The Glass of Milk

by Manuel Rojas

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Psychological Struggles in "The Glass of Milk"

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Henry David Thoreau wrote: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." In the story "The Glass of Milk," the main character, a thin youth, engages his sense of desperation as an internal quest for personal identity. He "was gripped by that fascination of the sea which molds the most peaceful and orderly lives as a strong arm a thin rod." He left the comfort of his family for the rough exotic life among the tramps and criminals, hoping to become a man among the stevedores who worked on the docks. He has spent several months working with some success at various tasks on ships plying the coasts of Chile. However at the start of the story he is down on his luck, out of work and out of food.

The boy's home life has seemed confining to him, so he seeks the freedom that he imagines he will find at sea. But along his way to becoming a free man, he becomes more and more constricted by the walls he builds to protect himself from everyone he meets. As he constructs them higher, he becomes more isolated from those among whom he desires acceptance. He is "without an acquaintance, without a penny, and without a trade." Even those skills he has are "almost useless on land." His pride becomes his most important possession and he sacrifices everything in order to keep it.

His pride keeps him from accepting anything that he perceives as a handout or charity. The sailor offers him a package of food, which he "heroically" refuses, believing that he must not show any sign of weakness. As a Latin-American youth he knows that to accept a handout would cost him his dignity. The "gaudy tramp" confirms his loss of dignity by accepting the package from the sailor. The youth's heroic arrogance makes him feel superior to the tramp who accepts the package. The lad knows that he could never rely on charity or he would lose the sense of manliness that he has cultivated. Indeed, this refusal of the package is not the first time he has done this. "And when, just as now, someone did offer him a handout" indicates a pattern of refusing offers of food.

Since he has been out of work for six days and has not eaten for three days, his hunger grows more and more intense. The pain of his hunger convinces him that "he could not hold out much longer." Then he decides "to resort to any means to get some food." His internal desperation has come to the surface. It is no longer Thoreau's "quiet desperation." He is determined to act. However, before he can act rashly, he gets work loading grain onto a ship.

In his search for acceptance among the men of the docks, he develops a strong sense of pride, which he uses to gird himself psychologically and to insulate himself from them. Despite his desire to be one of the guys, he remains apart from them. He does not eat with them at lunch time and when he looks for a place to eat in the evening he avoids the cafes where these men might congregate. At other times his timidity keeps him from waiting "by the gangways at mealtimes" hoping to be offered some leftovers by the sailors.

As time moves on, the boy finds himself trapped by his walls as he searches for places to hide from the other stevedores. The high walls of the city, symbolic of the walls he is building within himself, are dark and threatening. The people...

(This entire section contains 2015 words.)

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are loud and intimidating. He wanders around looking for work or a place to eat, overwhelmed by the oppressive city surroundings. He is held back by his fears that the people would be able to see his pain and shame and that this would be seen as a weakness. His psychological walls will not allow him to accept a loan from the foreman. The irony of refusing the loan is that it reinforces his feelings of self-sufficiency by avoiding any obligation to anyone other than himself. But this false sense of self-sufficiency drags him deeper into despair.

When he has the vision of his home, it appears only "as if a window opens before him." This invisible barrier was once an obstacle that kept him confined at home but now, since he is on his own, it is the barrier preventing him from going back home. He does not want to admit that he could not make it on his own. But despite his strong desire to live on the open sea, he keeps looking for some job that would keep him "until he could get back to his home grounds." He is homesick. He yearns for his mother and his siblings.

Later as he is seated in the milk bar, "a blonde lady in a very white apron" comes to his table and wipes it off. She speaks "in a soft voice" asking what he wants to eat. When she leaves to get the milk and wafers, he rejoices in the knowledge that he will soon eat. As he prepares to eat he feels her eyes "watching him with curiosity and attention," but he refuses to look back at her. The quiet power of her maternal nature overcomes his timidity and shame and he accepts her tenderness.

However, he rejects any offerings of assistance from the men in the story. They are father figures to the boy, and because it is inappropriate for a Latino boy to show weakness of any kind, he rejects their assistance. It is unmanly for a man to show need of any sort, even though he could feel "his hunger increase with the refusal." The sailor offers him the food and he refuses because he was "ashamed that he had seemed to need charity." Later he rejects the foreman's offer of a loan "with an anguished smile." He does not want to let any adult male see his weaknesses. For him to accept a "handout" is demeaning, since the word handout implies condescension on the part of the giver and loss of dignity for the recipient, confirms Michael Waag.

