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The Concept of Childhood Masculinity in Roth’s Call It Sleep and Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer

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The concept of masculinity is one that has always been widely represented throughout early literature, but Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep and John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer introduce a trajectory of masculine identities that cause confusion within the child-like minds of David Schearl, Jimmy Herf and most interestingly, Ellen Thatcher. I will begin this essay by discussing David’s increasingly intimate relationship with his mother and how Freudian psychoanalysis can be used to explain the fascination he has with the maternal figure. Moving on from his relationship with his mother, I will talk about the fear he feels under the masculine authority of his father the epiphany he experiences after the overwhelming arguments within his home. I will then transfer the focus to Jimmy Herf in Manhattan Transfer and discuss the small similarities that can be understood between his and David’s relationship with their mothers. The final part of the essay will talk about Ellen Thatcher and her rejection of the typical feminine ideal. Throughout the essay I will be paying attention to the childhoods of these characters rather than the larger covered adulthood found in Dos Passos’ novel of Jimmy and Ellen.

The depictions of masculinity and sexuality in Call It Sleep are conveyed through David’s strong connection and fascination with his mother, Genya. David spends all his time thinking about being near his mother. She acts as his comfort and safety from the violence and power of his estranged father, whom he spent the first few years of his life without knowing. His lack of initial paternal bond pushed him to have this intimate adoration of his mother. Roth, although having denied knowing much of his work prior to writing the novel, has clearly employed a Freudian influence that can be easily seen through this almost obsessive relationship that David has with his mother. He finds himself overcome with deep feelings of jealousy and anger at the thought of any male gaze directed at his mother’s body. This is especially evident when David notices the attraction that Mr Luter has towards Genya. It is due to this realisation that he begins to discover his mother as being sexually attractive when: …the sudden oblique shifting of Luter’s eyes towards himself drew his own gaze towards them. Luter, his eyes narrowed by a fixed yawn, was staring at his mother, at her hips. For the first time, David was aware of how her flesh, confined by the skirt, formed separate mounds against it. He felt suddenly bewildered, struggling with something in his mind that would not become a thought.” (pp. 39-40).

The Oedipal relationship between mother and child is no doubt caused by the fact that upon entering New York, David’s mother is all he truly knows and as time goes by, David also becomes all she knows as he begins to teach her English, a language, despite living in America for a number of years, she failes to learn. Genya is not given a life outside the confines of the home. She is barely given any descriptions other than the sexualised physicality of her body. There is a separation created between the way David and the other young boys in the street view her features. David speaks about his mother in terms of her neck, breast and calves whereas, when the boys glimpse at her while bathing, they sexualise her, describing her “big tids…Big bush under duh belly…Fat ass” (pp. 291). This separation, creates within the reader a distant and varying view on the masculine power of the novel, filtered through the eyes of childhood. (Orr, 1993, pp. 219). David’s reaction to this incident adds a depth to the gender dynamics within the novel: he almost feels at one with his mother, taking on her femininity. “Like flying hail against his nakedness their sharp cries stunned and flayed him” (pp. 291). He is angry and embarrassed as if he was the one that had been exposed. (Lusty & Murphet, 2014, pp. 132). He immediately blames his mother for letting herself be seen in this way. He runs home, but rather than going to the door, he decides to distance himself from his mother and goes to the roof. In this way he wishes to face what he fears most – autonomy. He appears to feel a need to establish a masculine authority over Genya, yet again feeling that he is struggling for her affections with the other men. “- Gee! Alone … Ain’t so scared”. (pp. 293).

It is not only through David’s relationship with his mother that we see his struggle between the masculine and feminine; his father too creates a sort of confusion in relation to his identity. David has many moments of simultaneous jealously and detestation towards his father. There is a scene in which he is watching his father get dressed and wonders when he will become strong like he is: Strong, how strong his father was, stronger than he’d ever be. A twinge of envy and despair ran through him. He’d never have those tendons, those muscles that even beneath the thick undershirt, bulged and flattened between shoulder and armpit, no, he’d never be that strong, and yet he had to be, he had to be. He didn’t know why, but he had to be! (pp. 175).

