The House of Sleep

Coe, Jonathan

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony
  • Date of entry: May-10-2000
  • Last revised: Aug-29-2006


Ashdown, a beautiful but bleak manor on the English coast, is the main setting of this story. Initially, a group of university students including Sarah Tudor, Gregory Dudden, Robert, and Terry reside at Ashdown. Some of these same students return there years later as either patients or staff when the building is converted into the Dudden Clinic where individuals with all sorts of sleep disorders are treated.

Sarah is a disturbed young woman suffering from narcolepsy. She is sometimes unable to differentiate her dreams from the experiences of real life. Robert is infatuated with her and will do literally anything to please her. Gregory is Sarah’s first lover, later a psychiatrist in charge of the sleep clinic, and finally a man gone mad who decides to self-experiment. Dr. Cleo Madison is a sleep psychologist whose true identity is a surprise. In this novel, reality appears more surrealistic than most dreams.


Sleep is portrayed as a paradox. On the one hand, it is described as a disease, even a plague, that shortens life by a third. Sleepers are powerless as they lie unconscious and helpless. On the other hand, sleep is envisioned as "the great leveler" where "nobody would ever tell a lie."

Those who cannot sleep, want to. Those who are perpetually falling asleep strive to stay awake. Sleep is seen by some as a weakness, but by others as a reward. For a few of these characters, falling asleep is just as easy (or difficult) as falling in love. The novel is cleverly arranged into sections labeled with the various stages of sleep: Awake, Stage One, Stage Two, Stage Three, Stage Four, and REM Sleep. Even-numbered chapters take place in 1996 whereas odd-numbered chapters occur in the years 1983-1984.

In The House of Sleep, everyone is somehow connected. The novel depicts not only how sleep changes us but also questions what is real and what is only a dream. It explores the psychology of sleep and issues of time, identity, and discontent. By the conclusion of the story, The House of Sleep deduces that we will never be able to please others if we cannot understand and satisfy ourselves.


First published: 1997 (London: Viking )



Place Published

New York



Page Count