By Ilyas Mohamed
Ham on Rye, by Charles Bukowski, is a bildungsroman about a character who is seeking for an identity during the Great Depression. This semi-biographical novel demonstrates how the protagonist, Henry Chinaski, battle for individuality and found a meaning in loneliness. In a way, I was able to relate to Henry’s battle against loneliness and his journey to his identity. Henry is a resilient person that is able to overcome all the obstacle that targets him.
As I was reading this novel, the characterization of Henry reminisced me of my first month in high school, especially the first day. It was the end of August. It was burning and the air was humid. My parents were occupied and I had to figure out how to get to my school. I remember looking at the metro map and being confused. Once outside, I wandered through the streets pivoting my head in all direction. Finally, I asked a woman for help. Turns out I was walking in the wrong direction. As I was strolling the streets, I saw a cluster of teens that were wearing the same blue uniform. This gave me hope and I decided to follow them. As I was walking behind these imposing teens, I felt frail and powerless. My hope gradually vanished and it was transformed into fear. As I got there, I was sweating, breathless and exhausted. The security yelled at me because I was late. I was petrified. I got to my first class. Everyone was looking in my direction. I ambled to the rear of the classroom. There was this girl sitting on my right. I caught a glimpse into her eyes. Suddenly, I heard her mutter, “If you look at me again, I’ll beat the shit out of you”. The first hour and I were already in a quandary. During the day, I isolated myself and watched the other kids gathering into groups. Nevertheless, the calendar was turning and I accommodated to this lifestyle. I scrambled through the rough moments and climbed over loneliness. Just like Hank, I started projecting a tough image of myself. All of my actions were mere pretense. I nosedived into a character that didn’t correlate with self. In a way, my first year in high school snatched my identity. It took me two years to find the right key. To sum up, Henry is experiencing the same thing and that’s how I can relate to him. Similar to my old self, Henry is in a maze and he is trying to figure out the way to escape the walls. Despite all the obstacle that prevent his personal growth, Henry dodges all the darts that fire in his direction which makes him and me resilient.
At first, Henry is characterized as a naïve, innocent kid. From the start, the reader can see that individuality has no place in Henry’s life. Henry’s aunt remarks how quiet he is and his father utters, “That’s the way we want him” (22). Henry is already confined and subjected to conventions. Also, we notice how Henry is an outcast character: “They seemed very strange, they laughed and talked and seemed happy. I didn’t like them…Kindergarten was mostly white air” (27). It’s surprising how pessimistic he is for his age. He continually describes life as white air which demonstrates his lack of interest in everything. Moreover, Henry’s father is strict, violent and rough. Perhaps, Mr. Chinaski went through many traumas in the past and now he is venting his anger into his son: “It was as if my father was a machine, swinging that strop. There was the feeling of being in a tomb” (70). His father is heartless. He believes that acting this way would shape his son into a man and would promise him a bright, wealthy future. However, Henry mentions, “I was not allowed to play with other children. ‘They are bad children,’ said my father, ‘their parents are poor.’ ‘Yes,’ agreed my mother. My parents wanted to be rich so they imagined themselves rich” (27). This conveys an interesting aspect of Henry’s parents. These monsters are preoccupied on how society depicts them. This contrast demonstrates that Henry’s father is simply an impostor. He projects a daunting image but he is weak. He used his authority, as a parent, on Henry to project a tough image of himself. In fact, the fear that Henry’s father has put on him suppressed his mental growth and development. Henry says, “Outside, through the rear screen I could see my father’s roses growing … I felt that even the sun belonged to my father, that I had no right to it because it was shining upon my father’s house. I was like his roses, something that belonged to him and not to me” (40). Here, the fact that the sun is a homophone of “son” gives an intriguing meaning to the passage. It depicts how Henry, the son, is incarcerated. As long as he lived in this house, Henry wouldn’t grow like the flower and acquaint freedom. As a result, Henry stemmed into a resilient, fearless and reckless character. Henry says, “All a guy needed was a chance. Somebody was always controlling who got a chance and who didn’t” (62). His parent never gave him the chance for individualism and creativity, therefore, he developed into a pathetic character. Throughout the novel, we see the protagonist projects himself into animals. For instance, when Chuck’s bulldog, Burney, was attacking a cat, Henry says, “That cat wasn’t only facing the bulldog, it was facing Humanity” (90). Henry’s classmate and the mailman were all watching the cat getting killed. However, Henry was the only one to react because he was able to relate to the cat.
Just like the cat, Henry and I needed to battle against Humanity to find happiness. In addition, Henry had to defeat his father, the bulldog, in order to find his identity. To sum up, Henry is wandering on the pavements that will lead him to his identity. However, the map to this destination isn’t clear. Henry has to walk through the foggy roads to get there.
Henry Chinaski’s battle to his identity was a struggle. First of all, he develops into a hopeless and pathetic character. Henry says, “Since some people had told that I was ugly, I always preferred shade to the sun. darkness to light” (94). Henry is looking for what he loves, but being pessimistic and harsh on himself doesn’t help him. His friend Becker says that the problem with Henry is that “[he is] too bitter and [he hates] everything” (258). However, gradually, we see there is hope: “As I watched them I said to myself, someday my dance will begin. When that day comes I will have something that don’t have” (194). This is one of the rare moment that Henry is optimistic. This gives hope to the reader that becomes so emotionally attached to Henry. However, his parent, surrounding and College were blocking his way to his identity: “A college education could destroy an individual for life” (267). There was no room for individualism and originality and Henry became what would satisfy the others and not himself. Drinking was the only thing helping him sort his problems, but it was only temporally. Furthermore, acne occupies a central role in his confidence. The boils that are all over his face symbolizes all the pain that accumulated inside him. He has to get drilled to treat these boils and extract all the misery and fear inside him. However, healing the acne doesn’t really help him remove all this negativity in him: “When one boil vanished another would appear” (137). It wasn’t worse for him. Then, we see Henry writing his first story about a German aviator named Baron von Himmlen. Henry says that “it made [him] 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” (148). Writing, along with drinking, was the only thing that made Henry feel good. This was our second glimpse of hope. However, Henry wasn’t able to accept being an outcast. He acted as a tough, confident character to disguise what was inside. In fact, Becker tells him, “You’ll be a never a writer if you hide from reality” (259). These words stroked him because it was utter from someone that Henry greatly idolized. Henry needed to be genuine with himself and accept who he is. Acceptance was the key that solved all the problems in his life. Henry accepts being lonely: “I liked being alone. It felt good to sit alone” (275). Hank found his identity in writing and loneliness through acceptance – just like I found myself by accepting my truth.
To conclude, it is evident that the author, Charles Bukowski, wrote about a character that can relate with him. Just like the protagonist wrote about himself using Baron von Himmlen, Charles wrote about himself too. Therefore, we can say he wrote about himself twice in this book! Even though Henry and I didn’t follow the same lane to find our identity, we still have lots of aspects in common. Both of us were resilient and confronted the social conventions established by society.
Work Cited: Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. HarperCollins Publishers, 1982.