The function of the Isaiah story in Henry Roth´s "Call It Sleep"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

19 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. General Facts about Call It Sleep and its Author Henry Roth

3. The Structure of the Novel

4. A Characterization of David Schearl

5. The Function of the “Isaiah Story” in Call It Sleep
5.1. The “Isaiah Story” in the Old Testament
5.2. The “Isaiah Story” in Call It Sleep – Book III “The Coal”, Chapter IV
5.3. The symbolic meaning of the “Coal”
5.4. The Function of the “Isaiah Story” for David

6. David Schearl – A Hero-Messiah?

7. Summary

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This paper is concerned with the novel Call It Sleep, a work by the Jewish- American writer Henry Roth. First of all some general facts about the author will be presented to provide an appropriate context for further interpretations. Afterwards the structure of the novel will be explained by giving an overview over the main symbols and their function within the book.

The emphasis will then be put on the characterization of David Schearl, the central character of the novel. His search for purification and salvation will be scrutinized with regard to the “Isaiah Story”, a passage of the Old Testament, which is strongly linked to the theme of redemption. At the end of the paper the question whether David can be called a hero-messiah because of his strong sensibility concerning religious themes and experiences will be discussed.

2. General Facts about Call It Sleep and its Author Henry Roth

Call It Sleep was first published in December 1934. Critical reactions to the novel were positive, but as a result of the Great Depression Roth´s publisher went bankrupt and the book disappeared from view for more than 25 years. It was just about in the 1960s that the novel was published again and recognized as an important work of Jewish-American-Immigrant literature.[1]

The plot is set in New York just prior to World War I. In the centre of the story stands David Schearl, a six – to – eight – year old Jewish immigrant boy. His personal emotions and reflections on the world he is surrounded by constitute the main part of the novel. Nevertheless, on a second, broader level the plot also deals with the situation of East-European Jewish immigrants coming to America in general.

The story of David Schearl shows quite a lot of parallels to Henry Roth´s own life. Roth himself was born in Galicia, Austria-Hungary in 1906. In 1907, when he was 18 months old, he moved with his mother to New York, where his father had been living already. From 1908 to 1910 the Yiddish speaking family lived in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Afterwards they moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This abrupt change of environs had an enormous influence on the child. He felt himself among strangers and became timid and introspective.[2]

Since Roth relies upon his own experiences and reflections as the raw material for his fiction, it can be said that the novel has a strong autobiographical impact. Thus his relationship to his father as well as to Judaism are dominant themes in his work.[3]

Call It Sleep reached a lot of critical attention. It was discussed as an “immigrant”, a “Jewish”, a “proletarian” and a “Joycean” novel. Actually it is open to a wide variety of interpretations. First of all it probably is an “immigrant” novel because the situation of immigrants, especially of East-European immigrants, is the overlying topic of the book. Secondly, when looking at the language, the customs and the religious motifs presented in the novel one can also recognize that it definitely has a strong Jewish influence. Additionally, it might be called a “proletarian novel” because the milieu the reader enters is that of the working class. Finally, by looking at its extensive use of the stream of consciousness it is indeed influenced by James Joyce´s Ulysses.[4]

3. The Structure of the Novel

Call It Sleep consists of five parts. It begins with a Prologue which has an introductory, expository function. In this section the reader gets to know the setting and the persons of the novel. Furthermore, he is confronted with the larger historical context, because the scene described here (immigrants arriving on Ellis Island) is probably quite close to the real historical situation. Within the composition of the novel the Prologue holds an extra position because the reader does not enter the consciousness of David as he does in the following parts.

Call It Sleep is an episodic narration. The four books which follow the Prologue are entitled ´The Cellar´, ´The Picture´, ´The Coal´ and ´The Rail´. The titles of the books are simultaneously the four major symbols of the novel. Since they provide the dominant symbol pattern of the novel, which is David´s movement from darkness to light, they function as a strong unifying element.[5] In other words, each symbol has its own function but it is also related to the other ones. A very short exploration of the interrelationship of these symbols and the meaning they convey to David will support this argumentation:

Book I, ´The Cellar´, evokes uniformly negative emotional connotations for David. He associates the cellar with darkness, filth, shameful sexuality and death. Since it deals with the underground side of life, it becomes the main source of David´s anxieties and fears.

The meaning of Book II, ´The Picture´, is rather ambiguous. It contains both negative as well as positive aspects. This section of the novel represents the past to David, including his mother Genya´s previous sexual relationship with a Christian organist, who might also be his biological father.

Book III, ´The Coal´, represents the most complicated symbol to David. This section begins with David being sent to cheder school to study under Reb Yidel Pankower. There he is confronted with the story of Isaiah, in which he shows an unusual interest. In this story a burning coal is used by an angel to purify the “unclean lips” of the prophet Isaiah. Since David combines coal with the cellar and therefore with filth, decay and smuttiness, he is confused by the fact that coal has a purifying meaning in the biblical context as well. David is unable to combine these two apparently opposing meanings. Therefore he postulates an “angel-coal” in “God´s cellar”. From now on the search for this coal determines David´s life.

