LWL | Sleep and Its Disorders in Literature

By Mayar Naif Al-Aseeri


In literature, sleep and the ways it manifests reflect complex sides of human nature. Whether it be the way it manifests by its disorders, by sleepwalking, or even dreaming. This paper shows all possible representations and the differences between sleep and its disorders in literature, aiming to understand its significance in poetry and how it’s depicted by authors. A clear idea can be made by analysing different examples and passages of books/poems and how sleep is involved in them, either making it a symbol for innocence or, conversely, a symbol for paranoia and guilt when its disorders are involved. This study also highlights the past and development of sleep and its disorders in literature, contributing to the field of literary studies and psychology by analysing the different interpretations. This research also argues that by understanding how sleep is portrayed in literature, you are indirectly educating yourself on the effects sleep and its disorders have on people, including history and overall society perceptions 


“To sleep, perchance to dream,” quoted William Shakespeare in Hamlet. Sleep, a time for rest and dreams, is not only vital for our well-being but is also a recurring theme in literature, reflecting its impact on humans day to day life. Sleep is often a symbol for innocence, peace and restoration in poetry; as studies have proved that a good nights rest helps with having an overall better quality of life, reduces stress and enhances cognitive functions. While sleep deprivation on the other hand, does not let millions of people [and characters] get the benefits of a peaceful sleep, often resulting in daytime fatigue and other health issues. So, how does the existence of sleep disorders impact poetry? Sleep disorders, such as insomnia, sleep apnea, and narcolepsy plague a lot of people, ruining their mental and physical health, and in poetry, they resemble guilt and paranoia, perhaps of a past regret. Literary writing frequently show the link between sleep disorders and health, highlighting the psychological and physical toll they take on people. Examples of health issues caused by sleep disorders: the increased risk of cardiovascular disease and glucose intolerance— a prediabete that could lead to type 2 diabetes. And as ongoing studies are still exploring sleeping patterns, it is important to know the ways authors take advantage of what is already known about sleep and its disorders to give their work a subtle yet valuable insight into societal perceptions, historical contexts, and the human condition. 


The theme of sleep and its disorders in literature has been around for awhile, and the more information comes out on it, the more it reveals insight into the human mind and cultural concerns. Various literary scholars have analysed possible interpretations, such as Clark Lawlor and Ashleigh Blackwood in their research article “Sleep and stress management in Enlightmrnt literature and poetry,” published 17th April 2020.  Their article talked about sleep’s association with pressure and unhealthy lifestyles, delving on its physical attribute yet also on its attribute to poetry during the ‘age of reason.’

Similarly, Megan G. Leitch’s book, published in 2021, Sleep and its spaces in Middle English literature, is also involved in this field. It examines the concerns about sleep that were overlooked due to the studies that were more focused on what sleep enables and what it stands for, and Leitch argues that sleep mediates questions in ways that have ethical and affective implications, all while simultaneously representing different Middle English genres: romance, dream, vision, etc. Leitch also believes that: “In medieval English imagination, sleep is an embodied and culturally determined act, 

both performed and interpreted by characters and contemporaries.”


The portrayal of sleep, both peaceful and disturbed, in literature varies and could take a lot of forms, but the main usage of it is the fact it reveals psychological and physical depth: as a symbol of composure, and as a metaphor for psychological unrest and/or existential angst. Let’s take William Wordsworth’s poem “To Sleep” for example, it reflects on the poets longing for a fresh sleep, as he’s struggling with insomnia— a condition that renders individuals practically sleepless. Wordsworth made sure to use imagery from nature in order to portray the sense of peace that comes from sleep, as you can see in the following passage: 

“A flock of sheep that leisurely pass by, 

One after one; the sound of rain, and bees, 

Murmuring; the falls of rivers, winds and 


Which signifies sleeps role in providing comfort, especially after having it stripped away from him.

