Guest Blog: Literature’s Top Ten Sleepers

By Dr Michael Greaney, Lancaster University

Imagine a reader – say, a Martian with a library card — whose sole acquaintance with human experience was from books. What picture of human life would this well-read alien carry around in its imagination? And what would be missing from that picture? One area of our creaturely existence that literary narrative tends to gloss over is sleep. We spend about a third of our lives in the oblivion of slumber, but we wouldn’t expect even the most naturalistic narratives to devote one third of their pages to descriptions of people in their sleep. And of course this is hardly surprising: sleep is almost by definition an uneventful business, and sleepers are, on the whole, a pretty lacklustre and uncharismatic bunch. But there are some intriguing exceptions to this rule in the history of literature. Here are ten of them.

sleeper3Caroline Rose, the heroine of Muriel Spark’s first novel The Comforters (1957), has an extraordinary talent: she knows when she is asleep. Not in a dreamily intuitive kind of way, but with a precise and appreciative awareness of her state of oblivion. Is this an enviable talent? It certainly makes a refreshing change from the familiar equation of femininity with somnolence (cf Sarah Tudor, Sleeping Beauty). And it seems unlikely that Caroline would want to swap places in the novel with the hapless Mrs Hogg, who vanishes into invisibility whenever she falls asleep.

Graham, the angst-ridden, sleep-deprived hero of H.G. Wells’s dystopian fantasy When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), falls a deep coma that lasts for some two hundred years. Thanks to the miracles of compound interest and some shrewd investments by his trustees, when he finally wakes he does so as a multi-billionaire and the most famous man on earth, revered by all as ‘The Sleeper’, a slumbering messiah (cf Jesus) on whom the people pin their hopes of a better future. But ‘The Sleeper’ is the one thing that Graham can’t be once he has resurfaced from his centuries-long trance into a world where his aura of somnolent charisma soon dissipates.

Jesus. Can an omniscient being sleep? (cf Caroline Rose). The story of Jesus sleeping through a fierce storm on the Sea of Galilee, which appears in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, raises this question in a particularly tantalizing way. Is this a sleep that confirms Jesus’ humanity, his capacity for fatigue and tiredness? Or a sleep of faith in which he entrusts his wellbeing to God? Or a sleep of sheer insouciance? The waking behaviour of Jesus’ panicky disciples is much easier to read: they display all of his humanity but none of his trust. Things are curiously reversed when they fall asleep during his anguished vigil in the Garden of Gethsemane.

sleeper2Joe, aka ‘The Fat Boy’. Mr Wardle’s servant in Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers (1836) is a narcoleptic with suspiciously good timing (cf Sarah Tudor). Whenever Wardle needs him to run an errand, Joe is found asleep. Impressed by the accuracy with which Dickens depicts the symptoms of uncontrollable daytime sleepiness, scientists sometimes refer to the condition as ‘Pickwickian Syndrome’. But maybe we shouldn’t be too hasty to medicalize Joe’s sleep behaviour. Given that his sleepiness so calculatedly upends the master–servant relationship, it could equally be read, in political terms, as a case of narcolepsy as class warfare.

Marcel Proust. Proust’s epic autobiographical novel begins with the sorrowful recollection of being sent to be early as a child, but he soon learns to love the productively unproductive idleness of hours spent in bed. The seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927) lavish narcissistic attention on his own sleep, whilst also finding time to salivate over the sleeping form of his not-quite-girlfriend, Albertine (cf Sleeping Beauty). He never quite masters sleep — insomnia plagues him throughout his life — but in the end he becomes literature’s greatest connoisseur of somnolence, a state he enjoys with none of the guilt that plagues his nineteenth-century predecessor, Oblomov.

