Call It Sleep
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3.83 / 5

"Call It Sleep" Summary

By Henry Roth

fiction | 480 pages | Published in 2013

ISBN_13: 9781466855281
ISBN_10: 1466855282

Estimated read time: 5 min read

One Sentence Summary

A young immigrant boy grapples with identity and survival in the hostile streets of early 20th century New York City.


In this book summary, we will delve into the captivating novel "Call It Sleep" written by Henry Roth. First published in 1934, the novel tells the compelling story of David Schearl, a young Jewish immigrant boy navigating the challenges of early 20th-century New York City. Through its vivid portrayal of immigrant life, dichotomy of cultures, and exploration of the human psyche, "Call It Sleep" has become a timeless classic that resonates with readers from all backgrounds. This book summary will provide a brief synopsis of the story, introduce the main characters, explore the main events, discuss the themes and insights, and provide a reader's takeaway from the novel.

Brief Synopsis

"Call It Sleep" is set in the 1910s in the impoverished Jewish immigrant community of the Lower East Side of New York City. The story revolves around the life of David Schearl, a six-year-old boy who is caught between two worlds - the strict religious traditions of his home and the freedom and excitement of the American streets.

Amidst the backdrop of a tumultuous family life and the constant struggle to assimilate into American society, David experiences a profound sense of alienation and confusion. His father, Albert, is a troubled and abusive man, while his mother, Genya, is trapped in a loveless and dysfunctional marriage. David finds solace and companionship in his imaginative world, where he escapes his challenging reality.

As David grows older, his struggle to understand his identity intensifies. He is torn between his father's oppressive expectations and the allure of the secular world outside. Through his friendships with fellow immigrant children and encounters with the vibrant multicultural society of New York City, David begins to question his place in both his family and the larger world.

Main Characters

David SchearlThe young protagonist of the story who is caught between two cultures and struggles with his sense of identity.
Albert SchearlDavid's father, an abusive and troubled man who imposes strict religious expectations on his son.
Genya SchearlDavid's mother, trapped in an unhappy and dysfunctional marriage, she often finds solace in her relationship with David.
LeoDavid's best friend and classmate, a Catholic boy who introduces David to the secular world and influences his perception of religion and identity.

Main Events

  1. The novel begins with David as a young boy, providing insight into his family life and his experiences within the Jewish community of the Lower East Side.
  2. David's father, Albert, abuses him both physically and emotionally, leading David to seek solace in his imaginative world.
  3. David starts school and befriends Leo, a Catholic boy. Through their friendship, David is exposed to the world outside his strict religious upbringing.
  4. David witnesses a violent confrontation between his father and Leo's father, sparking further doubts about his religious identity and loyalty.
  5. Genya has an affair with a boarder in their apartment building, further destabilizing the family dynamics.
  6. The novel concludes with David contemplating his place in the world and his ultimate decision on whether to embrace his Jewish heritage or distance himself from it.

Themes and Insights

1. Identity and Cultural Confusion: "Call It Sleep" explores the complexities of identity and cultural assimilation faced by immigrants. David's struggle to reconcile his Jewish heritage with the secular American society showcases the challenges faced when trying to navigate multiple cultural identities.

2. Religion and Spirituality: The novel examines the role of religion in shaping one's identity and the conflicting beliefs within religious communities. It delves into the tension between religious doctrine and personal spirituality.

3. Parent-Child Relationships: "Call It Sleep" explores the intricate dynamics between parents and children, particularly within an abusive and dysfunctional family. It offers an honest portrayal of the impact of such relationships on a child's upbringing and sense of self.

4. Coming of Age and Self-Discovery: The novel follows David's journey towards self-discovery as he grapples with the complexities of growing up in a multicultural society. Through his experiences, the novel explores the universal themes of adolescence, personal growth, and the search for one's identity.

Reader's Takeaway

"Call It Sleep" is a profound and thought-provoking novel that delves into the complexities of identity, religion, and coming of age. Henry Roth's vivid and evocative prose pulls readers into the world of David Schearl, allowing them to experience his internal struggles and emotional turmoil. The depiction of immigrant life in early 20th-century New York City adds depth and realism to the narrative, making it resonate with readers across generations. Ultimately, "Call It Sleep" serves as a powerful reminder of the universal human experience and the search for self amidst the complexities of cultural assimilation.


"Call It Sleep" is a literary masterpiece that continues to captivate readers with its exploration of identity, cultural conflict, and the human psyche. Henry Roth's ability to evoke powerful emotions through his prose and his nuanced portrayal of characters make "Call It Sleep" a truly immersive reading experience. Through the compelling story of David Schearl, the novel invites readers to reflect on their own identities, the complexities of cultural assimilation, and the impact of family dynamics on individual growth. "Call It Sleep" stands as a timeless work of literature that resonates with readers from all backgrounds.

Call It Sleep FAQ

  1. What is the book 'Call It Sleep' about?

    'Call It Sleep' is a novel written by Henry Roth. It tells the story of a young Jewish immigrant boy named David Schearl growing up in the densely populated and impoverished Jewish neighborhood of New York's Lower East Side in the early 20th century.

  2. Who is the author of 'Call It Sleep'?

    The author of 'Call It Sleep' is Henry Roth, an American novelist born in 1906.

  3. When was 'Call It Sleep' first published?

    'Call It Sleep' was first published in 1934.

  4. Is 'Call It Sleep' based on a true story?

    No, 'Call It Sleep' is a work of fiction, although it draws heavily on the author's own experiences growing up in a Jewish immigrant family in New York.

  5. What is the writing style of 'Call It Sleep'?

    'Call It Sleep' is written in a stream-of-consciousness style, capturing the inner thoughts and perceptions of the young protagonist as he navigates the challenges of immigrant life and cultural identity.

  6. Are there any sequels to 'Call It Sleep'?

    No, 'Call It Sleep' is a standalone novel and does not have any official sequels.

  7. What themes are explored in 'Call It Sleep'?

    Some of the themes explored in 'Call It Sleep' include the immigrant experience, cultural identity, family dynamics, generational conflicts, and the search for personal identity in a multicultural society.

  8. Is 'Call It Sleep' suitable for young readers?

    'Call It Sleep' contains mature themes and some intense scenes, making it more appropriate for older readers, such as young adults or adults.

  9. Has 'Call It Sleep' won any awards?

    Yes, 'Call It Sleep' has been highly acclaimed and has received several awards, including the William Faulkner Foundation Award for notable first novel.

  10. Are there any film adaptations of 'Call It Sleep'?

    No, 'Call It Sleep' has not been adapted into a film as of now.