Sleepless Nights

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Although brief, Sleepless Nights is a powerful and evocative work. Divided into ten sections, the work loosely traces the life of its narrator from her birth in Kentucky, through her years in graduate school at Columbia University, her adult life in Boston, Maine, Europe, and New York, to her present life, alone, in an apartment in New York. One must stress “loosely,” for this is not a conventional autobiographical narrative. Instead, it consists of sharply drawn moments of time, people known, and places visited, interspersed with meditations and comments. The shape of a life is clearly present, but it serves mainly to locate people and places within a narrative frame. The stress in this novel is much more on the evocation of mood, feeling, and impression, than it is on the recounting of a chronology of events.

We also need to note that the narrator of this work, Elizabeth, bears some relationship to the author of the work, who also is named Elizabeth, was born in Kentucky, went to graduate school at Columbia, and lived in at least some of the places in which the fictional Elizabeth remembers living. This is not, however, autobiography, even lightly fictionalized autobiography. Instead, the author’s aim in this book seems to have been to create a character and to present her to us through having her offer us highly selective memories. Our role is to build up her portrait by reading her memories and her comments on them. In Sleepless Nights, we in effect spend some time in the company of this fictional Elizabeth and listen to her one-sided conversation. She is a lonely lady given to spending sleepless nights in the company of her memories. It is our privilege to spend one such night with her and to find that her experience speaks to the lonely human being in all of us. We must find her, finally, a woman of great humanity and courage, a person willing to live out the life she has decided to live, one who is painfully honest about herself and those she has known.

The tone of honesty is set at the very beginning; Elizabeth finds the crocheted bedspread on her bed evocative of the “niceness and the squalor and sorrow in an apathetic battle—that is what I see.” And so her life will consist of moments of all three—the splendor of New York and its life of culture and the mind, but also the squalor that hides in the glare of bright lights and the sorrow of so many people who live there. Stand in one place and look, she invites:Midtown—look toward the east, toward many beautiful and bright things for sale. Turn the eyes westward—a nettling thicket of drunks, actors, gamblers, waiters, people who slept all day in their graying underwear and gave off a far from fresh odor when they dressed in their brown suits and brown snapbrim...

(The entire section is 1134 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Sleepless Nights is the title of Elizabeth Hardwick’s novel and the recurrent image that identifies both the narrative’s characteristic atmosphere and its inspirational source. It might have been titled nocturnal remembrances, a memoir of New York, for New Yorkers and New York City—in its supportive and destructive influences— constitute a major portion of the work’s focus. Divided into ten short chapters, it is a first-person, confessional novel (a subcategory of the autobiographical) that, in its concern for the literary process of reconstructing life and human experience through memory, is highly self-conscious and allusive, taking as it does the act of writing from a woman’s perspective and sensibility as a principal issue of the text: “But after all, ‘I’ am a woman.”

Elizabeth, the narrator, begins her story in June of an unspecified year and, through interspersed letters written at different times and places and to different people in her past, ranges over fifty-six years, from the 1920’s to 1978, emphasizing the period from 1940 (the year of her arrival in New York City from Lexington, Kentucky, to study at Columbia University) to 1973, the year of the last dated letter included in the narrative.

Sleepless Nights has a minimal amount of external action. Embodied in the complex sequence of narrated events the reader comes to understand, however, are the experiences that have shaped the writer before she begins to shape them in writing: Southern childhood in a family of eleven, with parents who paid the price of “intimacy” and adapted themselves to the disillusioned coupling of marriage; films and the imaginative freedom of reading; postadolescent loves and a surreptitious affair with an older man; university study; ill-fated love relations, a broken marriage, the gaining and losing of friends through deaths and misunderstandings; the spiritual...

(The entire section is 786 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

As do her two earlier novels, Sleepless Nights dramatizes—although from a much more personal vantage point—Hardwick’s concern with the almost ineffable nature of human experience and the self-conscious awareness of “difference” which is the perspective of the female writer. As a contribution to the modern confessional novel—a genre extending back to Fyodor Dostoevski’s Notes From the Underground (1864)—Sleepless Nights portrays the ways in which women struggle with modern problems such as loneliness, alienation, the difficulty of establishing meaningful and lasting relationships, and the emotional uncertainties and inner chaos that frequently accompany a consciousness of personal physical decay, economic dependence, and political marginality. Hardwick continues in this novel her exploration of the inscrutable flow of life from a perspective that is simultaneously feminine and dissident.

Essentially a writer accustomed to tackling ideas and whose preferred form is the essay as social criticism and belles-lettres, Hardwick nevertheless has been praised for her complex narrative structuring of “reminiscences” in Sleepless Nights, for her wit and understanding, and for the “sheer loveliness” of her sentences. Hardwick’s plotless fusion of autobiography with fiction uncovers the female self as it turns toward women’s experiences as a fountainhead of autonomous art. Like the theoretical articles and critical reviews that have established her presence in the ongoing feminist debate over woman as both subject and object of the literary text, Sleepless Nights, her most acclaimed novel, secures Hardwick’s place as an important voice in that continuing discourse.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Caplan, Brina. “The Teller as the Tale.” Georgia Review 33, no. 4 (Winter, 1979): 933-940. An essay-review of Sleepless Nights which classifies it as a “novel-memoir” and compares it with Lillian Hellman’s Three (1979). The narrative style is criticized for being too morally disengaged and fragmentary, producing the effect of an attempted “collage” that degenerates to “pastiche.”

Lamont, Rosette. “The Off-Center Spatiality of Women’s Discourse.” In Theory and Practice of Feminist Literary Criticism, edited by Gabriela Mora and Karen S. Van Hooft. Ypsilanti, Mich.: Bilingual Press, 1982. Focuses on Hardwick’s “fragmentary aesthetic,” a style of indirect progression which has affinities with the treatment of narrative voice in Marguerite Duras’ films, plays, and novels. Both writers are seen as feminist dissidents whose anarchic style reflects a rapprochement between women and their female condition of marginality.

Faust, Langdon Lynn, ed. American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1988. A biographical overview with brief commentary on the thematic content of principal publications.

Peters, Margaret. “Fiction Under a True Name: Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights.” Chicago Review 31, no. 2 (Autumn, 1979): 129-136. A feminist analysis of Sleepless Nights, emphasizing the autobiographical nature of the novel. The essay laments the oblique method of narration that distances the author from the narrating Elizabeth by “obliterating” much of Hardwick’s known past. Offers comparisons between Sleepless Nights and Hardwick’s first novel, The Ghostly Lover (1945).