Oblomov. Goncharov’s apathetic young nobleman Ilya Ilyich Oblomov manages to sleep through a sizeable portion of the book that bears his name. There is a traditional bildungsroman waiting for Oblomov in Oblomov (1859) — a novel of love, marriage, travel, education and self-improvement — but he seems reluctant to take a starring role in it, opting rather for a life of unproductive idleness (cf Proust). In the end, he falls victim to what his long-suffering friends call ‘Oblomovitis’, the terminal disease of simply being his own sleepy self. When he dies, it’s hard to notice the difference.

Old Hamlet: Literature’s most famous ghost is a good advert for staying awake. His sleep is an exercise in trust (cf Jesus), a trust that is grotesquely betrayed when he is poisoned by his own brother, fatally marginalized before the play even begins and thus condemned to haunt its fringes as his son struggles to avenge him. It’s probably fair to assume that ghosts never sleep, but the play nevertheless invites us to regard ghostliness and sleep as different forms of debilitating non-presence to which Old Hamlet has been consigned. All this because he enjoyed an afternoon nap in his orchard. It is difficult to imagine his son making the same mistake.

sleeper1Rip van Winkle: Everyone has heard of Rip van Winkle. Like Robin Hood, Father Christmas or Sleeping Beauty he belongs in the repertoire of folkloric beings who have long since become property of the collective imagination. Except that Rip van Winkle is a surprisingly modern figure, created by Washington Irving as recently as 1819. He is also an embodiment of modernity whose enchanted sleep in the Catskill mountains spans the duration of the US War of Independence. Rip van Winkle falls asleep as a subject of King George III, and wakes up as a citizen of new republic; personally, though, he remains unchanged, still the unreconstructed layabout who fell asleep 20 years earlier — an odd mascot for the birth of a nation of pioneers and go-getters.

Sarah Tudor is a narcoleptic student and later schoolteacher in Jonathan Coe’s comic novel The House of Sleep (1997). Prone to sleep-onset hallucinations and irresistible drowsiness, Sarah hovers in a borderland between wakefulness and somnolence, providing a constant reminder — sometimes poignant, sometimes farcical — that the frontier between us and our own sleep is a filmy and insubstantial thing that can be crossed in a split second. There is also a political subtext to her condition (cf Joe, aka the ‘Fat Boy’). Coe’s novel is about 1980s Britain, when the country was run by Margaret Thatcher, a celebrated and/or notorious non-sleeper. Sarah functions in the novel as a dreamily listless anti-Thatcher whose vulnerability to sleep and dream makes her a sympathetically humane counter-type to the insomniac Iron Lady.

Sleeping Beauty is a time-warp figure in many ways, not simply because she is frozen in a hundred-year sleep but also because her story is so obviously the product of a pre-feminist dark age of patriarchal fantasy. A silent, passive, virginal, immobilized young woman, her plight transfers all the agency and initiative into the hands of the tale’s wakeful and dynamic male hero. Beauty, in this tale, is understood an effect of sleep; it is a ‘reward’ for prolonged quiescence. Strangely, this never seems to apply to male sleepers. What does Rip van Winkle look like, I wonder?

Michael Greaney, Senior Lecturer in English at Lancaster University is working on a book entitled Sleep and the Novel. He is one of the co-founders of


  1. Pingback: Guest Blog: Literature’s Top Ten Sleepers | My BlogThe Philosopher's blog.

  2. Does George Eliot’s Silas Marner count, poor soul suffering from narcolepsy?

  3. Thanks Mark. I’d forgotten quite how much sleep there was in ASTB. Interesting how the most self-conscious novels often have a lot to say about the unconsciousness of sleep.

  4. Very enjoyable post. I’d also nominate the unnamed narrator of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, a great poet of sleep.

  5. What a fun exercise, and thoroughly enjoyable post!
    To add one more work positively immersed in ideas of sleep and it’s relation to humanity: Macbeth! Duncan’s dangerous decision to sleep in a house presided over by the “devil” porter; said porter’s own drunken duties at the door that take the place of sleep – and, of course Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s consequent insomnia once they have interrupted the King’s sacred sleep.