Coupled with his reluctance to show weakness to stronger male figures, he is also concerned with a sense of morality. Included with this is a feeling that an individual must accept responsibility for one's actions, and that every responsibility brings with it a consequence that must be accepted. The youth accepts the responsibility to work in the boiler room on the ship after he is found as a stowaway. The irony is that he hides on the ship like a common criminal but gets to work like any other hired hand. Moreover, he is satisfied that, despite the illegality of being a stowaway, he has fulfilled his manly duty by working his way to the next port, where he is immediately put off the ship.

This sense of fulfilling an obligation no matter how it is obtained also arises as he determines to steal food to assuage his hunger. He accepts the obligation to pay for the food no matter what that entailed, whether they "shamed him, beat him, sent him to jail, anything." He is operating by the slogan "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime." For him it is an accepted obligation to be fulfilled after eating stolen food. And it is part of maintaining his idea of manhood. But by making this decision to accept the punishment, he breaches his own carefully established set of rules that keep him from being shamed. Now he turns this aversion into an obligation he must fulfill for getting something to eat.

Just as his search for the right cafe takes him to the outskirts of the city, his internal search takes him to the edges of his emotional self. After he selects a quiet milk bar, he refuses to enter when he sees an old man sitting there reading a newspaper and drinking a glass of milk. As he waits, his anxiety grows more intense and he begins to think of the man as "his enemy" who knew his plight and intent to steal a meal. His sense of pride is whipped into a new sense of fear and paranoia. He feels that he must demonstrate his strength of manhood by insulting the old man. His mental confrontation with the old man is yet another rejection of a father figure for the youth. His reaction to the man is ironic because he condemns him for taking so long to sit and read "for so small a purchase," when the boy intends to steal a meal. He is angry because the man is an inconvenience to the boy's entrance to the milk bar.

He does not act on his impulses to accost the old man because his sense of morality does not allow him to do so, knowing that it is not proper to insult anyone. His reluctance to act on his impulses occurs as he is face to face with his victim. His sense of outrage and anger at the man are diminished. The youth would have to look him in the eye to accost him and he could not reveal his own eyes to the man. The man puts on his glasses and walks away reading.

This fear of looking someone directly in the eyes happens again after he has accepted his meal from the woman. His sense of propriety now causes him to lose composure when he is face to face with the woman from whom he intends to steal the meal. It is only after she gives him a second helping that his feelings of guilt are eased and he feels comfortable enough to leave without paying. His only payment is his departing words: "Thank you very much ma'am; good-bye."

His walls are breached when he allows the woman to see his inner self. After she gives him the plate of cookies and the glass of milk, he refuses to look at her directly. He fears that "she would guess his situation and his shameful intentions" (eyes and glasses are symbolic portals to the soul). As his hunger is diminished, his inner burning begins to release itself. He weeps. After the woman strokes his head, he weeps more intensely and deeply.

In these poignant moments the boy has lowered his walls and let the woman comfort him and soothe his internal turmoil. In the vision that sent him on this quest for the milk bar, he saw his family, mother, sisters, and brothers, and he remembers the comfort of his home. Thus began the slow disassembly of his walls. The acceptance of his family bonds, not the bonds of "slavery" to the work on the docks, causes him to relax the walls he had so carefully built over the past few months. He releases himself from the bonds of pride. Just as he lets go of those bonds, he finds himself outside the city. He has freed himself from the intimidation of the city's walls and the walls of his pride.

After he allows the woman to stroke his head and feed him, he regains his composure and leaves the bar. He has been fed physically and psychologically. He strides confidently as he hums on his way back to the wharf and the life of a stevedore. He returns to the dock thinking that he will repay the woman. But just as the tears on his face have disappeared, so too has that thought vanished. He enters the rough, working world when he sits on a pile of burlap and stares out at "the grand sweep of the sea," his idealized fantasy world. As he falls asleep, he is content with himself; he has eaten and he is reinvigorated, "like a new man ... reassembled and united."

Source: Carl Mowery, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Mowery has a Ph.D. in writing and literature from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.

Feminine and Masculine Spheres in "The Glass of Milk"

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Manuel Rojas' short story "The Glass of Milk" offers two distinct images, each one in direct opposition to the other. One image is that of the male sphere, the public sphere of male employment and masculine strength, a world of independence and self-sufficiency. This is the sphere that the boy seeks to join. This male sphere is balanced by the feminine sphere, the domestic world of comfort and nurturing, of tenderness and security. This is the world from which the boy has traveled on his journey to manhood. In spite of the unnamed youth's desire to locate himself solely in the masculine sphere, he is unable to completely break free of the feminine sphere, not yet understanding that for a man to find true balance, he must be able to exist in both worlds. The youthful protagonist of Rojas' story thinks that if he is to be a man and live successfully in the male world, he must first extradite himself from his mother's world.

