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. Due to life and how others treat Henry, makes him believe that at the end of the day he is not worth much, which reflects as one of the many aspects of Henry’s character. Therefore throughout the novel and his life, Henry is always trying to show off as a man, or as a tough guy, to prove to himself that he is worth something. However, through the tough exterior Henry is desperately trying hard to display, all the pain that he had physically and mentally gained through others, mask the genuine and soft side that Henry has which shows that he is not a lost and misguided soul after all.
Henry goes through a lot of physical abuse, as well as verbal abuse which seems to be always tying him down. Henry’s first encounter of physical abuse from his father mark the beginning of his agony and mistreatment. In the bathroom, during Henry’s first beating from his father, Henry says, “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, and make him believe, 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 David home and beat him up. Therefore, one day when Henry walked home from school with David, the other boys turned to Henry once after they were done beating David, and Henry says, “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. He grows to use sarcasm as one of the many ways to demonstrate his tough side to others. In his college experience, Henry always shows up late to a specific morning class to show others not to mess with him and display a cool side of 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 anything is ironically 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 says, “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 an alternative as a way to move on from his pain, as the alcohol 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. Henry describes his boils, as he states that “These were inflamed, relentless, large, swollen boils filled with pus” (137). These “swollen boils filled with pus” are not only an aspect of life mistreating Henry as others do, it symbolizes Henry (137). Henry is the swollen, and large pimples all over his body, he is swollen and inflamed from all the hurt and abuse he has become accustomed to as a little boy. Once the boil is popped, Henry’s actual self, not the tough guy he tries to portray, is the thick pus that comes out of it. Pus is produced in an infected tissue, and Henry sensitive side of his character, is the infected tissue that is consumed of anger and resentment, due to no one in his life actually showing him what true and honest love is all about.
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, protecting the soft side of him, and the pain of not being loved or accepted by others and himself.
Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. Vintage Books, 1982.