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 with the intention of assimilation, but my lack of freedom with the language parallels my lack of freedom and acceptance in this new country – how can I overcome it? The similarities, differences, and dramatic ironic symbolism in these two passages will attempt to answer that question.
The first obvious similarity between these two passages is that both of them deal with the superficial and latent meanings of being lost. In Passage 1, David is lost on the streets and is desperately trying to find his way to a familiar neighborhood. He asks a white gentleman (such an inference is due to the book’s description of the man having a blond moustache and his good command of the English language) whether or not he knows where Bodder Street is. Pronunciation differences between the two lead David on, what seems to be, a never-ending quest to find his house. The superficial meaning is that David is lost, trying to find his house. The latent meaning is that David is lost, trying to find a home: a place ...
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...come the difficulty of belonging to this new culture because of his lack of freedom with the English language. It is this downfall that causes David to become lost in these two passages. In most cases, people who share the same language also share a similar culture, therefore forming a community. That community’s bond is in its language, which facilitates communication between its members. When a person who is not familiar with this community’s language is placed in it, that person will most certainly feel lost. David has shown us that the link between language and being lost is a universal immigrant theme that can be understood as follows: an immigrant can look, eat, and live like his new country but still feel lost, unless that immigrant learns to become completely fluent with the usage of his new country’s language.
Henry Roth, Call it sleep
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