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Critical Essay by Richard J. Fein
SOURCE: "Fear, Fatherhood, and Desire in Call It Sleep," in Yiddish, Vol. 5, No. 4, Fall, 1984, pp. 49-54.
In the following essay, Fein discusses David Schearl's enmity with his father in Roth's Call It Sleep.
Call It Sleep is a classic portrayal of the Americanized son who pits himself against the unyielding immigrant father. In an orthodox but dramatic Freudian fashion that never succumbs to a mechanical pattern (and is as moving as Lawrence's rendition of this conflict in Sons and Lovers), David Schearl finds his enemy in his father.
Henry Roth's Call It Sleep portrays a father who looms as an impregnable tower of energy to his son, the conflict beginning even before the child is conscious of the struggle. David Schearl sees his father as a figure of wrath. He dreams of his father lifting a hammer against people, an image he derives from the knowledge that his father once lost a job for threatening a fellow worker with a hammer. People at the father's former place of employment speak in the boy's presence of his father being crazy, and one man jokingly and sympathetically remarks that the son and the father are like David and Goliath.
The eyes of the father, with their suggestion of uncontrollable energy, haunt the boy throughout the book. David sees those eyes, that "unrelaxed visage," as raging, burning, blazing, glaring, glowering, consuming, smouldering, wrathful, judgmental, and sombre. (Only at the end, significantly, do the father's eyes change.) The father's eyelids are almost always heavy. The eyes of David and his mother Genya, in contrast, are usually described as passively troubled. David's daily encounters with his father are worse than bad dreams; they strike terror into the heart of the child.
The father's body also leaves a powerful impression on the boy. At one point David comes home shortly after his father has risen and concentrates on his father's naked chest while the large man is drying a razor after shaving. David is impressed anew by his father's chest, his muscular arms, and his handsome face. His father is like some powerful local chieftain or god—a god feared and envied but not loved. The father refers to himself as the angel of death and is a force the son cannot conquer or propitiate. Surrounded by the twin fears of the father and darkness, the child seeks a realm of power and light with which he can offset those fears. David Schearl seeks mastery of his soul, control of his world—not to be victim, not to twinge in docility. To exaggerate in terms consonant with remarks made by Roth, David seeks to escape the impotence of his diaspora childhood.
The unpropitiable father in Jewish-American fiction—Anzia Yezierska also offers a dramatic example—gives way to the more sedate father in the fiction of Delmore Schwartz and the other Roth. The authoritarian father of Jewish-American fiction diminishes as the process of embourgeoisement intensifies.
Roth powerfully and delicately registers the boy's sense of the potent-envied-enemy-father in the scene in which David comes home and sees a strange, calm countenance on his mother's face. Her languidness and the quietude of the scene puzzle and frustrate the child. His father is asleep, his new white-handled whip lying near an open package and crisscrossing the handle of the older black whip, broken in a fight with a derelict who stole some bottles from his milkwagon. Genya does not greet her son with outstretched arms as she usually does. David's obvious bewilderment causes his mother to suppose that he wants to ask for the handle of the broken whip. But he shakes off this idea (disturbed by the recent use of the whip against the derelict, an incident his father insists he not reveal to his mother). David is interested in the wooden plaque wrapped in the paper, a plaque on which are mounted the horns of a bull, a token of the time his father raised bulls and cows in Europe, work of which he was manfully proud. The child is struck by the shield-shaped plaque on which
two magnificent horns curved out and up, pale yellow to the ebony tips. So wide was the span between them he could almost have stretched his arms out on either side, before he could touch them. Though they lay there inertly, their bases solidly fastened to the dark wood, there pulsed from them still a suggestion of terrific power, a power that even while they lay motionless made the breast ache as though they were ever imminent, ever charging.
David then thinks of a picture his mother previously hung on the wall, a picture of corn flowers that he imperfectly understands is associated in her mind with a love affair she had in Austria before she married and came to America. David ponders both the picture and the plaque, wondering "why was it that two things so remote from each other seemed to have become firmly coupled in his mind?" His thoughts drift back to the derelict "outstretched on the sidewalk, that mysterious look of repose in his mother's face when he had come in. Why?… He sensed only that in the horns, in the poised power of them lay a threat, a challenge he must answer, he must meet. But he didn't know how." The sexual and physical prowess of the father vaguely overtakes his mind, making him feel unequal to the father's presence. David is like his biblical counterpart come to live with an angry, unapproachable, and bitterly regal Saul he does not know how to comfort, how to appease, but whose family and power he seeks to be a part of.
