Essay Immigration and Language in Call it Sleep

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Immigration and Language in Call it sleep

Immigrant Allegory: Language and the Symbolism of Being Lost

The symbolism of being lost is a universal immigrant theme that occurs throughout many immigrant literatures, particularly in Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep. Language, or lack of understanding it, has a profound contribution to the process of being lost. This contribution is shown earlier in the book, in a passage where David is lost trying to find his way home (Passage 1) and is mirrored later on in the book, when David and Aunt Bertha are lost in a museum (Passage 2). The restriction of the usage of language in both passages portrays to us the inevitable and ubiquitous immigrant dilemma: I talk, eat, and live like this new country
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David panics in this scene as well as the scene in Passage 2. If we reread Passage 2 carefully, we see that it is really David that is mainly concerned with being lost again, not Aunt Bertha. Aunt Bertha appears to us to have diverged her attention from the couple to the exhibits at the museum, whereas David’s attention is always on the two people that he is following, not once at the exhibits in the museum. It is David that tugs on Aunt Bertha’s dress to warn her that their subjects might be walking too fast for them to follow anymore.

Perhaps this panic is due to David’s effort to get directions to his destination. In Passage 1, David asks the gentleman for directions to Bodder Street. In Passage 2, David asks the man in front of the museum whether or not this is actually the museum. David is never seen in these two passages as a bold, spirited leader; he is always seen as a follower. This has significant implications; David can never lead in this country, he can only follow. He does not posses the free spirited, Columbus-conquering mentality. David is very passive and out of place in both of these passages. He follows people’s advice in Passage 1 and in Passage 2, never his own intuition. David represents the immigrant who will forever be lost in his new country. What is ironic is that David’s inquiries about getting the “right” directions fails in both cases because of his inability to manipulate language in such a way
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