Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski
The Need for Acceptance and Control

[In this essay, E.B. examines how Bukowski uses his novel “Ham on Rye” and specific memories from the childhood of Henry Chinaski to show the need for acceptance and control in both the main character and Charles Bukowski’s minds. E.B. discusses the themes of control and acceptance and their effects.]

Bukowski writes Ham on Rye as somewhat of an autobiography. Through his writing, Bukowski gives insight into the mind and life of an outcast child and young man. He is able to accomplish this through means of writing about his own early life and knows the emotions and feelings are really what would go through the character’s mind. It makes his writing feel real and is able to be related to. Many different stages of Henry Chinaski and the author’s lives are shown through the events in the novel. He recollects memories dealing with such things as religion, alcohol, neglect, control, and writing.

In order to live a normal life, family and friends are essential. As a child, Henry’s life was full of neglect. After receiving one of many beatings from his father he states, “He acted as if nothing had happened, as if he hadn’t beaten me. When I was back in my bedroom I thought, these people are not my parents, they must have adopted me and now they are unhappy with what I have become”(42). His home was not a place of refuge for him. The word “home” is always avoided and instead, Bukowski replaces the word with “where I lived” or his “parents’ place.” This allows the reader to feel the neglect felt by Henry when he speaks about his home life.

One theme in Ham on Rye is giving people “a chance”. “All a guy needed was a chance. Somebody was always controlling who got a chance and who didn’t”(62). Because of this, some people are not even given an opportunity to live up to their full potential. Having a chance also goes along with control. Any chance at greatness in life can be lost right there if chances to do so are controlled the way they are. No matter where a person is, someone or something is controlling him. In Henry’s life this control is what causes him to lose his ambition and to rebel against those in control. The main controller over him was his father. And it is not until Henry stands up to him that the beatings stop. As his life goes on and he faces other such controllers such as bullies, principals, and bosses, he rebels more and more frequently. He will take any chance he can to fight and will fight anyone on the spot. Rebellion is his only way out and is clearly a result of control people try to have over others.

One of the scenes described by Bukowski is of a cat, cornered and backed up against a wall. The other boys placed the cat there and let a dog corner it. The white cat represents Henry and his position. He is put into places he does not want to be in and the only way out is to fight against unfavorable odds. Everyone gathers around to watch the cat be killed. They all wanted it to die as if it were the way it was meant to be. This is the same way society is, in that people allow those in control to determine the fate of others.

Controlling others causes people to rebel. Henry’s father is one of those that he must rebel against. People abuse their authority by controlling others and it often limits their abilities and joy in life. Though at certain times Henry has moments when he feels a sense of accomplishment, the only time that he is truly happy is when he is describing his experiences with literature. Henry expresses his love for books. There are only a few things in the novel that he speaks of with such fervor, and this is one of them. He discovers Upton Sinclair. “He wrote with anger…He came right out and said things plainly”(151). On his typewriter, Chinaski writes in a similar fashion. He “…had tried some short stories, but they had come out bitter and ragged…”(230). However, these stories are Chinaski’s prized possessions. Henry’s father is always trying to take this joy away from him, so he must stand up to him in rebellion in order to try and save it. His father would say, “All right, that’s enough of those god-damned books! Lights out!”(152). This italicized remark shows how it stuck out in Henry’s mind. “Lights out” is also showing how joy and knowledge are being limited and put out. After his father throws his stories into the street, Henry must go out on his own. This sense of rebellion carries on and creates a much more abrasive character.

Throughout his life, Henry is always attracting the “losers” in the neighborhood. Bukowski uses them as a symbol of his problems. All of the weak, disabled, and pitiful come to him. These other children are like all of Henry’s problems that he feels like follow him through life. They all would stay for a while, move away, and some would appear again later. Just when he thinks he has gotten rid of a problem, a new one arises.

In Ham on Rye, there is a brief time period of happiness that can be felt in Bukowski’s novel. It is because in this time Henry has been accepted by the other boys in the neighborhood and has befriended his nurse. The way he writes has a more positive attitude and everything that has been going wrong seems to have turned around. However, as soon as he loses this friendship with the nurse when his treatments are done and when he has once again been kicked out of the group, Bukowski brings back the negatives with a harsher tone.

Bukowski also makes it clear that all people want to be accepted by others. Even though Henry claims he prefers living in solitude, he truly does not. Although he is never part of any groups and sometimes chooses not to be, he is always there. He is always on the sidelines watching the games, but never participates. Another example that shows his true desires to be part of a group is when he says, “Finally it was the day of the Senior Prom…I don’t know why but I walked over that night, the two-and-one-half miles from my parents’ place. I stood outside in the dark and I looked in there through the wire-covered window…”(193). The word “Finally” is used as if he were waiting for this day to come, yet he was not able to be part of it. Also, he is in the dark and looking in. The wire-covered window seems to bar him from the scene as if it were a cage. The way this scene is described shows his longing to be accepted into this group.

Henry tried to turn to various things to search for some type of acceptance and escape from his harsh reality. The first of these things is religion. At a young age he stared going to church, but it did not give him the same feelings it gave to others. Later, he challenges the existence of God and wants a sign. When he awakes, Henry believes God appears to him and gives him a sign. He is told, “GOD HAS FORSAKEN YOU.” This creates a greater feeling of neglect.

The last place he turns to is alcohol. To escape from the abandonment and neglect he feels, Hank turns to alcoholism. While avoiding calling his home from the past “home”, he states, “My first night there I discovered a bar downstairs just to the right of the entrance. I liked that. All I had to do was climb the stairway and I was home”(248). Based on where he lives, you can see his desires. Previously, he would find some escape in reading and writing, and wanted to move near the library, but his lack of acceptance anywhere has caused alcoholism to take over. When someone is not accepted, it causes them to search for any escape to turn to without thought on how it will affect them.

Living a life controlled by others and living without acceptance has devastating effects on the victim. It will cause people to not even appreciate their own lives. No life anywhere, no life in this town or this place or in this weary existence.”(256). When living a life of solitude and neglect, it does not leave you with much of a life at all.


(E.B. 2008)