Henry Roth

Call It Sleep

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Call It Sleep Summary

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Call it Sleep (1934), a realistic fiction novel by Henry Roth, is about a young Jewish boy growing up in a ghetto in New York’s Lower East Side in the early 1900s. Like the book’s protagonist, Roth was a Galician Jewish-American man who came to America around the turn of the twentieth century. Call It Sleep was his first novel.

Roth makes frequent use of dialect for his characters; it is implied that the Jewish characters are all speaking to each other in Yiddish at home. This dialogue is proper and precise. When English-speaking children play in the street, however, their dialogue is rough, grammatically incorrect, and uses heavy dialect to depict their pronunciations.

David Schearl is six years old at the beginning of the story and recently arrived in America. He has a close relationship with his mother, Genya, but his relationship with his father, Albert, is strained. Albert is a violent, tempestuous man, and David fears him. Worse, Albert cannot find a steady job, so his temper often flares. As the family adjusts to life in New York City’s Jewish tenements, David’s Aunt Bertha, Genya’s sister, arrives in America from Galicia in Eastern Europe. Bertha is coarse and speaks frankly in a way that Albert hates. Her presence in the cramped apartment increases the level of discord in the family.

Young David overhears conversations between his mother and her sister, which hint that back in Galicia, his mother carried on an affair with a man who wasn’t Jewish. The two met in the cornfields, which David tries to imagine.

Bertha meets Nathan, a widower, and marries him, moving in with him and his two daughters, Polly and Esther. They open a candy shop together. Meanwhile, David begins his religious education under Reb Yidel. Yidel recognizes David is a good student. David overhears Yidel translating the story of Isaiah with an older student and is fascinated by the image of the angel holding a hot coal to Isaiah’s lips to purge him of sin.

David moves through life fearfully. New discoveries seem to alienate and frighten him more, rather than bringing him comfort or enlightenment. Over Passover, David encounters a group of children who take him with them to drop a piece of zinc onto the live rail of a trolley car. The impact releases a jolt of electricity, which David links in his mind to the story of Isaiah and the cleansing hot coal.

Albert finds steady employment as a milkman. David sometimes accompanies his father on rounds, but one day sees his father react violently to a man who tries to steal some of the milk bottles. Albert beats the man with a whip, possibly killing him.

Later, David becomes friends with an older Catholic boy, Leo. David worships him, not realizing Leo is taking advantage of David’s friendship. Leo offers him a rosary and tells him it will give him magical protection. He says David can have the rosary if he will introduce his friend to Polly and Esther. The fearful David is eager for protection from any corner, so he takes it. He brings Leo to the candy shop, where Leo leads Esther into the basement and rapes her.

David is horrified but tries to carry on with his life. Hours later, he is about to give a recitation in front of Reb Yidel but breaks down crying instead. Reb Yidel asks him what’s wrong, and David makes up a story: Genya is not his mother but his aunt, and he is the illegitimate child of his real mother and her affair with a gentile man. Meanwhile, Polly tells Bertha and Nathan that Leo raped Esther. Reb Yidel goes to David’s parents to tell them what David told him. Bertha asks Nathan not to go to Albert about Esther and whether David played a role in her rape, fearing how Albert might react, but Nathan decides to confront Albert anyway.

David arrives home as Reb Yidel is speaking to his parents. Albert says he has long suspected he is not David’s real father and calls his marriage to Genya a sham, a way for them to cover their sins. Genya’s was her affair outside her faith, and Albert’s was the fact that he allowed his father, who was also abusive, to be gored to death by a bull. Genya denies that David is the product of her affair, but Albert refuses to believe her, saying that David is not his son.

At that moment, Nathan and Bertha arrive. Nathan sees how angry Albert is and hesitates to speak, but then David himself pipes up, admits that he led Leo to Esther, and hands his father the whip he used to beat the milk bottle thief. Albert, already almost out of his mind with fury, discovers David’s rosary. He believes this is proof that David is the son of a gentile, and is ready to beat David to death.

The others manage to hold Albert back. David runs away and goes back to the live rail from before. He uses a metal milk dipper to touch the rail and receives a massive electric shock. It knocks him out, and passersby carefully roll him off the rail with a stick. An ambulance arrives, David is revived, and a policeman brings him home. Albert demonstrates a softness towards his son for the first time. Genya takes David into her arms, and he experiences an emotion that he “might as well call it sleep.”

The work was hailed as a modernist masterpiece upon publication, but it was a commercial flop. It quickly went out of print and remained so for thirty years, until a 1964 front-page review in the New York Times Book Review revived sales. In 2005, TIME magazine named Call It Sleep as one of the 100 Best Novels published in English after 1923. Shortly after Call It Sleep’s original publication, Roth began to work on a second novel, but writer’s block, possibly due to depression and childhood trauma, stalled him. It took him 60 years to publish another novel, which became the four-volume Mercy of a Rude Stream, published between 1994 and 1998.