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Sleep and Sleeplessness in the Victorian Novel

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Sleep—the excess or lack of it—is a common thread in many nineteenth century novels. Women especially seem to be constantly sleeping or desperately trying to avoid sleep. In Jane Eyre, two of the prominent female characters, Jane herself and Bertha, have complicated relationships with sleep. While Jane appears to actively avoid sleep in order to stay vigilant, Bertha is up at all hours of the night, wreaking havoc on the house and its inhabitants. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Tess constantly falls asleep throughout the novel and suffers dire consequences for doing so. While sleeping at various points in the novel, she kills her horse, is raped, and ultimately is caught by her executors. In Dracula, the most recent novel that will be discussed, Mina sleeps excessively throughout the second half of the novel despite often trying to stay awake; she is preyed on by Dracula in this vulnerable state. This articles explores how the relationship between these female characters and sleep, especially how they attempt to exercise agency and control (or lose agency and control) through sleeping and sleeplessness.

Jane Eyre features not one but two prominent female characters who have complicated relationships with sleep, Jane and Bertha. Jane, from her childhood, is unable to sleep soundly. Furthermore, she is unwilling to sleep, she almost only falls asleep when forced. In the red room, for example, Jane falls into a “species of fit: unconsciousness closed the scene,” (Brontë 22). She does not intend on sleeping, especially after the traumatizing experience she has in the red room. Rather than sleeping soundly, she almost passes out and awakes feeling as if she “had had a frightful nightmare (23). Thus, the first time that Jane sleeps in the novel, sleep is depicted as a traumatic experience in which Jane has no control over her body or consciousness.

Upon waking, Jane listens to Bessie and Sarah past midnight and presumably stays up for hours on end as she watches their “fire and the candle [go] out…the watches of that long night passed in ghastly wakefulness; strained by dread…” (24). After the events of the red room, Jane is not just unable to sleep but does not want to. If she sleeps, she loses control, just as she did in the red room. By remaining awake until the late hours of the night, she is able to observe the movements and sounds of the house and can thus satisfy herself that there are no ghosts or unknown beings afoot. In other words, staying conscious gives Jane clarity and safety, two things that she feels she does not have in sleep.

Jane’s sleeplessness continues throughout the novel. At Lowood, she stays awake in the night to “resume the interrupted chain of [her] reflections,” (102). She sits up in bed once her roommate falls asleep, and “proceeded to think again with all [her] might,” (102). After spending a great deal of time thinking about her future beyond Lowood and deciding to find new work, Jane says: “I felt satisfied, and fell asleep,” (103). At Lowood, sleep is the only free time afforded to Jane and despite feeling “feverish with vain labour,” (103) likely due to exhaustion, she exerts herself to stay awake in order to exercise agency over her future. Indeed, Jane soon is able to leave Lowood due to her late-night musings.

As she arrives at Thornfield, Jane often spends many hours of the night lying awake and listening to the sounds of the house. This also gives Jane great control: she is able to quickly move to action when Bertha wreaks havoc on the house. When Mr. Rochester’s curtains are set ablaze, Jane is the first one to react as she “was laid down in bed” but “could not sleep for thinking…” (172). She “started wide awake on hearing a vague murmur…a demoniac laugh…” (172-173). She thus rises and smells the smoke, saving Mr. Rochester’s life as well as possibly her own. Jane’s lack of sleep clearly takes a toll on her, however. She is often described as looking “tired,” (52), “over-taxed…exhausted,” (366), “physically weak and broken-down,” (25), amongst other things. Nevertheless, sleep is the only time available for Jane to both stay in control and exercise her own will, so it is a sacrifice she must make.

Much study has been done on how Bertha mirrors Jane throughout the novel, how “what Bertha now does…is what Jane wants to do,” (qtd. in Lerner 275). Indeed, Bertha too takes advantage of the control she gains at night, but in a much more physical way. During the daytime she is trapped, stuck in the attic with Grace Poole constantly watching her. In the night, however, Poole often dozes off and Bertha is thus able to escape from the attic and exercise her own agency, which in this case, takes the form of revenge. Whereas Jane’s choice to forego sleep acts almost as a defense mechanism, a way to stay alert and in control, Bertha’s sleeplessness is a way to stay on the offense. However, the two women both choose to stay awake and deprive themselves of sleep as a way of gaining control and agency. Rather than be powerless, they become sleep deprived.

The two even feed off of one another’s sleeplessness: Bertha’s laughs and murmurs encourage Jane to stay awake and alert so that she is not vulnerable to the unknown dangers of Thornfield Hall. Meanwhile, Jane’s presence at Thornfield further encourages Bertha to ravage the house, such as when she enters Jane’s room and tears her wedding veil. However, the women’s need for sleeplessness ultimately rests on Mr. Rochester. He lies to Jane about Bertha’s presence, causing Jane further anxiety regarding the laughs and murmurs from the attic. He imprisons Bertha in the attic, creating a reason for her revenge attempts. Although the two women may worsen one another’s sleeplessness, they both ultimately stay awake as a means to gain control in the only way possible to them.

