Call It Sleep
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"Call It Sleep" Characters Analysis

By Henry Roth

fiction | 480 pages | Published in 2013

When Henry Roth published his debut novel Call It Sleep in 1934, it was greeted with considerable critical acclaim though, in those troubled times, lackluster sales. Only with its paperback publication thirty years later did this novel receive the recognition it deserves—--and still enjoys. Having sold-to-date millions of copies worldwide, Call It Sleep is the magnificent story of David Schearl, the "dangerously imaginative" child coming of age in the slums of New York.


Estimated read time: 9 min read

List of Characters

Character NameRole
David SchearlProtagonist

Role Identification

David Schearl: Protagonist

David Schearl is the central character and the protagonist of Henry Roth's novel "Call It Sleep." The story mainly revolves around his coming-of-age journey in the vibrant yet challenging setting of Lower East Side, New York City, during the early 1900s.

Genya: Mother

Genya is David's mother, a hardworking and dedicated woman who tries her best to provide for her family amidst the struggles of immigrant life. She embodies the nurturing and protective qualities of a mother, striving to create a stable and loving environment for her son.

Albert: Father

Albert is David's father and a complex character struggling with his own demons. He is burdened by the weight of his failures and becomes distant from his family due to his inner conflicts, which impacts their relationship and ultimately influences David's journey.

Bertha: Aunt

Bertha is David's aunt, an unmarried woman who lives with the family and helps with household chores. She becomes a confidante and a source of support for David, offering guidance and warmth during his moments of vulnerability.

Leo: Uncle

Leo is David's uncle, Bertha's brother, and a charismatic figure who captivates David with his outgoing and boisterous personality. Despite his flaws, Leo provides David with experiences beyond the confines of his home and challenges him to navigate the complexities of the world.

Tedesco: Neighbor

Tedesco is a neighbor living near the Schearl family. He is an Italian immigrant and a friend of David's father. Tedesco's involvement in David's life represents the clash of cultures and the influence of external factors on the protagonist's growth and development.

Hester: Neighbor

Hester is another neighbor of the Schearl family. She is of German descent and introduces David to the beauty of music by playing the piano. Hester's presence highlights the transformative power of art and marks David's gradual exploration of his own artistic potential.

Esther: Neighbor

Esther is a neighbor who befriends David and becomes his first youthful romantic interest. Through his interactions with Esther, David begins to comprehend his own emerging sexuality and the complexities of human relationships.

Character Descriptions

David Schearl

David Schearl is a young boy with a sensitive and introspective nature. He possesses a remarkable intelligence and an innate curiosity about the world around him. With his dark and mysterious appearance, David often feels like an outsider amongst his peers. His innocence and vulnerability make him susceptible to the effects of his tumultuous environment.


Genya is a resilient woman with delicate features and a loving heart. She is constantly burdened by the pressures of providing for her family in an unfamiliar land. Despite her hardships, Genya possesses a fierce determination and a strong maternal instinct that drives her to protect and nurture her children.


Albert is a troubled man with haunting blue eyes and a weary countenance. He struggles with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, which often translates into frustration and anger. Albert's insecurities contribute to his strained relationship with David and his withdrawal from family life.


Bertha is a middle-aged woman with a compassionate demeanor and a calming presence. She offers solace and guidance to David, acting as a surrogate mother figure and providing him with emotional support. Bertha's wisdom and stability contrast with the chaos and uncertainty surrounding David's world.


Leo is a tall and animated man with a boisterous laugh and a quick temper. He possesses an unabashed confidence that draws others to him. Leo exposes David to the harsh realities of the world but also provides him with glimpses of freedom and adventure beyond the confines of his upbringing.


Tedesco is a stout and jovial man with a thick Italian accent. He is a friend of David's father and operates a non-kosher butcher shop. While his character initially seems intimidating, Tedesco represents the multi-cultural influences shaping David's world and serves as a source of both camaraderie and conflict.


Hester is a petite and gentle woman with refined features and a love for music. Her delicate hands glide effortlessly over the piano keys, enchanting David with the beauty of classical melodies. Hester's passion for music ignites David's own artistic sensibilities and introduces him to a source of solace and self-expression.


Esther is a young girl with rosy cheeks and a sense of innocence. She lives in the same building as David and serves as his first romantic interest. Through their interactions, Esther becomes an enigmatic figure that challenges David's understanding of gender, attraction, and the complexity of human relationships.

