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Gender and Sexuality in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood

Kirsty Hewitt, University of Glasgow

Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (1936) presents fascinating portrayals of inversion and same-sex desire, veering away from traditional heterosexual relationships and expected societal heteronormativity. Barnes turned to the new form of modernism to better show the displacement of her unusual, sexually fluid characters, and to have a greater freedom in expressing identities which deviated from the norm.[1] Any woman who did try to exercise her sexuality, be it heterosexual or otherwise, was up against societal obstacles. As the world moved into the twentieth century, women came to finally be recognised from a political stance, but wider society was still compartmentalised into a male-dominated hierarchy.[2] The ability to place oneself into the categories of male and female was also changing; the movement of sexology had defined ‘inversion’, and many different sexualities had been created, along with a wealth of fetishisms.[3] Reading from a modern-day perspective, one will almost inevitably take into account recent transgender and ‘queer’ theories, the ideas of which, at the time of Barnes’ writing, were groundbreaking.

Nightwood explores sexualities which deviate from the heteronormative. It is difficult – almost impossible, in some respects – to label or to categorise Barnes’ characters, but such classification is perhaps superfluous to their identities. It has been referred to as a ‘queer text’ in consequence. Lorna Sage is of the belief that Barnes created such a deviant cast in Nightwood in order to divert attention from her own perceptible self: ‘Witty, bisexual, savage, self-immolating, Barnes presents a problem of definition precisely because she is excessively defined already’[4].  One could categorise Robin Vote as a sexual invert, but other characters cross differing boundaries set out by the sexologists, and cannot be neatly contained within a singular sexual definition. When one takes into account the division of lesbians into Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s four categories in Psychopathia Sexualis[5], it is perhaps easier to categorise Barnes’ female protagonists. Jenny belongs to the first category as she does not exhibit masculine traits of character or dress, whereas Robin could fall into the second, having a preference as she does for wearing androgynous clothing in a masculine manner: ‘her hands in her pockets, the trench coat with the belt hanging, scowling and reluctant’.[6] In Nightwood, Nora subverts the stereotypical gender roles of ownership; she has a business, and owns property.[7]

Gender and sexual desire are constructed – as Simone de Beauvoir writes, ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’[8] – and one’s gender and biological sex can be different. Judith Butler believes that ‘acts, gestures, enactments… are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means’.[9]

Rather than focus solely upon the masculinised female, which she explores through the character of Robin Vote, Barnes has created a sexual invert in the form of a feminised man, Dr Matthew O’Connor, who spends time ‘dusting his darkly bristled chin with a puff, and drawing a line of rouge across his lips’.[10] Dr O’Connor displays the characteristics of gender dysphoria; calling himself the ‘lily of Killarney’[11], he wishes for ‘children and knitting’,[12] and ‘a womb as big as the king’s kettle’.[13] He says, ‘… pray to the good God, she will keep you. Personally I call her “she” because of the way she made me; it somehow balances the mistake’.[14] Dr O’Connor represents a version of Freud, alternating between the status of doctor and patient whilst in his waiting room-cum-bedroom: ‘In the narrow iron bed… lay the doctor in a woman’s flannel nightgown’.[15] Felix, Robin Vote’s husband, finds her asleep with a copy of the Marquis de Sade and recognises that something is not quite right with her: ‘suddenly into his mind came the question: “what is wrong?”’.

The same-sex desire presented in Nightwood has contrasts of its own; the women who revolve around Robin, and Barnes’ peripheral characters, have different traits. Robin is androgynous. Nora Flood displays masculine qualities within her physical appearance; she is ‘savage and refined’ and there is a ‘weather-beaten grain’[16] to her face. Jenny Petherbridge essentially traverses both sexes at times, with her nervousness – a trait of female hysteria – and the violence which she displays – ‘Jenny struck Robin, scratching and tearing in hysteria, striking, clutching and crying’[17] – which one would not attribute to a female conformist[18]. Robin is even described within the novel as being of the ‘third sex’, which suggests that she predates the very boundaries of gender constructs. Her femininity is at odds with other facets of her character, and her lack of sweetness: ‘When she smiled the smile was only in the mouth, and a little bitter’.[19] In the novel, Frau Mann is not a unisexual creature, as she displays few gender traits; rather, she is entirely unsexed.

