Professor Wai Chee Dimock
February 20, 2014
The Importance of Being Innocent: Immigrant New York through a Child’s Eyes
Psychologists say that vision is impossible. Our minds are physically incapable of settling upon a single retinal interpretation of the complex three-dimensional world that surrounds us. In order to solve this so-called “inverse problem,” we rely upon a series of heuristics that allow us to determine what is most likely to be the truth. Whether literal or figurative, perception depends enormously on what one has experienced, and experience inevitably leads one to perceive both past and present in a new light. In Henry Roth’s 20th century novel of Jewish immigrant life, Call it Sleep, his young protagonist David faces circumstances that force him to abandon the naïve shield of his childhood. In some respects, David exhibits a mental acuity far beyond his years; in others, his wide-eyed observations reveal a child’s perception and nothing more. A story narrated in third person, Call it Sleep nevertheless manages to convey a loss of innocence through a single character’s eyes.
For the reader, it is important to note that the varying registers of narration are both deliberate and essential to character development. At first glance, David’s world is viewed through a transparent lens, based solely on the mind of a six-year-old. However, the reader soon discovers that David’s intuition reflects not only his own limited cognition, but also insights attained through the filter of other characters. As Roth follows David through the first three years of his life on New York City’s Lower East Side, he gives not a glimpse, but a rich and insightful view of the city through David’s eyes.
Our first introduction to David comes when he and his mother Genya have just landed on the docks of Ellis Island. Greeted coldly by David’s father, Albert Schearl, the two show no signs of wonder and excitement; instead, David watches as his mother receives a berating from a man he is meeting for the first time. In a world to which he is entirely unaccustomed, first impressions are excruciatingly important, and thereafter David turns exclusively to his mother for support.
Roth makes it clear from the outset that mother and son are a unit: cohesive to a fault, dependent both emotionally and physically on each other. However, David’s sensitivity towards his mother often seems to transcend mere affection, into something that borders on eroticism. “Mama” possesses all of the ideal maternal traits: a sweet voice, a patient manner—indeed, “unlike a Jew”, and a soft, voluptuous body invariably disposed for a hug. David’s attachment to Genya is decidedly intimate, as evidenced in the day-to-day reassurance he derives from her body. “Sinking his fingers in her hair, David kissed her brow. The faint familiar warmth and odor of her skin and hair” (18). Genya’s breasts, hands, and lips are meant to represent comfort and safety, even if Roth’s descriptions of them may make the reader feel somewhat uncomfortable. It is not until David encounters Luter that this perception shifts into something decidedly less virtuous.
The first time David is alone with Luter, he takes the opportunity to observe the man without him being aware. As David stares at Luter, it occurs to him that, “Something curious had happened to his expression…the eyes themselves, which were always so round and soft, had narrowed now, so narrow, the eyeballs looked charred, remote… a faint thrill of disquiet ran through him” (36). At that moment, all of David’s mounting suspicions against Luter, all of his misgivings, converge upon this grossly detailed inspection of Luter’s face. David’s gift for observation enables him to subconsciously pare Luter’s untrustworthiness down to a telltale collection of facial features.
As loathsome as Luter’s motives are, the reader can see the impact he has on David’s conscious perception of his mother. “Luter, his eyes narrowed by a fixed yawn, was staring at his mother, at her hips. For the first time, David was aware of how her flesh, confined by the skirt, formed separate molds against it. He felt suddenly bewildered, struggling with something in his mind that would not become a thought” (40). In some sense, Roth grants David a much higher level of awareness than we are accustomed to seeing in six-year-old children, yet his age still places a constraint on what he can and cannot verbalize. David lacks the vocabulary to articulate the sexual nature of what he sees, limiting his ability to label his own complex sensations.
As the novel progresses, the reader watches layer after layer of innocence being peeled from David’s eyes. He witnesses rape, murder, and all manner of strife within his family, prompting him to seek attachment outside of his home. One day, David meets a neighborhood boy named Leo, who projects a sense of power and spirituality that David has yet to encounter. Though Leo is a Catholic, this seems to matter very little to his young admirer. “Watching him, David felt a bond of kinship growing up between them. They were both alone on the roof, both inhabitants of the same realm” (300).