The way he envies the body of his father can be seen as the way to gain his mother’s desire. When he hears his father’s raised voice, the phallic image of him holding a hammer is brought to David’s mind, “I saw my father lift a hammer; he was standing on a high roof of darkness, and below him were faces uplifted, so many, they stretched like white cobbles to the end of the world”. (pp. 28). Despite, appearing to David as a powerful man, capable of anything, his father Albert appears to feel emasculated within himself. He is constantly searching for reassurance from his wife upon entering the house, the first thing he does is shout “Genya!”. There is always an element of fear alongside his brutality whenever he is near her. The cause of this emasculation presumedly arises from his own violent relationship with his father. It is suggested that Albert was responsible for his own father’s death, when he did nothing to save him from being attacked by a bull. The guilt he feels for the death of his father incites a fear in him that David will become violent towards him in the future. He verbalises these fears after David kicks Yussie in the face and in return he beats him with a hanger, saying, “those hands of his will beat me yet!” (pp. 83). When Genya buys a picture of corn to hang on the wall, Albert responds that he would rather have a picture of “a prize bull with a shine to his flanks and the black fire in his eyes.” (pp. 188). Bull horns become a symbol of violence and masculinity in the novel when Albert buys a new whip and finally a pair of horns to mount on the wall of the house, another negative phallic symbol. There are, however, phallic symbols within the novel that bring a view of positivity to David; namely the telephone poles and chimneys that he uses to ground himself within the city in times of discomfort and anxiety. (Bleuse, 2013, pp. 44). These suggest David’s search for a masculine stability free from violence and coercion.

At the end of the novel, the narrative explodes into subliminal consciousness as David runs towards the railway tracks. He goes in search of, presumedly the light of God to help cope with the family drama he has just been removed from. David flees the safety of the mother for the exaltation and danger of phallic power, transforming the maternal substance of milk into the father’s milk ladle/sword.” (Lusty & Murphet, pp. 134)

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In Dos Passos’ Call It Sleep, we see another dependent relationship between mother and son as Jimmy returns home to New York. Again, the maternal figure is all the child knows, there is never any mention of Jimmy’s father, no masculine influence. When he arrives off the ferry, he is experiencing the city for the first time, despite it being his home. It is the fourth of July, yet it holds no significance for him. He only knows what his mother tells him, “Think of it dear; home at last. This is where you were born deary. (pp. 69). Following his arrival, Jimmy Herf spends his early childhood in Manhattan living in a hotel with his mother Lily. He has a close-knit relationship with her, spending almost all his time with her, having little interaction with others. Given her illness, Jimmy doesn’t like spending time away from his mother even though he loves exploring. There are many scenes in the beginning of the novel in which he is found staring out of windows; he enjoys observing the traffic and people of the city. When he does however leave his mother, it is for short periods of time. For example, there is an evening, following dinner where she gives him money to buy candy. He hurries in his journey so that he can return to her. He gets frightened when he comes back to the room, not immediately seeing her, “’Mother.’ She wasn’t in the sittingroom. He was terrified. She’d gone out, she’d gone away. ‘Mother!’” (pp. 85). Later that night, after being sent to his room by his aunt Emily, he begins to worry again about his mother’s health. After falling into a sleep for a short while, he awakes and wishes only to see her face so that he knows she is alive. It is clear that Jimmy, like David, finds a deep comfort in his mother. Gelfant notes a pattern within the novels of Dos Passos in relation to the childhoods of his male protaganists: …the child's only sense of stability comes from a strong attachment to his mother; and this stability is invariably destroyed by death. The early death of the mother leaves the generic hero (Jimmy Herf, Glenn Spotswood, Jay Pignatelli, the Camera Eye) with a lingering ideal of femininity framed in the image of a gracious, fragile woman… (1961, pp. 135).

Just before his mother’s death, Jimmy is taken in by his aunt and uncle. He is reluctant to spend time away from his mother, but his aunt insists that he doesn’t “see enough children of [his] own age”. (pp. 97). His sense of stability is lost, and he finds himself at a loss when playing with his cousins as he does not know any of the games. He prefers to look out of the window at the moving trains that are going far away. He longs to be anywhere but with his ‘new’ family.

When looking at the infiltration of the masculine within a New York childhood, it is difficult not to mention Ellen Thatcher. Keeping in mind that “masculinity and femininity have been so strongly named and normalized as polarized and hierarchical opposites, and so deeply conflated with sexual identity that serious repercussions result for those who do not or cannot embrace or enact the gender and sexual norms produced within this organization.” (Harper,2007, pp.511), It cannot be denied that female characters can exhibit masculine qualities. Ellen’s birth is what opens Dos Passos’ novel and she is immediately brought to the forefront of Manhattan Transfer’s protagonists. Her mother, Suzie, is convinced from the moment she is born, that the nurses have given her the wrong baby. In contrast to the strong mother-child relationships seen with David Schearl and Jimmy Herf, Ellen’s mother never warms to her, always chastising her for her normal childish behaviour. Ellen, then, finds her parental comfort in her father, always wanting him to be with her. While Genya is David’s solace in the darkness, Ed is Ellen’s: Black spiralling roar outside was melting through the walls making the cuddled shadows throb. Her tongue clicked against her teeth like the ticking of a clock. Her arms and legs were stiff; her neck was stiff; she was going to yell. Yell above the roaring and the rattat outside, yell to make daddy hear, daddy come home…Make daddy come home. (pp. 50).