Book IV, The Rail´, provides the final reconciliation. David has to accompany his father on his milk delivery rounds. One day David flees from his wrathful father and plunges the metal dipper of a milk can between the jaws of the rail, where he presumes to find “God´s coal”. The short circuit nearly knocks him to death. In a state of unconsciousness he has a hallucinatory vision in which he sees “God´s coal”. Regaining consciousness he is taken home to his mother where he peacefully falls asleep. The final incidents in ´The Rail´ represent the climax of David´s search for God´s light. They symbolize the release from his fears and pains.

4. A Characterization of David Schearl

It became clear already that David Schearl is the central character of the book. The reader gets to know him first in the Prologue when he arrives with his mother on Ellis Island, New York in 1907. David is about two years old at that time.[6]

Book I, ´The Cellar´, shows David shortly before his sixth birthday.[7] He is presented as an anxious boy, who has the impression “[…] that this world had been created without thought of him”.[8] He feels alienated from the world he is surrounded by. To face it he depends on his creative imagination. His lively mind moves by free associations, thus he even connects marriage and death, because he sees carriages at both events.[9]

“They were the same,” he said in a voice of awe. It was solved now. He saw it clearly. Everything belonged to the same dark. Confetti and coffins.[10]

The main source of David´s anxiety at this early stage of his life is the cellar, which he first of all associates with physical as well as emotional darkness.

Darkness all about him now, entire and fathomless night. No single ray threaded it, no flake of light drifted through. From the impenetrable depths below, the dull marshy stench of surreptitious decay uncurled against his nostrils. There was no silence here, but if he dared to listen, he could hear tappings and creakings, patterings and whispers, all furtive, all malign. It was horrible, the dark. The rats lived there, the hordes of nightmare, the wobbly faces, the crawling and misshapen things.[11]

David´s fear of darkness generates a fascination with light, which he identifies with purity, brightness and finally with God.[12] The contrast between light and dark, between good and evil becomes the dominant symbol pattern of the novel. David´s movement from darkness to light, which is described in the four parts of the novel, is simultaneously a movement away from the cramped conditions of his family life.

David is suffering from the tensions between his parents. His violent father Albert hates him, because he doubts whether David is his natural son. Tormented by his lack of success to hold a proper job he becomes increasingly menacing to David. This is one reason why David clings so extremely to his mother Genya, who is his “only teacher and protector in this early stage of life.”[13] Furthermore it is claimed in secondary literature that David experiences a strong Oedipal conflict in which “Albert´s frustrated rage is the counterpart of Genya`s fierce longing for love”.[14] Indeed, the relationship between David and his mother is thoroughly close. Especially in the first part of the novel he is passionately attached to her as the following passage proves:

He was near her now. He was part of her. The rain outside the window set continual seals upon their isolation, upon their intimacy, their identity. When she lifted the stove lid, the rosy glow that stained her wide brow warmed his own body as well. He was near her. He was part of her.[15]

David has the feeling of being one with his mother. In his perception their identities melt together, they are isolated from the rest of the world. What is described here probably goes beyond a purely mother-child-relationship. The feeling David experiences is most typical for a love-relationship in which sexuality plays an important role. Maybe this is the point in David´s life when he discovers sexuality as being a part of his personality without really knowing how to integrate this feeling in his former, more child-like feelings. Maybe this point also marks the end of his childhood and the beginning of the process of growing up. However, within the course of the book David is not only seeking for mystical experiences which promise redemption to him, he is also striking to develop his own identity, including his personal sexuality. Thus the process he goes through is also marked by the desire to escape from the Oedipal bond.[16]


[1] Cf. (05.05.02)

[2] Cf. (05.02.02)

[3] Bonnie Lyons, Henry Roth. The Man and His Work. (New York: Cooper Square Pulishers, Inc., 1976) iii. All

further page numbers refer to this edition.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lyons 39.

[6] Henry Roth, Call It Sleep. With an introduction by Alfred Kazin and an afterword by Hana Wirth-Nesher.

(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991) 12-13. All further page numbers refer to this edition.

[7] Roth 19.

[8] Ibid. 17.

[9] Cf. Lyons 41.

[10] Roth 70.

[11] Ibid. 92.

[12] William Freedman, “Mystical Initiation And Experience in Call It Sleep.” Studies in American Jewish

Literature, 5 I 27. All further page numbers refer to this edition.

[13] Ruth Wisse, “ The Classic of Disinheritance.” New Essays on Call It Sleep. Ed. Hana Wirth-Nesher

(Camebridge: Camebridge University Press, 1996) 63. All further page number refer to this edition.

[14] Ibid. 64.

[15] Roth 68.

[16] Cf. Lynn Altenbernd, “An American Messiah: Myth In Henry Roth´s Call It Sleep.” Modern Fiction Studies 35 (1989) 682. All further page numbers refer to this edition.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


The function of the Isaiah story in Henry Roth´s "Call It Sleep"
College  (Institute for Anglistics/American Studies)
Hauptseminar The Early Tradition of Jewish American Fiction Writing
2,0 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
473 KB
The Early Tradition of Jewish American Fiction Writing, Henry Roth
Quote paper
Hendrikje Schulze (Author), 2002, The function of the Isaiah story in Henry Roth´s "Call It Sleep", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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