The Ham Funeral Themes
by Patrick White

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The Ham Funeral Themes

Squalor and Confinement

One of the key themes in this play is squalor and ugliness, which is conveyed by the setting: a typically dingy and disreputable boardinghouse in the city of London. A sense of unpleasant claustrophobia is produced by the small spaces in which the play’s events unfold, the narrow confines of the basement and the poet’s room. A sense of release is thus experienced by an audience when, at the play’s conclusion, the poet steps out into the night and the eternal spaces of the world beyond.

Spiritual versus Earthly Love

The protagonist in this play feels a spiritual attraction for the unnamed girl in the room adjacent to his own. The aesthetic purity of this love is sustained by the fact that he never physically sees or touches her. The woman who in fact occupies that room is shown to be unremarkable in terms of her physical appearance and intellect. Similarly, the protagonist rejects Mrs. Lusty’s proposal that they engage in a sexual encounter, seemingly because of his longing for a form of love which is not of the flesh, but of the soul.

Pity and Poverty

The poverty of Mrs. Lusty, both in a material and in an emotional sense, is very much emphasized by White. An audience is meant to respond to her with a mix of empathy and disgust, a fusion of emotions which equals pity. Her physical poverty is conveyed by her plans to produce a ham for the funeral of her husband. The fact that she knows of no greater luxury than ham informs an audience that her poverty has lasted her whole life, that her worldview is limited and constricted by years spent in the metaphorical basement of society. Her emotional poverty is indicated by her offer of a sexual encounter, which she makes to the poet immediately after her husband’s demise. On one level this horrifies an audience with its immorality, yet on another it speaks to Lusty’s need for companionship and emotional support, a need which seems all the more pressing in the context of the treatment she receives from her demonic relatives.

Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Ham Funeral portrays a young man’s discovery of self and the resultant birth of a poet who had isolated himself from life. In the prologue he has just “woken,” just become aware that he “must take part in the play” that focuses on him. Although he speaks of the “poet’s tragedy”—“to know too much, and never enough,” he is a poet only in theory, for his only poem has been discarded in the trash can. Before he can walk out into the “luminous night” at the end of the play, he must grapple with life, must hold the stage and participate.

Once the play proper begins, the audience first sees the Young Man in scene 3—in his bedroom, his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. He is physically and emotionally isolated from the vital if repellent reality in the basement. Alma’s question, “Or am I speakin’ to a dummy?” suggests not only that he cannot speak (and communication is another of White’s themes) but also that he is not human. He is a fragmented personality, only partially developed. In Jungian terms, the...

(The entire section is 828 words.)