Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Sleep and Sleep-Watching in Dickens: The Case of Barnaby Rudge

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Sleep and Sleep-Watching in Dickens: The Case of Barnaby Rudge

Article excerpt

When William Powell Frith unveiled his portrait of Charles Dickens at the Royal Academy in May 1859, his fellow artist Edwin Landseer was taken aback by the sense of uncanny wakefulness that the author's image seems to radiate: "I wish he looked less eager and busy, and not so much out of himself, or beyond himself. I should like to catch him asleep and quiet now and then" (Forster 162). But the alternative portrait that Landseer sketches in his mind's eye, in which the pretematurally wakeful novelist would be restored by sleep to the proper confines of his body, seems almost unthinkable. A lifelong insomniac and hyperactive nocturnal flaneur, Dickens is the last novelist you would expect to find "asleep and quiet." What is more, Dickens understands nights spent "glaringly, persistently, and obstinately, broad awake" ("Lying Awake" 89) to be among the formative conditions of possibility of his writing. It is with a certain rueful exuberance that in such essays as "Lying Awake" and "Night Walks" he becomes a founding member of the writer-as-insomniac school of modern literature, a school whose illustrious alumni include Proust, Kafka, and Nabokov, all of whom are grimly happy to trade the collective mediocrity of slumber for solitary privileges of high literary style. (1) One of those privileges is the vantage point that insomnia gives the writer on the sleep of others. Somnolent bodies are everywhere in Dickens, simultaneously taunting the author with glimpses of the restful state from which he is excluded and flattering him with confirmation of his tenaciously unbroken sentience.

Critics have had relatively little to say about Dickens's quirky obsession with sleeping bodies. (2) It took a scientist, the neurologist J. E. Cosnett, to notice that Dickens is a systematic "Observer of Sleep and its Disorders" whose evocations of human slumber are remarkable for their physiological vividness and accuracy. Cosnett treats Dickens's fiction as a veritable sleep laboratory in which all the clinical symptoms of disturbed slumber--hypnic jerks, restless leg syndrome, sleep paralysis, obstructive sleep apnea--are exhibited by his somnolent characters several decades before the discourse of modern sleep medicine began to take shape. Of course when Dickens observes sleep and its disorders he does so with a decidedly unscientific emphasis on what is funny rather than what is empirically observable or measurable in the sleeping body. Exemplary in this regard is the heroically somnolent Joe, the so-called "Fat Boy" in The Pickwick Papers, a kind of narcoleptic anti-Dickens who marks his entrance into the novel by falling asleep seven times in as many pages (46-52). Joe typifies Dickens's sense of sleep as an affair of farcical nontranscendence in which our higher faculties submit, bumblingly and bathetically, to the primitive needs of our bodies. The comedy lies not simply in the banal triumph of the body over the mind, but in what you might call the unexpected social life of the sleeper, the idiosyncratic social presence that we may continue to have in our own psychological absence. The mysterious psychological vanishing-act of sleep has long puzzled philosophers, but the sleeper is still undeniably there, stranded at the "complicated cross-roads of choke and snore" ("Night Walks" 134), where s/he is dumbly available for inspection by a writer who is no respecter of the privacy of slumber--and there for the taking as a potential object of laughter or figure of fun.

Typical of Dickens's sense of the comic possibilities of sleep is his satirical jeu d'esprit "Snoring for the Million," which appeared in the Examiner in December 1842. A parody of the government's "Singing for the Million" initiative of the 1840s, "Snoring for the Million" sets out detailed recommendations for a nationwide program in which the British people would be systematically educated in the art of sleeping. Sleep, Dickens proposes, will be taught by experts in "hypnology"--his facetious term for the art of inducing sleep without recourse to mesmerism or narcotics--based at a central "school of Snoring for the Million" that will operate six days per week (with Sunday as a rest day) to impart sleeping skills to everyone from establishment grandees to the affluent middle classes to impoverished laborers and artisans. …

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