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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 books description of the man having a blond moustache and his good command of the English language) whether or not he knows where Border 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 where he belongs, but fails because of his lack of freedom with the English language a universal immigrant dilemma. 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 Davids 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 Davids effort to get directions to his destination. In Passage 1, David asks the gentleman for directions to Border 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 peoples 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 Davids inquiries about getting the right directions fails in both cases because of his inability to manipulate language in such a way as to fit in. This unfortunate difficulty has produced in David a learned helplessness mindset and a paradox: he is lost if he does not ask for help and he is just as equally lost if he does ask for help.
The differences between Passage 1 and 2 also illustrate the importance of language with respect to the motif of being lost. In Passage 1, David is geographically lost suggesting his inability to belong somewhere on a map. This is also seen throughout the entire book and characterized by the Schearls movement out of Brownsville to another neighborhood. In Passage 2, David is lost in a museum, which represents cultural eras. Being lost in a museum proposes that David is not only lost geographically, but culturally. Davids inability to manipulate language in these two passages has caused him to become alienated and lost both geographically and culturally.
In Passage 1, when David is geographically lost, he is alone. In Passage 2 however, Aunt Bertha accompanies him. The superficial significance of this particular difference is that in Passage 1, David has to face the world alone, whereas he can face the world together with a family member in Passage 2. Throughout the book, David seems to be mostly concerned with cultural and spiritual assimilation, rather than geographically belonging to a particular region. What is interesting is that in the latter one, David uses language whereas surprisingly, in Passage 2, David uses no language to follow.
You would think that David should use language to try and acquire cultural assimilation and leave mere following to his geographical belonging desires, but as we see that is not the case. In Passage 2, he relies on instructions from Aunt Bertha, who seems to be more in control of the situation than David is. This should not surprise the reader when we find out that they remain lost throughout their entire museum trip because Aunt Bertha has very little freedom with the English language. Although language does not restrict the movements of Aunt Bertha and David, it does restrict their freedom and confines them to an imaginary bubble where interactions rarely, if ever, do occur with the outside world. This is the heart of the dilemma of the immigrant allegory concerned with being lost because they have no control over language. There are certain clues that appear unseen throughout Passage 1 and 2 to the characters, but illustrate to the reader David and Aunt Bertha's struggle with the English language is paralleled with a universal immigrant allegory of being lost.
Aunt Bertha tries very hard to be American and that is seen not only throughout these two passages but also throughout the entire book. What is comical is that the harder that Aunt Bertha tries to become American, the more distant she becomes from reaching that goal. This is marvelously illustrated in the scene where she is just amazed at the exhibit of the stone wolf suckling two infants. To Aunt Bertha, the wolf is a dog and the infants are just normal babies. To the reader however, the wolf with the two infants represents the Mythological characters, Romulus and Remus. What I found worthy of note is that the Roman mythology of Romulus, the founder of Rome, has very interesting similarities to both the passages.
Foster parents raised Romulus and Remus, which parallels the Albert and David paradigm. In the legend, Amulius has Romulus and Remus thrown in a basket into the Tiber River where they were rescued and raised by a she-wolf on the slopes of the Palatine Hill. David, at a very young age, was in a ship that was set to sail to a new and unknown land to him, which resembles Romulus and Remus early voyage. Romulus and Remus were rescued on the slopes of the Palatine Hill. In Passage 1, before David is lost, he is up on a hill contemplating whether or not he would like to assimilate to this new culture. The hill in both scenes represents the ability to see the city or the land.
The ability of observing everything is said to contribute to better decision-making because you can see all your options before making a choice. This is what Romulus, Remus, and David are facing at a young age and unlike Romulus, who becomes the first king of Rome, David lacks in leadership potential and therefore remains lost. Davids lack of leadership is the chief trait of his uncertainty with salvation and assimilation. These two passages have showed us that David cannot overcome 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 countrys language.
Bibliography Henry Roth, Call it sleep
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