Grotesque Bodies and the ‘Other’: Repulsive Attraction in the Work of Djuna Barnes

Caddy, Amie
(2018) Grotesque Bodies and the ‘Other’: Repulsive Attraction in the Work of Djuna Barnes. PhD thesis, University of Liverpool.

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This thesis explores Djuna Barnes’s portrayal of, and engagement with, Othered people, places and things in four of her major works: The Book of Repulsive Women (1915), Ladies Almanack (1928), Ryder (1928) and Nightwood (1936). I discuss these texts in chronological order, arguing that Barnes’s interest in marginalised figures can be pinpointed in her early journalism and first pamphlet, Repulsive Women, and traced as a recurring, developing theme throughout her oeuvre. I discuss Barnes’s rejection of the portrayal of the socially ‘repulsive’ female body in Repulsive Women, arguing that her engagement with the grotesque in this text aligns with François Rabelais’ carnivalesque subversion of social customs. Female bodies typically pushed to the periphery of society (the ageing body, the body of the mother, the prostitute) are positioned centrally in Repulsive Women, creating a voyeuristic attraction-repulsion dynamic. Existing scholarship on the images in Repulsive Women is scarce, and lacking in depth. This study is unique in its detailed analyses of several of the images included within the collection alongside images from Barnes’s early articles and Ladies Almanack. I discuss these images not as companion pieces, but as significant and illuminating facets of the various works which add additional depth and meaning to the texts. Despite Barnes’s reluctance to be affiliated with particular political groups or movements, this study argues that Ladies Almanack is a highly socio-political text that strongly engages with late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century sexological theories. The almanac format of the text, which draws inspiration from almanacs from the fifteenth century through to the eighteenth century, situates the work within a pre-established, far-reaching tradition, thereby writing Sapphism into traditionally heteronormative and mainstream literature. In this way, Barnes both presents an alternative history in which homosexuality is present in mainstream culture and literature, and undermines the widely regarded, instructional advice of almanacs. I argue that within Ryder, Barnes turns her attention towards modernism’s focus on Oceania and the primitive, criticising the fetishisation of Othered people and cultural traditions. Within this text, primitivism and the primal are closely linked, though distinct categories. Through Wendell Ryder’s polygamy Barnes suggests that society need not look externally for primitive inspiration as both the primitive and primal are innate to humanity. Finally, I suggest that Nightwood is Barnes’s most mature work and combines previously expressed motifs around the female body, Sapphism and the primitive and primal. The Other is unified within Nightwood by the literal, metaphorical and psychological night, while the binary present between the mainstream and the marginalised is represented in the divide between what I argue are ‘day’ and ‘night’ characters who cannot coexist. Temporality and narrative structure are deliberately obscured within Nightwood, and in the section of this thesis titled, ‘Erratic Rhythms and Internal Time’ I offer a new, original theory around temporality and narrative in Nightwood.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Divisions: Fac of Humanities & Social Sci > School of the Arts
Depositing User: Symplectic Admin
Date Deposited: 22 Nov 2019 11:28
Last Modified: 03 Mar 2021 10:26
DOI: 10.17638/03057353
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