Crisis-Ridden Heteronormativity and Homonormativity in Djuna Barnes's Nightwood

Abstract: Nightwood transgresses and undermines binary conceptions of gender and with them the distinction between hetero- and homosexual relationships. I seek to determine whether the failure of the relationships in the novel can be viewed as a criticism of the heteronormative constraints that are shown to permeate both the heterosexual and the homosexual partnerships in the novel. Consequently, it is argued that the failure of these relationships signifies the failure of the underlying heteronormative structures. The novel reveals not only the constructed nature of this system but also the limiting and ultimately destructive effects that it has on the relationships of those who try to live up to its stipulations. To illustrate this, I utilize the concepts of heteronormativity and homonormativity in conjunction with Judith Butler’s conception of gender performance. Using these concepts, I demonstrate not only that all of the relationships in the novel reproduce the same heteronormative structures but also that this has disastrous effects on those relationships, which in turn is shown to reveal the failure of the heteronormative order.

Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood has always been a novel of paradoxes, and as such it is “[s]trangely canonized and unread” (Marcus 87). As Brian Glavey points out, this situation is the result of the challenge that Nightwood presents both to casual readers and to literary scholars (749). According to Tyrus Miller, this status is the consequence of “a certain ‘positionless’ quality” of Barnes’s writing, which is expressed in “its generic and categorical uncertainty and its correlative unsettling of literary historical oppositions” (124). This tendency is also expressed in Barnes’s ambiguous “position on political issues” in the novel, such as “her treatment of Jews, blacks, lesbians, [and] gay men” (Martins 109). This ambivalence has resulted in the paradoxical fact that the novel is heralded as “an important milestone on any map of gay literature” despite its tendency to undermine “any categorisation, especially of gender and sexuality” (Winterson). Precisely these subversions of identity categories and the effects they have on the novel’s characters will be the focus of this article.

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