At arm’s length, the image of Leo is everything that David wishes he could be. Leo is strong, beautiful, spirited and carefree. He has a confidence that David, in his sheltered and limited world, could never have developed. Even his religion—Christianity—holds a mysterious intrigue. But at that moment, with his standpoint elevated to roof-level, David simply feels the lure of Leo’s freedom, and the possibility of a new friend. “The longer he heard him speak, the longer he watched him, the more he became convinced that Leo belonged to a rarer, bolder, carefree world.”
As part of his education, David’s parents enroll him in a cheder, or traditional Jewish religion and Hebrew school. Under the guidance of the irascible rabbi, Yidel Pankower, David has his first confrontation with spiritual enlightenment. But though David shows a natural inclination for his studies, the complexities of Judaism are somewhat beyond his comprehension, leaving the escape he craves just out of reach. Thus, when he meets Leo and learns of a religion where simply wearing a cross around one’s neck guarantees eternal protection, David’s interest is set aflame. “If yuh wears ‘em [the crucifix], dey bring yuh luck,” Leo assures him, planting the seeds of a new awakening in David’s mind (304). Again, we find our young protagonist afloat as he tries to reconcile a wholly new perspective with what is stable and familiar. In this case, the disorientation comes from knowledge of a religious and not a sexual nature, yet it is clear that the impact on David’s worldview is just as powerful. He comes to view Judaism in a new light, through the scope of an idealistic and oversimplified Christianity, rendering his previous beliefs unfulfilling, closed, and hard-to-reach. Although Leo’s knowledge of Christianity turns out to be rather scant, the idea of God he offers seems much more attainable and immediate as a savior.
But David’s love affair with the older boy is not to persist. For someone who puts on such an outwardly devoted face of Christianity (“Dat’s Christchin light—it’s way bigger. Bigger den Jew light”), Leo is surprisingly blasé about his taste for “Jew-goils” (332). He persuades David to take him to see his cousin Esther, and rapes her in the cellar. David’s idolization of Leo ends with this betrayal of both his trust and his exalted image of the older boy.
On one hand, David’s search for a more satisfying faith can be chalked up to his unstable social life and need for certainty. His abusive father, overprotective mother, the street boys that taunt him—all stand in the way of his desire to see the world with clarity. Alternatively, however, one can view his reach for self-actualization as an attempt to combat his long lasting fear of the dark. Throughout most of the novel, David struggles against what is often seen as a very typical childhood fear. But in this case, light is of the utmost importance—it is the only thing that can prevent an absolute smothering of his consciousness. Subconsciously or not, David constantly battles to keep himself from being quarantined to a literal prison of dark, embodied by the cellar he despises.
Perhaps this fear of the dark provides some explanation for David’s curious attraction to the electrified rail near the car barns of 10th Street. Once forced to drop a piece of metal onto a live rail, David has never forgotten his captivation with the light that appeared: “The brilliance was hypnotic. He could not take his eyes away. His spirit yielded, melted into light” (248). At the end of the novel, when David narrowly escapes a vengeful whipping by his father, he finds his refuge at this very same place. This time he is not so lucky, and the milk dipper he uses to try and recreate the burst of light causes him to be electrocuted.
It is interesting that at the very end, Roth chooses to use imagery of eyes to describe David in his injured state: “Like the red pupil of the eye of darkness, the ember dilated, spun like a pinwheel, expanding, expanding, till at the very core, a white flaw rent the scarlet tissue and spread” (424). Ironically, the passage personifies “darkness,” David’s greatest fear, as having the ability to see. Since the gift of sight has played a crucial role in David’s search for meaning and identity, this eleventh-hour ceding of vision to the “enemy” represents David coming to terms with and accepting his fear. At last, our young protagonist is done trying to make sense of the world. He feels “not pain, not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence.”
Henry Roth’s spastic and often disjointed way of illustrating David’s world shows how David himself has partitioned each level of his experience. From the comfort of his mother’s body to fear of both his father and his peers to a brief obsession with a Christian boy, David’s voice reaches out to the reader primarily through his distinctive manner of observation. Although the entire novel is written in third person, the moments when perspective shifts to a character other than David are marked by a conspicuous departure from a child’s visual register. The world of New York City that Roth presents is sensitive, unrefined, and all-consuming. But in the end, the reader is able to achieve a sense of satiety, as David’s world has finally leveled to his eyes. It is a state of peace and fulfillment. One might as well call it sleep.