Time is a tricky thing to grasp. For instance, it flies when we’re having fun, yet a watched pot never boils. It has a way of slowing down when we stare at a clock and speeding up when we pick up a good book. It is, despite its rigidity in the measurement of history, something we humans cannot quite get a handle on, for an estimate of “about an hour” is never nearly as accurate as an estimate of “about a mile.” It stands to reason, then, that time could not possibly be handled in any sort of “accurate” way in a novel, and, for the sake of our attention spans, it shouldn’t be. However, there is something about the way time is handled either more or less accurately that drastically changes how we read and how we perceive the novel itself. Why, for example, is Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood—a notoriously difficult text, and one, incidentally, whose plot unfolds basically chronologically—so much “less readable” than Julia Blackburn’s The Book of Color, a novel told in a decidedly dream-like, irregular order? Does the difficulty readers experience in interpreting it lie in its traditional presentation of plot?

        Furthermore, if it is orderly chronology which hampers our ability to interpret the themes present in Nightwood, how does it manage to do so? How—and why—does Barnes obscure what appears to be so simple a story, told in such a linear fashion? What is it that we aren’t “getting,” that is elusive or camouflaged? I would suggest that the difficulty readers are faced with in interpreting Nightwood’s many themes lies in a tension between the simplistic, chronologically-ordered story and the far more complexly-arranged insights into theme. Furthermore, I will suggest that chronology, as Barnes has used it, is a literary technique of the same agency as Blackburn’s temporal restructuring, in that it creates a unique and effective “entry point” for readers into Barnes’s world of outcasts and deviants.

I. “Sensibilities trained on poetry”

        All novels manipulate time. Scenes that play out over the course of ten minutes can span as many pages, while entire years or generations are glossed over with a few brief sentences. Nightwood does nothing new, in this sense; the important scenes are given more space to unfold while less important ones are lumped into short summaries. Nightwood reveals its meager plot traditionally, chronologically; again, nothing new. It is best we start, then, by attempting to define what, on the surface, is so hard for the reader to process.

        In his famous introduction to the novel, T.S. Eliot suggests that Nightwood “is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it” (Barnes xviii). Whether this is a realistic statement or a way for Eliot to associate a novel that he is impressed with to his own preferred literary medium, one cannot be sure. It is, however, undoubtedly true that there is something of the poetic permeating Nightwood’s pages. One whose sensibilities, perhaps, have not been trained on poetry can perceive it as a kind of abstraction, though they are not certain of what. There is a difference in aesthetic.

    In his brief piece “How to Read Poetry,” translated in The Hudson Review, Philippe Jaccottete suggests that “[w]ith a novel everything is easy, it is enough to follow the story by the thread of pages, and there you are, distracted, carried away” (394). In contrast, poetry requires a certain understanding; one must take it in holistically, must take in “the tranquil space around it like the frame of a picture,” must “suspend for a moment [his] restless, deafening haste, be immobile and allow that strange promise to open as one watches a seed open” (395). A poem is a captured moment that requires contemplation; it must be taken in all at once and regarded in its entirety.

        Of Jaccottete’s two descriptions, it is safe to say that Nightwood most closely resembles the second. Note, for example, Dr. Matthew’s apparently prophetic monologues. Spouting off what seems to be random information at random times, Matthew often foreshadows the events to come or explains the answers to mysteries that haunt the other characters in the novel without their ever knowing it. Note, for example, a moment of foreshadowing when Dr. Matthew tells Felix that the “last muscle of aristocracy is madness … the last child born to aristocracy is sometimes an idiot, out of respect—we go up—but we come down” (44). This, among a lot of other seemingly senseless talk, is proven quite true when we discover, some sixty pages later, that Felix’s son is developmentally “slow.”

    Here we see value early on in what we may first have dismissed as more of Dr. Matthew’s babbling. Were we to re-read the novel again, we would pick up on the foreshadowing in a way we may not have at first. In fact, to re-read the novel is to make a good deal of sense out of Dr. Matthew’s monologues, more than we would have previously thought possible. It is almost as if Dr. Matthew himself represents Jaccottete’s principle of the reading of a poem: he sees the whole of the novel, and it is, to him, a singular moment or occurrence. He is, therefore, able to observe it, analyze it, and comment on its themes and tendencies, on the significance of it all, in a way that the characters and the reader—who are experiencing it in a novelistic manner, as a series of events, chronologically—cannot. It is only after we have read the last page that we, as readers, can turn back to the beginning again and regard Nightwood anew.

