Nightwood: Historical Line

“She prayed, and her prayer was monstrous because in it there was no margin left for damnation or forgiveness, for praise or for blame-for those who cannot conceive a bargain cannot be saved or damned. She could not offer herself up; she only told of herself in a preoccupation that was its own predicament.” (51)

Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. New Directions, 1937. Print

Throughout some of the novels we have read as a class, the theme of religion is a prominent feature. Questioning, invoking, pleading, or simply   referencing God or a “higher power” plays an important role in these novels and the development of their respective characters. The early twentieth century in the United States was marked by social reform, The Great Depression, which not only rocked the world reawakened the Social Gospel as well. These were desperate times and many were either turning toward religion, or away from it. While Joyce and Barnes can be seen as the marker for a pre-and-post Great Depression novel looks like they have the unique characteristic of knowing each other. Despite the two decades separating the publication of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce and Djuna Barnes Nightwood, Stephen Dedalus (post-renunciation of the Church) and Robin Vote have striking similarities. Stephen writes in his journal, “Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life!” (213). Stephen is not begging God for a successful journey, or even saying a prayer at all, amen is stated at the end of a prayer and literally means “so be it” indicating that his life is no longer in the hands of God but rather to be “forged in the smithy of my soul”. Robin Vote (as stated above) prays but does not “offer herself up” like a lamb to slaughter. She is simply trying to make sense of a “preoccupation that was also its own predicament” (51).

Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God and Jean Toomer’s Cane also grapple and contemplate the role of God and religion from the experience of Black America in the South. In Toomer’s “Cotton Song” the verse goes as follows, “God’s body’s got a soul, Bodies likes to roll the soul, Cant blame God if we don’t roll, Come, brother, roll. roll!” (13) This concept of a “rolling soul” is directly evoked in Hurston’s novel as well, “Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine” (86). In Cane, the poems often seen as prayer-like. In “Conversation”, the “African Guardian of the Souls” yields to “a white-faced sardonic god-“, (17). Again this feeling can be seen in Hurston’s novel where she writes, “The time was past for asking the white folks what to look for through that door. Six eyes were questioning God” (151). The questioning of God, not only in who but why, and how binds these four novels together. The ability of God to shape the lives of these characters (or not) brings up questions never asked before. Depending on the character’s acceptance or rejection of a Higher Power (and perhaps the authors’ own experience and beliefs) allowed for a religious critique in the early 20th century that turned the idea of God as absolute truth into God as something to be questioned, and perhaps, that’s not such a bad thing after all.