Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

In Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, we follow the trajectory of Robin Vote, an ambiguous and androgynous character, through the effects she has on her lovers, Felix Volkbein, Nora Flood and Jenny Petherbridge. Each chapter of the novel is thus dedicated to introducing the character who will meet Robin, their meeting, and the unfolding of the relationship, from its beginnings to its downfall. Although Robin is presented by the doctor and other characters as the villain of the story, the dangerous femme fatale whose nature condemns to sensual wandering, upon a close reading it becomes clear that everything we see and know of the character is filtered by the perspective and feelings of her rejected lovers. Deemed a creature of the night, vilified and blamed, Robin is denied agency in the narrative and exists through the discourse of others. As suggested by the title of the final chapter, Robin is the “Possessed” (176), a state of being that eventually leads to her transformation into a creature between the human and the animal. The question to ask then is, by whom is she possessed? In this essay, I will argue that Robin’s actions are the result of the haunting she suffers at the hands of her lovers, concentrating my analysis on the effect Felix has on Robin. Indeed, the character himself is damned, haunted by the ghost of his father and his legacy, which explains his obsession with the past. Because Felix uses Robin as a mirrory surface on which he projects his dreams and aspirations, transforming her into a mystical feminine figure, pastoral and statuesque, he chooses her to bear his son. Following the conception and birth of their son Guido, Robin becomes a monstrous figure, beastly, vampiric and medusoid.  

Beginning on Felix’s birth and the death of his mother and father, Guido, the story seems at first realistic and historical. However, Felix’s family belong to the margins, they are outcasts of the noble society they aspire to belong to. Obsessed with European aristocracy, Guido, “a Jew of Italian descent” (4), created for himself and his descendant a pseudo-aristocratic lineage, going to great lengths to make his story believable. Of his attempt to assert the prestige of his heritage and blood, we learn that he never “appear[ed] in public without the ribbon of some quite unknown distinction tinging his buttonhole with a faint threat” (4). The mark, instead of being a sign of prestige and nobility, only emphasizes the ridiculousness and vanity of Guido’s enterprise. The visual effect of the ribbon evokes blood, thus standing as an ineffable trace that deems the character an outcast. Guido’s life, noble in appearance, is a pastiche based in pretense and falsity, a collage which constitutes a desperate attempt to deny his true heritage, to distance himself from his Jewishness, which condemns him to marginality. Passing the invisible mark on his son, Guido also hands him down his desire to belong to the aristocracy, as emphasized by the very name of the chapter, “Bow down”. We are thus told that Felix “walked, hot, incautious and damned” (5), that in his throat sounded “the echo […] of that cry running the Piazza Montanara long ago, “Roba vecchia”—the degradation by which his people had survived” (5). Despite the rejection of his Jewish heritage—as emphasized by his constant use of German phrases and words—in his very body is inscribed his status as an “outcast” (5), the past of his people. Calling to mind 19th century eugenic theories, the character seems straight out of a novel by Barbey d’Aurevilly: it is from Felix’s “impermissible blood” (5) that his inescapable otherness stems. By introducing the reader to the world of the novel through Felix’s story, Djuna Barnes projects the reader into a world which, despite its seemingly historical appearance and order, revolves around 19th century ideas of destiny, damnation, and holiness. The irony of the narrative voice, the mockery of the people around him, emphasize the failure of Guido’s attempt. As for his son, Felix, he was born of “a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed of a rich spectacular crimson,” (3) whose color inescapably recalls blood and will be mirrored in the birthing of Robin’s and Felix’s son Guido. Those tragic destinies passing down generations underline the consequences of trying to disengage with one’s nature and blood. Like his father before him, Felix “bow[s] down” (3), trying to find a place of his own, to prove his barony, his fidelity toward, and his belonging to, the aristocracy. This desire will later lead the character to marry Robin Vote, who will bore him a son, Guido. 