The passion for energy goes beyond the boy's relationship to his father. This concern appears in David's fear of the tyrannical melamed and the cheder he attends. Through his experiences there, his fascination for power and energy takes on a religious dimension.
Ultimately it is a religious concern that the book is dealing with, a theme covertly conveyed through the classic conflict of child and father. The father's unassailable strength, the rabbi's vituperative authority, the puzzling arts of gang-freedom so confusingly practiced in the street, the introduction to sex by a lame girl with metal braces in a dark closet, the old fear of dark cellars—all of these swarm through the boy's mind and are suddenly transformed as he hears the rabbi tell the story of the angel who brought a coal of fire to Isaiah's lips in order to make Isaiah clean and worthy of being God's spokesman. David is fascinated by the image of the coal that brings a worthy light and cleansing experience to the prophet. Caught up in his own sense of sin and helplessness and fear, David longs for this state of purity, for this undefiled energy. Suddenly, to the amazed child, God is light, God is power; and perhaps he, David, in imitation of Isaiah, can overcome the sense that he was "hedged in by two fears, the dark and his father."
His sense of God and light is further advanced when, after bringing home a penny from the rabbi for having memorized the Passover song of the goat (a song that culminates in the assertion of a brutal and divine energy in the world), he asks his mother about God. She tells him God is light and he holds the world. In reply to his wondering if God could break the world, Genya explains, "Of course. He has all power. He can break and rebuild, but he holds." Then David's father enters the room, ending all other possible questions. Wondering why they are sitting in the dark, the father calls for more light. Throughout the novel, the child seeks his own realm of light, as opposed to the realm dominated by the father.
At the docks later, David has a vision that metamorphoses the city landscape. In this vision, the city at the edge of the water is transformed into an environment of light into which, for a moment, the child's sense of sin and fear is suffused.
It is after his risky Isaiah-like vision while looking in the East River that David is forced by some East Side tough to throw a zinc sword into a slot between the trolley car tracks, setting off a flash of light. Frightened and excited, David runs back and sneaks into the cheder, looking for the book that contains the passage about the fiery coal. But when he tells the rabbi that on Tenth Street between the car tracks he has seen a light like that of Isaiah's coal, Reb Pankower (no Hasid, and certainly no reader of Whitman or Blake) only mocks the boy's vision: "Go beat your head on a wall!" he instructs the child, "God's light is not between car-tracks."
The child longs for light, for escape from the dark he associates with the cellar of a previous house in which he lived and that dark closet in which lame Annie introduced him to some obscure flap within her body. He imagines that redeeming light in the coal brought to Isaiah and in the powerful glow between the tracks—and also in a picture of Jesus and the Sacred Heart that he sees on the wall of a friend's house, Leo Dugovka. (Roth is sharp in rendering the fascinating poetic exoticness, especially to a child, of the objects or details of somebody else's religion.) David is impressed both by the dish of light above the bearded figure and the glow from within his exposed heart. "Gee! He's light inside and out, ain' he?" David wonders, his street dialect different in rhythm but not in admiring content from John Milton's praise three centuries earlier: "That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable, and that far-beaming blaze of Majesty." For the innocent and untutored Jewish child, the discovery of a pre-Christian Jesus can be a revelation unappreciated by dulled Christians and impervious Jewish elders. This fascination of Jewish writers with a prelapsarian Jesus (that is, before he fell to the Christians) is an intriguing footnote to modern Jewish thought.
The light of Christ and Isaiah and the flash from the car tracks merge in the boy's mind. These are also related to the rosary beads he gets from Leo as payment for his willingness to lead Leo to the dark cellar of his aunt's candy store, where Leo and Esther play together in the fashion of Annie in the closet. Although he is anxious to receive the beads, David feels guilty over what he has done and longs for the light of redemption, for escape from sin, for escape from the inscrutable darkness of will that others impose upon his weak self.