Conversely, in literature, sleep can not only be pictured as a source of comfort but also as a strong metaphor for deeper existential struggles when its disorders are involved. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a good example of this. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a masterpiece about an unnamed narrator trying to convince the reader of his sanity while simultaneously describing a murder he committed. Its a good example of sleep disorders in literature because the narrator shows clear signs of insomnia and paranoia, as seen in the passages: “And this I did for seven long nights — every night just at midnight,” where the narrator talks about the process he went through to examine the old man while he was sleeping, all night. Additionally, the narrator possessing insomnia is a reason for his clearly already existing mental illness to worsen even more, as sleep disorders have been proven to aggravate mental health. It all aligns with the narrators descent into madness and obsession towards the old mans eye, the man whom he murdered, quoting: “His eye would trouble me no more.”

And by comparing Edgar Allan Poe’s short story with William Wordsworth’s poem, you get a clear idea of how sleep is portrayed in literature. Wordsworth poem described sleep as peaceful and consistently used a gentle tone throughout the poem, whereas Poe delved into the madness [indirectly] caused by sleep deprivation and used intense tone to emphasize the story.

However, this was not always how sleep and its disorders were depicted in poetry. The understanding and representation of sleep has improved significantly overtime, reflecting big changes in medical knowledge, cultural ideas, and literacy trends. In early literature, sleep was often depicted in mystical or supernatural terms. Ancient Greek and Roman texts frequently used sleep and its disturbances to represent divine intervention or punishment, as seen with the Greek Hero, Orestes, who was punished with sleepless nights and eventually driven to madness by the Furies [Goddesses of Vengeance] after killing his mother to avenge his fathers murder. His story is told in various works, most notably Aeschylus’s trilogy Oresteia.

And it was only when ‘The Age of Reason’ period took place that there was a more rational and scientific understanding of sleep. “Eloisa to Abelard” by Alexander Pope is a poem that was published during this era and it talks about Eloisa’s conflict between her love for God and her love for Abelard, and in this poem, sleep is mentioned multiple times to portray her complex feelings and the forbidden freedom she desires. For example: 

“Then conscience sleeps, and leaving nature free,

All my loose soul unbounded springs to thee. 

Oh curs'd, dear horrors of all-conscious night!”

Which portrays Eloisas consciousness being at rest, making her feel free from moral guilt and societal constraints, but at the same time, Eloisa recognizes that it is bad and leaves her feeling guilty prominently during nighttime.

Overall, the enlightenment period marked the start of a more nuanced delve of the mind-body connection in literature, where sleep and its disorders were finally linked to human state and experiences. 

Following the enlightenment period was the Romantic era, starting late 18th and early 19th centuries. People during this era were obviously affected by the enlightenment period, so the books published during it were moreso focused on emotional and individual aspects. And it was around this time the infamous book Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was published, and where it painted sleeplessness as a consequence of intense guilt and/or trauma: “I passed the night wretchedly: sometimes my pulse beat so quickly and hardly, that I felt the palpitation of every artery; at others, I nearly sank to the ground through languor and extreme weakness—“ this passage talks about the sleepless night Victor had in consequence of his immense guilt and fear of what he has created.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the rise of psychology helped transform the literacy picture of sleep even more, as seen with the works of Franz Kafka and his focus on the inner mind and the impact of isolation and alienation, and later, Sigmund Freud’s theories of dreams and unconscious, and how they influenced many authors. Sleep during this era was mainly used for deeper conflicts and traumas, as seen in the character, Gregor Samsa, of Franz Kafka’s book, The Metamorphosis.

The Metamorphosis is about Gregor who became an insect overnight and thus became unimportant and disgusting to his family. It showcases themes of existential crises and the absurdity of human relationships in such a unique way that Kafka did not want to be misunderstood at all. So much so, he asked of publishers to not make the cover an insect; because it is not really about the man turning into an insect. "The insect itself cannot be depicted,” Kafka said.