Character Traits

David Schearl

  • Sensitive
  • Intelligent
  • Curious
  • Outsider
  • Vulnerable
  • Innocent


  • Resilient
  • Loving
  • Determined
  • Protective
  • Sacrificing


  • Troubled
  • Insecure
  • Frustrated
  • Withdrawn
  • Self-doubting


  • Compassionate
  • Wise
  • Calming
  • Nurturing
  • Stable


  • Charismatic
  • Adventurous
  • Temperamental
  • Conflicted
  • Influential


  • Jovial
  • Intimidating
  • Multi-cultural
  • Friend/Conflict
  • Boisterous


  • Gentle
  • Musical
  • Enchanting
  • Solace
  • Self-expression


  • Innocent
  • Romantic Interest
  • Enigmatic
  • Challenging
  • Complex Relationships

Character Backgrounds

David Schearl

David Schearl is a Jewish immigrant boy who emigrated with his family from Austria to the Lower East Side, New York City. He struggles to adapt to his new surroundings while grappling with the complexities of cultural identity, social isolation, and the tensions within his own family.


Genya is a Jewish immigrant from Austria. She left her homeland in search of a better life for her family, working tirelessly in garment factories to provide for her children. Genya's experiences as an immigrant shape her resilience and undying love for her son.


Albert, also an Austrian immigrant, carries the weight of guilt and an entrenched sense of failure. He struggles to find employment and wrestles with personal demons that prevent him from embracing his role as a father and husband.


Bertha, Genya's sister, immigrated alongside the Schearl family. She serves as a stabilizing force and a pillar of support within the household, providing solace and guidance for David during pivotal moments in his journey.


Leo, Bertha's brother, is a charismatic figure who represents the allure of freedom and adventure. He provides David with a contrasting perspective to his family life and acts as a catalyst for David's emerging understanding of the world.


Tedesco, an Italian immigrant and acquaintance of David's father, adds a different cultural perspective to David's upbringing. His butcher shop and friendship with Albert expose David to scenes of masculinity and camaraderie outside his Jewish community.


Hester, a German neighbor, introduces David to the world of music. Her piano playing becomes a sanctuary for David, allowing him to escape the tensions of his family life and explore his own artistic capabilities.


Esther, a neighbor close in age to David, challenges his understanding of relationships and introduces him to the complexities of young love. While their connection is innocent, it opens David's eyes to the intricacies of human emotions and desires.

Character Arcs

David Schearl

David experiences a profound character arc throughout the novel "Call It Sleep." Initially, he is an innocent and introspective child attempting to navigate the challenges of his immigrant upbringing. As the story unfolds, David's experiences with various characters and events shape his understanding of himself and the world around him. From his struggles with cultural identity to his exploration of sexuality and the search for personal freedom, David's character arc involves a gradual awakening and self-discovery.


David and Genya

The relationship between David and his mother, Genya, is an anchor for his emotional well-being. Genya's love and determination to provide for her children serve as a source of strength for David, even when his father's behavior creates tensions within the family.

David and Albert

David's relationship with his father, Albert, is complex and strained. Albert's internal conflicts and feelings of inadequacy contribute to his withdrawal from family life, leaving David longing for a father figure and struggling to understand his own role as a male in society.

David and Bertha

Bertha becomes a nurturing presence in David's life, offering guidance and support during his moments of vulnerability. Bertha's wisdom serves as a counterbalance to the chaos surrounding David, providing him with stability and emotional security.

David and Leo

Leo's influence on David is pivotal as he introduces the young boy to experiences beyond his family's restrictive environment. Leo acts as both a mentor and a source of conflict, challenging David's preconceptions and exposing him to the complexities of life.

David and Tedesco

Tedesco's friendship with Albert introduces a contrasting cultural perspective into David's life. His interactions with David highlight the clash between different immigrant communities and the influence of external factors on shaping David's worldview.

David and Hester

Hester's introduction of music into David's life serves as a powerful catalyst for his artistic potential. Their relationship sparks a sense of freedom and self-expression within David, shaping his understanding of the transformative power of art.

David and Esther

Esther provides David with his first glimpse into the complexities of human relationships and emerging sexuality. Their innocent connection challenges David's understanding of friendship, attraction, and the intricacies of emotions.

In conclusion, "Call It Sleep" by Henry Roth presents a rich tapestry of characters that influence and shape David Schearl's journey. From the struggle of cultural identity to the exploration of relationships and self-discovery, each character creates a distinct impact on David's coming-of-age narrative. The analysis of these characters, their roles, traits, backgrounds, arcs, and relationships provides a deeper understanding of the themes and experiences portrayed in the novel.