Felix’s desire to have a son is expressed by the character upon his meeting with Robin, where “he wished a son who would feel as he felt about the “great past” (42). This sentence is echoed later in the chapter, as Felix and Robin walk in Vienna, the repetition of the structure starting with the model of the imaginary “would”—signaling the dream quality of his wish—and the use of the comparative “as” underlining the continuity of the wish, the passage from a desire of paternity and the fixation on the woman who is to bear him a son. As commented by the narrative voice, “there was something pathetic in the spectacle. Felix reiterating the tragedy of his father” (48), Felix’s dream is an exact copy of his father’s undoing, which will be confirmed in the choice of his son’s name. As they discuss Felix’s desire to have a son, the doctor states that “the last child born to aristocracy is sometimes an idiot, out of respect—we go up—but we come down” (44), thus prophesying Guido’s eeriness and deficiency. The doctor’s cryptic language is based in a metaphor implicitly associating the aristocratic milieu that fascinates Felix with Paradise. The preposition “to” in “born to” negates Felix’s claims of belonging and stigmatizes his son as a sacrifice made to the aristocratic milieu. Felix’s obsession for the past takes the form of a desire to return to where he was born and where his father lived, so he decides to take Robin “first to Vienna” (46). As they walk along the streets and gardens of the city, the narrator states, “[h]e kept saying to himself that sooner or later, in this garden or that palace, she would suddenly be moved as he was moved. Yet it seemed to him that he too was a sightseer. He tried to explain to her what Vienna had been before the war; what it must have been before he was born” (47). Felix longs for a perfect alignment of her feelings with his and hopes that this imagined and idealized synchronicity of her wife with his feelings and ideas will eventually materialize. What he expects of her is to embody his own feelings, he wants to be able to control what she feels and expresses. It is through her that he considers possible the renewal of the past in the present. However, the distance between past and present is traced and elongated as the sentence progresses, the use of the past perfect being replaced by a present perfect modulated by the conditional modal “must,” which tells both of Felix’s conviction and of its falsity. The past remains lost and distant, while Felix finds himself trapped in the present he longs to ignore and transform. The character’s incapacity to bridge that gap through memory reveals the treachery of his claims and pretenses: if the character’s memory is “confused and hazy” (46), it is precisely because he has never experienced the Vienna of the past through his own senses. Trying to surmount and compensate for his deficiency, Felix consults books and ends up “repeating what he had read, for it was what he knew best” (47). His knowledge being artificial, Felix sees in Robin a medium through which he could grasp the past and re-actualise it. According to him “without such love [as his for Robin], the past as he understood it, would die away from the world” (49). Robin is thus at the center of Felix’s dream of reviving the past, buried corpse, through words and imagination.  

The descriptions interjected between the dialogues of their very first meeting make clear the fact that Felix will choose Robin. Indeed, the narrative voice, adopting Felix’s viewpoint, states that “[s]uch a woman is the infected carrier of the past: before her the structure of our head and jaws ache—we feel that we could eat her, she who is eaten death returning, for only then do we put our face close to the blood on the lips of our forefathers” (41). In these sentences, the replacing of the simple past with the simple present, as well as the use of the first-person plural, gives the discourse the aspect of a universal truth being spoken. The change of tense, from the narrative simple past used throughout the book to the simple past in this passage, extracts Robin out of time: more than a woman, Robin becomes the incarnation of an idea(l). This is also evidenced as Felix reminisces that Robin’s “clothes were of a period that he could not quite place. She wore feathers of the kind his mother had worn, flattened sharply to the face” (46). By clearly establishing the likeness of the mother and the future wife, Felix starts shaping Robin’s destiny. The mystification of the character is rendered textually through the insertion of the relative pronoun “who” which lays the emphasis on the pronoun “she.” Robin thus becomes a transcendental figure, an atemporal door leading Felix to all that ever was, a tool enabling man to look the lost past in the eye. She is a force in front of which one must kneel, as suggested by the spatial and temporal preposition “before,” and yet she is something to be consumed. Defined as both “eaten death returning,” an incarnation of death destroying and birthing itself, and something whose flesh should be consumed to approach the past, Robin becomes the dual image of the eternal feminine, which Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar identified as the opposite figures of the angel and the monster (17). Further, the narrative voice states that in Robin are reunited “the converging halves of a broken fate, setting face, in sleep, toward itself in time, as an image and its reflection in a lake seem parted only by the hesitation of the hour” (41). The structure of the sentence, cut throughout by comas creating an oscillating rhythm, reflects the dual nature of the character, the two inseparable sides of the feminine that she supposedly embodies. Alternating between her bodily, daylight existence—her face, her timeliness—and her night side, Robin is presented as a two-sided being composed of an image and its reflection, although we do not know which is which. Later, the shift from “such a woman” to “this girl” in the following sentences signals the existence of the real woman being the myth Felix wants her to embody. Indeed, he reads his meeting with Robin as being destined: 

