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Last Updated on October 3, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 537

The Poet

The play’s protagonist, a young poet, is not named, a stylistic choice that highlights his nature as incomplete, engaged in a constant search for itself throughout the play. At the beginning of the play, his lifeless, almost inanimate condition sets him in sharp contrast to Lustys’ vibrancy. He...

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The Poet

The play’s protagonist, a young poet, is not named, a stylistic choice that highlights his nature as incomplete, engaged in a constant search for itself throughout the play. At the beginning of the play, his lifeless, almost inanimate condition sets him in sharp contrast to Lustys’ vibrancy. He is repulsed by the prospect of visiting the Lustys in their basement yet is convinced by the invisible girl in the next room to go down and confront the couple and the realities they represent. He appears to have some degree of moral principle, in that after Will’s death he assists Mrs. Lusty in carrying her dead husband upstairs, and he also takes responsibility for inviting the older man’s family to the funeral. But he is insensitive in his rejection of Mrs. Lusty and, throughout the play, seems generally more interested in his quest for self-discovery than in the feelings of those around him.

Alma Lusty

Mrs. Lusty is at once seductive and gruesome, enthralling and horrible. Both in body and in personality she shows the signs of a life spent in the pursuit of all sorts of material pleasures, pleasures for which she still longs. She is somewhat muddled in how she relates to the young poet, imagining him as a replacement for her dead son at one moment and in the next perceiving him as her former lover Fred, a confusion that has incestuous undertones. In her genuine remorse for Will’s death she evokes the audience’s sympathy, and in her decision to serve ham at his wake as if it was the chief of luxuries, she demonstrates how limited her experience has been of the world she wishes to encompass and consume in its entirety.

Will Lusty

Will’s total immobility signifies that even prior to his death, the effects of material consumption, namely of sugar while working in a confectionary shop, have effectively brought about his termination as a physical being. But his obvious intelligence, and the simplicity with which he delivers his statements, lends him a presence of solidity and authority. Unlike the young poet, who is tortured by not knowing himself, or Mrs. Lusty, who is tortured by a desire to consume and internalize anything and everything she can, Will is able to nurture himself on very basic realities, such as the reality of existing. When he dies, Will remains the play’s dominant object, with his corpse dominating the other characters just as he had in life.

The Girl

The unseen girl exerts a powerful influence over the young poet, being able to convince him to descend to the basement and confront the Lustys, and later, though not directly, to flee from the seductions of Mrs. Lusty. His attraction to her is partly romantic but partly to do with his identity, in that she is what he lacks in himself to make him “complete.” The wall through which the pair communicate constitutes a barrier that the young poet has established in his own mind between him and the other part of himself that the girl represents.

The Four Relations

Cartoonish in their evil and similarity to one another, these four relations torment Alma and are ultimately dismissed by the Young Man.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 736

The Young Man

The Young Man, a tenant in the Lustys’ house, a poet and a dreamer. Although his true name is never revealed, the Young Man is called both “Jack” and “Fred” by the Landlady, the former because he reminds her of the infant son she lost and the latter because he brings to mind a lover she once had. The Young Man spends copious amounts of time either lying on his bed staring at the ceiling or with his ear pressed against the door of the room across the hall, waiting to commune with the Girl, who inhabits the room. He is penniless and, despite his pretensions to a literary life, he has written only one poem, which he later discards. Instead, he talks a considerable amount about life and art, using sophisticated vocabulary, until he meets his silent, taciturn Landlord, who jolts the Young Man out of his stagnation with simple, profound truths. The Landlord dies, however, before the Young Man can question him. The Young Man takes on the responsibility for notifying the Lustys’ relatives and inviting them to the funeral. When the Landlady attempts to seduce him, the Young Man cruelly spurns her advances in favor of listening to the musings of the ever-unseen, wraithlike Girl. Finally, with the Girl’s help, he reconciles the needs of both body and soul and leaves the house in search of wholeness.

The Landlady

The Landlady, Alma Lusty, a blowsy, overripe woman tending to slovenliness. She is a gregarious creature who particularly craves the attention of men. It comes as something of a surprise that she has been married to the grim, stonelike Landlord for almost twenty years. She delights in material comforts and still mourns the death of her son, Jack, in his infancy. Alma feels some guilt for an affair she once had, which may or may not have produced the child she lost. She is attracted to the Young Man, both as a son-substitute and as a lover, but until the Landlord’s death she offers him only friendship. She believes her lodger to be a little bit crazy. Although she finds a poem he discarded, she admits she could not read his educated words. After her husband dies, Alma shows real remorse and vows to serve ham following his funeral, ham being the most elegant repast she can think of to honor his memory. After the wake, Alma tries to seduce the Young Man. He rejects her and leaves, but not without first making peace. Alone at the end, as at the beginning, Alma is a survivor.

The Landlord

The Landlord, Will Lusty, a fat, slovenly man who neither moves nor speaks. He harbors resentment toward his wife for her affairs and lives mostly in the past, in a time when he used to run a sweets shop. His occasional pronouncements make it evident that there is much going on inside Will’s head. He is the real philosopher of the play, seeing life in things such as tables and reveling in the simple fact of being. Following his silent, unglamorous death, it is his funeral and the echo of his mysterious words that dominate the action.

The Girl

The Girl, Phyllis Pither, the Young Man’s insubstantial anima. She is serious, with her expression remote but radiant. Dressed in white, with long, fair hair, she plays the part of the poet’s muse. Although the Young Man yearns to see and touch her, she will not (in fact, cannot) permit him to do either. Instead, they talk through the door to her room. She provides him with moral balance by urging him to reconcile the disparate, conflicting halves of himself. The Girl, however, is a phantom; her real-life counterpart is a drab, mousy woman named Phyllis Pither.

Two ladies

Two ladies, formerly prostitutes, now bag ladies. When the Young Man meets them, they are methodically going through garbage bins, eating rejected scraps of food, reading discarded letters, and chatting about life. The Young Man’s affected manner and obvious disgust offend them, as does the sight, once they near the bottom of the bin, of a dead fetus.

Four relatives

Four relatives, all of whom inhabit one house. They are beckoned to the ham funeral by the Young Man. They prove less than sympathetic toward the widow, making vulgar jabs at her character, all the while devouring her ham.

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