No Place like Home: Nightwood's Unhoused Fictions

By Wilson, Mary | Studies in the Novel, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

No Place like Home: Nightwood's Unhoused Fictions


Wilson, Mary, Studies in the Novel


[T]hey all say it is not a novel; that there is no continuity of life in it, only high spots and poetry--that I do not give anyone the idea of what persons wore, ate or how they opened and closed doors, how they earned a living or how they took off their shoes and put on their hats. God knows I don't.

--Djuna Barnes to Emily Coleman, April 20, 1934 (1)

About a third of the way through Djuna Barnes's experimental 1936 novel Nightwood, Nora Flood, one of its two protagonists, has a dream about a house.

   Nora dreamed that she was standing at the top of a house, that is,
   the last floor but one--this was her Grandmother's room--an
   expansive, decaying splendour; yet somehow, though set with all the
   belongings of her grandmother, was as bereft as the nest of a bird
   which will not return. Portraits of her great-uncle, Llewellyn, who
   died in the Civil War, faded pale carpets, curtains that resembled
   columns from their time in stillness, a plume and an ink well--the
   ink faded into the quill; standing, Nora looked down into the body
   of the house, as if from a scaffold, where now Robin had entered
   the dream, lying among a company below. Nora said to herself, "The
   dream will not be dreamed again." (93-94)

Nora dreams her unrepeatable dream after returning to the home she shares with her lover, Robin Vote, whom Nora has been following through Parisian streets as Robin wanders in search of other "pleasures," including sexual encounters with other women. Just before Barnes's narrator describes Nora's dream, the transvestite Tiresias figure, Dr. Matthew O'Connor, sees Nora hurrying back to her apartment, and calls her "mother of mischief, running about, trying to get the world home" (92).

Nora's dream-house is one of many uncanny dwelling places in Nightwood: Jenny Petherbridge's overstuffed house, filled to bursting with objects and emotions stolen from others; the "appallingly degraded" rented room in which Matthew O'Connor sleeps in drag (Nightwood 116); the Viennese mansion of Felix Volkbein's parents that professes an invented history and prepares Felix for life as a homeless "wandering Jew," "everywhere from nowhere" (Nightwood 20). As many critics have noted, Nightwood is a text marked by failure, shame, loss, and despair, providing images of sexual deviance and gender trouble that remain deeply troubling and unrecuperated. Nora fails to "get the world home," fails to create a viable dwelling-place for her love of Robin--as do all the would-be homemakers in the text. Yet Nightwood is also a novel that holds a home at its center--the spatially insignificant, temporally extended period when Nora and Robin live together in the "museum of their encounter" appears slightly less than halfway through the novel. Barnes's digressive and transgressive text displaces home as it centers on domestic relationships.

But while her novel contains many uncanny moments and images, Barnes does not simply reveal the unhomeliness of Nightwood's homes. Nor does she write a novel of exile, in which characters are separated from significant spaces of their pasts. Instead, Barnes attempts to reimagine human relations--even domestic life--without reifying the central organizing, meaning-making structure of home. And to do so, Barnes also crafts an undomestic narrative form. The dream passage quoted above, for instance, offers a set of images and a structure that exposes her broader formal and aesthetic project. Here Barnes--relating an iteration of a familiar dream, "a dream she recognized" (93)--explicitly focuses our attention on the house itself, highlighting and undermining it simultaneously. The house is recognizably associated with family--both of origin (the Grandmother, the great-uncle) and of choice (Nora's lover, Robin)--and is also uncanny, abandoned, and "bereft" (93). The first two sentences are rambling, accumulative collections of images and clauses, shifting our attention spatially and syntactically as we read along. …

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