There are differences, too, between the private and public sexual lives of the characters. Dr O’Connor sees his cross-dressing as shameful, and thus is clandestine, but Robin lives with other women, and has romantic relations in public: ‘Nora saw the body of another woman… her arms about Robin’s neck, her body pressed to Robin’s, her legs slackened in the hang of the embrace’.[20]

The use of clothing in the novels is preeminent. Changing fashions during the 1920s, along with greater female freedom, could be the justified, and sole, reason for cultivating a less feminine dress-sense: ‘The new erotic ideal was androgyne; girls strove to look as much like boys as possible…’.[21]  All clothing is performative, and could thus be used to both mask and exhibit same-sex desire in women, either by dressing in less feminine clothing, or deliberately mimicking the male in one’s dress. Esther Newton writes that, ‘From the last years of the century, cross-dressing was increasingly associated with “sexual inversion” by the medical profession’.[22] Whilst Robin in Nightwood wears androgynous clothing in more masculine ways – ‘her hands thrust into the sleeves of her coat’,[23] for instance – she still takes the utmost care over her physical appearance, with the use of various pots and potions.[24] Robin is not just androgynous in dress, but in her physical bodies too; she has a ‘hipless smoothness’.[25]

Expressing non-normative sexuality and gender was problematic, but it proved pivotal as society moved from the restrictive nineteenth-century into the freer, modernist twentieth. It allowed those who did not fit neatly into either the feminine or masculine constructs to have a shared sphere, where traits which were traditionally related to one gender could be at odds with biological sex. Clothing as a performative tool was one way of expressing oneself, whether in terms of wanting freedom for females in a strongly patriarchal world, or to demonstrate the same-sex desire which society had previously tried to suppress.


Acton, William, Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (London: John Churchill, 1865)

Adams, James Eli, Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity (New York: Cornell University Press, 1995)

Barnes, Djuna, Nightwood (London: Faber & Faber, 1936; repr. London: Faber & Faber, 2001)

Beauvoir, Simone de, The Second Sex (New York: Vintage, 1989)

Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999)

Kraft-Ebbing, Richard von, Psychopathia Sexualis (London: Velvet Publications, 1997)

Laver, James, Modesty in Dress: An Inquiry into the Fundamentals of Fashion (Boston:

Houghton Mifflin Company, 1969)

Logan, Peter Melville, Victorian Fetishism: Intellectuals and Primitives (New York: State University of New York Press, 2009)

Sage, Lorna, Moments of Truth: Twelve Twentieth-Century Women Writers (London: HarperCollins, 2002)


[1] William Acton, Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (London: John Churchill, 1865), p. 235.

[2] James Eli Adams, Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity (New York: Cornell University Press, 1995).

[3] Peter Melville Logan, Victorian Fetishism: Intellectuals and Primitives (New York: State University of New York Press, 2009).

[4] Lorna Sage, Moments of Truth: Twelve Twentieth-Century Women Writers (London: HarperCollins, 2002), p. 111.

[5] Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis (London: Velvet Publications, 1997)

[6] Djuna Barnes, Nightwood (London: Faber & Faber, 2001), p. 62.

[7] Ibid., p. 45.

[8] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York, Vintage, 1989), p. 267.

[9] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, Routledge, 1999), p. 173.

[10] Barnes, p. 32.

[11] Ibid., p. 86.

[12] Ibid., p. 82.

[13] Ibid., p. 81.

[14] Ibid., p. 135.

[15] Ibid., p. 71.

[16] Ibid., p. 45.

[17] Ibid., p. 69.

[18] Ibid., p. 69.

[19] Ibid., p. 37.

[20] Ibid., pp. 57-58.

[21] James Laver, Modesty in Dress: An Inquiry into the Fundamentals of Fashion (Boston:

Houghton Mifflin Company, 1969), p. 233.

[22] Newton, p. 558.

[23] Barnes, p. 53.

[24] Ibid., p.53.

[25] Ibid., p. 62.

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