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"Awakenings" Characters Analysis

By Oliver Sacks

nonfiction | 464 pages | Published in NaN

Awakenings is a 1973 non-fiction book by Oliver Sacks. It recounts the life histories of those who had been victims of the 1920s encephalitis lethargica epidemic. Sacks chronicles his efforts in the late 1960s to help these patients at the Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, New York.


Estimated read time: 5 min read

Table of Contents

  1. List of Characters

List of Characters

Dr. Malcolm SayerProtagonist, Neurologist
Leonard LowePatient
Lucy FishmanPatient
Rose RabinowitzPatient
Mrs. LoweLeonard's Mother
Dr. KaufmanColleague, Psychiatrist
Dr. SullivanColleague, Neurologist
Mrs. FishmanLucy's Mother
Mr. RabinowitzRose's Husband
Nurse Eleanor CostelloNurse
Nurse MargaretNurse
Nurse BarbaraNurse

Role Identification

Dr. Malcolm Sayer is the protagonist and the main character of "Awakenings," a neurologist who works at a psychiatric hospital. Leonard Lowe, Lucy Fishman, and Rose Rabinowitz are patients suffering from encephalitis lethargica, a mysterious illness that leaves them in a catatonic state. Other characters include colleagues, family members, and nurses.

Character Descriptions

Dr. Malcolm Sayer: Dr. Sayer is a dedicated and compassionate neurologist. He is described as introverted and socially awkward. His passion for his work drives him to explore unconventional treatment methods to help his patients.

Leonard Lowe: Leonard is one of the patients who has been in a catatonic state for decades. He is described as intelligent and introspective. Leonard becomes the primary focus of Dr. Sayer's attempts to awaken his patients.

Lucy Fishman: Lucy is another patient suffering from encephalitis lethargica. She is portrayed as a spirited and lively young woman trapped inside her immobile body.

Rose Rabinowitz: Rose is a patient who has been in a catatonic state for an extended period. She is portrayed as a kind and gentle woman who once had a deep love for music.

Other Characters: Mrs. Lowe is Leonard's protective and caring mother. Dr. Kaufman and Dr. Sullivan are Dr. Sayer's colleagues who play supporting roles in the story. Nurse Eleanor Costello, Nurse Margaret, and Nurse Barbara are the dedicated nurses who care for the patients.

Character Traits

Dr. Malcolm Sayer: Dedicated, compassionate, introverted, socially awkward, curious, unconventional.

Leonard Lowe: Intelligent, introspective, resilient, determined, patient.

Lucy Fishman: Spirited, lively, frustrated, trapped, hopeful.

Rose Rabinowitz: Kind, gentle, music lover, patient, fragile.

Character Background

Dr. Malcolm Sayer: Dr. Sayer is a British neurologist who is relatively new to the field. He is portrayed as having a lifelong interest in the human brain and its complexities. Driven by his fascination, he takes a job at a psychiatric hospital where he encounters the patients suffering from encephalitis lethargica.

Leonard Lowe: Leonard was a young man when he contracted encephalitis lethargica during the 1920s epidemic. He fell into a catatonic state and remained that way for several decades.

Lucy Fishman: Lucy was a vibrant and active young woman before she fell victim to encephalitis lethargica. Her personality and potential were abruptly halted when she became catatonic.

Rose Rabinowitz: Rose was a middle-aged woman when she contracted encephalitis lethargica. She was once an avid music lover and had a deep connection to the arts.

Character Arcs

Dr. Malcolm Sayer: Dr. Sayer's character arc revolves around his personal growth and transformation. Initially withdrawn and hesitant, he develops a deep connection with his patients. Through his dedication and unconventional methods, he manages to awaken Leonard and other patients temporarily. Despite setbacks, he finds solace in the small victories and learns to embrace the human spirit.

Leonard Lowe: Leonard's character arc is one of hope and resilience. He goes from being trapped in a catatonic state to experiencing brief moments of awakening. His experiences with Dr. Sayer's treatment give him a glimpse into a world that was stolen from him. Leonard's arc ultimately reflects the bittersweet nature of his condition.

Lucy Fishman and Rose Rabinowitz: Lucy and Rose's character arcs parallel Leonard's to some extent. They both experience brief awakenings, which offer them a taste of the lives they once had. Their arcs highlight the frustration and yearning for a normal existence.


Dr. Malcolm Sayer and Leonard Lowe: The relationship between Dr. Sayer and Leonard is central to the story. Driven by his determination to help Leonard, Dr. Sayer forms a deep bond with his patient. Their connection goes beyond the professional realm, and they develop a friendship based on mutual understanding and empathy.

Dr. Malcolm Sayer and Other Patients: Dr. Sayer forms connections with other patients as well, including Lucy and Rose. He invests time and effort into trying to awaken them, treating them as individuals rather than just medical cases.

Leonard Lowe and his Mother: Leonard's relationship with his mother is portrayed as loving and protective. Mrs. Lowe stands by her son throughout his long illness, and her unwavering support is crucial to Leonard's well-being.

Nurses and Patients: The nurses, including Nurse Eleanor Costello, Nurse Margaret, and Nurse Barbara, play a vital role in caring for the patients. They develop a close rapport with the patients, providing both physical and emotional support.

In conclusion, "Awakenings" by Oliver Sacks explores the lives of characters affected by encephalitis lethargica and the efforts of a compassionate neurologist, Dr. Malcolm Sayer, to awaken them. The characters' backgrounds, traits, relationships, and personal journeys contribute to a narrative that highlights the resilience of the human spirit and the power of connection.