Robin’s Silence in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood
A loss of something ever felt I--
The first that I could recollect
Bereft I was--of what I knew not
Too young that any should suspect
A Mourner walked among the children
I notwithstanding went about
As one bemoaning a Dominion
Itself the only prince cast out--
This is the condition of woman in patriarchal order according to Emily Dickinson. Judith Fetterley further explicates this condition in the following excerpt:
Bereft, disinherited, cast out, woman is the Other, the Outsider, a mourner among children; never really child because never allowed to be fully self-indulgent; never really adult because never permitted to be fully responsible; forever a “young mourner,” a “little woman”; superhuman, subhuman but never simply human.(ix)
This is the position of Robin in Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood. She is indeed “superhuman, subhuman, but never simply human” and nowhere is this more apparent than in the continuous allusion to the animal - and plant life - that surrounds her. She is, moreover, characterized as the “Other” in the novel, never having a voice herself but more often projected through what the other characters say of her. Yet it is not enough to say that the novel is about Robin’s otherness without diving deeper into the reasons for casting her as such; that is the reasons the book gives her that position and the reasons the reader sees her in that position.
Therefore, it is important that before we go any further into the novel, we should understand how the reading act is performed. Many theorists have contemplated on the position of the reader in any text and how s/he is an essential part in the interpretation act. At one extreme of this attention to the reader are the critics who see the reader as passive, whose response is controlled by the text, the socio-historical conditions, or the author’s intentions. At the other extreme are those who regard the reader as an active creator of meaning. In the middle ground are critics who see the reading process as involving an interaction between reader, text and author. Among these latter critics are Jonathan Culler, Roland Barthes, Wolfgang Iser, and many others (Staton 351).
One of the ways in which the reading process is evaluated is the way Terry Eagleton describes it in his definition of the reception theory:
Reading is not a straightforward linear movement, a merely cumulative affair: our initial speculations generate a frame of reference within which to interpret what comes next, but what comes next may retrospectively transform our original understanding, highlighting some features of it and backgrounding others. As we read on we shed assumptions, revise beliefs, make more and more complex inferences and anticipations; each sentence opens up a horizon which is confirmed, challenged or undermined by the next. (77)
I found that I could only read Nightwood by revising my beliefs of what a novel is, how the characters are supposed to behave, and all such presumptions that I brought with me in reading the text. Moreover, the beliefs and assumptions I form are revised as I continue to read and re-read.
Wolfgang Iser, a reception theorist, explains that a text employs two aspects of the reader; the “implied reader” and the “actual reader”. The actual reader is the one who brings his/her experiences to the act of reading in order to color the reading process. The implied reader is the one created by the text through what Iser calls “response-inviting structures” which make readers read in a certain way (Selden 121). I believe that in order to appreciate a text like Nightwood, the “implied reader” within us has to be stressed. Whatever experience we bring into Nightwood is manipulated by the text to give us a different perspective of it. Norms of behavior that we expect from characters are not found in Nightwood. None of the characters follow the normal pattern of behavior that we as readers expect from them. Events happen in the book that defy our expectations.
Another definition of the reception theory is provided by Raman Selden who explains that:
a literary text is not like a monument or objective entity with a fixed set of characteristics which the reader simply takes in at a glance. Texts are full of gaps, blanks, ambiguities, indeterminancies, which the reader must fill, close up, or develop. Some reader-response critics place an emphasis on the reader’s contribution to a text’s meaning, while others recognize that there are ‘triggers’ in the text which direct the reader’s interpretive activity. (121)
By distinguishing between the two readers, implied and actual, Iser joins the two poles of critics. The meaning is not in the text or the reader alone, it emerges by the interaction of the two entities. The text applies the use of triggers or gaps in order for each reader to interact with it and to form new meanings. In reading Nightwood I was especially aware of these gaps in the text causing me to question what is happening and why. The characters are left unwritten as much as possible and the reader has to fill in the blanks of this or that. Many questions formed in my mind as to what this character is doing and why s/he is doing it, where s/he came from and where s/he is heading. Gaps and indeterminancies were left all over the text and only by trying to fill in these gaps, or by finding the reason for their existence in the text, is the reader able to appreciate it. This is the kind of reading that I needed to employ in order not to be taken into 'othering' the characters.
