True Colors

Ham on Rye is a novel written by Charles Bukowski. The author uses the main character, Henry Chinasky, to narrate and illustrate aspects and events of his own life. Henry is growing up during the Great Depression. He must deal with his abusive parents, as well as the fact that he doesn’t fit in with the rest of the kids at school, causing him to be labelled as an outcast and a loner. Henry’s character is one in which I can relate to only in certain aspects. Although I don’t abuse alcohol, involve myself in fights or dream to become a writer, I do sometimes try to make myself seem tougher than I really am. This is a trait that really carries Henry’s character. As the novel progresses, Henry tries to portray himself as having an extremely tough exterior, but in reality he has a very sensitive spirit.

No matter how sensitive I might be, there is no way I’d admit to it or let it show without putting up a fight. It is extremely sad to say but my phone controls my life. My mom would often take this to her advantage. She would constantly threaten me to take it away if I didn’t listen to her, but they were often empty threats. I’m a pretty disorganized individual, and my room perfectly portrays this. There are clothes EVERYWHERE. My mom would always warn me to clean it, but I’d look at her, smile, and say, “Of course mommy, I’ll clean it later”. In reality, I rarely ever got to it.  This one time, I felt as though I really pushed her to her limit. The words sounded like a broken record as she continued repeating: “If you don’t clean your room, I’m taking away your phone for the weekend”. I simply brushed the words off and treated them as if they were a joke. I was going to a friend’s house that Friday night, and right before we left, my mom decided she would take a look at my room. The nerves and anxiety took over my body, as I froze and hoped she’d forgive me as she always did. Despite the reaction I was hoping to get, the words were written all over her face, and I could tell that there was no second chance on this one: “GIVE ME YOUR PHONE RIGHT NOW, YOU’RE LOSING IT FOR THE WEEKEND”. I guess you could say I learnt my lesson from this day. That weekend I spent without my phone, was spent crying, begging, and promising I’d clean my room after the first time she’d ask me in the future. I was miserable. The dependence I have on my phone can be directly related to how Henry feels about alcohol: “Without drink I would have long ago cut my god-damned throat” (259). I would never go so far as to say that I’d cut my throat without my phone, but there would be a lot of drama and tears in my house if my mom decided to keep it forever.

Henry tries to make himself appear tough and threatening throughout his entire life. When entering a new school, it might be rather difficult to fit in and be accepted by the other kids. Henry shows how unbothered he is by the lack of friends he has when he states that “Nobody stood near me, but I didn’t care. I was gaining ground” (48). By gaining this ground, he gives the reader the impression that there’s some form of progress or even as though he’s achieving something. In reality, nobody wants to approach him or befriend him because he’s an outcast. Unlike most kids, Henry states that “I didn’t have any friends at school, I didn’t want any. I felt better being alone. I sat on a bench and watched the others play and they looked foolish to me” (29). This demonstrates how Henry perceives the world around him. The other kids had company and were having a good time, yet to him, they simply looked foolish. One can interpret his feelings towards others as a sense of jealousy and envy, because he wishes he could be a part of their world, but he simply isn’t granted the chance to integrate himself with them. Even when facing possible failure in school, he believes that if he doesn’t graduate he’ll “just stay around getting older and older and bigger and bigger. [He’d] get all the girls” (117). This is ironic because Henry can’t get the slightest bit of attention from a girl now, and to think he’d be able to get “all” the girls is extremely exaggerated and unrealistic for him to say. No matter how tough an individual may make himself seem, they might just be good at hiding how they really feel.

Henry does show his sensitive side on multiple occasions and his true emotions are revealed. He doesn’t have a healthy relationship with his family and his parents continuously prove that they don’t know how to raise, care for, or love a child. His parents can’t even do so little as to show up to his graduation: “My parents weren’t there. I made sure. I walked around and gave it a good look-see” (52). We see a serious sense of disappointment in the way Henry is speaking about this moment. He is looking around, desperately, for a sign of his parents. Every other child’s parent cared enough and loved them enough to have attended. Henry is in a complete state of misery: “I didn’t know if I was unhappy. I felt too miserable to be unhappy” (68). This implies that being unhappy is simply not severe enough to describe how he’s truly feeling. Lastly, Henry’s sensitive side is exemplified when he sees a small white cat cornered by a large bulldog that belongs to Chuck, a boy he goes to school with. Similarly, to how this cat has his back against the wall, so is Henry’s as he is faced with several bullies, whether they are his friends or even his parents. As the cat is facing this scary bulldog, Chuck says, “Let it fight its way out” (88). This demonstrates how certain individuals need to fight their own way out of difficult situations, as they are often left alone and without any form of help. Both the cat and Henry are underdogs. Henry wants to provide help, but he doesn’t feel powerful enough to do so. He therefore often acts tough, but when it comes to actually doing something about it, his actions are absent. His sensitiveness is shown because “[he] couldn’t watch the kill. [He] felt a great shame at leaving the cat like that” (90). When the individual himself is helpless, it is nearly impossible for him to help others.

Every time Henry has some sense of hope, he finds himself disappointed. His parents choose to send him to a school with wealthier kids: “The guys with the cars didn’t worry about acne. They were handsome, they were tall and clean with bright teeth and they didn’t wash their hair with hand soap. They seemed to know something I didn’t know. I was at the bottom again” (126). Henry can’t catch a break. Coming from two completely opposite types of families, Henry always has something to worry about and his parents try to fit him into an atmosphere in which his looks, principles and character simply can’t compare. Henry attempts to help his acne, and this is demonstrated when his doctor must push an electric needle into Henry’s back. We can see Henry’s feelings towards this when he says, “Just go ahead and drill” (134). This citation is important because all of his pretentiousness is being drilled out of him. There’s some kind of vulnerability that is being forced to come out, as if something inside of him is being released. His true colors are finally making way. Henry starts off by having an emotional separation from the rest of the kids his age because he was never given the opportunity to really fit in and be like the rest of them, but now he’s also given this physical separation he must cope with. Life is acting in a very unfair and inconsiderate way towards him.  Henry himself says, “As for me, I had no desire to go to war to protect the life I had or what future I might have. I had no Freedom. I had nothing” (236). From this thought we can tell that Henry believes that there is literally nothing left to fight for, because nothing has yet to have worked in his favor. Henry is constantly being directly affected by those around him and he isn’t blinded or naïve towards what they think of him, which causes him to feel worthless and unloved.

No matter how tough Henry may make himself seem, he has continuously hidden how sensitive he really is. Henry is a character who was never given a chance to have a normal childhood. The series of unfortunate events that make up his life may have made him stronger, but can also be blamed for who he becomes as a person. Being an outcast or a loner in life is never easy.

Sara Vetere

Works Cited:
Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. New York: HarperCollins. 2007.


One thought on “True Colors

  1. This is a really terrific essay. Just great. You show a profound engagement with the novel here. Your arguments are well constructed and illustrated by insightful and varied evidence from the text. Your writing is terrific as well–it’s clear and sharp. Your personal experience is lighthearted, but it opens up important avenues through which to look at Henry’s character. Plus, it universalizes your experience–we all have moms that threaten us, and we all have addictions of some sort. All in all, this is a rather masterful essay: well-constructed, thoughtful, and coherent. I learned something from reading it. Excellent work.


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