He found that his love for Robin was not in truth a selection; it was as if the weight of his life had amassed one precipitation. He had thought of making a destiny for himself, through laborious and untiring travail. Then with Robin it seemed to stand before him without effort. When he asked her to marry him it was with such an unplanned eagerness that he was taken aback to find himself accepted, as if Robin’s life held no volition for refusal. (46) 

Haunted and weighed down by the burden of the past, both imaginary and generational, Felix experiences a release. Felix is liberated, transferring the weight of his burden on the shoulders of the young woman, as metaphorized by her transformation into a statuesque figure.  

In Felix’s mind she becomes “a figurehead in a museum” (41), a silent muse to be adored, “her pale head, with its short hair growing flat on the forehead made still narrower by the hanging curls almost on a level with the arched eyebrows, gave her the look of cherubs in Renaissance theatres; the eyeballs showing slightly rounded in profile, the temples low and square” (45). Felix’s gaze, turning around Robin as would a sightseer looking at a statue in a museum, divides the head from the rest of her body. His glance stops on each element of her head separately and in relation to one another, as if trying to decipher the secret of her perfection and harmony. Her skin has the elegant pallor of marble, while the term “arched” evokes the columns of churches and temples, the Greek brow of antique statues. The adverb “finely” suggests a refined fashioning, as if a hand had sculpted her head. While Felix transforms Robin into a marble statue, he humanizes the statues he witnesses in gardens, they seem to him “warm and clear” (47), thus acquiring the warmth of the flesh. This turning of the character into a statue is prolonged in the description of body, “[h]er skirts were moulded to her hips and fell downward and out, wider and longer than those of other women, heavy silks that made her seem newly ancient” (46). The final oxymoron signals that Robin is suspended in time. Ageless and atemporal she “was gracious and yet fading, like an old statue in a garden” in which is visible “the weather through which it has endured, and is not so much the work of man as the work of wind and rain and the herd of the seasons” (45). Both present and absent, Robin becomes a symbol of the ineluctable passing of time, the degradation of the civilized by nature. She is the embodiment of the irrevocable ruin that awaits every civilisation, thus serving as both an atemporal figure of doom and a projection screen for Felix to reconstruct the lost European past of the aristocracy. Encompassing every aspect of the eternal feminine, Robin is thus emptied of her creative potential for selfhood. This is evidenced in the shift from the adjective “painful” being applied to “her presence”, to her actual dissolution and disappearance in the “happiness” (45) that her image provokes in Felix. Because of the proximity of his name to the word “felicity,” it seems that through his marriage to Robin, Felix is manifesting his destiny and the affirmation of his identity. As in Renée Vivien’s roman à clef dedicated to her tragic relationship to Natalie Barney, Une Femme m’apparut…, Djuna Barnes’ heroine embodies the “Bonne Déesse universelle”1 (37), she is, in Felix’s words, “Das Leben ist ewig, darin liegt seine Schönbeit. (47), the beauty of life which stems out of the eternal. 

