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The Portrayal of Loss in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood Essay

In her introduction to Nightwood, Jeannette Winterson states that the power of the book may be derived from its ability to shun all forms of categorization (Barnes ix). She states, “Its power makes nonsense of any categorization… (as its)…language is not about one particular category… (but about the) reflection on the truth of these claims” (Barnes ix-x). In line with this, what follows is an analysis of Winterson’s claim regarding Barnes’ aforementioned book. Djuna Barnes (1961), in her book Nightwood, presents a narrative of loss through the characters of Felix, Robina, and Nora.

The narrative of loss, within the text, is apparent in the creation of a blank space from which the actions and events surrounding the lives of these characters can be seen. This blank space signifies the loss of access to history, language, and representation for those who have been placed in the margins of culture due to the difference of their race, class, gender etc. The text, in this sense, may be seen as presenting the history, language, and culture of those who have been silenced due to their decision to dissent to the substantive and normative rules set by society during their time.

If such is the case, Nightwood may thereby be seen as a political text as it offers a critique of the different forms of categorization that delineate an individual within one specific space. This political critique in Nightwood may be seen in the style used within the text as well as in the development of the narrative within the text. Nightwood develops through the continuous veering away from plot, convention, and received meanings. These are evident in the narrative style of the text wherein the characters are depicted as presenting monologues that do not initially seem to have any connection to the narrative as a whole.

An example of this is evident in the case of Felix who discusses the loss of his Jewish history. He states, It takes a Christian, standing eternally in Jew’s salvation, to blame himself and to bring up from that depth charming and fantastic superstitions through which the slowly and tirelessly milling Jew once more becomes “collector” of his own past. His undoing is never profitable until some goy has put it back into such shape that it can again be offered as a “sign”. (Barnes 10)

In the aforementioned passage, Felix discusses the theft of Jewish history whose absence is filled with fantastic stories by the dominant Christian culture. The blank space, within this context, may thereby be seen as the incomplete slate from which individuals belonging to the minority groups of society construct their selves. Since such individuals recognize the fabrication of part of their history, they recognize the futility of creating an identity that enables them to stand outside the hegemonic constraints of culture.

The importance of history to the construction of an identity is further specified by Dr. Matthew Dante O’Connor within the text. He states, We may all be nature’s noblemen… but think of the stories that do not amount to much! That is, that are forgotten in spite of all man remembers (unless he remembers himself) merely because they befell him without distinction of office or title-that’s what we call legend and it’s best a poor man may do with his fate; the other…we call history…Legend is unexpurgated but history, because of its actor, is deflowered.

(Barnes 15) Within the aforementioned passage, O’Connor sets the thread from which the reader is supposed to understand the more intricate relationship between the aforementioned characters. By discussing the proliferation of legend in what is considered to be humanity’s history, O’Connor is stating that the main characters within the text are supposed to be seen as individuals who have been shunned by history.

Within this context, Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood may be seen as shunning and defying all forms of categorization as she places emphasis on the blank spaces in humanity’s history whose existence is made possible by the tendency of society’s hegemonic groups to shun identities that do not conform to their pre-established categories. An example of this is evident in the case of Felix above whose racial history has been filled with ‘created’ stories in order to account for the inhumane experiences of his people. Work Cited Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. New York: New Directions, 1961.


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