I realized that a text like Nightwood provides new interpretations every time it is read. Louis Rosenblatt says that “successive reading of a text by an individual reader . . . will also usually differ, since the first organized experience will influence the expectations and sensitivities which the reader brings to the second reading, and so on.”(122-23) In my first reading of the text I approached it triggered with the editors remarks that it is a book about “Robin Vote and those she destroys”. Therefore I was very attentive to the book’s portrayal of her as an animal or an evil thing, “a woman who is a beast turning human,” and “who is eaten death returning,”(36) a woman who thinks “unpeopled thoughts” and whose prayer is “Monstrous.”(43) When she finally becomes one with the dog in “The Possessed” I saw this as the final degradation of her soul. In an article on Barnes’s feminine writing, Frann Michel writes that “Robin’s collapse at the end of the novel signals a kind of defeat of the feminine by the masculine order, the feminine’s inability to overcome or persistently coexist with the masculine.”(48)
After resolving to the idea of Robin’s final degradation, I tried to understand the reasons for what happened and for Robin’s actions. It is in my second reading of the novel, now approached with the intention of finding Robin’s motives, that I was ‘triggered’ by the gap left by Robin’s silence. Two editors of Nightwood, T. S. Eliot and Cheryl Plumb, described the book as being “the story of Robin Vote and those she destroys: her husband “Baron” Felix Volkbein and their child Guido, and the two women who love her, Nora Flood and Jenny Petherbridge.” In my first reading of the novel I agreed with the editors in seeing Robin as the cause of misfortune to these people. However, when I re-read it, I paid closer attention to Robin as a person as opposed to my starting perception of her as a “destroyer”. Although Robin is the cause of all the pain inflicted on the other characters, we hardly see her character in the book, and when seen it is through the eyes of the others. She is often spoken of but almost never speaks. Her silence intrigued me and I left the book wondering how to deal with it.
I decided that in order to understand the work I had to fill in these blanks, to fill in Robin’s silence. To be able to fill in these blanks, to ‘speak’ for Robin I must know more about her. I am here forced by her silence to enter her position of 'other'. The book however, did not give me enough information to try to fill in these blanks. I didn’t know Robin. The text would describe how she looks
On a bed . . . half flung off the support of the cushions from which . . . she had turned her head, lay the young woman . . . Her legs, in white flannel trousers, were spread as in a dance, the thick lacquered pumps looking too lively for the arrested step. Her hands, long and beautiful, lay on either side of her face. (34)
We would read a description of how she is walking (39), and what she is wearing (40), but we very rarely read what she is thinking or feeling.
Robin’s silence is felt everywhere in the novel. In her relationship with Felix we read only of what he wants and only what he feels. Their marriage seems to be a thing suggested by Felix and submitted to by Robin.
When he asked her to marry him it was with such an unplanned eagerness that he was taken aback to find himself accepted, as if Robin’s life held no volition for refusal. (40)
Even her meeting with Felix was not of her choice. She was actually lying unconscious in bed when he first met her (34), and later it was Felix pursuing her until finally running into her (39). When they were together “Felix was happy. He felt that he could talk to her, tell her anything, though she herself was silent” (39). It is Felix again who decided that they should have a child and so “Robin prepared herself” (42). Finally when the time came for birth, we read that “Robin was delivered” (44), not that she delivered the baby. Even during childbirth she was submissive. She was not the person to do things but the one who has things done to her. Louis F. Kannenstine actually describes Robin as “the passive center of all of the narrative’s events.”(116)
When Robin and Nora meet it is again Nora’s initiative in holding Robin’s hand that begins their relationship. Robin’s relation with Nora is even more puzzling than that with Felix. We read that “in the passage of their lives together every object in the garden, every item in the house, every word they spoke, attested to their mutual love” (50). Yet this ‘mutual love’ is a different kind of love in which Nora seems desperate to keep Robin by her side, and “to keep her . . . Nora knew that there was no way but death. In death Robin would belong to her” (52). Robin is silent in this relation as well, and when she tries to express herself she is not understood. She sings but Nora does not understand her singing; “Sometimes Nora would sing them after Robin, with the trepidation of a foreigner repeating words in an unknown tongue, uncertain of what they mean” (52).
Finally Jenny comes into Robin’s life, stealing her and her love for Nora away. and when Robin starts associating and talking with other women, Jenny silences her by ordering the carriages to take them out. In the end it is through Jenny’s abuse of Robin that Robin succumbs to her:
Jenny struck Robin, scratching and tearing in hysteria, striking, clutching and crying. Slowly the blood began to run down Robin’s cheeks, and as Jenny struck repeatedly Robin began to go down as if brought to the movement by the very blows themselves, as if she had no will, sinking down in the small carriage, her knees on the floor, her head forward as her arm moved upward in a gesture of defense. (66)
Robin moves from one strange relation to another, the strangeness increasing each time. She is never heard to say how she feels or what she wants. The relationships seem to be dictated to her by Felix, Nora, and Jenny. Because her voice is silenced, it is almost impossible to know her motives and to understand her, so it is our job as readers to understand the reason of her silence. One way I was able to do that was by looking at the novel as a work portraying the minorities in a society. We do not see any stereotypical society members here, they are all silenced voices or oppressed groups, from Felix the Jew to doctor Matthew the cross-dresser to Jenny and Nora the lesbians. Yet it is not these voices that are silenced in the novel.
