By Melvin Buquerente
The novel Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski is an in-depth look into the character, Henry Chinaski. We follow this character throughout the phases of his life: the emotional roller coaster of a childhood, the dramatics of growing up and struggles of becoming an adult. The traumatic experiences, the character’s thoughts and the setting of the story make Ham on Rye a multi-dimensional novel. An interesting fact about this novel is that it is a semi-biographical novel by the poet Charles Bukowski. With this information in mind, personal feelings of empathy emerge from the reader for the character as well as the author himself. There is something everyone can relate to in this story. Where I was able to connect to with Henry was during the exploration of his family life, his childhood and his moments in High School. All of these aspects of his life made me reflect deeply on my personal life. Nevertheless, the main aspect I connected with the character, Henry was the oppression he faces from authority figures in his life.
Another aspect of Henry’s character that I related to immediately while reading was his feelings of embarrassment with his body. During Henry’s adolescence, he develops acne vulgaris. In the book, according to the doctors, this case of acne vulgaris was “the worst they have ever encountered.” (131) As for Henry, he verbally expresses the shame of having these boils “I was ashamed of my boils. At Chelsey, you had the choice between gym and R.O.T.C. I took R.O.T.C. because then I didn’t have to wear a gym suit and nobody could see the boils on my body.” As for me, back in High School, I was the fattest kid in my year. I was ashamed of my body. But the reason I got so big was the oppression I received from my mother. I never got to exercise much as a child due to my mom. She refused that I do any exercise that would
As a child, I was diagnosed with severe asthma. My mother being such a worry bug, refused that I was physically active unless it was made mandatory by the school. As a child, when I would play with the other children in our immense green backyard as soon as my mother noticed that I was out of breath, she would scream at me and tell me to stop running around or else I would suffer from an asthma attack. Time after time, I would try to convince her that I was fine. I threw fits of frustration, I would cry, I would ignore her screams for me to sit down, but nevertheless, she always came and pulled on my ear until I sat down to catch my breath. Not only was I embarrassed in front of my peers; I received the most painful punishment I knew as a child, ear-twisting. All of this to say, that while all the other boys my age became skinny and physically active, I remained the chubby boy who never got to practice all the sports I dreamed as a child.
From early on in the novel, we observe how Henry learns to be oppressed. When Henry and his family go around visiting their relatives, he states how he believes that his father strongly dislikes him due to this sentence: “Children should be seen and not heard.” (16) This is a strong thing to say to a child because, at that age, they learn from observation. In this situation, the only figure that Henry can look up to is his father. He shows the example and dominates the opinion of the family. Additionally, Henry’s father is controlling Henry’s expression of thought. There may be some that argue that Henry could look up to his mother, however, if Henry’s mother was his role model, he would also learn to be oppressed anyways. For example, when the Chinaski family gets caught stealing oranges and are forced off the property, Henry’s father falls into a state of anger screaming “I’m coming back some day and get that bastard” (15) his wife then responds: “Daddy, we’ll have a nice dinner tonight. What would you like? (15). In this interaction, rather than standing up to her husband and trying to calm him down and that they should simply concede, Henry’s mom knows that she is forced to please him or else it would only aggravate the situation. Throughout the book, there are many other incidences where the mother is suppressed in her thoughts and actions, which resonates with Henry.
Another important possible role model that oppresses Henry is the gym coach, Mr. Curly Wagner. He specifically picks on Henry for an unknown reason “Wagner walked up to me. He stood there staring at me. I developed an evil look on my face. ‘I am going to get all you guys!’ Wagner said. ‘Especially you!’” (93) In this situation, the only plausible reaction that could insight such an attack is the look on Henry’s face. However, to verbally attack a student in this situation to inflict emotional distress is un-called for. Further on, Henry expresses his thoughts about Wagner by relating him to his father “There was always somebody pushing me who had no right to push. Wagner and my father. My father and Wagner. What did they want? Why was I in their way? (93) In this quote, Henry’s frustration regarding the unjust treatment is apparent. The last two questions are important because as the reader, we do not get a sense that Henry is a bad child. As mentioned earlier, Henry learns from his mother to do whatever pleases the father. In this case, this is the first interaction readers see between Wagner and Henry. All this demonstrates the unjust treatment Henry has faced so far in life and he is still a young teenager.
As Henry grows older, he puts his father and Curly Wagner past him. Henry graduates High School and lands a position at Mears-Starbucks, which was a department store. Unfortunately, he encounters a boss who abuses his power. On Henry’s first day of work he arrives late by six minutes and is eventually deducted an hour off his salary after his boss, Mr. Ferris strategically talked and stalled until Henry was late for ten minutes:
“‘I’ll punch in now. Mr. Ferris,’ I told him.
‘I’ll do it for you. I want to start you out right.’ Ferris inserted my timecard into the clock and stood there. He waited. I heard the clock tick, then he hit it. […]
‘How late was I, Mr. Ferris? Ten minutes. Now follow me.'” (204)
In this situation, Henry does not have control. His boss knew how to cheat the system and robbed Henry from an hour of his salary right in front of him. Mr. Ferris deliberately took the timecard out of Herny’s hand and waited to make sure the company profited off the ignorant young adult. Although in this situation Henry might be a little ignorant, he comes to a significant realization: “The salesclerks got ten cents an hour more than [stockclerks], plus commissions. I was to discover that they never spoke to us in a friendly way. Male or Female, the clerks were the same. They took any familiarity as an affront.” (207) Henry realizes the systematic oppression in his workplace is rampant. All the heavy lifting and straining work by the workers behind the scenes is unappreciated. Further, the salesclerks are rude and disrespectful to Henry on several occasions.
To conclude, Henry may be a character that presents himself to be tough, however, as explored through this essay, Henry was put down by many authority figures in his life. No one taught him how to stand up for himself nor did they teach him what it is to be a good person. Rather than showing love and affection, Henry’s father showed him to anger and hatred. The gym coach, Curly Wagner was supposed to motivated and teach his students, in this case, he demonstrates disgusting unsupportive attitudes towards students. As for Mr. Ferris and Mears-Starbuck, they taught Henry that the little people in the world do not matter as much. On a final note, all three authority figures mentioned above taught Henry how to be oppressed.
Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. Vintage book, 1982.