by Claudia Keurdjekian
Ham on Rye, by Charles Bukowski, is a novel about an German immigrant boy that lives in Los Angeles, California, named Henry Chinaski. As readers, we get to see Henry’s life through his eyes, and his description of what he has lived in the past. Henry’s long and lonely years of his hardscrabble childhood has allowed him to evolve as a character. Throughout the novel, he tries to keep up with his tough guy look. However, there are some moments where we, as readers, see beyond his thick skin, and realize that he’s a sensitive human being. His compassion towards other living beings such as animals, and even humans he has never met, is what I relate to the most. Henry’s sensitivity is revealed many times throughout the novel while contrasting with his tough exterior.
Not all of our memories are happy, some are sad or dark, but that’s what life’s about. Like Henry, I too have a lot of childhood memories. I remember one day, when I was about five years old, I was over at my grandparents’ house. My cousin and I were playing together. We were best friends, and I loved him so much. On that day, I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I do remember that he had misbehaved, and so his parents started reprimanding him. I could hear some loud voices going on. Then his father got up from the couch to give him a slap on his cheek. At that moment, I couldn’t stand watching my cousin getting hit. Meanwhile, I was feeling really scared. I knew I had to do something about it, so I stood in front my uncle, and put my hand up as if I were a shield trying to protect my cousin from getting beat up. As I was trying to stop my uncle from slapping my cousin, I started begging him, “Please don’t hurt him! He didn’t mean to! Please! He promises that he will behave better. Give him a second chance!”. My uncle then looked into my eyes, and I knew he couldn’t resist the way I tried to stand up against him. He stood back. I felt so relieved that my cousin wasn’t hurt. I immediately turned back to give him a hug.
First of all, Henry shows compassion to sentient beings by trying to ease their suffering. Just like Henry, I feel compassion to those who are pain or in danger. I try to protect the weaker ones from any harm. One of the moments in the novel that I relate the most to Henry is when he tries to feed a stray dog that he sees along his way to work:
As I walked […] I noticed a starving mongrel dog following me. The poor creature was terribly thin […] beaten, cowed, deserted, frightened, a victim of Homo sapiens. I stopped and knelt, put out my hand. “Come here, fellow, I’m your friend […]” […] “[…] You need something to eat! FOOD!” I reached into my bag and took out a sandwich. I unwrapped it and broke off a portion. “Some for you and some for me old boy!” I put his part of the sandwich on the side walk. (Bukowski, 201-202)
This passage clearly demonstrates how kind Henry is despite showing himself as a tough guy. Here, the dog can be seen as a metaphor for Henry himself, who we see wandering in the streets later on in the novel. As Henry says, the dog was a “victim of Homo sapiens”, basically of humans. Henry has also been a victim of humans throughout his life. He has dealt with rejection and abuse. For that reason, Henry has distanced himself from other human beings, which makes him seem like he’s a misanthrope or at the very least a lone wolf. He seems to care more about animals than he does for humans. Henry has compassion for those who are in need because he himself is also a vulnerable human being. Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. In other words, Henry is able to relate with the dog because he feels the dog’s suffering as if it were his own. Another moment in the novel where Henry shows compassion a bit more differently to animals is when he and his friend Frank baptize a stray dog that they see on their way to church:
“It’s too bad dogs can’t go to heaven,” said Frank. “Why can’t they?” “You gotta be baptized to go to heaven.” “We ought to baptize him.” […] “He deserves a chance to go to heaven.” […] We took him to the bowl of holy water and I held him there as Frank sprinkled the water on his forehead. “I hereby baptize you,” said Frank. (72)
The fact that Henry baptizes the dog makes him seem weird at first sight, but it also proves that he doesn’t see animals in the same way as the church seems them. In most monotheist religions like Christianity, animals aren’t thought to have souls nor are baptized, so for Henry to think that a dog should be baptized reveals that he sees animals as if they were humans, in other words, equal to humans. He says that the dog “deserves a chance to go to heaven”, which means he believes that the dog should also be able to go to heaven after it dies. This reveals that he shows acceptance, since he doesn’t want the dog to be left out from heaven.
