Djuna Barnes’ Ryder

Those of you who have been around for a little bit (or have browsed through previous posts) already know that I love me some Djuna Barnes. Researching her life and her work throughout my graduate program caused me so much excitement and stress. Yes, at the same time.

Barnes was a very cool woman. She was born in 1892 and lived for 90 years. She began her career as a journalist, interviewing the likes of James Joyce and writing bonkers pieces like, “How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed,” an article for which she willingly underwent force-feeding to more accurately cover a story on suffragists who were being imprisoned and, you guessed it, forcibly fed. She wrote a few collections of poetry, two novels, and a handful of plays. She lived in Paris for a very long time, where she met Thelma Wood, a woman with whom she had a long but troublesome relationship.

djuna barnes and thelma wood
Thelma Wood and Djuna Barnes

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Molly, that doesn’t sound stressful. Where’s the stress?”

The stress comes from unpacking Barnes’ early life and also from trying to decode her incredibly difficult fiction, thank you.

The last time I wrote about Barnes, I talked briefly about Nightwood, and I will be the first to admit that Nightwood is not the easiest book to read. HOWEVER. Compared to Barnes’ first novel, RyderNightwood is a walk in the park.

I read Ryder twice in the course of about three months and I still don’t quite understand it. Curious about the abstract for the essay I wrote on it? Here it is:

“Djuna Barnes’ 1928 novel, Ryder, fluctuates between Elizabethan, Biblical, and Victorian styles of writing and shifts regularly in time, perspective, and form. It is dominated by several nonlinear micronarratives as opposed to one chronologically revealed macro-narrative, making it tedious and oftentimes confusing to read. This paper relies on a reading of the novel that rejects the desire for narrative truth and instead takes into account these different styles and micronarratives as components of the Ryder family’s mythic, impossible history that constructs, and is constructed by, Wendell’s ideology. Furthermore, it suggests that this ideology, while differing from what we may desire to consider normative, relies upon some of the same basic apparatuses—mythology, education, and hierarchical authority—that have historically informed larger ideological communities. The limited scholarship surrounding Ryder has tended to focus on specific elements within the plot pertaining to gender and sexuality. Rape, incest, and sexual trauma have been the predominant themes of analysis, followed by motherhood and maternity as forms of female imprisonment or ownership, queerness as a form of alternative history-building, and gender construction. Much of this scholarship relies on unearthing what is not stated in the text, going beyond what the novel allows. Rather than simply asking what Wendell and his family members have done (and, further, what they have done “wrong”), this paper examines how the ideological discourse is generated that positions him as “right,” and how the family members are interpellated into it.”

Okay. What?

Basically, Ryder is about the fictional Ryder family (evidently modeled very much off of Barnes’ family) and covers approximately fifty years of the family’s history, although it’s not always told in order and very rarely does anything…happen. Wendell Ryder is the patriarch and he, like Barnes’ own father, is a polygamist. He lives in a tiny shack of a house with his mother (Sophia), his wife (Amelia), his mistress (Kate Careless), and the children he has had with both women (the most important of which is Julie, his oldest daughter that is thought to be Djuna’s representation of herself).

Close up of one of Barnes’ many illustrations in the novel

Wendell has extremely grandiose ideas of himself and his mother, Sophia, is an enabler. In one chapter, we come to find out that Sophia has convinced Wendell that he was immaculately conceived. No, not by a god, but by Beethoven. (I don’t know why, either.)

Oh, and by the by, the immaculate conception happened in Sophia’s dream. Here’s a passage:

“‘…he [that would be Beethoven, and no this is not part of the passage, sorry to interrupt] came toward me, melted into me on my human side, and came out upon my marvellous, without so much as a ‘by your leave’ or ‘if it please you, madame,’ or a pass at the weather, and in nine months, by the Christian calendar, I was delivered of you'” (36).

(I’m always tickled by the idea that Sophia is basically saying, “He impregnated me and couldn’t even bother to ask me how the weather was.”)

Wendell sees himself as some sort of Christ-figure that was sent to spread polygamy as the only true way for men to live happily. What’s important is that Amelia, his wife, never agreed to live this way. It was bad enough that everyone in town (so it is implied) knew that Wendell slept with lots of townswomen, but his allowing a mistress to actually live with them–that really pushes her over the edge. (We can thank Sophia for that one, too. It’s actually Sophia that brings Kate Careless into the house, knowing full well that Wendell is going to sleep with her and add to the plethora of babies running around this tiny estate). Kate isn’t particularly happy with this setup, either, but primarily because Amelia isn’t very nice to her and Wendell has his head too far up his own arse to be attentive to any of the women in his life.

Getting back to my abstract, one of the questions that a lot of scholars have asked about this book is, “Why didn’t Amelia and Kate just leave? Why don’t the children seem to understand that Wendell is a bad person?”

