Mask of confidence!

By leila Bencherif

I don’t know why i can’t integrate my quotes properly but just in case, here is a word document. charles-bukowski

The simplistic and raw writing style of Charles Bukowski is found in many of all his novel such as Ham On Rye. This literature jewel stands out more with its uncluttered and singular word choices.  In Bukowski’s autobiographical novel, the author choses to uncover all his flaws where the reader follow his evolution and development through his difficult childhood to adulthood where he shares his experiences with no restrictions and no filter at all. The protagonist, Henry Chinaski, is no other than the pure reflection of Bukowski. He is portrayed as a “tough” guy that was hardened by the absence of love and violent environment that he was exposed to. Which made him almost numb to every relation that he might have. His lack of confidence and feigned indifference toward his surroundings is an important element of this masterwork, because his experiences can be so relatable.

Almost in the entire novel, Chinaski is the target of mockery. As a result he forged a false identity and seems to hide his true personality under the mask of confidence. He puts this mask only when he is surrounded by people that he feels superior and take it off when he feels inferior and is scorned by the look of others. During my first year of high school I felt almost the same way as he did. I was stressed and excited in the same time, it was the end of elementary school and starting of high school. I prepared my clothes the day before just to be sure I was “prepared” to tackle everyone at this new school. Bip! Bip! Bip! The alarm rang and it resonated from my ears to my brain like a fire alarm. Panic, panic, my brain was on panic mode. The alarm did not stop, my brain was the fireman but had difficulty to cease the fire so he transmitted a message to my arms to stop the strident sound. Once the sound ended, another alarm rang when I saw myself in the mirror, it was anxiety. I was now drowning in the torrents of my thoughts : How do I look? Am I beautiful ? Will the girls laugh at me? I tried to push away these negative thoughts and came to school. The day passed and my thoughts resurfaced and at 1pm  precisely a group of girls came in and started to talk about themselves and how Extraordinary their summer was. Mine was…how can define it ? Oh yeah, boring. They did this and that, went here and there…had this and that and so on. But what did I do? I did absolutely nothing, so I pretended that I traveled with my parents ( they are not even living together, that was my first lie) and that I had a cell phone like everyone else. I was proud, they were interested in me, Leila, the shy girl that does not or barely talk. The girl with acne, (at that time it was big deal for me so don’t judge me ) was now able to make “ friends” and pretend that I was this and that and fell into the games of I PRETEND. That was not my favourite game but at least I was “cool” and was not the loner for once. But deep down, as soon as I got home I took off the mask which left me bare and naked with all my qualities and flaws.

Henry realizes quickly enough that people did not accept him for who he really was which lead him to make excuses and accuses everyone for every bad event that might happen to him. For example, when he was playing baseball he tried his best to hit the ball and do a home run, however due to a lack of practice he was not able to perform in this game. Instead of accepting the reality that he is not good at this sport when the umpire screamed that he was out, he lamely blame his friendship with David to be the cause why people hate him :

Then I knew that I was not accepted. The others wanted me “out” because I was supposed to be “out”. They knew David and I were friends. It was because of David that I wasn’t wanted.[…] That afternoon after school I quickly left class and walked home alone, without David.[…] But the next day at lunch time, when he sat down next to me I ate his potato chips .(33)

Here, we can see that Henry seems to ignore the real reason why he is not accepted and simply suppose that David is the principal cause, however it is funny enough that he takes advantage of him when he eats his chips. Normally, if you don’t like someone you basically try to avoid that person and even less take that person’s snacks. Contrary to before, Chinaski wants to be alone but in the same time does not object the presence of David. Instead, his superiority makes him feel more powerful when he is accompanied with the guy with knickers and pigeon-toes, because he consider him uglier than he is:

       I didn’t have any friends at school, didn’t want any. I felt better being alone.                    During lunch one day I was approached by a new boy […] I didn’t like him, he                 didn’t look good. […] I really didn’t like him. I took some more of his potato chips.        (29-30)

Hence, according to Henry it is perfectly fine to hate someone, feel greater and eat his potato chips. After all, it costs him nothing except his despicable presence!

Other than feeling haughty, he also wore the shoes of inferiority. He knew what it felt to be a loner. A loner with a big L, for loser. A person that was left on the side because of the way he looks, his appearances and his social status but would feel totally helpless when facing injustice. For instance, Henry felt the need to lie to fit into the  mold and avoid feeling less than his classmates:

           “What was I going to say?                                                                                                                       […] Twenty-three. That was me.                                                                                                         “ My father is a dentist,I said.”  (81)

Once again Henry was trying to hide behind the mask of confidence. But why did he lie? It is simple, he was feeling that his classmates would reject him because his father didn’t have a job. He felt intimidated by the prestigious job that other fathers had and felt like the others had a good reason to be superior.

