The novel Ham on Rye, by Charles Bukowski, is about the main character, Henry growing up and becoming a man. As Henry goes through life, the readers can see that Henry has a tougher time as a child and also growing up into adulthood. Life’s ways are generally not in his favour, which leads him to an alcoholic path. One of the many aspects of Henry’s character is that at the end of the day he knows that he’s not worth much, and throughout this novel; throughout his life, Henry is always trying to prove himself as a man, or as a tough guy, which in that way I cannot relate to. However, through the tough exterior Henry is desperately trying hard to display, to prove his manhood from all the pain that he had gained physically and mentally through others, Henry has a soft and genuine side to him which shows that he is not a lost and misguided soul after all.
Although I love Henry and his humorous ways using sarcasm, to block away any actual gushy emotion he may be feeling, I cannot relate to Henry for trying to prove myself. I guess it’s a sort of sexist thing that I believe in, because as a girl, punching out my friends to be tough is not something I ever do or will ever do, for that matter! If I’m jealous, I just deal with it, I accepted the fact that I’m just a regular person, but I feel as though, the way Henry was brought up, with the abuse with his father, he will never really realize that he’s a regular person. I really do believe in the love at home can really reflect on how your character is going to be, because if you are loved by others, then without realization you will eventually love yourself. In Henry’s case, there is no love uncovered to him, so he isn’t exposed to the knowledge of loving himself, the love he gets is one that comes with cruelty and mistreatment and so Henry grows to act as a tough guy, fighting away through the pain. The last beating Henry had from his father was only when he didn’t cry, he was so used to the pain he couldn’t cry, which marked the beginning of Henry’s toughness, which would protect the soft side of him, and the pain of not being loved or accepted.
Henry goes through a lot of physical abuse, as well as verbal abuse which seems to be always tying him down. Henry’s fathers’ many beatings towards Henry mark the beginning of Henry’s agony and mistreatment. In the bathroom, during Henry’s first beating from his father, Henry describes that “the tears ran from my eyes as I remained silent” (39). This not only marks Henry’s young-self trying to be the tough guy that he eventually grows up to be, but it also signifies Henry’s life, and how no matter what happens to him, he has no say in the situation. Not only his father, but also the kids at school would pick on Henry and follow him home to show him that he isn’t anything special, or that he’s not like the other kids; he’s an outcast. As one of the first friends Henry ever made in grammar school, David, was too an outsider. The other kids would follow him home and beat him up, so when Henry walked home with David from school, the other boys turned to Henry once after they were done beating David. Henry narrates: “I didn’t understand their motive. They kept circling and I kept turning. It went on and on” (30). This demonstrates how Henry deeply isn’t inflicted with anger or rage, he’s a sensitive boy who doesn’t understand the logic behind pain. Although Henry is constantly becoming accustomed to pain and resentment in a circle going “on and on”, deep inside Henry lies the little boy who “kept turning” his back on that anger, and makes him a stronger person because of it (30).
As Henry grows up in the ways life treats him, he becomes stronger throughout his experiences that do not always favour him as he pleases. Henry grows to use sarcasm as one of the ways to demonstrate his tough side to others. In Henry’s college experience, Henry always shows up late to a specific morning class to show others that he’s cool and not to mess with him. Therefore, one day the teacher decides to call him out for it, as he always does, however this time it took a different turn:
“[…] I am assigning you a ‘D; for English I” “A ‘D,’ Mr. Hamilton?” I asked, flashing my famous sneer. “Why not an ‘F’?” “Because ‘F,’ at times, equates with ‘Fuck.’ And I don’t think you’re worth a ‘Fuck.’” (235)
This passage illustrates how the teacher actually saying that Henry’s not worth a “‘Fuck,’” is what Henry has been told several times indirectly from all the pain people had inflicted on him. However, this was the final cut, as Henry narrates, “I turned around, walked out, closed the door behind me” (235). This foreshadows how not only is Henry walking away from the maltreatment he always is imposed on, he is also moving on from it as he “closed the door behind” him, which is unfortunately the alcoholic aspect of Henry that is what’s taking him away from reality and making him move forward (235). However alcohol doesn’t last forever, “I walked down the hallways, still hearing them going at it in there,” when the whole entire class roared and cheered after what the teacher had said to Henry (235). This indicated that, although Henry found alcohol as a way to move on, when it fades away life comes back to him and the agony constantly inflicted on him will always remain the same.
Nonetheless, with all the violence Henry grows up with, he begins to act upon it. As Henry, known as Hank when he becomes a tough guy, is drinking with his friends, he punches one of them out for no reason at all. As a result, Jimmy, one of Henry’s friends, says to him “You’re an ugly man, Hank. You need to be taught a lesson,” (253). The only thing that Jimmy and the rest of the guys don’t know is that Henry has been taught a lesson all his life. Henry has been taught the lesson of pain with no reason. Life somehow always tends to mistreat Henry, if it’s not his father and the other boys abusing him, it’s his boils that take over his whole body, stripping away any capability of loving himself.