Short Reflection 2: The Theme of Decadence in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood

Nightwood, the 1936 modernist novel written by Djuna Barnes, follows the character of Robin Vote and the emotional havoc she wreaks in the lives of the people around her. Set in locations ranging from Berlin and Paris to North America, the novel effectively conveys the decadence of the 1920s in the West, primarily through the characters of Robin Vote and Jenny Pertheridge. The obvious emphasis on decadence within the novel presents itself through portrayals of wealth morally and materialistically, signifying an era of unparalleled consumption, leisure, and luxury, the levels of which had never been previously seen to such a wide degree.

Above: A photo capturing a group of men and women dining together in a restaurant in Paris in the 1920s. Restaurants, cafés, and bars were havens for artists during this era.

Historically, the economic and cultural factors underlying the “Roaring ’20s” period influenced a dizzying accumulation of wealth and shifting cultural interests that grew to define the decade. For instance, the total American wealth doubled in value from 1920 to 1929 and created a consumer society marked by affluence and the spread of consumer goods. In Europe, where the majority of the novel transpires, the American outflow of industrial production, distribution, and consumption sparked avid economic interest among Europeans. Opulent goods and elegance were more accessible than ever before, with the advent of luxurious automobiles, ocean-liners, and trains. Most associated with this time period, however, are the changing social norms which occurred in conjunction with this newfound wealth. Public behavior transformed dramatically, partially as a result of the collapse of authoritarian regimes in Austria and Germany. Sexual norms and ethical conceptions were also changed by large-scale employment of women during World War I, as the bulk of the male population was sent to the fronts. This social change saw openness towards previously taboo behavior, such as alcohol consumption, women smoking in public, and the blooming of nightlife in cabaret-type venues.

Above: An American “flapper” posing with a luxury car of the 1920s. The mansion and the car depicted suggest the money needed to fund such a lifestyle.

In Djuna Barnes’ novel, the emphasis on excess serves to contextualize the setting and the timeframe of the story, specifically the characters’ display of “moral” decadence. Robin, the main character in the novel, is first introduced to the reader as a somnambulant, a sleep-walker who straddles the line between night and day, the night functioning as a metaphor for the hidden vices and behaviors lurking beneath the familiarity of the day. When the Doctor first meets her, Robin is passed out in a drunken stupor, and the reader learns this is completely common for the troubled nomad. Moreover, the significance underlying Robin’s nightly forays into alcohol and sex lies in her abandonment of Nora—who can be viewed as representing monogamy and commitment—for cheap thrills with others, romantically or otherwise. When Nora firsthand witnesses Robin’s unfaithful behavior with another woman, the reader is wholly conscious of the chaos Robin emotionally inflicts upon Nora. These actions align with the reader’s perception of moral decadence, especially so with Robin. Her moral compass is virtually non-existent as far as the reader is concerned and her lack of commitment—to her relationships, to her child, to herself—consistently highlights her status as a permanent nomad, moving from one person to another as if she is exchanging accessories rather than human beings. Another example of moral decadence is Jenny’s casual theft of other’s belongings, her apartment a collection of “first-hand plunder” which was “teeming with second-hand dealings with life” (Barnes 72).

Furthermore, decadence appears in the characters’ free disregard for money, particularly with Robin and Jenny. Barnes elaborates on Jenny, Robin’s lover, “She was generous with money. She made gifts lavishly and spontaneously. She sent bushel baskets of camellias to actresses because she had a passion for the characters they portrayed […]” (73). Jenny’s decision to send arbitrary gifts to artists she idols encapsulates her level of wealth compared to the financial struggles faced by most individuals during this time. Jenny’s status as a four-time widower who moves from location to location, unheeded by any financial burden, supported by the money left behind by her dead husbands, signifies a lifestyle largely unattainable. Additionally, Barnes’ detailing of Robin as bored and unfulfilled underscores the luxury the characters in the novel have to struggle to fill their empty time, untouched by the demands and obligations of a job. Robin’s nomadic wandering can also be seen as a symptom of her boredom, as she resorted to “haunt the terminals, taking trains into different parts of the country, wandering without design” (176). Her decision to aimlessly travel without purpose illustrates her privileged status as a perpetually disinterested outsider untouched by the struggles faced by the vast majority of the population.

Above: A 1921 photo of Djuna Barnes, the writer of Nightwood, a novel many believe to be semi-autobiographical.

Decadence both morally and financially indicates the trend of modernist emphasis on excess and consumption. In a period of changing social dynamics and societal norms, against the backdrop of new wealth circulating throughout Europe and the United States, the story of Nightwood unfolds against a setting which grants the reader a deeper understanding of the characters’ qualities and actions. A striking metaphor used by the Doctor towards the end of the novel can serve to best emphasize this point: Robin and the other characters are “like the ducks in Golden Gate park […] everybody in their kindness having fed them all the year round to their ruin because […] they are all a bitter consternation […] being too fat and heavy to rise off the water, and, my God, how they flop and struggle all over the park in autumn […]” (Barnes 170). In much the same way as the overweight ducks, Robin abuses the resources freely available to her to a point where she can no longer fully function as a normal member of society, or at least as an individual in sync with the daily occurrences of life.