The protagonist’s violent environment highly contributed to influence his character. After so many years of beating by his beastly father, Henry no longer fears him. The world is not gravitating around him anymore, Henry is gravitating around the world. His father aged and Henry became stronger. The roles were now inversed: the man became old and the young became a man. Henry felt something that he didn’t before, for the first time he experienced what was powerfulness and confidence when his father was beating him:

           The pain was still there but the fear of it was gone. […] My father seemed to                    sense the difference in me and he began to lash me harder, again and again, but             the more he beat me the less I felt. It was almost as if he was the one who was                helpless. Something had occurred, something had changed. (121)

Henry was now swollen with confidence, he was not the victim anymore. For once, he was not feeling helpless but his opponent was. At this moment, it was the peak of his daring confidence. He enjoyed so much this sensation of fearlessness that he dared his father to beat him again:

             “ Give me a couple more”, I told him, “ If it makes you feel any                                                better.”                                                                                                                                                        […] The eyes were no longer fierce. His eyes looked away and couldn’t meet                      mine. Something had happened. (121)

Henry knows that his father has no authority anymore and that he can now crush his pain and inferiority by his new shoes of confidence.

Unfortunately, his boost of confidence didn’t last. When he was going into 9th grade he broke out with severe acne which caused him to withdraw into himself. His acne was like an handicap for him, it was the root of all his problems. People didn’t approach him because his face was covered with enormous pimples that didn’t stop to propagate like poisonous mushrooms. Once again, his gain in confidence was only ephemeral, his confidence plummet to square one: “ I was still tough but it wasn’t the same. I had to withdraw. I watched people from afar, it was like a stage play. Only they were on stage and I was the audience of one.” (122) When he was confronting his father he didn’t have to wear the mask, however as soon as he broke out with acne the mask was indispensable. He may appear tough to others, however he felt that with acne he was feeling less valuable. Hence, he didn’t have a choice except to hide and be a spectator. Even though his father was an authoritarian figure and the presence of his mother was nearly inexistent during graduation we can see that Henry pretended that their absence didn’t affect him. He is basically lying to himself by repeating to himself that a tough guy didn’t need the attention and congratulations from their parents: “I walked around, looking. My parents weren’t there. I made sure. I walked around and gave it a good look-see. It was just well. A tough guy didn’t need that.”(124)This passage shows how much Henry is trying to choke every flame of emotions that he may have towards his parents. He wanted to appear tough by hiding his feelings and acting as if he was indifferent but deep down he was seeking for appreciation and as little as it can be found, love.

Since he was not accepted by others, he had to use his imagination and escape into the world of fiction. A world where he was the hero and not the coward. The beauty and not the beast. Henry created a character that had all the qualities that he didn’t have. A character with almost no flaws. Sarcastically, Henry always refute the idea of having someone accompanying him and that he doesn’t need anybody to lean on. A tough person didn’t need anybody, however why did he created such a character ? It seems that he contradicts himself when he says,

                 Half the notebook was filled with the Baron Von Himmlen. It made me feel                     good to write about the Baron. A man needed somebody. There wasn’t                               anybody around, so you had to make up somebody, make him up to be like a                     man should be. It was make-believe or cheating. The other way was make                          believe and cheating: living your life without a man like him around. (148)

Indeed, Henry is in a way writing how he wants to be perceived; strong, audacious and respected by others. He doesn’t have enough confidence to accept himself that he is fanaticising on a fictional character, a person that will vanish as soon as he opens his eyes and faces reality. Therefore, Henry is hiding his loneliness and lack of confidence by being the hero of his own story.

As soon as Henry went to L.A City College, the reader can clearly see a drastic change in Henry’s character. He was showing his superiority by appearing tough and showing that he didn’t care about anything just like an insensitive man. For instance, when he saw all the students running to their classes he felt disoriented and stupid at the same time. Thus, in order to hide his confusion from others, he grabbed Baldy by the collar to understand how to get to his class and how the school is functioning. After Baldy explained everything to Henry and letting him go, he saw him blending with the crowd of students. Henry was now the intruder and liked to see other being stressed and worrying for being late because he didn’t feel the same way about school. His carelessness and indifference to the other students made him feel superior:

               He went running off with the rest of them. There was no need for me to worry                or hurry. […] I strolled leisurely signing up for classes. I appeared to be the                      only unconcerned student on campus. I began to feel superior. (222)

This passage emphasizes Henry’s indifference towards others, in fact he feels better than other students because he doesn’t seem to run after time or feel any stress whatsoever. He felt good for once that others were feeling nervous and disconcert compared to his calm and Zen attitude.

Henry’s true face is constantly hiding under the mask of indifference and confidence which dissimulate a frail human being that is easily intimidated by the look of others. His father’s continual beating has transformed and hardened Henry into a sensitive man covered by a tough appearance. These experiences have unveiled a man’s self-esteem and behavior change according to the social status and appearances which makes his superiority to shrink and inferiority to inflate.

Work cited :

Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. Vintage book, 1982.







One thought on “Mask of confidence!

  1. This is an amazingly detailed and really thorough essay. You really go deeply into Henry’s character, and it’s very interesting to read. You have a wealth of evidence from the novel, and you do a great job of talking about what’s going on beneath the surface. What stands out most to me about this is just how engaged you were with both this novel and writing this essay. A product this strong can only come about as a result of a lot of really hard work. And the results have paid off. It’s engaging and I learned things about the novel from reading this. To top it off, it’s written in your personable and rich style. I enjoyed this from start to finish. I hope you’ll continue to write because you clearly enjoy it very much. Congratulations.


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