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Sleepless Nights is a highly lyrical novel written in a poetic prose that seeks to capture in its fleeting images and disconnected vignettes places, people, feelings, and occasions of personal and observed tragedy lost in time but resurrected through the persistent power of memory. The synthesis of confessional narrative and the epistolary tradition is the principal organizational characteristic of the novel. Hardwick intentionally juxtaposes temporal and spatial displacements as a means to approximate the authentic, “felt” process of human memory.

As a variation on the confessional narration, it is comparable to other examples of the genre: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1971) or Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962). In all these works, the search for identity through a probing self-analysis is central. In accord with the conventions of the genre, there is an attempt to control the experience of inner chaos by holding a mirror up to the self in the act of writing. Alienation (or loss of self) and the anguish that accompanies it are the principal sources of the emotional conflicts that compel the narrator to write, “to confess.”

Hardwick’s consistent deviation from narrative chronology emphasizes the complex principles of growth that are involved in the search for self-perception and understanding. The letters to M. (eventually identified as “Mama,” although quite possibly also Hardwick’s fellow writer and friend Mary McCarthy, to whom the book is partially dedicated) gradually reveal with a minimum of explicit statement an awareness in the narrator of some deep, shared identity between herself and her mother, whose life she comes to see as an image of woman’s limited possibilities for control: “My mother had in many ways the nature of an exile, although her wanderings and displacements had been only in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky. I never knew anyone so little interested in memory, in ancestors, in records, in sweetened back-glancing sceneries.” The life of the totally unintrospective mother is the gauge by which the narrator judges her own struggle to gain the understanding that offers control of experience. However, the complex feelings aroused by memories of and articulated toward her mother underscore powerfully the ambiguities involved in feminine creativity: woman as artist versus woman as mother. Juxtaposed with the “bizarre” story of the helpless Billie Holiday, who could be neither wife nor mother—“not even a daughter could she easily appear to be”—is the helpless, self-sacrificing image of Elizabeth’s mother Mary, who with nine children subordinates her own existence to “life under the dominion of nature.” The narrator’s tone of ambivalence toward both is in part the result of her recognition of and personal response to problems inherent in being a woman. Elizabeth’s self-consciously “intellectual” approach to her own experience—illustrated by the numerous literary allusions that reverberate throughout the text—attests her refusal to be only a victim. She remembers, for example, with an imperceptible attitude of anger and contempt, reading the story of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt’s maid, Rose, and how the brothers quickly condemned and betrayed the memory of her twenty-five years of devoted service upon discovering that she had a “secret” life of her own apart from theirs.

The ironic texture employed throughout by Hardwick creates and sustains the necessary narrative distance between author and narrator, narrator and reader. Like that of Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar, Hardwick’s irony is often revealed in explicit narrative statements of self-perception: Both narrators’ way of seeing themselves reflect their ways of perceiving others—especially men. Elizabeth, who is “honored” when Alex Anderson takes her to bed and “dishonored” when she believes that she is insufficiently “imaginative” to please him, tells the reader almost simultaneously that she was “weasel-like hungry” in relation to men and, when their personal ideological contradictions surfaced, was given to “predatory chewings” on the “inauthenticity” of their actions. “Predatory” is, ironically, the word she uses on several occasions to describe the actions of men toward women, young and old.

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