*Rough draft, some ideas are bound to change. Format is tentative* Physical and emotional insecurities. (1331 words)
Writing is an excellent platform for self-expression. Often, it attracts characters who cannot adequately express themselves beyond pen and ink. Charles Bukowski’s novel Ham on Rye recounts the deplorable childhood and adolescence of Henry Chinaski. The novel is an obvious self-reflection, exploring how the environment shapes an individuals personal outcomes in life. I found the novel enjoyable to read because of the simple, genuine, yet thought-provoking prose. Chinaski’s hardships, although often exaggerated and dramatic, are relatable because they describe basic human truths and emotions. Above all, I truly empathize with Chinaski’s sentiments of insecurity and understand how the cruel world around him led to his callousness.
Physical insecurities are the first thing that comes to mind when one imagines traits that could be viewed as undesirable or ugly. From a young age, Chinaski’s greatest outward blemish, is well, quite literally, his blemishes: “Many of the guys had [acne] but not like mine. Mine was really terrible… I had pimples and boils all over my face, back, neck and some on my neck… I had to withdraw. I watched people from afar, it was a stage play” (122). I can totally testify that acne, like any other insecurity, is socially debilitating. Although much better now, I have suffered from acne since I was 13 years old. Every nasty red swelling is an enemy, inviting the attention of onlookers. It is extremely difficult to feel “normal” in social situations when there is an obsessive preoccupation with being judged by others, even those who are close. I, like Chinaski, had (and still have) the tendency to distance myself from others, almost as though the acne makes a person less valuable or important. There is a gross preoccupation with self-image that blocks out the important issues. Chinaski was a victim of the same fate; the Great Depression Era was cruel and unfeeling and his parents never let him socialize and develop ties with other children. Above all this, he let the acne cripple his chances of bonding with other human beings: “I often stood in front of the mirror alone, wondering how ugly a person could get” (137). Because he was treated so poorly, I believe it led him to look into himself to see what his contribution to his sad state was. Perhaps he felt as though some piece of the fault lies within himself.
When Chinaski goes to the hospital to have his boils drained (a truly grueling process), it gives him the opportunity to face the world through a mask. Although it seems counter-intuitive, it is evident that he feels a renewed freedom when he says “I was hidden. It was wonderful” (144). With the bandages covering his face, acne is no longer an obstacle in his way. It also gives him a mysterious air, as people are not sure about the true nature of his condition. This passage really struck me because I know this exact feeling and have engaged in this exact behavior. When my skin was at its worst, I would leave the house with layers upon layers of concealer and a hat to cover my forehead. I was afraid of being judged by strangers. Even in my own home I used to leave on clay face masks every day for hours at a time because I felt disgusting. I disgusted myself and worried about disgusting my family. I never cut my hair shorter because I let it hang in front of my face. I never looked anyone in the eye during a conversation, a habit that still haunts me to this day. Like Chinaski, I wanted to hide from everyone. Any mask felt like absolute freedom. Eventually the physical insecurity loses its power and choke-hold, but the emotional damage remains and seeks different masks to hide behind. Bukowski uses writing as his mask, one that bestows the ultimate freedom.
Emotional insecurities are deep-seated and ever harder to overcome. For example, Chinaski doesn’t know what to do with the energy inside him. This is evident when he attends college and says,”I had no interests…At least others had some taste for life. They seemed to understand something that I didn’t understand. Maybe I was lacking. It was possible. I often felt inferior. I just wanted to get away from them…I felt like sleeping for five years but they wouldn’t let me” (174-175).Feelings of inferiority and uncertainty are common. He feels like the world is in on the secret that will never grace his knowledge. This shows his descent into being a “bum”, as he doesn’t relate to others; he can’t even relate to himself, nor can he relate to the world. He would rather be asleep so he doesn’t have to deal with others, but I think it’s because he is tired of having to deal with all the heavy thoughts on his own mind. He hasn’t found any consolation (so he thinks), but writing really does help him. He only realizes how much writing means to him when his father disrespects his work by throwing the short stories out onto the lawn. It is common for us to be blind to the realities in our lives, because he is so preoccupied with his image (physical and social).
Henry also is disgusted by conformity: “Everybody had to conform, find a mold to fit into. Doctor, lawyer, solider- it didn’t matter. Once in the mold you had to push forward” (176-177).Cegep students hear similar things from their parents. Sure, you have the freedom to go into anything that you want, but some things simply don’t carry the same value by societal standards. Henry does not fit into any mold; this relates to his parents pressuring him to get a job and an education. Certain things just don’t work for everyone since everyone has different aptitudes, and it is painfully clear that school and Henry are not compatible. He doesn’t to fit into a mold and doesn’t even know what mold to fit into. He feels as though he doesn’t really belong anywhere. At that time, “professional writer” was not an aspiration, it was viewed a symptom, a symptom of someone who could not contribute anything worthwhile, who could not help spin the wheels of society, who did not propel his country, who did not service others, only himself (American standards). IN addition, Henry mentions that “the life of the sane, average man was dull, worse than death. There seemed to be no possible alternative” (274). He strives to be different, yet he wants to fit in (common to everyone).
From a very young age, Henry believed that he was a disappointment because of the bullying and intimidation from his parents. Nothing he does is worthy, he receives no praise or love for anything he does. After being reprimanded at the dinner table, he describes,”when I went back to my bedroom I thought, these people are not my parents, they must have adopted me and now they are unhappy with what I have become” (42). This elementary school-age child already feels like he’s let down his parents, like he is a failure before he has even had the chance at becoming something. Although most of the abuse obviously comes from his father, his mother is equally as culpable, since she never steps in to prevent maltreatment. This is proven when Henry is being yelled at in the front yard for his “inadequate” yardwork, and he says that “[he] could see [his] mother watching from behind a curtain” (67). This passivity is arguably more cruel and abusive.
Conclusion: I can relate to Henry, even though we are so different. It’s easy to be distracted and turned off by his exterior, his rough behavior and attitude. I know that most people with such character have a backstory that shaped them, good and bad. This is why I study psychology, I like to understand how people came to be, a culmination of experience.