Critique of the book “Call It Sleep” written by Henry Roth



The book “Call It Sleep” written by Henry Roth is a literary work that explores immigrant life as they

adjust to the new and unfamiliar ways of American life. The book is somewhat of a social commentary on

the period of the Eastern European immigration to America at its peak. The novel gives an inside view on

how foreigners (primarily Jewish immigrants) fit into main stream society. Throughout the course of the

novel, you travel along with the main character David Schearl as he ages from six to eight and grows up in

Brownsville on the lower East side of New York. David is torn between the love of his over protective

mother and the hatred of his angry and mentally disturbed father in a quest to make sense of his life in

contrast with all of the other immigrant children that he comes in contact with. All of the adventures that

David encounters and all of the people that he comes in contact with are simply the author’s way of

depicting an immigrants inner struggle and deal!

ing with the pressures of life as seen through the eyes of a remarkably perceptive and imaginative child.

The opening scenes are set in New York harbor in 1907 at a time when the inflow of foreigners is at its

peak. A woman and her small child come off of the boat to reunite with her husband that had gone before

them to the new world to start a better life than they were used to in their old country. The author has you

experience what it is like to come into New York Harbor and see the city skyline and the lights; and also to

experience the feeling of hope and promise for a brighter future for the immigrants. However when Albert

Schearl shows up late and uncaring to greet a wife and son who don’t recognize him right away, it is hinted

to the reader that trouble is in store for the Schearl family.

The father Albert Schearl is introduced as a very haughty and proud individual that believes that he should

abandon all signs of his former upbringing and conform to the American ways of life. He is a printer by

trade however he cannot hold down a job long enough due to his violent and uncontrollable temperament.

He thinks that people are constantly watching his every move therefore he cannot give

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Yiddish and his son is wearing a bonnet that clearly blows their cover in !

their attempts to masquerade as Americans. Later on in the book we learn that Albert’s anger towards his

wife and son is brought about by his doubts of David’s paternity due to the fact that his wife had a brief

affair with a Gentile in the old country. Thus it can be said that the reason for Albert’s rage and insanity

came about by this betrayal. This issue arises again when David receives a rosary from his Polish friend

Leo and tells the rabbi a lie about how his mother is really dead and he is half Christian. When the story

finds its way back to his father and the rosary is accidentally discovered, Albert is sure of his suspicion

about David’s paternity is accurate. Throughout the course of the story Albert is seen almost as the villain

that has an iron fist rule over his household thus creating a Freudian mother son bond that cannot be

severed. His rage strikes fear into the heart of both his wife and his son thus causing young David to

wander the streets of the nei!

ghborhood in search of a way to break free from his fathers imprisonment. At the end of the story when

David is burned and the thought of actually losing his son become apparent to Albert, this is his moment of

catharsis and he exchanges his hatred for his son for that of a concerned parent. Only then is it evident that

there is hope for change in Albert and that things will eventually work themselves out. It finally becomes

evident to the reader that Albert’s true anger was not directed towards his family but rather to the idea