In the second chapter, dedicated to Robin and Felix’s meeting and the unfolding of their  marriage, Robin becomes a pastoral muse, a lady of the moon as “[a]bout her head there was an effulgence as of phosphorus glowing about the circumference of a body of water—as if her life lay through her in ungainly luminous deteriorations—the troubling structure of the born somnambule, who lives in two worlds – meet of child and desperado.” This description of Robin, with its blend of pastoral and decadent elements, is reminiscent of Renée Vivien’s depictions of her lover Natalie Barney, of whom she declared that her hair “rec[èle] les rayons d’une lune embrumée, / D’une lune d’hiver dans le cristal des ciels”2 (Poèmes, 47). Lying on her bed, her short blond hair crowning her head, Robin’s appearance recalls a Moon-adorned sylphid, but the presence of the term “phosphorus” implies the sneaking of artificiality in the character and might refer to her narcotic relationship to love and sleep. Robin here appears as a chimeric creature—a chimera being the combination of two beings—born of the union of a “desperado,” whose name reveals the character’s despair and indicates a form of tragic knowledge, and a child, characterized by his or her innocence. Combining in herself the two poles, Robin is an acrobat whose aerial balance would ideally consist in a search for harmony between those separate parts of herself. However, as shown by the character’s trajectory, Robin is longing only for the innocence, which she attempts to find in the world of the night. As she is dating Felix, “she went to the window and pulled aside the heavy velvet hangings, threw down the bolster that Vienna uses against wind at the ledge, and opened the window, though the night air was cold” (47). In this moment Robin, longing for her lost freedom, is like a bird about to fly away in the night air; her movements denote of force and violence and silently express a reprieve against the curtains which, qualified as “heavy”, recall the stone of the statues that pervade the artificial gardens, a revolt against the bird cage in which Felix has trapped her. In her bedroom, the image of Robin is reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty. As she wakes up “[a] series of almost invisible shudders wrinkled her skin as the water dripped from her lashes, over her mouth and on to the bed. A spasm of waking moved upward from some deep-shocked realm, and she opened her eyes” (39). Like a lake or a sea frozen by sleep, Robin’s awakening is announced physically through the apparition of almost imperceptible waves on her skin. The term “spasm” suggests something violent, an irritation and disturbance of the character’s peacefulness, while the adverb “upward” indicates an ascending movement: it seems that Robin is coming back from a dark underworld, a refuge in which she dwells when she sleeps. Oscillating between presence and absence, Robin is deemed a “born somnambule” (38), one whose nature condemns to an eternal sleep and who awaits to be awakened by some prince who would undo her curse. But the prince only turns her into a dream, an Hamadryade, “her feet large and as earthly as the feet of a monk” (50). Containing both the feminine and the masculine, the female and the male, being “a tall girl with the body of a boy” (50) and thus occupying the position of fundamental outcast, Robin embodies an all-encompassing principle, represented in the novel through the images of Mother Nature—during her pregnancy—and the Virgin Mary—after Guido’s birth to supply her absence in the raising of the child. Her flesh has “the texture of plant life, and beneath it one sensed a frame, broad, porous and sleep-worn, as if sleep were a decay fishing her beneath the visible surface” (38). Garden sculpture, her skin has the appearance of plant life, but not their substance and liveliness. The verb “sensed” refers to Felix’s feelings, denying the actuality of the description. At the core of her being he projects a “frame”, the skull of her body and self a canvas, blank, receptive to exterior influences, its size permitting the realization of a grandiose painting, in both size and scope. Like Frau Mann’s skin, who fully absorbed the lozenge motif of her costume, Robin’s is porous, no longer tracing clear limits between self and other, inside and outside. The presence of the adjective “sleep-worn” reveals the perceived degradation of Robin’s core by her somnambulism. However, it seems that it is when she is awake that she is defenseless. Vulnerable, Robin is at the mercy of Felix’s fashioning of herself: “Thinking of her, visualizing her, was an extreme act of the will; to recall her after she had gone, however, was as easy as the recollection of a sensation of beauty without its details” (45). Felix, having seized and appropriated the image of Robin, possesses her in his mind. Reduced to an image, the character is an idea(l), the troubled incarnation of the Eternal feminine. The character’s reification is effective in the polyptoton “she smiled the smile”, which marks the passage from verb to noun, subject to object, as well as Robin’s distance from her own body, and therefore her life in the world of the day. This idea is reinforced by the precision that “[w]hen she smiled the smile was only in the mouth and a little bitter: the face of an incurable yet to be stricken with its malady” (45). Looking at Robin sleeping, Felix “knew that he was not sufficient to make her what he had hoped” (48). Inverting the precedence of reality over the imaginary, Felix expresses his desire to mold and shape Robin to correspond to the atemporal image of the ideal woman.  Being “an enigma” (48) Robin becomes alternately, in the eye of Felix, a mirror, a watery reflective surface, a blank canvas, clay. Thus depicted, Robin appears as the raw material, the new-born infant, while Felix, in this scenario imposed on Robin, is the artist whose enterprise is condemned to fail and will lead to the subsequent destruction and corrupting of Robin.  

