Study Guide

Call It Sleep

by Henry Roth

Call It Sleep Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In 1907, David Schearl, about two years old, and his mother, Genya, are on a steamer leaving Ellis Island, the last leg of their journey to America. David’s father, Albert, came to America earlier, and the family is now to be reunited. Albert displays a coldness, however, that is in marked contrast to the joy pervading other reunions taking place around him. His remarks to his wife and son are contemptuous and accusatory; because he does not want his boy to look like an immigrant, he snatches David’s old-country hat off his head and hurls it into the river.

Like the other immigrants, the Schearls are people in an alien culture. Unlike most of the other families, however, there is a deep alienation in the family, particularly between father and son: David is the immigrant in life who must seek his own meanings in maturity.

By the time David is six years old, his attachment to his mother is important not only for the relationship between them but also for the shelter she provides him from his father’s icy contempt. Where Genya is placid and beautiful, Albert is aloof, suspicious, gullible, and eaten away by a tragic pride. Albert is at war with the world. His great fear—partly based on an awareness of his own foreignness and partly based on a deeper insecurity—is of being laughed at, cheated, or made to look a fool. David’s immature but meticulous consciousness records that Albert’s foreman, Luter, flatters Albert only to be with Genya. He also experiences a repugnant sexual encounter with a neighborhood girl and a terrible thrashing by Albert. In the second book, David watches the courting of Aunt Bertha by the laconic Nathan Sternowitz and listens in confused fascination to his mother’s account of an earlier love affair in Russia. Through these experiences, David becomes uneasily aware of sexuality, particularly of the disturbing fact that his mother is also a sexual being.

In the Hebrew school, the cheder, David’s intellect is awakened by Rabbi Yidel Pankower, a tragicomic figure of classic proportions. David learns rapidly, but one afternoon he is puzzled by a verse from Isaiah in which Isaiah, seeing the Lord seated on a throne, is afraid; then a seraph touches a fiery coal to Isaiah’s lips, and he hears God speak. David yearns to ask about that coal but is not given an opportunity to do so. At home, he asks his mother to explain God. He is brighter than day,...

(The entire section is 987 words.)