All of this climaxes with David's escape from his angry father, who has discovered the beads and the story of David's involvement with Leo and Esther—a Lower East Side, juvenile, and vulgar version of the mother's premarital affair—or perhaps even a Lower East Side distortion of an earlier Esther's affair in Shushan. Running away from the turmoil at home, David decides to return to the docks and thrust a milk dipper into the third rail slot between the car tracks so that he can emulate Isaiah's experience with the angels and that startling picture of Christ ("him with the lightguts"). The boy's eyes have defied the dark window of his apartment, an emblem of his father's wrath. In a shifting of imagery that previously belonged to the father, David is pictured with "a shifty steeling glimmer under his eyes."
On the second try, the boy makes contact with the electric current while his toes curl into the handle of the milk dipper, keeping it from falling out. He invokes power, fire, light, and is knocked unconscious from the electrical charge that causes "a quaking splendor … a cymbal clash of light." A power drain startles the area and disrupts the conversations and behavior of the people in the neighborhood whom Roth seeks to connect to the boy's act and thoughts through an unsuccessful collage of voices and activities. (Here Joyce and Eliot are no help and invite pretentious difficulties.)
By connecting the boy's actions to the people of the neighborhood, Roth slips from the design of the book. Suddenly, it appears, Roth is looking for a new center for the book's consciousness, a new center for its power. Up to this point the poetry of the novel, its charged awareness, is essentially connected to David. In this ambitious penultimate chapter, Roth switches from a poetry within to the search for a poetry from without, as if he is rendering the proletarian gestures expected of the novel of the thirties. Or perhaps he wishes to place the child's concerns in a larger world, much as Joyce connected Stephen Dedalus to political and social matters simply by having the young man come in contact with the average concerns of an average day in Dublin at the turn of the century. But Roth is unable to do this as his major character is just an eight-year-old boy lost beyond his few blocks of neighborhood. In this attempted climax, Roth tries to put the child's frustrations and urges in some larger social context, but overreaches. This is the least convincing part of the book, the thoughts of the child now appearing as self-conscious italicized prose-poetry paragraphs, and the language tends to get rhetorical. For most of this scene, the book is no longer simply lived; it now appears to be, if I may be allowed the phrase, "pastiched."
During his hallucination as he recovers from the terrific shock he received, David sees his father brandishing a hammer and snapping a whip, but on returning home he sees that his father has been disconcerted by what he has caused his son to do: "His eyes bulged, his jaw dropped, he blanched." David knew that his father faltered, felt guilty, was shaken. (One price for Roth's misplaced ambitions in the penultimate chapter is that the change of the father is suddenly thrust upon the reader, who does not see that change develop.) For a moment, David feels a sense of power over his father, over all that oppresses him, before he lapses back again into sleep and rest and that dark, rich sense of his mind. Some great passivity accepts him.
In 1960 when the novel was reissued for the first time since its original publication in 1934, Leslie Fiedler made a perceptive remark along the lines I have been tracking: "Roth's book aspires not to sociology but to theology; it is finally and astonishingly a religious book," like all the serious novels of the thirties, "toying with the messianic and the apocalyptic." At its peak, the boy's search is inspired both by a prophetic passage from the Bible and by his desire to override the daily authoritarian forces about him through some luminous self-assertion. Or to weave that religious motif into the linguistic web of the book: Can the inadequately grasped and fragmentary Hebrew offer a magic realm of redemption beyond the street brutalities of English and the family turmoil of Yiddish?
The boy's desire is like the recurring voice of the psalmist that asks for the strength and energetic mercy of God because "fearfulness and trembling are come upon me" and "for man would swallow me up." David's quest may be seen as a childhood version of the idea that God is a punishing God whom the suffering psalmist can appeal to as a force against his enemies. On one level David seeks God's light and power, God's strength and adequacy. But it is only after he is knocked unconscious that he finally attains a mastery over the father and a peace within himself whose price is the sacrifice of the will. The very weakness of this David has unexpectedly subdued the Goliath-father. It is a victory attained by a disarming debility, not by self-assertion. The novel is haunted by the problem of how the child can become reconciled with the powerful father and the unrelenting, harsh forces he comes to represent in the child's imagination. It is a conflict that compelled Roth to write Call It Sleep in the first place and that afterwards silenced him. Both David Schearl and his creator desired either a liberating power of their own or a peace that passes conflict. The first is self-assertion; the second you might call sleep.
This section contains 2,723 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)