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Eden Re-Lost: Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood as a Reinterpretation of Genesis

About the Author: Katie Paulson

Katie Paulson is a junior at Swarthmore College studying English Literature and Classics. Her academic interests center around experimental fiction, specifically modernist literature, the Latin American literary boom, and contemporary metafiction. Katie is currently working on a creative writing thesis in the form of a novel that follows the impact of Roe v. Wade on mother-daughter relationships within a single family. Following her graduation next year, she hopes to utilize and improve her Spanish and Arabic skills by teaching or researching abroad.

By Katie Paulson | General Essays

In 1936, American expatriate writer Djuna Barnes published her fifth book, Nightwood. Set throughout Europe and America, Nightwoodfollows the lovers of Robin Vote as they attempt to comprehend the otherworldly woman and their attraction to her. Meanwhile, the transgender doctor Matthew O’Connor provides intermittent philosophical monologues detailing the nature of love, sleep, and death. Lingering on forgotten times and peoples, on night wanderers who live in a dreamscape, on love and loss as too connected for comfort, Djuna Barnes opens a window into a haunting world that is simultaneously our own and entirely unfamiliar. Barnes adapts the story of Genesis to incorporate the modernist interest in exploring the extent to which other beings are unknowable. Rather than physically eating from the tree of knowledge, Felix, Nora, Jenny, and the Doctor seek to uncover knowledge of Robin and of themselves; Robin, meanwhile, remains in the innocent, animalistic state of humanity before the Fall from Eden. However, where Adam and Eve’s discovery of knowledge results in the lineage of mankind, Barnes presents a scenario in which each of her knowledgeable characters demonstrates a failure of reproduction, suggesting that knowledge does not necessarily result in the creation of history.

Barnes establishes Robin as a primitive, bestial woman, priming us to see her as the character who belongs in the Garden of Eden and who represents humanity before the Fall. When Nora first encounters Robin, she watches a lioness react to the other woman, turning “her furious great head with its yellow eyes afire and… down, her paws thrust through the bars” (60). The lioness seems to sense a connection with Robin, reaching for her through the bars, and perhaps even bowing down to her, an action reminiscent of humanity’s condition in Eden, holding dominion over the beasts of the world. Jenny notices Robin’s affinity for animals as well, telling the Baron: “She always lets her pets die. She is so fond of them, and then she neglects them, the way that animals neglect themselves” (122). Robin’s pre-Fall, animalistic qualities mark her not only as ruler of the beasts but as one of the beasts, foregoing the care that comes with knowledge and the assumption of responsibility. In the final scene of the novel, Robin appears to complete her bestial qualities: she walks through the countryside encountering animals and “straining their fur back until their eyes were narrowed and their teeth bare, her own teeth showing as if her hand were upon her own neck” (177). In mimicking the beasts’ facial expressions of bared teeth, Robin demonstrates her identification with animals as well as her disconnect from herself as a human being, as she does not seem to perceive herself as a distinct individual, separate from the animals she holds. Continuing this animal identification, Robin begins to imitate a dog, bending to “all fours… dragging her knees,” beginning to “bark also, crawling after him—barking in a fit of laughter, obscene and touching” (179). This transformation represents the climax of Robin’s animalism and her disconnect from the humanity that seeks to individuate; instead, like Adam and Eve before the Fall when they expressed no concern for their nudity, Robin resembles one of the animals, content in her lack of knowledge, free to crawl in the wild with a dog.