All these characters are very expressive and are portrayed as the norms in the text against which Robin’s character is set. Robin is a character who is not especially attentive to other people’s needs, she abandons her husband and her son among others who showed they loved her. Yet a closer reading shows that she was not understood by any of these people and hence was silenced. The characters of Felix, Nora, Jenny and the doctor are used to represent ‘normal’ society members and it is Robin who stands out against them. The other characters are always ready to speak and pursue what they want, yet Robin, when she does so, does it too late. When her voice is heard it is usually too late. After the doctor and Felix come into her room to try to revive her she wakes up saying “I was all right” (35), only after the doctor has been called. Years after her baby is born she tells Felix “I didn’t want him” (45)!
As the story progresses, Robin speaks more often but still not often enough. Finally, in the most bizarre of all chapters, “The Possessed” Robin gets down with the dog, communicating with it, it seems, better than she did with any of the other human characters. Tracing her silence I would see that the more outspoken she becomes, the stranger the relationship she is in, finally leading to the most strange of all, her ‘relationship’ with the dog. Is the book saying that the voice of someone like Robin needs to be silenced, that such character needs to be controlled so as not to sink to the level of animals? Or does Robin, in associating with the dog, finally reach what she wants, and is this text saying that one should speak whether what s/he says is accepted or not in order for that person to reach their goals?
I believe that what needs to be done here is to establish what Robin stands for. Since all the characters in Nightwood are ‘society outcast’, we should find out what Robin’s character stands for and what makes her different. What intrigues me here, aside from her silence, is her innocence. There were many references in the text to Robin’s innocence and this is most clearly felt in her association with the animals. It is actually Felix himself who mentions her need for “someone to tell her that she was innocent.”(99) Karen Kaivola points out that Robin is “frequently associated with childhood,” and has “more natural and comfortable connections . . . with the very young.”(88) Her frequent “playing with her toys, trains, and animals and cars to wind up, and dolls and marbles and soldiers” is a clear sign of her innocence.(Barnes, 122) But her innocence is not only a child’s innocence, it is also because she is “outside the ‘human type’--a wild thing caught in a woman’s skin.”(121) Ahmed Nimeiri further supports this position when he argues that "America banishes from its life some of the essential aspects of experience and consciousness because it cannot tolerate them,"(102) suggesting that:
Robin represents a simple and common form of American expatriation. She is the American innocent (somnambulist) who goes or is taken by Europe to be free of the parochialism of her country and to get a cosmopolitan experience,"(106)
Coming up with the realization that Robin’s character is an embodyment of innocence, I now wonder at other descriptions of her as an animal and if her animal side is no longer to be taken to mean a corruption to her soul but actually an insistence on her innocence. She is an animal and a child and is thus innocent of what goes on around her and if animal is a portrayal of innocence why should I take her last action of becoming a dog as any less than her returning to, or winning her innocence. Her turning into a beast might be an indication of her innocence, and if that is the case, is she innocent only in the end or has she always been innocent but her role in the society forced her to change?
It would be interesting to link that idea with another explanation of the novel suggested by one of my classmates. Through applying the idea of the “quest for transformation” to Nightwood, this student saw that Robin is reversing the traditional order of this quest; Departure, Wandering, Arrival, explaining that from the eyes of society, Robin moves backward in this quest as she begins her quest a ‘normal’ being having a heterosexual relationship with a husband and ends associating with a dog in what could be considered bestiality. Rosenblatt suggests that we “consider the text as a more general medium of communication among readers. As we exchange experiences, we point to those elements of the text that best illustrate or support our interpretation.” (146) I would also suggest that what is pointed out to us helps in forming our understanding of a text. Therefore, when considering the possibility of the innocence of the beast I could look at these three stages of the quest and rethink what was said. In the beginning of the novel Robin was lost, she had a problem of fitting in her society. when I read the line “she was afraid she would be lost again,” I thought primarily that she was lost since leaving Felix (50). She chooses Felix in an attempt to be part of the society, but when she realizes that this problematic for her she continues her wandering from Felix to Nora to Jenny, in each trying to find her place. That phrase did not refer to her feeling of loss away from Felix but actually to her loss in the role that she was forced to play. Her wandering finally leads her to the point of arrival in which she finds herself , or finds the animal inside her. However, this animal signifies purity and innocence not depravity or bestiality. By turning into a beast and associating with it, Robin finally ends her quest successfully by reaching her ‘self’. In a celebrated reversal of hierarchies, Robin progresses from the rational to the irrational.