        In a novel with as simple a plot as Nightwood’s, it is the themes that draw interest. We are only interested in the way in which Robin Vote ruins the lives she comes into contact with on a superficial level; we aren’t given enough plot for the plot to matter much. Instead, we are given themes in roundabout ways, and the burden falls on the reader to piece together Barnes’s vague concept of “the night,” the repeating “beast motif,” the constant references to sexuality and to “otherness,” and many others. The plot, then, becomes something we readers must at times “set aside” (de Lauretis S118) in favor of the experience. Like a poem, Nightwood is not to be taken literally quite so much as it is to be experienced; it is a carefully-packed parcel, its contents laid out to create a certain feeling, to convey a certain thought, to evoke a certain reaction.

  1. II.We Are All Lost

        If it can be said, then, that the difficulty one has in reading Nightwood is that one tends to (must, by the very nature of its construction) read it “in order,” as one generally reads a novel, one could also argue that, in a book of themes, chronology of plot should have no influence on our way of interpreting. This argument, while logical, fails to recognize the intimate connection between plot and theme. While the plot in Nightwood is meager, to say the least (a few short sentences should summarize it), it is an essential vehicle for communicating the themes.

How, for example, could one associate Robin Vote with the primal had she never come face-to-face with the caged lioness? How packed with meaning are her first words to Nora as she observes the lioness, “Let’s get out of here!” (Barnes 60). And how else, but by following the plot, could we catch on to Barnes’s obvious fascination with outcasts, and how else could we have any fodder to interpret it in light of?

        Indeed, the plot of Nightwood teaches us how to read and interpret its themes just as the themes teach us how to read the plot. An example: To have understood what “the night” is right off the bat, starting at chapter one (we are finally told what it “is” in the fifth chapter) would have been to better understand the central conflict of the novel, and to have been to be able to contextualize Dr. Matthew’s monologues and the references to beasts, the “outcasts” and “others” that linger in Paris’s streets after sundown. It would also have meant, however, to jump the gun, to give us the conflict without the proper background, to skip ahead in the plot and to forego all the information we know about the characters and what they represent. We, as readers, are lost either way on our first reading.

        Critic Teresa de Lauretis, quoting Roland Barthes, calls the difficulty readers tend to have in interpreting Nightwood the “terror of uncertain signs” (S117). As she puts it:

Narrative, like grammar and logic, refers to an extralinguistic and generalizable set of phenomena; even as fiction, disbelief suspended, narrative reaffirms the stable, familiar ground of referential meaning. When narrativization, the construction of a narrative in the literary text, is not working properly, whether by fault or by design, “the terror of uncertain signs” threatens the reader as would an incomplete sentence or an illogical statement, and all the more so if the novel is figurally dense and highly wrought grammatically. (S117)

In describing why she could not, after many attempts, read Nightwood earlier in her life, she puts it this way: “the narrative anchorage eluded me, was too weak or too dispersed; the chain of signifiers would not halt, would not find a resting point where meaning could temporarily congeal” (S118).

        Put into the terms we have thus far been using, we could perhaps suggest that she could not link the themes to the plot, or maybe (I don’t know that she would admit to this) she was not considering the novel holistically (or did not, as she does admit, finish reading it before), and was therefore unable trace the chain of signifiers to their fullest extent. Nightwood certainly does not often, or ever, completely anchor itself; it is a rare and fleeting blessing when meaning “temporarily congeals.”

If we read Nightwood as most people read most novels, we expect “narrative anchorage” and “congealed meaning.” We expect, being good readers, to grapple with the unclear or the suspicious in a text, but we also expect the narrator to hold our hand through the scary and strange world they are describing. We expect things to be explained to us. We expect to know just when a theme is presented, and we expect explicit clues in the plot, right when we encounter something new, that point us to a mode of interpretation. Barnes gives us no such luxury; themes arise when they arise, and it is up to us, when all is said and done, to piece it together.

Barnes could easily have reordered the thematic presentation to unfold more logically and perhaps minimally changed her plot. She could have led us through a kind of thematic chronology to be laid alongside her chronological storyline. Instead, she chooses to give us the experience in much the same way the characters of Nightwood experience it (with the exception of Dr. Matthew, who is experiencing these events on a different level of interpretation, more holistic than chronological): the events as they come, the epiphanies as we realize them. From the start, for the duration of this first reading, the characters and the reader are all equally lost. However, the reader who re-enters the novel a second or third (or more) times, is able to experience the text as a unified entity, to draw the story together thematically, in advance of the unfolding of the plotline—as Matthew himself does.

  1. III.The Dream World

    I have mentioned that Barnes could easily have made the relationship between her plot and her themes more closely aligned. It would have made for a much easier read and it would have alienated far fewer readers. Would it still, then, have captured the imagination of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce? Would it still be regarded as the classic it is? Would it still pack the same literary punch, hold the same renown? Why did Barnes choose to make such an otherwise simple little novel so complicated?