Secondly, Henry shows some sensitivity to weaker beings, but he is sometimes unable to interfere. When Henry’s at the Gibsons’ backyard, he sees a cat cornered by a bulldog. He immediately feels bad, and wants to do keep the cat safe from getting hurt. Meanwhile, the rest of his friends, including the Gibsons, just watch the scene pleasantly. He shows sensitivity towards the poor creature, but he’s helpless because there’s nothing he can do: “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” (89). Henry is unable to do to something to prevent the cat from getting hurt because he doesn’t have the “courage”. Meaning he is probably scared that his friends might judge him if he does save the cat. To show compassion almost seems like to be “weak”, the opposite of tough, which is how Henry’s trying to portray himself. He feels guilty for the cat’s suffering: “I couldn’t watch the kill. I felt a great shame at leaving the cat like that. […] That cat wasn’t only facing the bulldog, it was facing Humanity” (90). The two main ideas that contrast here are sensitivity and cruelty. For Henry, it seems like to be tough is not to show any compassion, and to be weak, is the opposite. He wants to help the cat, however he doesn’t know how to. He’s sensitive in nature, but he doesn’t want to show his sensitivity from fear of looking like a wuss. Moreover, the cat may also be considered as a metaphor for Henry because he is also facing humanity in the novel. Henry’s cornered in every aspect of his life, and is constantly mistreated by humans.
In addition to showing compassion to animals, Henry also shows concern to humans despite constantly acting like he’s a misanthrope. While Henry’s at the hospital getting treated for his boils, he sees a man with a big nose. He then later remembers about this man, and wonders where he is:
“Miss Ackerman, what ever happened to that man with the big nose? The nose that kept growing?” […] “I don’t see him anymore. Did he get cured?” “He’s dead.” “You mean he died from that big nose?” “Suicide.” (143)
At this moment, Henry shows compassion once again, since he asks Miss Ackerman how the man with the big nose is doing. Even though he has never spoken to him, he still shows to care about this man, and is concerned about his health. Since he has acne vulgaris, his condition allows him to relate to the man with the big nose, who was going through a similar situation as he was. Later, he heard a man screaming “Joe, where are you? Joe, you said you’d come back! […]” (143). Henry knew that Joe wasn’t coming back, which was the man with the big nose: “It didn’t pay to trust another human being. Humans didn’t have it, whatever it took” (144). Perhaps what Henry meant to say here is that humans don’t have empathy or compassion. Once again, he negatively describes humans, as if he wasn’t a part of that category himself. Another particular moment in the novel where Henry’s sensitivity arises is when he moves in his new apartment. When his neighbours don’t turn the volume of the music down, Henry gets mad, and so he “jam[s] his foot into the door” (275). He sees them making love on the floor, and then he immediately excuses himself: “I closed their door and went back to my place. I felt terrible. The poor had a right to fuck their way through their bad dreams. Sex and drink, and maybe love, was all they had” (275). Henry’s initial reaction is very typical of him. However, what’s interesting is that he then tries to justify his neighbours’ loud music. This shows that he understands what they’re going through. He relates to the people that surround him, and he definitely shows to have empathy for others. Just like his neighbours, he too has only beer to bring him happiness and to escape from reality. Even more surprisingly, after a while he goes back to knock on their door, and says, “I’m very sorry for what I did. Won’t you and your girl come over to my place for a drink?” […] (276). Henry’s action shows that he cares about people’s feelings, and that his apology was sincere. I think it’s because he sees that he’s in the same ‘boat’ as they are: “We were all in one big shit pot together” (275). In short, it is wrong to say that Henry hates all humans; his compassion is most present when he can relate to other beings.
To finish off, I think we can all relate to Henry in some way. The different facets of his character allow readers to recognize themselves more easily, and his life story can be relevant to many. We all have moments in our lives where we dare to care as though or soft as we may be.
Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. 1982
“What is compassion?” Greater Good. <http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/compassion/definition>.