In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, we more often see the consequences of sleeping rather than the agency exercised by lack of sleep that both Jane and Bertha demonstrate. Time and time again throughout the novel, Tess falls asleep. She falls asleep nearly as much as Jane and Bertha stay awake, and she suffers terribly for doing so. The first time we see Tess sleep, she is driving the family’s horse, Prince, in an attempt to exercise control over the family’s income when her father is unable to. As she falls asleep, the horse moves to the wrong side of the road and Tess is awakened with “a sudden jerk,” (Hardy 35). Prince ultimately dies as Tess stands “helplessly looking on,” (36). Tess is indeed helpless; in falling asleep she quite literally loses control of the situation and, as a result, loses her family’s livelihood. Had Tess stayed awake, she would have been able to continue exerting control over the situation.

Not too long after, Tess falls asleep for the second time. Tess again exercises some control as she repeatedly rejects Alec D’Urberville’s advances. However, when he saves her from the cruelty of her companions in the night, Tess again falls asleep in a “sort of couch or nest” that Alec creates out of the leaves (73). As Tess sleeps, she is deprived of both verbal and physical control. In this vulnerable state, Alec rapes her. She is unable to stop him and is at a complete loss of power. Tess’s rape determines many future events and decisions, and ultimately the course of her life. As an ‘impure’ woman in society, she is trapped by societal beliefs and is not free. Perhaps Tess is not quite aware of her possible agency as Jane or Bertha. She tells her brother that they live on “a blighted [star],” (34) and the idea of fate is prevalent throughout the novel, both through Tess’s beliefs and those of the narrator.

Tess’s final slumber is her resignation to having no further control over her life. She is described as “really tired by this time,” (380) so exhausted that she almost passes out at Stonehenge. Rather than try to carry on, Tess relinquishes herself to fate and gives up any possible agency in her life. She is executed for Alec’s murder, a time when she did exercise her own power. However, as a woman—and an impure one by society’s standards—her attempts at control are futile. Tess is thus punished thoroughly for her inability to stay vigilant and her propensity to sleep.

Dracula presents the reader with a woman who is both sleepless, like Jane, but also increasingly sleepy, like Tess. As Karen Beth Strovas points out in her piece on Dracula, “Stoker associates writing with night-time, and this association directly impacts his characters’ sleep,” (Strovas 51). This is most true for Mina Harker, a character who often says, “I didn’t feel sleepy,” (Stoker 262), or “I was not the least bit sleepy,” (263), or “I was not so sleepy as I should have been,” (265); the list goes on. Often, she attributes her sleeplessness to being “too agitated to sleep,” (93) or too anxious. Like Jane, Mina is aware that staying awake keeps her in control. She is able to exercise power over the situations in which she can do nothing else: “Whilst [the men] are resting, I shall go over all [the manuscripts] carefully, and perhaps I may arrive at some conclusion,” (357). As a woman, Mina is considered most helpful when she stays at home. Her husband and his male friends refuse to allow her to join them as they hunt the Count; the only way for Mina to have any control over the situation with the Count is for her to write, so write she does. By staying awake while the men are gone, she also protects herself, perhaps unknowingly, against the Count.

Mina is actually encouraged by the men to go to sleep; she says: “Last night I went to bed when the men had gone, simply because they told me to,” (265). However, when Mina does actually sleep, she completely loses control. For the first portion of the novel, Mina is alert and almost hypervigilant. She stays awake far after the men have slept, spends hours upon hours recording her own thoughts as well as transcribing the thoughts of others, and attempts to shed “some new light” (229) on the situation. As she begins to sleep, Mina is powerless to stop Dracula as he begins to prey on her every night. Akin to Tess’s rape, Mina loses all agency in her unconscious state.

In the words of Strovas, “Before Mina realises that she has been attacked by Dracula, her journal entries illustrate her inability to distinguish between the waking and sleeping worlds,” (Strovas 60). Mina thus begins to lose control when she is awake as well, as she is unable to discern whether she is sleeping or not. This loss of control also signifies her slow metamorphosis into a vampire that she is essentially powerless to stop. Although Mina does not have a tragic ending like Tess, she experiences the punishment of being too sleepy and unable to stay in control.

Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Dracula are only three of many Victorian novels that feature sleepy or sleepless women, and much more work could be done studying the role of women’s sleep in novels throughout the century. In a time when women often lacked the societal power of their male counterparts and also did not have complete control over their own bodies and choices, the opportunities that sleep offers – both in the books and in the real lives of these women – is incredibly important. In these novels, women use sleep as a way to maintain agency. Sleep gives women time for thinking, writing, and contemplating their wishes and goals. On a more physical level, it allows them to have control over their own bodies and what goes on around them. When a woman is too sleepy, or when she is not aware of the control that she loses by sleeping, the consequences are severe.

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Penguin Classics, 1847.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Sweet Water Press, 1892.

Lerner, Laurence. “Bertha and the Critics.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 44, no. 3, University of California Press, 1989, pp. 273–300. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/3045152.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Vintage Classics, 1897.

Strovas, Karen Beth. “The Vampire’s Night Light: Artificial Light, Hypnagogia, and Quality of Sleep in ‘Dracula.’” Critical Survey, vol. 27, no. 2, Berghahn Books, 2015, pp. 50–66.