Let us, as I promised, take into account Julia Blackburn’s The Book of Color. A novel, like Nightwood, of considerable strangeness (Blackburn even gives us a talking guide pig), The Book of Color is presented as an almost dream-like journey through Blackburn’s own partially-imagined family history. On the English author’s learning that her family’s bloodline can be traced through black ancestry, Blackburn tells the story of her “lost” relatives by mirroring her own mental journey toward understanding. In her novel, she depicts herself as a child in a sort of dream world, going from room to room in a house that seems to be a combination of her own and her grandfather’s, encountering her dead relatives as the ghostly gatekeepers of a past she was not privy to. Blackburn does not pretend to accurately depict her research, but instead chooses, as one might do in writing a poem, to give the reader a sense of the experience of discovering the facts she discovered.

        The novel begins in a fictional and dream-like mish-mash of present and past and flits to the more distant past, when her grandfather was a child, back to the fictional or dream-like present, to a place of unidentified time, to her father’s childhood. The order of events is only in a very general sense chronological, and is rather presented thematically (linking the pig guide to the pig man to the pet pig in the first few chapters, for instance), just the opposite of Nightwood.

        Nightwood, too, contains elements of the dream-like. Paris is depicted as surreal, full of odd characters and strange occurrences. More dream-like still is the mysterious “night,” the realm of the primal, of the sexual, of the animal. It is just as much a state as it is a time, and it is a state Robin Vote appears to dwell in. As Dr. Matthew puts it, “For the lover, it is the night into which his beloved goes … that destroys his heart; he wakes her suddenly, only to look the hyena in the face that is her smile, as she leaves that company” (Barnes 94).

        It is the mystery of the night before we find out what it is, and the lack of exact definition once we do, that establishes the hazy, dreamy quality of Nightwood: so hard to grasp, so hard to define. It is the night that all themes relate to, that everyone is talking about, that all images point to, but that we never quite understand. Were the novel arranged more like The Book of Color, with less attention paid to a logically-ordered plot and more attention paid to the logical arrangement of themes, readers would likely be better able to “enter into” the text, to “get it,” to apply Nightwood’s massive themes to its meager plot.

Yet Barnes chooses not to. She chooses to let us readers be just as lost as her desperately lost characters. Why? One answer is that Barnes is looking to provide us a completely different way of “entering into” the text than we may have been expecting. Just as Blackburn’s fragmentation of reality is intentional and representative of a mental journey, so too is Barnes’s obscuring of theme and ordering of plot intentional—powerful, even—and representative of another kind of mental journey.       

        Barnes wishes us to grapple with her novel. She wishes us to experience it in all its cryptic strangeness, in all the terror of its uncertain signs; she wants us to be as blind as Nora, and as frustrated as she when faced with Dr. Matthew and his experience and breadth of vision. She wishes us to work from our narrow, novel-reader’s perspective to a wider one: a view that regards the book as an epic poem, one more like Dr. Matthew’s “poetic sensibility.”

        One does not find that meaning congeals in the plot, for there is so much going on beyond the plot; there is no entry point to be found there. Neither is there an entry point to be found in the thematic realm; it is too abstract, and the chain of signifiers is potentially endless. Rather, one must look to the tension between the chronology of the plot and the chaos of the thematic content; the poetic reader must seek the crack that runs along the joining edge of these dual elements, and therein find his entry point. Ultimately, the mysterious night must be experienced on both levels simultaneously in order to have any meaning, however fleeting. Each theme must be approached from each point on the plot line, and each point on the plot line must be interpreted with regard to each theme.   

        To even attempt to summarize it all makes it sound incredibly complex; however, the idea is almost too simple. Barnes is doing what all good writers do by putting the reader in the position of her characters. She is presenting a world of meaning and forcing the reader, as they live the life she has written for them, to discern it all. Dr. Matthew is a necessary aid in this process, as he represents the holistic, poetic view of the world mentioned previously; without fully understanding the significance of Matthew’s perspective in relationship to our own, however, meaning often goes over our heads, and we are left with only chronology—a novel, rather than a poem in the form of a novel.

  1. IV.“Time Passes”

        The chronology of Nightwood is not unlike another modernist novel, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. We could, similarly, suggest that reading Woolf’s novel, like reading Barnes’s, requires “sensibilities trained on poetry,” for like Nightwood, To the Lighthouse demands subsequent readings, demands that one interpret the beginning with regard to the end as well as vice-versa. Yet there is something different about To the Lighthouse; it is not quite so “impenetrable,” as Barnes’s work has so often (perhaps or perhaps not justly) been labeled.

        To the Lighthouse, like Nightwood, has a very simple, almost non-existent plot. Even more so than in Nightwood, very little “happens”; the majority of the novel’s text works as a casual going into and coming out of various characters’ thoughts and emotions. Woolf attempts a similar haziness of narration as Barnes and Blackburn by creating a dream world of her own, a space of deep symbolism that, when described, works more on the emotional and representational level than it does on the concrete. The “dream world” in To the Lighthouse is the world of the unspoken, a mix of the imagined and felt and of the unconscious.