Through the words of the Doctor, Barnes develops the world at night as resembling the wilderness and obliviousness of Eden, and those who inhabit the night as humanity before the Fall. Barnes crafts the stupor of Eden as a habitual condition that those like Robin, who live while others sleep, moving from affair to affair without consequence, experience at night. The Doctor describes night as a time in which “people do not bury their dead, but on the neck of you, their beloved and waking, sling the creature, husked of its gestures” (95). This lack of care and respect for the dead and their histories characterizes night as a time outside of time, a period in which human beings forego the values they have been taught and instead revel in their nescience and in the moment, as carefree as Adam and Eve before they tasted knowledge. However, in a world in which some, like Robin, exist in a pre-Fall condition and others, like Nora, live in the daytime with the entirety of their memories as well as the present moment, the night people’s carelessness comes at the expense of the sanity of the day people, who carry the dead and their histories around their necks while the night people frolic. In this way, Robin forgets Nora and moves on easily to other women, other lovers, while Nora remains trapped in her longing for Robin, unable to go forward. The Doctor adds that at night, man’s “‘identity’ is no longer his own, his ‘trust’ is not with him, and his ‘willingness’ is turned over and is of another permission. His distress is wild and anonymous” (87). This anonymity characterizes the lives of Adam and Eve before the Fall, as well as that of Robin. However, while Adam and Eve eventually eat from the tree of knowledge, essentially growing up, Robin is able to remain carefree and wild through her use of the night, returning to Eden every twenty-four hours.

In conjunction with her animalistic, carefree nature, Robin is uniquely innocent. The Doctor asks, “Why does Robin feel innocent? Every bed she leaves, without caring, fills her heart with peace and happiness. She had made her ‘escape’ again. That’s why she can’t ‘put herself in another’s place,’ she herself is the only ‘position’” (155). Unable to see the world from another’s perspective, Robin displays a lack of empathy because she does not attempt to know others. The fact that Robin’s innocence directly relates to her lack of knowledge confirms her as a representation of humankind before the Fall. Moreover, Barnes does not limit Robin’s lack of knowledge to her non-understanding of others; she lacks self-knowledge as well, most obviously when she abandons her humanity by imitating a dog. The Doctor describes this absence of self-knowledge as the ultimate condition for innocence: “To be utterly innocent… would be to be utterly unknown, particularly to oneself” (147). Wild and bestial, dwelling in a dreamscape, anonymous and irresponsible, and uniquely innocent, Robin functions as a modern representation of the early Adam and Eve. However, while Adam and Eve’s innocence is charming and their acquisition of knowledge is the result of sin and disobedience, Robin’s innocence is darker. She remains innocent by living at night as if asleep, which “demands of us a guilty immunity” (94) because “for the thickness of the sleep that is on the sleeper we ‘forgive,’ as we ‘forgive’ the dead for the account of the earth that lies upon them” (95). Robin’s innocence—manifested in her night wanderings and her wildness—leads her to abandon Felix and their son, and to hurt Nora. It is Robin’s innocence that harms others, and yet Robin cannot be blamed because, like a sleeper, she does not know any better. 

While the Genesis allegory in Nightwood primarily manifests itself through the continual contrast between knowledge (of oneself and others) and innocence, the Doctor references Eden directly when he says, “Bend down the tree of knowledge and you’ll unroost a strange bird” (147). The Doctor’s words here serve a double purpose: first, he confirms the characterizations in Nightwood as part of a biblical allegory; second, he introduces the notion of strangeness into the Fall, prefacing the story of Robin, Felix, Nora, and Jenny as one that is off-center, not as clean-cut as the simple story of knowledge as the product of sin in Genesis. If Robin is a representation of humankind in its primitive pre-Fall state, Felix, Nora, Jenny, and the Doctor each resemble a fallen being—humankind in its knowing state. However, all four twist the original biblical story, demonstrating the strangeness inherent in creating a known and remembered history.

