Strolling in the Dark: Gothic
Flânerie in Djuna Barnes's
Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik
Djuna Barnes's best known work, Nightwood, published in 1936, is, like Joyce's Ulysses, a quintessentially urban novel. Barnes's expatriate Paris forms the setting for a dark and bizarre encounter with boundaries which, once transgressed, then have their very existence called into question. Nightwood's representation of an alienated and angst-ridden urban existence means that it has generally been received as a modernist text but, we shall argue, it is also linked to the Gothic tradition through its use of characteristic Gothic tropes and its preoccupation with boundaries. These are crucial generic signals which indicate a powerful Gothic legacy at work. In this context, the characters who between them represent both physical and metaphysical wandering (the garrulous doctor and the enigmatic central female character) are of key importance. In enacting the identity of the flâneur, a distinctive modernist figure, they also evoke Gothic resonances of monstrosity and vampirism. Through them those boundaries which demarcate ‘normality’ and ‘civilised’ behaviour are destabilised. If Nightwood's remarkable conflation of modernism and Gothic made it a deeply disturbing text for Barnes's contemporaries, early twenty first-century readers may find it particularly so in the ineradicable knowledge that it was published at a time when Europe was moving towards profound upheaval.
In spite of its Parisian setting, Nightwoodowes much to the tradition of American Gothic. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, ‘Young Goodman Brown’, it presents the wilderness of the forest as a space which reveals the other, demonic side of ‘civilised’ human nature. 1 Barnes's ‘wood’ of unconscious desires and hatreds is, however, located not outside the city settings of the novel, but within them. Thus, the