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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 204-227



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"The Bible Lies The One Way, But The Night-Gown The Other":
Dr. Matthew O'Connor, Confession, and Gender in Djuna Barnes's Nightwood

Laura J. Veltman


It would be nice to have a third gender to rest in now and then, wouldn't it.

—Anne Carson (qtd. in Hainley)

Djuna Barnes's Nightwood contains one of the more curious characters of modernist literature in the guise of Dr. Matthew O'Connor, an unlicensed gynecologist with a penchant for "talk[ing] torrentially" (xiii), as T. S. Eliot puts it in the novel's 1937 introduction. Perhaps literature's first cross-dressing Catholic, O'Connor has a complicated function in the novel in that he both inscribes and explodes notions of patriarchal authority, implicitly interrogating cultural binaries. Although recent critics have made much of his "sidestepping" of these boundaries through his discussions with Nora Flood about the "invert," wherein he articulates a vision of the "third sex" that escapes—or at least complicates—masculine/feminine binaries, less attention has been paid to Dr. O'Connor's discourse on matters other than sexuality or gender. [End Page 204]

In an attempt to help rectify this omission, I intend to investigate how O'Connor's views on sexuality intersect with his own Catholicism, another topic that he discusses at length. Does his position as Matthew O'Connor, Catholic, undermine his role as Matthew O'Connor, invert and cultural critic? If, as others have argued, Dr. O'Connor's position as "invert" allows him a unique vantage point whereby he can question Western culture's essentializing views of sexuality and gender, then certainly his position as at least a nominal member of an institution—the Roman Catholic church—which may participate in the reification of the masculine/feminine binary, deserves more notice than it has received of late. As I shall argue, Barnes's situation of Matthew O'Connor within the Catholic church and, especially, her invocation of the confessional complicate patriarchal notions of sex and gender by questioning the ability of language (the word) and religion (the Word) to make either known—or, indeed, to make meaning at all.

Although I am not the first to look at Nightwood in terms of its religious impulses, few have looked at its specifically Catholic nature, and even fewer have done so since the novel's 1936 release. Writing more generally—and not exclusively—on religion in Nightwood, Julie L. Abraham has recently examined the relationship of the novel's Jewish characters, Guido and Felix Volkbein, to history, wherein a Christian-dominated society limits "the story of the world to the world" (Barnes 161) by silencing tales of Jewish history, excluding them from the official record of "history proper" (Abraham 254). A more common tactic has been to refer to the good doctor as a "gynecologist/priest/psychoanalyst" (Harris 242), but then go on to only examine him as gynecologist/psychoanalyst, failing to discuss how he is a "priest." 1

More likely to view Nightwood in a religious—if not necessarily Catholic—context were some of Barnes's contemporaries who reviewed the novel. Graham Greene, writing for the Catholic weekly The Tablet, "read Nightwood as a Catholic novel of spiritual experience by 'a major poet'" (Marcus, "Mousemeat" 196). 2 Peter Quennell called the novel "an extremely moral work," adding that he "was not surprised to learn that it appears under the aegis of the most eminent Anglo-Catholic poet [that is, T. S. Eliot] of the present day" (592). 3 Barnes's close friend and sometimes editor Emily Coleman, herself "the most zealous of Catholic zealots," found Nightwood to be intensely Catholic—a feeling Djuna Barnes apparently did not share (Herring 254). When Coleman

wrote a passionately "Catholic" interpretation of Nightwood for Charles Henri Ford's new magazine, View, [Coleman] was outraged that he and Barnes refused to accept it [End Page 205] unedited and demanded that it be withdrawn...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 204-227
Launched on MUSE
2003-06-24
Open Access
No
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