Felix exhibits his knowledge in his act of conscious self-creation. A Jew and social outcast, he is a “‘collector’ of his own past,” (13), one who longs to create a history for himself so much that he invents a title in order to force himself into the aristocracy. He knows and owns himself in a way that Robin does not, because as he says, “One’s life is peculiarly one’s own when one has invented it” (125). By the Doctor’s logic, this recognition places Felix in the condition of humanity after the Fall from Eden, condemned to suffer because of his knowledge. Indeed, Felix suffers, because, according to the Doctor, aristocracy “is a condition in the mind of the people when they try to think of something else and better” (129). In short, Felix’s knowledge of history and longing for his own lineage prevents him from finding peace in the life he has. Barnes twists the ending of the story of Adam and Eve in the fate of Felix: rather than providing a lineage and a future for humankind, Felix raises a child who is not a proper model for biological futurity. Guido, “mentally deficient and emotionally excessive, an addict to death; at ten, barely as tall as a child of six” (114), longs to enter the church and potentially follow a life of celibacy, which would destroy Felix’s hopes for the development of a family history. Felix even notes that Guido “is called ‘strange’” (123), suggesting that Guido is one of the “strange bird[s]” to which the Doctor later refers as the twisted progeny of Nightwood’s tree of knowledge. Socially estranged from others, disinterested in and perhaps incapable of reproduction, Guido marks “a demolition of [Felix’s] life” and his longing for a personal history and hope of creating an aristocratic family line. 

Like Felix, Nora displays a high level of self-knowledge; however, while Felix invents himself, Nora discovers herself through others, particularly through Robin. Lamenting the loss of Robin to the Doctor, she asks, “Have you ever loved someone and it became yourself?” (161). By defining herself as her love for another woman, Nora displays an understanding of herself, even though the identity that she recognizes in herself is toxic. Nora’s entire being becomes her love for Robin; this, she explains, is the experience of loving a woman. She tells the Doctor, “A man is another person—a woman is yourself, caught as you turn in panic; on her mouth you kiss your own. If she is taken you cry that you have been robbed of yourself.” (152). Through Robin, Nora understands herself as an individual, and without Robin, she loses her individuality and becomes the product of Robin’s theft. Despite this self-knowledge, of a conscious identity or lack thereof, Nora, like Felix, breaks from the traditional story of the Fall because she too fails to create history, to reproduce. Nora is the most identifiable lesbian in the novel: while both Robin and Jenny experience male partners, Nora never considers anyone other than women (or anyone other than Robin). Her sexual preference and undying, unrequited love for Robin mark her as incapable of creating history like Adam and Eve do after obtaining knowledge. Nora is not interested in biological reproduction, not only because she is not interested in men, but also because her partner of choice does not reciprocate her love. 

Jenny, like Felix, demonstrates her self-awareness through her obsession with historicity. A widow four times over, Jenny devoured her husbands in “an endeavor to make them historical; they could not survive it” (71). She holds “herself responsible for historic characters” (74), desperate to “be the reason for everything” (74). Jenny moves through life with intentionality, conscious of the life she wants to possess and the life she wants others to see in her. Barnes describes her as a woman who defiles “the very meaning of personality in her passion to be a person; somewhere about her [is] the tension of the accident that made the beast the human endeavor” (74). This characterization indicates that Jenny knowingly seeks to become a person of interest, one worthy of history, and when she meets Nora and Robin, she sees her opportunity. Jenny appropriates Nora and Robin’s relationship, stealing Nora’s love, “the most passionate love that she knew” (75). Through her intentional self-creation and mimicry, Jenny, like Felix and Nora, represents humankind after the Fall, full with knowledge of itself, and like Felix and Nora, Jenny twists the ending of Adam and Eve’s story with her own imperfect form of reproduction. Jenny’s model of progeny is a little girl whom Jenny calls “her niece, though she [is] of no relation” (76). By taking on the young girl, Jenny reveals her intention to play the mother figure in Barnes’ retelling of Genesis. However, Jenny’s motherhood is not only biologically false; she does not display motherly instincts for the girl: when Robin turns her attention to the girl, Jenny jealously claims that Robin “brings love down to a level” (82) and strikes her. Jenny sees the girl as competition for Robin’s love rather than as a potential heir, marking her as a third example of the stunted reproduction that exists in Barnes’ version of Genesis. 