Felix’s fantasy progressively shifts, going from pastoral images of an idealized and divine woman, to the horror of a vampiric creature, thus reversing the archetype of the benevolent feminine into its maleficent counterpart. For example, Felix thinks that “[s]he has the touch of the blind who, because they see more with their fingers, forget more in their minds” (46). Contrary to Felix, who heavily focuses on appearances and details found in the physical world, Robin is blind to the exterior world and therefore incapable of remembering what she has seen. Her relationship to the world is entirely shaped by her belonging to the world of the night: “Her fingers would go forward, hesitate, tremble, as if they had found a face in the dark. When her hand finally came to rest, the palm closed; it was as if she had stopped a crying mouth. Her hand lay still and she would turn away” (46). Robin’s apprehension of those around her is, according to Felix, based in a discovery, a sensual fascination for the unknown, as suggested by the verb “found”. The presence of the adverb “forward” implies an open movement, the crossing of the boundary between self and other, the progressive knowledge gained through the physical apprehension of the other’s body. The absence of indication concerning Robin’s feelings and psychological reactions to this meeting with the other suggests that her grasping of reality does not assign meaning. The movement of her hands is akin to the physical seizing that concludes the hunt of a predatory animal, it also mirrors Robin’s relationship to her lovers: what fascinates her is the hunt, the movement that leads to the final seizing, not the seizing itself. Once the movement of her hand has disappeared, she abandons the object/lover. Acting like an animal playing with its prey, Robin is doomed to go from one lover to the next, the consummation of the relationship being its downfall. Robin is thus deemed to belong to the Dionysian world of the night, her knowledge of the world being that of an animal, a creature devoid of conscience, entirely dependent on sensuous experience. This is also evidenced in the birthing scene, one of the very few moments when Robin expresses in words her rejection of Felix’s doing. She curses him—“go to Hell” (52) —and delivers her child “[a]mid loud and frantic cries of affirmation and desperation” (52), “[s]huddering in the double pains of birth and fury, cursing like a sailor” (52). The presence of the noun “fury,” scattered throughout the novel, conveys the image of the Greek Furies, chimeric Goddesses defending the institution of the patriarchal family, particularly in The Oresteia, thus assimilating Robin with their monstrosity. Robin is also akin to the Medusa, as her blue eyes are perceived by Felix as both “mysterious” (40) and “shocking” (41). By looking into her eyes Felix “found himself seeing them still faintly clear and timeless behind the lids—the long unqualified range in the iris of wild beasts who have not tamed the focus down to meet the human eye” (41). The description announcing Robin’s transformation. 

