The Beasts of Nightwood

The novel Nightwood, a contemporary novel based in the roaring 20’s, expresses the new movement of sexual and self discovery. The novel revolves the mysterious Robin, her many lovers and one peculiar doctor. The novel is set in Paris, Austria, and somewhere in the Midwest of America. The change of setting orbits around Robin’s constant migration from one house to the next. Throughout the novel, Robin, a boyish woman drifts from one person to the next, never settling down in one place, a true nomad. Throughout, the novel the same metaphor is used to describe humans as well as the subjects of the novel. The metaphor being about the connection between being a beast and being self aware. Author Djuna Barnes all throughout the work hints at the idea that humans are or can be simply disguised beasts.

In the beginning of the novel, when the Baron first meets Robin he states after she closed her eyes he “ found himself seeing them still faintly clear and timeless behind the lids-the long unqualified range in the iris of wild beasts who have not tame the focus to meet the human eye (pg. 41). The Baron’s comparison between Robin and a beast translates throughout the novel. The other characters can be classified as beasts as well. Robin, Jenny, and Nora’s beasts are their sexuality. Robin and Jenny in modern society can be defined as bisexual and Nora can be defined as an lesbian. In the 1920’s, homosexuality and bisexuality were deemed inappropriate as well as illegal in most countries. When Nora first sees the Doctor in drag she states “ God, children know something they can’t tell; they like Red Riding Hood and the wolf in the bed (pg.85).” The audience then realizes that the Doctor is a beast; he hides beyond his given gender, avoiding showing the everyday people his true form as a beast or an unnatural woman. Further into the novel the Doctor states “ I began to mourn for my spirit, and the spirits of all people who cast a shadow a long way beyond what they are, and for the beasts that walk out of the darkness alone… (pg. 112)” Those who hide in the dark and avoid showing their true selves live lonely lives, since no one really knows them. You can’t really know someone, if they never show their true self, their beast. Humans generally try to deceive others into thinking that they are normal and are not in any way different; their long shadows hide their true selves. Society typically has strict rules on what is appropriate, especially in the past. Characters like the Doctor and Robin notably hide what they really are in the dark. They use the night as an escape to express themselves in the purest form; they get to be beasts. Those who are deemed not normal by society are not beasts because they are different or regarded as outcasts, but because they are purely themselves. People instinctually try to fit in, however animals and beasts just are. The doctor raises a rather profound point stating “ To be utterly innocent, would be to be utterly unknown, particularly to oneself (pg.147).” Those who hide in self-made shadows may seem like they are hiding their true selves from others, but in reality are just trying to avoid looking in the mirror. The idea that humans are meant to be polished and refine is false; humans are just as much of beasts as lions, bears, and dogs are. We simply are what we are and pretending otherwise, one only hurts themselves and no one else. The Doctor reinforces this idea with the statement “-the more you go against your nature, the more you will know of it…(pg. 172).”

In the conclusion of the novel, the ex-lovers Nora and Robin are reunited. Robin roams near Nora’s home and Nora ends up being led to Robin by a dog. Shortly after seeing Robin, Nora faints. The dog becomes aggressive and then Robin becomes aggressive, sinking down to all fours and growling back at the dog. Robin accepts her true form as a beast, finally welcoming what we all ignore. T.S. Eliot profoundly stated “ To regard this group of people as a horrid sideshow of freaks is not only to miss the point , but to conform our wills and harden our hearts in a inveterate sin of proud (pg.xxii).” The truth of the novel is we are all purely beasts and that is what is what gives us our humanity.

Barnes, Dijuna. Nightwood. New York: New Directions Books, 1937. Print