One of the aspects of the feminist movement is to question the patriarchal order of society. Feminists demand that power should not be given solely to men but it should be distributed equally between man and woman. That was not only a social demand, but also a political and academic one. The patriarchal order, with all its significations should be turned over. A traditional, patriarchal point of view would distinguish between rational and irrational, consciousness and subconsciousness, reason and passion, mind and heart, always valuing the former over the latter. In a feminist reversal of hierarchies, mind, passion, subconsciousness and irrational would replace their opposites and take the higher position in the hierarchy. When Robin finally turns into the irrational beast, she is actually elevated to a higher position. It is indeed a departure from the patriarchal, rational world and an arrival into the more acclaimed feminine, irrational one.
With all this in mind I reread the paragraph that first introduced the reader to Robin, accompanied by that which ended the novel. The first paragraph went like this:
On a bed, surrounded by a confusion of potted plants . . . faintly oversung by the notes of unseen birds . . . left without their silencing cover . . . half flung off the support of the cushions from which, in a moment of threatened consciousness she had turned her head, lay the young woman, heavy and dishevelled. (34, my Italics)
From the beginning, the words “confusion” and “dishevelled” surround Robin. So are the words “silencing” and “threatened consciousness”. It is not that her consciousness was threatened, but it was threatening to Robin for her consciousness to be in control. The first two words seemed to belong to the second set of binary opposites that I have just suggested, the irrational one. Therefore I can see that the novel begins with Robin actually in this state of irrationality but drifts away from it as a result of getting in touch with society (Felix and Matthew). She moves away from Felix, to Nora, to Jenny in an attempt to relocate herself. After Jenny, “Robin now head[s] into Nora’s part of the country. She circle[s] closer and closer” (138). The word “circle” started me into another line of thought, linked to the previous one. It ‘triggered’ me again, if I could repeat that expression. Robin is indeed going into a full circle to head back to where she started at the beginning; the state of “confusion”.
Let me explain that further. Robin was happily living in her world of “confusion” when Felix and Matthew pull her out of it. She actually tells them “I was all right” when they revive her (35). She was indeed “all right” before they forced her to leave her world and enter theirs. Attempting to return to her world, Robin goes through this quest for transformation, yet it is not transformation she is seeking, but a return to her individual being. Even her quest does not take the linear form of departure, wandering, arrival. It actually goes in a circle; departure, wandering, arrival(into a world in which she doesn’t belong), wandering, and finally departure (into her own world) Robin goes full circle in her quest. Her physical status at the beginning and the end of the quest support this idea. We first see her laying in bed, with her face turned and her hands beside her. In the end she returns to her starting position, “lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned" (139). Isn’t the circular motion in itself an act of defiance against the linearity of the patriarchal world?
So let me now explain what I think the novel is saying. Iser believes that reading is
an active process of becoming conscious of otherness, as it brings about a questioning and probing of the validity of received norms and systems. In brief it is an event of personal and social significance, an expansion of the self. (Freund 147)
Nightwood is a celebration of the irrational, basically because it goes against the traditional, patriarchal order of things. Robin’s silence, therefore, is no longer a silence but expression in another language, a language not easily understood by anyone who follows the traditional (limited) way of perception. The reader has to speak Robin’s language if s/he wants to understand the novel. No longer is my task as a reader to fill the gaps, but it is to understand the language spoken by Robin that can only be read in these gaps and silences.
I no longer see the ending as a tragedy of Robin’s collapse, I now see it as a victory . Robin was able finally to come back to her self and to come in terms with the animal inside her. Through her wandering into the world of the humans; male and female, she was finally able to return to her original self, to her bestiality. It is not only the structure of the novel that is subverted, nor just the norms of behavior. The words used in the novel do not carry their usual sense of reference. The human is not applauded in the novel, nor is the beast condemned. It is actually quite the opposite. It is the beast who is applauded for its innocence and its resort to nature while human is corrupted by its desire to fit in a society that does not welcome the natural and the innocent. Robin’s final change into the dog is her victory over the society that tries to take her away from her natural self and make her as human as possible, even if it meant making her something other than she is.
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Kaivola, Karen. All Contraries Confounded. Iowa: Univ. of Iowa Press, 1991.
Kannenstine, Louis F. The Art of Djuna Barnes: Duality and Damnation. New York: New York Univ. Press, 1977.
Michel, Frann. “Displacing Castration: Nightwood, Ladies Almanack, and Feminine Writing.” Contemporary Literature. 30 (1989):33-56.
Nimeiri, Ahmed. "Djuna Barnes's Nightwood and 'the Experience of America'." Critique. 34:2 (1993): 100-112.
Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem. Illinois: Southern Illinois Univ., 1994.
Selden, Raman. Practicing Theory and Reading Literature: An Introduction. Kentucky: Univ. Press, 1989.
Staton, Shirley F., ed. Literary Theory in Praxis. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania, 1987.