Written by Amanda Ging Sze Chan
The novel Ham On Rye written by Charles Bukowski is the story about the self-discovery of a young boy during his tough childhood up till his uneasy adulthood. Henry grew up in a very vulgar and poor environment. Due to the lack of love from his parents, he believes that he must appeal as a “tough” person and thus this makes him feel detached from the people around him. Although, Henry’s character is depicted to be an uncaring person, it can be seen at several moments in the novel that there is also a sensitive side in him. I found that I was able to relate to Henry’s sensitivity towards animals and his need to feel like a tough person in certain situations in his life. Henry’s compassion and sense of justice contrast from the “tough guy” image that he is trying to project, thus makes him into a complex three-dimensional character.
I too just like Henry, sometime feel the need to appeal as a tough and strong person. I remember when I was in elementary school, there was a girl whose name was Maria. She was a tiny and short girl in my class. People would often make fun of her and tease her about everything to anything. I was tiny, short and shy as well but I had older siblings that made me out of target, I guess. One day during math class, the teacher decided to step out of class for few minutes. I was chit-chatting with my friends at that moment and doing my own thing. Then, I noticed that Maria was made fun of and a much taller and bigger girl was splashing water on her. I thought that enough was enough, so I gathered my strength and decided to step up. I walked toward that tall girl and said, “Stop, don’t you see she doesn’t like it?” She glared at me and responded back by saying “Mind your own business!” At this point, I couldn’t retrieve back to my seat so I tried to look tough and said, “It is my business because Maria is my friend.” At the end of the day, Maria came in front of my locker and thanked me. Maria has grown a lot since and up until this day, she still remembers what happened that day.
Henry’s sensitivity towards animals is illustrated several time in the novel. The first time is when he sees the fight between the white little cat and the large brown bulldog. He feels uneasy towards the situation that the cat is facing. The protagonist also talks about how he didn’t have the guts to stand up again the other kids to save the poor cat:
“I thought of rushing in, grabbing the cat and running. But I didn’t have the nerve. I was afraid that the bulldog would attack me. The knowledge that I didn’t have the courage to do what was necessary made me feel terrible. I began to feel physically sick. I was weak. I didn’t want it to happen yet I couldn’t think of any way to stop it” ( Bukowski 89).
In this passage, the scene can also be interpreted as Henry being the cat and the bulldog the kids that bullied Henry at school. He also talked about the fact that there is a lot of people watching, but no one is willing to stop the battle from occurring and no one is on the cat’s side just like how Henry stood alone against everyone else. Furthermore, the protagonist said, “That cat wasn’t only facing the bulldog, it was facing Humanity” (90). This shows us how poetic and sensitive Henry actually is.
A little later in the novel, the protagonist saw a stray dog following him during his way to his new job. His compassion towards animals is illustrated by the scene where he breaks in two pieces his sandwich and gives half to the stray dog. The way he describes the homeless dog shows his concern towards it. Henry depicted the abandoned dog as a “poor creature [who] was terribly thin, [and that he] could see his ribs poking through his skin” (201). The fairly large amount of adjectives found in this brief passage contrast from the beginning where he didn’t use many adjectives when he had to describe things. The lack of adjectives in the beginning give us the impression of Henry’s detachment towards everything. Once again, we can compare the similarities with the description he tells us about the dog and himself. The young boy said, ” The dog was beaten, cowed, deserted, frightened, a victim of Homo sapiens” (201). This quote also refers to how Henry was treated by his classmates and his parents.
On the other side, Henry is perceived as a “tough kid” by people around him such as his principal. This is due to the fact that he doesn’t express his feeling much. For example, when the principal asked him what happened during the fight, instead of telling him the true about how the fight started, he didn’t answer the questions and is silent about it. I believe he didn’t even try to reveal the truth because he thought that no one will believe him or stand on his side. In this passage, it can be seen that Henry replied back to the principal by mostly “yes” and “no” but ends up saying, “I’ll kill you,” (36). This illustrates the darkness and anger enclosed inside Henry’s character.
Henry also tried to appeal tough on his own when he was at the church and was going to confess for the first time. The protagonist didn’t know what to say at that moment and decides to confess a bunch of lies by saying, ” I… kicked my father. I… cursed my mother…I stole money from my mother’s purse. I spend it on candy bars… I kicked my mother. I ate some of my snot. That’s about all. Except today I baptized a dog” (73). This shows us that he isn’t actually a tough guy but in Henry’s perspective, pretending to be something he is not, is much easier for him then expressing his true feelings.
Near the end of the novel, Henry challenges Jimmy in a fight. Instead of just having the appeal of a tough person, he actually becomes one. For once, he won in a battle where in this case he is against Jimmy who he thought he couldn’t win against.
Lastly, I believe that Henry’s character gives a lot of flavors to the book by the humorist tone that was used to address his uneasy childhood. The multiples facets of Henry’s character ranging from being a loner, a tough guy and an emotional kid makes the story relatable and fun to read. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to laugh a little or readers that enjoy novel that are both at the same time bitter and sweet.
Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye: A Novel. New York: Ecco, 2002. Print.