02 August 2008

The Fight Scene in "Nightwood"

There is a fight scene involving Jenny and Robin at the end of the Squatters chapter. Snehal asked why it is necessary. I don’t know that I have anything like a complete answer but here are my thoughts.

In an earlier post I said I thought that Robin was trying to regain the innocence of childhood; she was, in effect, devolving back to childhood from adulthood. I think that is what the child, Sylvia, who mysteriously appears in that scene represents. That’s why she and Robin have such an immediate connection. Robin is drawn to her and, in a sense, takes control of her.

In the carriage, Jen, who is already in a near panic over the possibility of losing Robin, sees this connection and finds it unbearable. She lashes out at Robin. But it isn’t a fight at all; it is a violent, passionate, desperate act of love. Barnes can’t write a sex scene and still get the novel published. This “fight” is the closest she can get to the act of lovemaking between two women. I hesitate to call it a rape, but it certainly comes very close. Jenny “takes” Robin right there in the cab and they end up in a grotesque embrace with Jenny’s breasts covering Robin’s hands. When it’s over, the child speaks for Robin “Let me go! Let me go!”

Robin runs away but shortly after this event, she leavers Nora and goes away with Jenny. This more than anything else is what got me thinking about the fight as a metaphor for sex, rather than an actual fight.

I don’t quite know what to make of the English girl who is present during all of this. The best I can do right now is to suggest that she’s there as a cover, to make it appear that Robin’s interest is in an adult rather than a child. I know that's weak and I'd love to hear other ideas.


Snehal said...

This is intriguing. It, would, though force a thorough re-examination of our "normalization" or "humanization" thesis, since this implies that there is something pathological or putatively pathological in same-sex romances and this might make the novel's indulgences in the abnormal, scandalous, and marginal seem to be a part of the more general critique of homosexuality as pathology. I raise this not as a criticism of this claim (it seems to me to have merit) but in order to press on its implications for other readings of the novel. Consider also: is there any reason that a veiled rape really avoids a discussion of real sex?

Richard Rossi said...

Your point is well taken, but I'm not sure it forces a reexamination of the normalization or humanization thesis. What I am suggesting here is that she is writing for her times. There is the need to get published and avoid the censor. She lives in a society where homosexual behavior is widely regarded as pathological, at best -- demented perverted, and sinful at worst.

She can't really describe physical love between two women; that would be too shocking for the times. The closest she can come is the scene where Nora remembers their embracing and holding each others' head in their hands. To go beyond that and describe a scene of true, violent passion would be beyond the pale. Yet, I feel certain that's what she wanted to convey.

I don't think a veiled rape scene, if that's what it is (I'm still not sure), necessarily avoids a discussion of sex at all; indeed, it allows such a discussion to be held in the first place while protecting the sensibilities of those for whom such a discussion would be intolerable, which at the time was the overwhelming majority of the population.

One might also argue that Barnes bows to conventional morality by presenting a story that can easily be read as demonstrating the impossibility of two people of the same sex having a "normal" sexual relationship. Ultimately the doctor and all the women are miserable.The wages of sin; that's certainly how conventional morality would categorize it.