The reader's first glimpse of the boy presents his conflict between hunger and pride, between those images that he thinks must exist in separate worlds. In his desire to be a man, the boy assumes that the only way he can prove his independence and self-sufficiency is by denying any offer of assistance. To accept food from the sailor is to admit that he cannot survive on his own. But, he is still an adolescent, and as such, he is in need of tenderness and nurturing, two things that the sailors on the docks do not have to give. Moreover, the boy thinks that men do not need tenderness and nurturing. For the boy, the docks are a man's world. The sailor with his pipe, the gaudy tramp begging for food, the men loading heavy sacks of wheat—these are all men, performing men's work and functioning as with strength and self-sufficiency. The boy is still too insecure in his adult maleness to approach these men for help; he cannot even acknowledge that he needs their help.

Rojas provides the boy with many of the elements of manhood. He has served as a mess boy on an earlier ship and been a stowaway on another. He has spent sufficient time on his own, earning a wage and supporting himself, and yet, insecurity still consumes him. In his study of the psychological conflict in "The Glass of Milk," Robert Scott suggests that the boy's inability to accept help is the insecurity of early adolescence. As evidence of this insecurity, Scott points to the boy's hesitancy:

When he first appears on the scene, he seems doubtful as to which direction to take; he vacillates out of timidity and shame before refusing the food from the sailor; he waivers again, watching the stevedores, before asking for the job unloading cargo; he is reluctant to join the other men at lunch and remains alone; he waits until all the men have left the scene before asking the foreman for an advance in pay and will not enter the milk bar until the old man leaves; when he finally goes in, he stumbles over one of the chairs; he chooses a table in a corner; and finally, he is both unable to look the woman in the eye and incapable of any extended conversation with her.

In his hesitancy, the boy is timid, doubtful, and ashamed of his hunger. The homeless man is also hungry, but he is not ashamed of his hunger. He is older and more secure in his manhood, and for him, being hungry and accepting a handout does not exclude him from the male world. For the boy, however, hunger is a sign that he has not net earned full admission to this male realm.

When the day's work is finished, the boy is desperate enough for food that he asks for an advance on his earnings. This request denied, as he walks away the youth is very near collapsing. When he is at his most desperate time of need, the boy sees his home:

Suddenly he felt his entrails on fire, and he stood still. He began to bend down, down, doubling over forcibly like a rod of steel, until he thought he would drop. At that instant, as if a window opened before him, he saw his home, the view from it, the faces of his mother, brothers and sisters, all that he wanted and loved appeared and disappeared before his eyes shut by fatigue ... Then, little by little, the giddiness passed and he began to straighten up, while the burning subsided gradually.

In his moment of most extreme urgency, the boy sees the faces of his mother and siblings. He sees the feminine world of his mother and the safety that it offers. This vision gives him the strength to continue on. He does not see his father's face, and it is not the masculine world that gives him the strength to survive. It is, quite simply, the image of his mother's world that carries him toward the dairy bar.

The boy's need for the feminine sphere becomes evident in his selection of the dairy bar as his destination. Before he stops there, he passes up several nearby cheap grills. The grills are really representative of the male world, public places filled with people who gamble and drink. The dairy bar, on the other hand, is a child's world. This is the world of his mother, represented by milk and cookies and a sympathetic woman. Of course the boy does not know she is sympathetic, except intuitively. But like his mother, the woman in the dairy bar represents comfort and safety, and the familiarity of home—something he badly needs at this moment. The boy may desire manhood, but he is still a boy who has not eaten in three days, and who cannot manage even one more day without sustenance. While the boy cannot admit to his needs while in the male world, he can reveal his hunger and his loneliness to the woman in the dairy bar. For the boy, this is the essential difference between the male sphere and female sphere, the ability to admit to fallibility and vulnerability.

Certainly men can admit to these emotions, but the Latin machismo does not encourage this, and in the boy's effort to be a man, he does not yet understand that the essential strength of men can include an acknowledgment of need. Scott maintains that "it is indicative of the degree of insecurity in the youth that he cannot allow himself even a simple act of kindness from another man." Even the elderly man in the dairy bar is a threat, according to Scott, because the youth cannot allow any male "to witness such lack of manly dignity" as will occur when the boy eats without paying for his food—as he plans to do. To permit even the old man to see him would deny the boy the adult male status that he desires, whereas the woman's help does not compromise his maleness. The woman in the dairy bar assumes the mantle of the maternal, the feminine world of nurturing. In this private, domestic sphere of women, the boy can be a child again, drinking milk and eating cookies, much as he would in his mother's house. He needs the warmth and comfort of his mother, and so he instinctively seeks out this world, just as a small child refreshes himself in the warmth and safety of his mother's kitchen.

