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 that
he felt that he would never truly fit into this new world and deep down this realization was eating away