In the brief moment when the narrative voice shifts to Robin’s perspective, the reader  is confronted with the suffering of the character, as we are told that “Robin prepared herself for her child with her only power: a stubborn cataleptic calm, conceiving herself pregnant before she was; and, strangely aware of some lost land in herself, she took to going out; wandering the countryside; to train travel, to other cities, alone and engrossed” (49). Experiencing her pregnancy as a form of territorial seizing, a material possession of her being, and therefore a violence inflicted on her body and mind, Robin turns to her night quest, her hunt in the streets of the cities of the world and subsequent transformation into a wild creature. Instead of being a manifestation of Robin’s true nature, her assuming of the role of the femme fatale is the result of the trauma experienced at the hands of Felix. In the rest of the novel, Robin is characterized by her silence, which is reinforced by the absence of the adoption of her point of view by the narrative voice. Immediately following the birth of her son, Robin “look[s] about her in the bed as if she had lost something” (52), the implication being that she has lost something dear in the land of sleep. However, we can only speculate on this idea as the presence of the adverb “as if” indicates the uncertainty of this assertion. It seems that Robin evades everyone, including the narrative voice, that she exists in the corners, the underside, the obscure. Robin, in her elusiveness, is a mirror, a screen on which her lovers project their fantasies. When she is “[r]emoved from her setting—the plants that had surrounded her, the melancholy red velvet of the chairs and the curtains, the sound, weak and nocturnal, of the birds—she yet carried the quality of the “way back” as animals do.” (44) The setting is the place where she was first witnessed, the bedroom where Robin attempts to recreate her lost natural environment, the nightwood where she was born and where she longs to return. The use of the comparative “as” indicates the correspondence, Robin’s belonging to the reign of the natural and the beastly. The expression “way back” evokes Robin’s quest for a way to return to her homeland, an instinct that will ineluctably lead the character to her possession and final transformation. The wood of Nightwood, contrary to traditional representations of the “green world”—to borrow Northrop Frye’s phrase—such as the woods of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is a singular entity, but dual in its representation: there is the artificial wood of Robin’s bedroom and the wood of Paris, le Bois de Boulogne. The artificial wood is first introduced in the second chapter, it is “a confusion of potted plants, exotic palms and cut flowers, faintly over-sung by the notes of unseen birds, which seemed to have been forgotten” (37). Robin’s bedroom, whose arrangement recalls Baudelaire’s paradis artificiels, with its dying flowers and plants extracted from their native soil, is a fake jungle, almost a garden. Secluded from the rest of the world, there sing unknown and invisible birds who participate in the transforming of the intimate space into a mindscape, their song echoing meaninglessly, watching over Robin’s sleep, their faint melody a vestige of something lost to memory. Impossible to recall and describe, the song announces the unfolding of the events, specifically the sickly forgetfulness that will lead Robin to her transformation. The incision of details that separate on the page the space of the bed from the description of Robin sleeping creates a distance, a wall that separates Robin sleeping from her awakened counterpart, but also marks the fundamental separation between Robin and the other characters. Existing in the underside of things, having no voice of her own in the narrative other than her silence and progressive disappearing, the character remains the enigma, the feminine mystique.  

The representation of the femme fatale in Nightwood consists in a haunting of the main female character, Robin Vote, whose very name evokes the figure of the New Woman, androgynous and sexually adventurous. Though the haunting of Robin is performed by all her successive lovers—Felix Volkbein, Nora Flood, Jenny Peterbridge—I chose to focus my attention on the haunting at the hand of Felix, as it stands as a stereotypical case of the heterosexual relationship, in which the man saps the woman and uses her to build an imaginary world based on feminine archetype. The male character himself is possessed by his past, the burden of what his father left him. Outcast despite his constant efforts, the character’s peregrinations lead him to the gates of the carnivalesque world of the circus, plunging the character into a time-space characterized by its transgression of norms and confusion. The subsequent disquieting of the character leads him to marrying Robin, in whom he projects the many faces of the eternal feminine. Through the recurring image of the “unseen birds” (37), the narrative voice tells the haunting, the invisible presence of what lies beneath the fabric of reality and escapes categorisation, naming, the symbolic and language. They translate in “unconscious terms” (57) the unidentifiable thing that escapes even the narrative voice. Becoming what others thought she was through Felix’s haunting and the bearing of his child, the many facets that were projected onto her face, Robin nonetheless eludes and evades the reader. Indeed, she seems to escape the narrative voice, her thoughts being almost absent from the novel.

Works Cited

  • Barnes Djuna, Nightwood [1937], New York, New Directions Books, 2006.
  • Gilbert Sandra M. et Gubar Susan, The Madwoman in the Attic: the woman writer and the nineteeth-century literary imagination [1980], New Haven, Conn. ; London, Yale  University Press, 2000.
  • Vivien Renée, Poèmes 1901-1910, Cassaniouze, ErosOnyx Editions, 2009.
  • Vivien Renée, Une Femme m’apparut… [1905], Vincennes, Talents Hauts, 2019.

  1.  Translation (mine): “good universal Goddess”
  2.  Translation (mine): “to contain the rays of a clouded moon / A wintery moon in the crystalline heavens”

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