This Dorothy Parker Short Story Is Way Too Relatable For Insomniacs Everywhere
I have often proscribed the writing of Dorothy Parker for matters of the heart. Admittedly, she's not the writer to turn to for comfort or encouragement. She's not the friend who'll cheer you up when you're down or buy you fancy bath bombs. But she is the friend who'll trash talk your ex over bottomless mimosas and then cyber-stalk his new girlfriend. She's delightfully acerbic, for when you just want to take sad selfies and wallow in martini-fueled self pity. And when it comes to the despair of dating and the general awfulness of men, Dorothy is just as relevant today as she was in the 1930s.
Dorothy doesn't just write about dating, though. Her bitter, biting body of work covers everything from book reviews to essays to The Little Hours, a short short story for all the dedicated insomniacs out there.
Much like The Telephone Call, Parker's torturous stream-of-consciousness story about one woman waiting for a phone call from her beau, The Little Hours is a brief, unbroken train of thought. This time, though, it's from the perspective of a woman who's just woken up... at 4:25 AM. She cannot get back to sleep. So naturally, she works herself into a mild panic over her sleep patterns, her life in general, and her relationship with the 17th Century French writer La Rochefoucauld.
To begin with, our wretched narrator awakes in confusion:
"Now what's this? What's the object of all this darkness all over me? They haven't gone and buried me alive while my back was turned, have they? Ah, now would you think they'd do a thing like that!"
But then, suddenly, she comes to understand the horrific truth of her condition.
"Oh no, I know what it is. I'm awake. That's it. I've waked up in the middle of the night. Well, isn't that nice. Isn't that simply ideal. Twenty minutes past four, sharp, and here's Baby wide-eyed as a marigold. Look at this, will you? At the time when all decent people are just going to bed, I must wake up. There's no way things can ever come out even, under this system. This is as rank as injustice is ever likely to get. This is what brings about hatred and bloodshed, that's what this does."
She blames reading before bed for her predicament, and decides that reading is a terrible plague on humanity. She then ruminates on the author La Rochefoucauld, the "lovable old cynic" who simply refuses to get out of her head, despite her repeated demands that he leave her alone.
Then, in a classic insomniac move, our narrator attempts to sternly will herself back to sleep.
"I must try to get back to sleep right now. I've got to conform to the rotten little standards of this sluggard civilization."
This, however, quickly devolves into a tirade against sheep.
"I hate sheep. Untender it may be in me, but all my life I've hated sheep. It amounts to a phobia, the way I hate them. I can tell the minute there's one in the room. They needn't think that I am going to lie here in the dark and count their unpleasant little faces for them; I wouldn't do it if I didn't fall asleep again until the middle of next August. Suppose they never get counted—what's the worst that can happen? If the number of imaginary sheep in this world remains a matter of guesswork, who is richer or poorer for it?"
Once she has exhausted herself on the subject of sheep (and on the subject of how everyone else in the world seems to be better at sleeping than she is), our narrator moves on to her own faults and general lack of potential.
"I could count the things I didn't do yesterday that I should have done. I could count the thing I should do today that I'm not going to do. I'm never going to accomplish anything; that's perfectly clear to me. I'm never going to be famous. My name will never be writ large on the roster of Those Who Do Things. I don't do anything. Not one single thing. I used to bite my nails, but I don't even do that any more."
Parker's genius, of course, is in her uncanny ability to capture the frantic human mind at its lowest moments. And anyone who's ever tried to force themselves to sleep while in an anxiety spiral can tell you that it's a very low moment indeed.
"I don't amount to the powder to blow me to hell. I've turned out to be nothing but a bit of flotsam. Flotsam and leave'em—that's me from now on. Oh, it's all terrible. Well. This way lies galloping melancholia."
She succumbs to the "galloping melancholia" only briefly, though, before she finds her old friend La Rochefoucauld again, and commences with a deluge of half-remembered quotes. But only after she's flipped her pillow around, of course.
"Only wait till I turn the pillow; it feels as if La Rochefoucauld had crawled inside the slip."
When these "quotations beautiful from minds profound" don't lead to sleep, though, our narrator at last gives up and decides to turn on the light and read.
"I throw in the towel right now. I know when I'm licked. There'll be no more of this nonsense; I'm going to turn on the light and read my head off."
It's a predictable ending to a short, fairly silly story. But for all of Parker's hyperbole and joyous cynicism, The Little Hours captures a very particular feeling. It's not uplifting or depressing or especially cathartic. But it is honest. It's an honest depiction of the borderline absurd desperation and anxiety that come with insomnia. I, for one, have no idea how anyone slept in the age before relaxation podcasts, white noise machines, and ASMR videos. So the next time you find yourself awake and miserable in the middle of the night, Dorothy Parker will be happy to join you in your misery.