The Doctor presents himself as a man full of knowledge and simultaneously utterly incapable of reproduction. After listening to him philosophize, Nora asks, “How do you live at all if this wisdom of yours is not only the truth, but also the price?” (96). Linking truth with misery, its price, Nora maintains the biblical allegory that contrasts innocence and knowledge, and she names the Doctor as the prime representative of the latter. The Doctor describes the tension between knowledge and simplicity through his anecdote of his experience with Father Lucas, who told him, “Be simple, Matthew, life is a simple book, and an open book, read and be simple as the beasts in the field; just being miserable isn’t enough—you have got to know how” (140). From that moment on, the Doctor asks, “Have I been simple like an animal, God, or have I been thinking?” (141). The Doctor clarifies the impossibility of being both simple and a thinker, and he reveals his own choice of thought and knowledge when he recalls his encounters with others: “I’ve known everyone… everyone!” (175), he cries, referring to Felix and Nora (and perhaps the countless others) who approach him for comfort. The Doctor becomes a container of knowledge—of others, of ideas, of himself—but he, like Felix, Nora, and Jenny, strays from the biblical ending of the Fall because he is transgender, a woman born into a man’s body. When Nora encounters him in private, she finds him in a dress, “heavily rouged and his lashes painted” (85), a “bearded lady” (107) who longs for “children and knitting” (98). He laments, “God, I never asked better than to boil some good man’s potatoes and toss up a child for him every nine months by calendar” (98). But despite his longing to be a mother, Matthew is biologically a man, incapable of becoming pregnant with a child. The man who seems to know everything is barred from his dream of motherhood by his own body, resulting in the final failure of biological futurity in Barnes’ version of Genesis.

Through her inversion of the events and characters in Genesis, Barnes questions humankind’s ability to create history. A story in which numerous knowing characters fail to create a lasting lineage, Nightwood questions the extent to which humankind has the ability to chart its own path into futurity. In the words of the Doctor, “To our friends… we die every day, but to ourselves we die only at the end” (103), an observation which summarizes the difficulty of creating a future outside of oneself when others will always view an individual’s life in fragments separated by nights. However, this fragmentation only applies to characters who are, to an extent, marginalized: the Doctor says that many stories are forgotten despite “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 the best a poor man may do with his fate; the other… we call history, the best the high and mighty can do with theirs” (18). While the distinguished might be capable of creating a lasting history, for characters like the Doctor, Felix, Nora, and Jenny, men and women without “office or title,” the burden of remembering falls upon themselves. Moreover, Felix and Jenny fail to create history despite their attempts to do so. In their failures of creation—of themselves and of their histories—they demonstrate the instinct of the knowing individual to take on the role of God—that of creator; however, undistinguished and unmemorable, Felix and Nora fail, suggesting that knowledge does not make one all-powerful. Nora and the Doctor, on the other hand, do not seek to create themselves but rather lament the identities thrust upon them: Nora is the hopeless lesbian romantic and the Doctor is the impossible mother. While they do not seek to create themselves, their self-understanding elucidates their queer identities that prevent them from properly playing the roles of Adam and Eve.

Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood functions as a distorted version of Genesis in that it develops a dichotomy between innocence and knowledge, but adds characters who are imperfect according to the Genesis story, resulting in a critical examination of individuals’ ability to preserve themselves for the future. Transforming the knowledge that Adam and Eve obtain in Genesis into a modernist study of the extent to which one can know and understand another’s mind, Barnes crafts a world prefaced upon story of humankind attempting to understand itself, rather than good and evil. Meanwhile, Barnes suggests that the innocence of Eden is not lost forever, but rather is still visible in the anonymity and simplicity of the night and those who prefer to live a dream-like life; however, such a life appears more animal than human. Nightwood’s marginalized characters—Jews, lesbians, transsexuals—allow for a broader consideration of the story of humankind’s Fall from Eden. While Adam and Eve are able to create the entire future of human existence from their sin and discovery of knowledge, Barnes contests that history is not fated, not guaranteed by God. In the modern world, not everyone is interested in or able to reproduce, especially those whom society pushes to the side and forgets. To create history, to create memories, might be a miserable task undertaken in vain, but it is the task that distinguishes the mature, knowing humankind from the innocent and irresponsible animals that Adam and Eve were in Eden.

Works Cited

Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. 1937. New York City: New Directions, 2006.