After the boy has eaten his cookies and milk, he is finally able to ask for the comfort that he needs. In the male world, he cannot cry, but in the women's world, tears and weeping are not badges of disgrace. With the woman, the youth can give in to his despair and loneliness. He can weep openly because she offers him the opportunity to do so. When he leaves the dairy bar, it is with stomach soothed and soul healed. Scott argues that through this show of community support, "the youth has 'learned' to accept support from others in a period of difficulty. This time he has opened himself to a mother figure; next time perhaps he will be able to be more open with men." But Scott's reading of Rojas' story is a psychological reading. A feminist reading of "The Glass of Milk" could posit that the youth has not learned to accept support from others. He has always known how to ask support of his mother, and at his moment of greatest need, he reverts back to what has always been acceptable—asking support of the feminine world. The boy is not any more ready to accept help from men than he was previously, and there is no reason provided in Rojas' text that suggests he will be comfortable accepting help from the masculine world until he is more comfortable with his newly acquired manhood. There is a reason that weeping before this woman creates "a great refreshing sensation ... extinguishing the hot something that had nearly strangled him." After his tears, the boy eats "as if he were at home and his mother were that woman who was standing behind the counter." For the boy, that woman represents all the love and security of his mother's world. She represents the feminine sphere, and the boy's experience illustrates how essential both worlds are to his existence.

Source: Sheri E. Metzger, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Metzger is a Ph.D. specializing in literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, where she is a lecturer in the English department and an adjunct professor in the University Honors Program.

Descriptions of Hunger in "The Glass of Milk"

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Rojas's short story "The Glass of Milk" concerns a sailor boy, in a port town far from home, without money or a job, his body wracked with hunger, who is nonetheless too proud to admit to his hunger or accept the charity of others. Much of the story focuses on descriptions of the boy's experience of hunger, in terms of his perceptions of the world around him, his physical sensations, his thoughts and feelings, and his interactions with others.

As the story opens, a sailor, leaning on the rail of a ship, holds a package of food which he first offers to the boy as he passes by on the dock, and then gives to a tramp. This scene establishes a contrast between the reaction of the boy to this offer of charity and the reaction of the tramp, while also indicating that the boy's hunger is no less extreme, and his situation no less desperate, than that of the tramp. The first indication that the package held by the sailor contains food is that it is "grease-spotted." Upon first appearance on the scene, the boy's demeanor does not betray his hunger. He walks along the wharf "with his hands in his pockets, idling or thinking." At this point in the story, the narrator describes the scene as if from the perspective of the sailor, or any onlooker. Upon rereading, however, the reader, knowing that the boy is terribly hungry, can re-interpret this description of the boy as "idling or thinking" as an expression of his state of hunger and desperation. He may seem to the onlooker to be "idling" either because his hunger has put him in a state of listlessness, or because he is not sure what to do or where to go to obtain food. He may be "thinking" of ways out of his predicament. At the same time, he may have his hands in his pockets in an attempt not to betray to anyone how desperate he is. When the sailor calls out to the boy, asking if he is hungry, the boy's outward response at first seems ambivalent: "There was a brief silence during which the youth seemed to be thinking, and took one shorter step as if to stop ..." Although he denies to the sailor that he is hungry, the reader may interpret his behavior as an expression of the struggle within himself between his desperate need for food and his sense of pride, which prevents him from accepting the handout. He replies to the sailor "smiling feebly" that he is not hungry. His feeble smile in part indicates that he is so terribly hungry he can barely smile, yet his sense of pride causes him to try his best to appear unconcerned with food.

The "gaudy tramp" who does accept the sailor's offer of food represents an outward expression of the boy's feelings of hunger which he is too proud to demonstrate. While the boy is hesitant, and then refuses the charity, the tramp is overly eager to accept it, which he does so without pride or gratitude. The sailor asks the tramp if he is hungry, and "He had not yet finished the phrase when the tramp looked with shining eyes at the package the sailor held in his hand ..." While the boy lies, responding that he is not hungry, the tramp expresses outwardly what the boy experiences inside: "Yes, sir; I'm very much hungry!" The tramp's eagerness to accept this charity is further indicated by the description of the package landing "in the eager hands" of the tramp. The tramp's happiness and eagerness in accepting this charity is further described by the way in which he "happily rubbed his hands" at the sight of the food.

