Study Guide

From Bondage

by Henry Roth

From Bondage Essay - Critical Essays

From Bondage

“This novel is certainly NOT an autobiography, nor should it be taken as such,” announces the copyright page. Yet it is difficult not to find close parallels between Stigman and Roth, author of the masterpiece of immigration CALL IT SLEEP, which was published in 1934 and neglected for three decades. Stigman and Roth both abandoned their literary ambitions but resumed writing in New Mexico in their eighties. FROM BONDAGE is a memoir of the 1920’s, when each lived with mismatched parents on East 119th Street while attending City College of New York.

Alone at the word processor he personifies as “Ecclesias,” eighty-nine-year-old Stigman exorcises the sordid secrets of a legendary, decades-long writer’s block that he comes to attribute to incest and alienation. He recalls the vile erotic relations he maintained with his sister Minnie and his cousin Stella, eighteen and seventeen, respectively, when he was twenty-one. And, after rejecting his humble Jewish origins, Stigman comes to understand that he can overcome his creative aridity only by returning to the kindred ordinary Jews whom he sought to transcend and sexually abused. Late in life, he realizes that incest is a symptom of the arrested development that enabled him to devise a child’s-eye masterpiece but obstructed other writing.

FROM BONDAGE immerses readers in the felt life of an earnest bounder, bound to move beyond the meager cold-water tenement of his uneducated parents into the enchanted bohemia that he imagines Edith Welles, the sophisticated, Gentile professor who befriends and beds him, inhabiting. Stigman’s menial jobs as a clerk in a fancy candy shop and as grease monkey on a repair crew of the New York subway are vividly rendered, as is the old widower’s frank desire for death. Roth once announced his ambition “to die with one’s books on.” Mixing memory and desire with revulsion and purgation, FROM BONDAGE is worthy raiment for final thoughts.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCII, May 1, 1996, p. 1489.

Boston Globe. July 14, 1996, p. B33.

Kirkus Reviews. LXIV, April 15, 1996, p. 557.

Library Journal. CXXI, June 15, 1996, p. 94.

Los Angeles Times. September 18, 1996, p. E2.

The Nation. CCLXIII, September 23, 1996, p. 25.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, July 14, 1996, p. 6.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, April 22, 1996, p. 59.

The Wall Street Journal. July 11, 1996, p. A12.