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1936

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Summary and Study Guide


Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes, was first published in 1936. It tells the story of Robin Vote and the lives of those she becomes entangled with as she struggles with her desires and need for freedom. While set mostly in 1930s Paris, the novel is cosmopolitan in nature, with action also taking place in Vienna, Berlin, and various parts of America. This book is an example of modernist literature from the period between world wars and reflects this, with some characters referencing their experiences during World War One. A central thread of the novel is same-sex romance and women’s independence from traditional marriage, which are also indicative of the cultural changes occurring in this period.

Stylistically, a defining characteristic of this novel is its dense poetic language, so much so that when T.S. Eliot published it, he described it as a novel which only “sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate.”

The novel opens in a kind of flashback to 1880, as Baronin Hedvig Volkbein is giving birth to her son, Felix. She dies moments after, leaving him an orphan. Felix’s father, Guido Volkbein, who died six months prior of a fever, was a man who falsely presented himself as a baron. Felix grows up under the care of an aunt who knows little of the family’s history. Felix perpetuates the fraudulent claim to nobility and presents himself as Baron Felix Volkbein.

In his adulthood, Felix moves to Paris and begins to feel a kinship with circus performers, many of whom take on titles of nobility in their stage names. While on a visit to Berlin to see some performers whom he has befriended, Felix meets Matthew O’Connor (aka the doctor) at a salon gathering. Matthew O’Connor is a middle-aged, American-born student of medicine, specializing in gynecology. Once back in Paris, Felix reconnects with the doctor, who also lives there, and the two meet for dinner. Their dinner conversation is interrupted by a request that the doctor tend to a young woman at a nearby hotel; she has fainted and cannot be revived. In an unconventional move, the doctor brings Felix with him on the call. After the doctor and Felix barely wake her with a splash of cold water, Felix returns to the hotel the next day to court her. The young woman's name is Robin Vote. Soon after, he takes her on a trip to Vienna and marries her.

From the beginning of their relationship, there is a disconnect between Robin and Felix, and Robin starts a pattern of disappearing for stretches at a time, going out at night and traveling to different cities by train. Felix insists that they have a child, even though she does not want to. Once their son, Guido, is born, Robin’s mental state worsens, until one day she admits that she never wanted a child and leaves Felix and Guido.

Robin sails for America, where she meets Nora, a publicist for circuses. Through her connect to the circus, Felix had met Nora in passing at the same party where he first met the doctor, although no one realizes this link at the time. Robin and Nora are seated next to each other in the front row of a circus and the two begin to talk after Robin is frightened by a lion in the circus act. The two women quickly fall into a love affair and move back to Paris, where Nora buys an apartment.

News of Robin’s return with Nora reaches Felix through Parisian gossip, but Felix does not have direct contact with his estranged wife. After a while, Robin’s habit of going out at night alone resurfaces. Eventually, Nora discovers that Robin has started an affair with a widow named Jenny Pentherbridge. Robin never leaves Nora to live with Jenny, but sneaks out to spend time with Jenny. In a climactic scene, Jenny’s jealousy causes her to physically attack Robin during a group carriage outing. Soon after this event, Nora can no longer take the torment of Robin’s double life with Jenny, and Nora breaks off her relationship with Robin.

After her breakup with Nora, Robin sails with Jenny to New York but refuses to settle down with her there. Her familiar pattern of roaming alone at night resurfaces, to Jenny’s horror. The book culminates with Robin completing her transformation into a wild creature of the night as she drops to all fours and behaves like a dog in the decaying chapel on Nora’s property.