The story goes on to describe in a variety of ways how hunger affects the boy, both physically and mentally. "He had not eaten for exactly three days and three long nights." Although he cannot bring himself to accept handouts, from both "timidity and shame," his refusal of the sailor's offer seems to exacerbate the hunger, as "he felt his hunger increase with the refusal." The boy's internal state of hunger affects his perceptions of the world around him, so that his impression of the port town in which he has been wandering hungrily takes on a dark, oppressive, and horrible demeanor: "It seemed a place of slavery; stale, dark, without the grand sweep of the sea; among its high walls and narrow streets people lived and died bewildered by agonizing drudgery."

Although he refuses to accept charity, the boy finally decides "to resort to any means to get some food." When he is hired to work loading cargo onto a steamship, he takes his place "enthusiastically" among the workers. However, his extreme hunger affects his ability to work, and he "began to feel tired and dizzy; he swayed as he crossed the gangplank, the heavy load on his shoulder ..." His hunger and exhaustion again cause him to look at the world around him as a dark, dirty, and unsightly place; he looks down at the water below the wharf, "stained with oil and littered with garbage." Because of his extreme hunger, he ends the workday "completely exhausted, covered with sweat, at the end of his rope." Although he decides to ask the foreman for an advance on his pay, his hunger leaves him "confused and stuttering." Refusing the foreman's paltry offer of the forty cents in his pocket, the boy thanks him "with an anguished smile." Again, as with the sailor, the boy attempts to hide his hunger and despair with a smile, but his true state of mind is expressed by his "anguish."

At this point, the story's description of the boy's hunger becomes more extreme and anguished, the physical sensations brought on by hunger more painful:

Then the boy was seized by acute despair. He was hungry, hungry, hungry! Hunger doubled him over, like a heavy, broad whiplash. He saw everything through a blue haze, and he staggered like a drunk when he walked. Nevertheless, he would not have been able to complain or shout, for his suffering was deep and exhausting; it was not pain, but anguish, the end! It seemed to him that he was flattened out by a great weight.

The narrator uses several literary devices in depicting the extremes of hunger experienced by the boy. Repetition, such as in the phrase "hungry, hungry, hungry!" is used throughout the story to emphasize the boy's condition. The narrator also makes use of figurative language to depict the boy's state of hunger. The hunger "doubled him over, like a heavy, broad whiplash"; because of the hunger "it seemed to him that he was flattened out by a great weight." The narrator further describes the ways in which hunger affects the boy's physical abilities; his vision is affected, as he "saw everything through a blue haze," as is his ability to walk, in that "he staggered like a drunk." Eventually, the hunger causes a burning sensation in his gut, as "he felt his entrails on fire, and he stood still. He began to bend down, down, doubling over forcibly like a rod of steel, until he thought he would drop."

Recovering slightly from this spell of dizziness caused by the hunger, "he made up his mind to eat anywhere, without paying, even." Again, the narrator uses the literary device of repetition to emphasize the boy's hunger and his determination to eat: "the main thing was to eat, eat, eat. A hundred times he mentally repeated the word: eat, eat, eat, until it lost its meaning, leaving his head feeling hot and empty." He imagines that he will eat somewhere, and then explain to the owner, "I was hungry, hungry, hungry, and I can't pay."

After the boy enters the milk bar and begins to drink the glass of milk and eat the wafers, the narrator describes the process by which his hunger subsides, leaving him with anew physical sensation in his body, and new vision of the world around him. As he begins to eat, "he felt the burning in his stomach diminishing, dying away." After he cries from relief, the food begins to restore the physical sensation of his body: "... he felt a great refreshing sensation spread inside him, extinguishing the hot something that had nearly strangled him." Unlike the tramp at the beginning of the story who did not bother to thank the sailor for his charity, the boy thanks the waitress at the milk bar for allowing him to eat and drink without paying for it. After he leaves the milk bar, the sensations in his body, previously wracked with hunger, are refreshing and energetic. "The wind blowing from the sea refreshed his face ..." His entire attitude and outlook on life are refreshed, as well. As he walks along, "he straightened up happily, strode on with assurance and determination." He walks along the sea, "with a spring in his step; he felt like a new man, as if his inner forces, previously scattered, had reassembled and united solidly." Whereas, in his hunger, the sea, the wharf, and the port town had seemed to him dirty and oppressive, the story ends, once he has eaten, with an image of the sea as life-giving and full of hope: "He just felt alive, that was all. Then he fell asleep with his face toward the sea."

Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Brent has a Ph.D. in American culture, with a specialization in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema.


Critical Overview