In present-day literature, since sleep and its disorders have a clearer understanding, modern  authors can successfully mix both traditional ideas and scientific understandings of sleep. For instance, Sleep Donation by Karen Russell. The novel is set in a dystopian future where insomnia has become a fatal disease, leaving many people unable to sleep, and thus facing severe health consequences and eventually death. Reflectively, dreams are perceived as a way of understanding yourself and the unconscious mind, so the lack of them lead to loss of personal identity and societal cohesion, which, possibly was one of the main factors for all the problems Russell explored in her novel, such as the  exploitation of the sleep donation system.

In the preceding paragraphs, we compared different ways of using sleep as a metaphor as well as talked about its historical evaluation. Now, we will go even deeper  and examine sleep and its various manifestations— supernatural points, sleepwalking symbols, insomnia portrayal, and dreams meanings in literature. All being more examples of ways authors use to describe their characters inner worlds and states.

Literature has long been fascinated by the intersection of sleep and the supernatural, exploring how it could possibly manifest symbolically in characters’ lives. For example, sleepwalking. It’s used as a metaphor for subconscious desires and/or repressed emotions, blurring the lines of dreaming and awareness. A perfect example of this is Macbeth by William Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s story, his character, ‘Lady Macbeth’ experiences multiple sleepwalking episodes, revealing her suppressed guilt as she deals with the consequences of the murder she was complicit in: found in Act 5, scene 1.

Furthermore, insomnia in fiction has been used as a symbol for a lot of different ideas, including previous points we talked about such as mental illness, but it has also been used as a way of introducing awakenings, as seen in novels like Stephen King’s Insomnia. The protagonist, Ralph, has turned sleepless in consequence of losing his wife, which resulted in him perceiving auras and other hidden paranormal layers of reality.


And dreams, with their surreal appearance and symbolic ideas, provide authors a creative way to explore and reveal their characters subconscious fears, desires, and conflicts. From Freudian interpretations to Jungian archetypes, as dreams in literature offer insights into the depth of the human psyche. In Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, dreams become a main part of creating portals to alternate realities, mirroring the main characters quest for identity and existential meaning. Similarly, in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov’s feverish dreams expose his guilt and moral decay.

And by examining how authors use these literary devices; supernatural elements, sleepwalking, insomnia, and dreams, we gain a deeper understanding of their narrative techniques and creativtiness. Through literature, sleep and its disorders are basically mere plot devices, used as tools to portray the complex sides of human nature. 


In conclusion, the analysis of sleep and its disorders reveals a lot of different meanings and insights that go deeper than you realise. Through examining works like Wordsworth’s poem “To Sleep,” Poe’s story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, you start to see sleep as not only a biological need, but also as a metaphor for so many things such as guilt and innocence. These literary analyses highlight the complexity of humans while also bringing more light to usually misunderstood themes like fear and desire. Moreover, by examining the literature works in this paper, you gain a deeper understanding of how cultural and societal perceptions change and evolve towards sleep.


In order of which they appeared in this research paper

  • Shakespeare, W. Hamlet (1623)

  • Lawlor, C; Blackwood, A. Sleep and stress management in Enlightment literature and poetry (2020)

  • Leitch, M. Sleep and its spaces in Middle English literature (2021)

  • Wordsworth, W. To sleep (1819)

  • Poe, E. The Tell-Tale Heart (1843)

  • Aeschylus. Oresteia (458 BC)

  • Pope, A. Eloisa to Abelard (1717)

  • Shelley, M. Frankenstein (1818)

  • [Franz Kafkas work in general]

  • Frued, S. The Interpretation of Dreams (1899)

  • Kafka, F. The Metamorphosis (1915)

  • Russell, K. Sleep Donation (2014)

  • Shakespeare, W. Macbeth (1623)

  • King, S. Insomnia (1994)

  • Murakami, H. Kafka on the Shore (2002)

  • Dostoevsky, F. Crime and Punishment (1866)