        As they do with Nightwood, readers need to be particularly trained to interpret Woolf’s style and symbolism. Take, for example, the interaction between Mrs. Ramsay and her husband at the end of “The Window”: not wanting to speak the words “I love you” to her husband, but wanting instead to communicate the idea to him, Mrs. Ramsay concedes her husband’s prior point that the weather may not be good enough to go to the lighthouse the next day. Of the interaction, it is said that Mrs. Ramsay “triumphed again. She had not said it: yet he knew” (Woolf 124). The subtle understanding between Mrs. Ramsay and her husband is like that between Barnes and the reader of Nightwood; “poetic” readers must also know how to translate what is unspoken from the words on the page. They must extract the complex themes from the more surface-level chronological reading of the plot.

        This tendency of Mrs. Ramsay—of many of Woolf’s characters—to communicate non-verbally, almost telepathically (though the reality is that such communication can occur through subtle vocal inflection or certain changes in facial expression), occurs many times before this more explicit moment and many times after “Time Passes.” Like Barnes, Woolf chooses to let what is present of the story unfold, chronologically, step-by-step, and let us learn as we go. It would have been easier on us had a scene like this, an insight into Woolf’s very narrative structure, come earlier—say, in the first chapter. We could have been taught how to read the novel from the outset.

        But indeed, we are still learning what to look for even in the final chapters, as Mr. Ramsay and his family approach the lighthouse while Lily Briscoe remains on shore to paint. Even then, we are closely examining the positioning of the characters, the similarities between Lily’s painting and the lighthouse, the differences between Lily and Mrs. Ramsay, between Mrs. Ramsay and her husband, her children. We are taught how to read To the Lighthouse to the very end, and thus are forced to start it over again, to read it holistically, like a poem.

        As I said, though, despite having next to no plot and despite being largely focused on the un-spoken, subjective world of its characters’ minds, To the Lighthouse is still a much easier read than Nightwood. Why?   

        Nightwood, though similarly structured to force readers through the plot to get at the themes, is far more complex thematically. One can read To the Lighthouse, pick out the theme of, say, triangulation, and be able to immediately apply it to any given scene with three characters or objects in interrelation. In Nightwood, one may discover that religion is broached over and over again, yet still find no way to tie it to the narrative, find no way of mining significance. One must then look at Dr. Matthew’s masturbation scene in the church, after which he may link Dr. Matthew’s tears to his own sexual frustration and otherness (another theme), which may then be connected to Robin Vote and her mysterious sexual freedom, then connected to the primal and animal, then connected to the caged lioness, which could thence be taken in any number of directions, but a focused reading would bring us back to Dr. Matthew and his own feeling of being repressed, of being caged in a man’s body. And still we must account for the religious aspects, which may or may not have something to do with that repression, or which may or may not stand in opposition of the animal nature of humanity.

        It is de Lauretis’s unending chain of signifiers again, a chain that picks us up and drops us into various plot points at various times (rarely consecutive) throughout the novel. It is a testament to Nightwood’s complexity and, I might add, to Barnes’s brilliance. By no other means could Barnes have conveyed the confusion and frustration of being “other,” of defying the norm. Indeed, the tension between Barnes’s plot and the thematic chain that overlays it is truly an access point into a world of outcasts; we are made “others” by Barnes, and like all others are left to grapple with the themes of a life of otherness as they arise through the course of the story. When it is all said and done, we must, as we do with our own lives, return to the lives of Robin Vote, Nora Flood, and Dr. Matthew Dante O’Connor, to reflect upon their actions, to study what it all means. We may be privy to moments of epiphany, as perhaps Barnes’s characters are, but to discern an overarching meaning will be next to impossible. It is meant to be. We can only await the next event, the next small epiphany, and construct our own narratives in retrospect.

Works Cited

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

Blackburn, Julia. The Book of Color: a Novel. New York: Pantheon,


De Lauretis, Teresa. “Nightwood and the “Terror of Uncertain

        Signs”” Critical Inquiry 34 (2008): S117-179. Academic Search

          Premier. Web. 29 Jan. 2010.

Jaccottete, Philippe. “How to Read Poetry.” Trans. Louis

        Simpson. The Hudson Review 54.3 (2001): 394-95. Academic    

         Search Premier. Web. 9 Mar. 2010.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt Brace

        Jovanovich, 1981.

Further Works Consulted

Hanrahan, Mairéad. “Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood: The Cruci-Fiction

        of the Jew.” Paragraph 24.1 (2001): 32-50. Academic Premier.

        Web. 29 Jan. 2010.


Sooner or Later:

Chronology and Theme in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood

Jake Runge