My theory on that is that Wendell and his mother essentially constructed their own (mostly false) history and mythology to support Wendell’s lifestyle and that the rest of the family was, for lack of better words (besides “interpellated,” which comes from a theorist named Althusser who was a bad person and a dense writer and I really don’t feel like talking about him or his theories right now), brainwashed into sticking around.

When I said earlier that nothing really happens in this novel, what I meant was that most of the chapters are individual instances of storytelling performed by a single character and not the more typical recounting of events we are accustomed to seeing in fiction. We get some dream sequences, some epic-style poems, some lullabies, some fairytales, and some explanations of family history that, like the one Sophia delivers to Wendell about his conception, can’t possibly be true. All of these things contribute to Wendell’s ideology and, in turn, to his family’s ideology.

Wendell’s ideology consists primarily of three parts: the first is that polygamy is the only natural option for male fulfillment, the second that his sexual prowess is both a gift to women and his greatest artistic ability, and the third is that a woman’s most important role is that of the mother.

Though they have their doubts about Wendell’s beliefs, both Kate and Amelia express these doubts through the anger that they have been irreparably brought into his ideology and have no option but to stay.

Kate laments that she has become unalterably changed since, “‘you [Sophia] and your son [Wendell] came forward with his [Wendell’s] notions about women loving one another when they were not meant to love one another, or to get their children from the same spigot…it’s disgusting! I’ll have my fill of it, and that for you, my ramping lusty!'” (171)

In the last chapter of the novel, Amelia tells Wendell, “‘I have thought of you as great oftener than anything else. When you have lain with me, after lying with her, what do you think kept me from coming up under you? It is twenty-six years that I have lain under you, knowing everything, and have not judged and have not forgiven’” (241).

What Kate finds disgusting and what Amelia has not forgiven is not enough to convince either woman to change her circumstances. In this way, they come to represent the sacrifice that is made in order to uphold the ideology they had no part in constructing.

The children are also brought into this whole wacky world by way of education (or lack thereof). The children don’t go to school (which is evidently illegal in this context), and when Wendell is challenged by the town authorities, he says:

“‘The Board of Education provides dates and speeches, half forgotten, of dead statesmen. They feel that they have done their duty if a child can render Hamlet backward, and the Commandments sideways; so I keep my children at home and teach them better…I’ve taken my children round by the side path where the truth lies rotting with the refuse…’” (130-131)

In his condemnation of conventional education, Wendell reveals that he does not necessarily believe in an alternative truth, but that he believes that truth holds no value, and can easily be discarded. The Ryder children do not learn math, English, and US history, but “[i]mmunity…from the common and accepted conditions of life” (131). In other words, they learn that their father’s way of life is acceptable because they have been raised to believe that the outside world is simply backward. Their isolation from society is not the result of Wendell’s misbehavior, but of his superiority.

I want to talk briefly about something, but I do want to provide a trigger warning because this next bit has to do with sexual assault. Please, do not continue reading if you can’t or don’t want to.

There is a chapter that covers a dream Julie has and many scholars have suggested that this chapter is meant to indicate that Julie has been sexually assaulted by Wendell. The dream goes on for a few pages until Julie is awakened by her father and Sophia, who are both standing over her. Wendell is angry and Sophia is crying, and the chapter ends with Wendell’s words, “‘Keep her…[S]he is none of mine. Did I not hear her deriding me greatly?” (109-110).

There has been strong speculation that Barnes’ own father at least attempted sexual assault when Barnes was sixteen. Barnes started an autobiography that she never finished, and it did not cover this part of her life, but a close friend stated that she told him the entire story, and much of Barnes’ own words have indicated that this was the case.

Because this novel is considered a semi-autobiographical novel, the scholars who have gone into great detail about this particular chapter have typically done so as a way to prove that this assault undoubtedly happened. I’m sure that this was done from a place of care (because really, I do think scholars come to care for the authors they spend their time researching and writing about), I found this to be in poor taste and it never sat well with me.

Knowing a bit about Barnes’ life does help when it comes to understanding this novel. That being said, it isn’t exactly fair to an author to assume that their works of fiction are meant to whisper the truth about their lived reality to their readers. Even when an author has stated that a work of fiction is based, loosely or closely, on their lives, it’s both disrespectful and a dead end to go seeking answers in their novels. This is my opinion, and I’m happy to discuss it further if you agree, disagree, or fall somewhere in between.

This barely begins to scratch the surface of this novel, but it’s really not an easy novel to unpack. In fact, it’s probably one of the hardest and most confusing things I’ve ever read. That’s not to say that I don’t recommend it, because I do. Just know that it’s not a plot-driven novel and it’s not particularly happy.


*My copy of Ryder third Dalkey Archive printing from 1995. Ryder has seen a limited number of printings and can be a little difficult to come by.

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