She despises her mother’s vulnerability and yearns for the power and freedom that is permitted to males. During a bout of her mother’s illness, Ellen, after going to see a play with her father (presumedly Peter Pan, where the actress Maude Adams plays the male role), Ellen runs around the room in excitement, announcing that she wishes to be a boy, ‘“Ellie’s goin to be a boy, Ellie’s goin to be a boy’”. (pp. 32). We can only assume this is where her aspirations of acting come from. There are other examples within Ellen’s childhood where she expresses, either outwardly or subconsciously that she wants to be a boy. She does so when she suggests walking down a dimly lit path when returning from school with a friend, who proclaims her fears of the known local kidnappers. In response to this, ‘Elaine’ replies that she’s “not scared of them. [She] could fly like Peter Pan if [she] wanted to”. (pp. 58). She continues down the path without the company of her friend and fear creeps into her head. She admits to herself that she is terrified of the idea of being kidnapped and is “scared to run”. She decides to run anyway but when asked by another girl why she is running, she simply replies, “Because I wanted to” (pp. 59). She refuses to admit the fear expected of her as a girl. Another example of her curiosity into masculine freedom occurs again with the ideas of kidnappers. During an outing with her father, a man asks him for some spare change to which Ellen’s responds with outrage at her father speaking with a stranger: “’No danger of their kidnapping me Ellie. That’s just for little girls.’ ‘When I grow up will I be able to talk to people on the street like that?’ ‘No deary you certainly will not.’ ‘If I’d been a boy, could I?’ ‘I guess you could.’” (pp. 66).

Ellen, throughout the novel, struggles with her identity, changing her name from Ellen, Ellie to her father, Elaine to herself and Helena to the men she associates with throughout her life. This name being associated with Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world. (Weiss, 1979, pp. 55). The coldness she shows throughout the rest of the novel shows her contempt towards the emotionality associated with the female temperament. When comforting her friend Cassie, all she can think is, “I hate women. I hate women.” (pp. 174). Overall, Ellen Thatcher refuses to accept her identity as a fragile, emotional and powerless woman and shows ‘masculine’ strength that results in her being unable to show affection towards anyone unless they’re dead. (pp.310). This inevitably leads her to turn into the unloving mother that she firstly despised.

Having looked at the concept of masculinity filtered through childhood in the novels, Call It Sleep by Henry Roth and Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos, we can see the ways in which an absent or disengaged parent can affect the gender dynamics of a child’s identity. For David Schearl, the femininity of his mother is a refuge from the brutality and violence he experienced through the masculine relationship with his father. It can be noted in this respect that by “portraying femininity as a refuge, even though it gives femininity a positive valance, means that it cannot be an integral part of masculine development, but a space that must remain outside it.” (Lusty & Murphet, pp. 134). Through Jimmy Herf’s narrative, we learn that a loss of parental stability at an early age can lead to a lack of interest in usual childhood pursuits. And for Ellen Thatcher, the world of the feminine is unbecoming and a desire to flee to Neverland is eminent.


  1. Dos Passos, John, Manhattan Transfer, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000.
  2. Roth, Henry, Call It Sleep, Penguin Modern Classics, 2006.
  3. Lusty, Natalya, and Julian Murphet, eds. Modernism and Masculinity. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  4. Orr, Elaine. 'On the side of the mother: Yonnondio and Call It Sleep.' Studies in American fiction 21.2 (1993): 209-223.
  5. Bleuse, Pauline, The Other In Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, January 2013, Grand Valley State University, Masters Thesis,
  6. Weiss, Ingrid. The femme fatale in American literature of the twenties and thirties: Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, Elaine Thatcher in Manhattan Transfer, Faye Greener in The Day of the Locust. Diss. The Ohio State University, 1979.
  7. Harper, Helen. 'Studying masculinity (ies) in books about girls.' Canadian Journal of Education/Revue canadienne de l'éducation (2007): 508-530.
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