Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in English



First Advisor

Jean Walton


This dissertation examines the topic of insomnia in British and American modernist literature, focusing primarily on the ways in which the condition of insomnia and the identity category of the “insomniac” intersect with other aspects of subjectivity, such as gender, occupation, race, and social class. Through examining insomnia from a narratological perspective, using fictional, philosophical, psychological, sociological, and medical literature, I discuss the discursive function of both this disorder and identity category during the Modernist period. It also explores the relationship between insomnia and Modernism itself, regarding both the discursive production of knowledge of insomnia and the insomniac during this period and the ways that the modernist literary text discusses, interprets, utilizes, and structurally reproduces phenomenological aspects of insomnia. Further, I argue that insomnia shapes identity, and therefore, perception, in a dialectical manner; as such, insomnia is a device of character and plot development. I consider the questions, “Why did those during this period, in America and the United Kingdom, need to define and interpret insomnia and the insomniac in the ways they did, and what are the literary and discursive implications of these interpretations?”

My introduction lays out my theoretical framework, arguing that sleep habits, behaviors, and practices (including insomnia) constitute a type of self care that intersects with other expected behaviors relating to one’s identity, sometimes creating or revealing a conflict between expected and “normal” behavior based upon generalized assumptions and individual will and desire. Further, I argue that while the diagnosis of insomnia and the label “insomniac” subject the individual to disciplinary and normalizing measures, this condition and label provide the individual with a means of exposing and resisting assumed identity categories and the power to garner resources, time, and space for personal development and reflection. I explore the ways in the insomniac body reveals and challenges norms and normative procedures. Additionally, I provide an etymological inquiry into the origins of the word insomniac, and situate this term and its use historically—a produced identity belonging to a particular time and place with implications regarding the production of knowledge about individuals and the motivations behind producing such knowledge. Finally, I explain the relationship between the phenomenological and ontological experience of insomnia to the phenomenological and ontological experience of World War I in order to justify the war as a key turning point in the discursive production of the insomniac. The second chapter traces the production of knowledge of insomnia and, eventually, the insomniac through the nineteenth century until today, in an effort to further elucidate the significance of this condition and figure historically and currently. It considers questions of the origins of the modernist figure of the insomniac and the implications of this figure today.

The subsequent chapters focus on the intersection of insomnia with other aspects of subjectivity. Chapter three discusses the insomnia of soldiers and war workers during World War I, using the fictional texts Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon. This chapter argues that the experience of insomnia is, in significant ways, akin to the experience of participating in World War I, thus provides a useful device through which to discuss war experience and its related anxieties. Chapter four compares the diagnosis, perception, and treatment of insomnia in those with differently gendered bodies. In this chapter, I argue that insomnia is a form of bodily inscription, revealing cultural norms and beliefs, as well as allowing the individual to expose and resist these norms. This chapter focuses on the Pilgrimage series by Dorothy Richardson, The Soul of a Bishop by H. G. Wells, and The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen.

The fifth chapter explores the relationship between insomnia and social status, specifically regarding class, occupation, race, and citizenship. As I argue in this chapter, insomnia is simultaneously demonized as a form of resistance to capitalist work ethics, represented as a marker of social privilege, and lauded as a time and space of insight and reflection. Further, insomnia reveals an anomic tension within the individual insomniac, indicating a conflict between his or her desires and capabilities within a given social structure. The literary texts covered in this chapter are F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, Waldo David Frank’s Holiday, and E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. The final chapter discusses the relationship between insomnia and authorship, describing the ways in which the experience of insomnia is translated into the experience of creating and reading literature. The texts covered in this chapter are Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Richard Wright’s Black Boy. In this chapter I argue that an affinity exists between the condition of insomnia and the structure of the modernist text, and a reading of the modernist text, to an extent, recreates the experience of insomnia in the reader. Essentially, this dissertation looks at insomnia as a battleground between various elements of one’s identity and subjectivity and explores the ways in which this battle both affects and is expressed in the literature of the Modernist period.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.