    • Thank you! Kings have a nasty habit of getting murdered in their sleep in Shakespeare, don’t they? BUt I’d never thought about the significance of the porter in the sleep/wakefulness dynamic of the play — his duties do indeed take the place of sleep (which makes me think that there must be a host of comparable figures in literature — porters, sentinels and night-watchmen to whom we entrust our well being while we sleep). Though of course you could say that the porter’s fuddled drunkenness is itself a kind of ‘sleep’; he’s certainly not 100% awake and lucid… Thanks again — much food for thought!

  6. Absolutely. There does seem to be something definitively human about sleep — or, to put it another way, something definitively inhuman about creatures that never sleep. If I remember right, Envy in Ovid never sleeps; it’s too busy being envious. And the Martians in Wells’ War of the Worlds never sleep either – they seem to have a capacity for 24-hour work hard-wired into their physiology.

  7. Very interesting selection! It occurred to me to wonder whether sleep need be a cosmos-wide phenomenon. The ‘alien’ might be quite unable to comprehend even the general concept of what it means to us humans to be ‘asleep’.

  8. I thought this was going to be about novels that had to wait to be read–literary Rip van Winkles. But this was very interesting too.

    • Thanks Melmakko. That sounds like a great idea for the next Interesting Lit blogpost!

  9. And I guess you could say that Alice had her “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” adventures while asleep and dreaming….

    • Ah, I’d not thought of Alice! I suppose I was instinctively bracketing off sleepers from dreamers. Who would figure in a top 10 of literary dreamers I wonder? I think there would be no shortage of candidates. My impression is that the literary history of dreams seems to be far richer than the literary history of sleep –from medieval dream visions to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (A Midsummer Night’s Sleep doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?) to Romantic poetry and beyond…dreamers in literature are the elite sleepers, the ones who transform the non-event of sleep into something visionary, prophetic. surreal, or otherwise story-worthy..

  10. Unexpectedly, lean lantern-jawed Dante Alighieri can be bracketed with the Fat Boy – on two occasions in the Inferno he conveniently falls asleep, to waken when he has passed some obstacle – at the end of canto III, it is the River Acheron, and at the end of Canto V, it effects his transition to the next circle.

    • Yes, I’m guessing that’s the first time the Fat Boy has been likened to Dante! Interesting to think of the hero of an epic poem as someone who negotiates obstacles simply by falling asleep — it doesn’t really square with what you might assume to be a vigorous and dynamic central role. This also reminds me of Oliver Twist — lots of critics have noticed that he’s a curiously passive hero, who has a habit of falling asleep or losing consciousness when the going gets tough.

  11. You forgot to mention Anthony Burgess.

    • Ah, Burgess. I’ve read his coffee table book on beds and always suspected he must be in the Proust tradition of sleep-loving writers. Whether there are any champion sleepers in his fiction, I don’t know to be honest..

  12. As I recall When the Sleeper Awakes, the Sleeper is useful and and not dangerous when asleep, but a menace to the social order when he wakes up. The oppressed multitudes hope for more from him than he can possibly deliver. A metaphor perhaps for acquiring a social conscience?

    • Yes indeed. He’s more ‘powerful’ as a sleeping symbol than as a walking, talking human being — but he never gets to enjoy or wield this power. The novel is roundly sceptical about optimistic fantasies of political awakening — partly because it’s a spoof of utopian novels like Bellamy’s Looking Backward in which sleep provides an effortless short-cut to utopia.

  13. #11 – Nathaniel Hawthorne’s David Swan. He falls asleep by a roadside and a succession of passing travellers brood over his sleeping body, some lovingly and others murderously. A beautiful and unnerving story.

    • Thanks for the tip — this one is new to me. It sound like it could be, in some ways, a version of the good Samaritan story? I’ll have to investigate. Always interesting to think about how sleep can become a spectacle in literature.

  14. Hi Michael — And it’s bedtime for me – thanks for reminding me that sleep can be interesting and is something even bloggers should try to practice :>