Study Guide - The Human Comedy
The Human Comedy is William Saroyan’s first published novel. It began as a screenplay written for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio head Louis B. Mayer, but when delivered, it was twice as long as a typical script, and Saroyan removed himself from the project. Saroyan took the scenario of the script and converted it into a novel, while the revised script, written by Howard Estabrook, made for a significantly different film produced by MGM. The film, starring Mickey Rooney, won an Academy Award for Best Story, while the novel became a best-seller.
The Human Comedy tells the story of Homer Macauley and his family during the early days of World War II in fictional Ithaca, California. Homer, 14 years old, works for Mr. Spangler as a telegraph boy. His mother has been widowed and is a source for both comfort and contemplation for the family. We get to see Homer’s interactions with his community, both at school with teachers and other students, as well as in the town of Ithaca at the town shop and telegraph office.
Homer’s brother Marcus is off at war, and one night the ghost of Mrs. Macauley’s husband comes and tells her that soon he will be joined by her son. We are given brief glimpses of Marcus heading off to war and his friendship with Tobey George, a fellow soldier.
The novel deals with issues of mortality, coming-of-age, community, and the impact of war on families. The structure of the novel, linear but more a series of connected vignettes than a traditional novel narrative, gives much room for the characters to become fully-formed, and explores dynamics of the community.
The book features numerous illustrations from Don Freeman, who would later go on to write and illustrate many children’s books.
The main character of The Human Comedy is Homer Macauley, a 14-year-old boy of Ithaca, California. He is a telegraph messenger, bringing messages sent to the telegraph office out to their intended receivers. Homer needs the job to help bring in money for the family, and he initially loves the job, striving to be the best messenger boy they have. He delivers messages, some of which are from the War Department announcing the death of local loved ones.
He is a happy young man, and a dedicated son and brother, and wants nothing more than to travel the world.
Homer attends Ithaca High School. He has a crush on Helen Elliot, who he considers the most beautiful girl in the world. She is the girlfriend of Hubert Ackley III, who is Homer’s least favorite person. He is inspired by Mr. Spangler to run the 220-yard hurdles.
His brother Marcus, in his final letter, refers to Homer as “the best of the Macauleys.”
Mr. Spangler is the manager of the telegraph office. He is a kind man and hires Homer to act as a messenger. His girlfriend, Diana, is very much in love with him, though he has difficulty reciprocating it. He rarely goes out into the world, but Diana helps to draw him out. He is very generous and patriotic, and treats people of different ethnicities the same. Even when faced with a robber, he is kind and generous.
Mr. Grogan is an older gentleman who works as the telegraph operator at the telegrapher office. He and Homer become friends. Despite their age difference, Mr. Grogan treats Homer as something of an equal. He has a tendency to drink alcohol and even instructs Homer on how to rouse him when he’s drunk. Mr. Grogan has been a highly-skilled telegraph operator for years, but is afraid that he will be replaced by a Teletype, an automatic telegraph interpreter. He deals out advice to Homer while they work together. Sometimes, he is deeply affected by the messages he records. His health is starting to fail him, and he passes away as he records his last telegraph message announcing the death of Marcus Macauley.
Mrs. Katey Macauley
The matriarch of the Macauley family, Katey Macauley is the widowed mother of Homer, Marcus, Ulysses, and Bess Macauley. Her husband passed away two years prior to the start of the events of the novel. She is a loving mother of her poor family. She is philosophical and somewhat ethereal in her view of life. She plays the harp and leads the family in everyday life. She communicates with her dead husband, Matthew, at times, and he tells her that Marcus is going to come with him.
Marcus is the eldest son of the Macauley family. At the start of the book, he is off fighting World War II, and has befriended Tobey George, a fellow soldier. He admires his late father greatly, especially the fact that he worked so hard to provide for his family. He is planning to marry Mary Arena when he returns from war. He sends a letter to Homer instructing him to become the man of the house if Marcus doesn’t return, but that he wishes to come back and spend his life with the family in Ithaca.
Tobey is a soldier who is a good friend of Marcus Macauley. He is an orphan who feels as if he’s detached from the world. Marcus wishes to share his life in Ithaca with Tobey, and Tobey wants to be a part of the Macauley family as well. Marcus tries to set up Tobey with his sister, who Tobey has only seen in a photograph that Marcus has given him and which has led him to fall in love with her from a distance. After Marcus’ death, Tobey comes to Ithaca and is welcomed by the Macauley family.
Mary is a neighbor of the Macauley family, and Bess’s friend. She is in college, but initially wants to leave college to get a job. She is the girlfriend of Marcus Macauley, who is off at war, and plans to marry Marcus when he returns. She is a frequent visitor to the Macauley home and sings with the family.
The older sister of Marcus, Homer, and Ulysses Macauley, Bess is the best friend of Mary Arena. Tobey George is given a picture of her by Marcus, and Tobey becomes infatuated with her.
Ulysses Macauley is the youngest child of the Macauley family. He is four years old and has all the curiosity of a child his age. He misses his oldest brother and father, and often tries to make sense of a world where things don’t seem reasonable. He gets himself caught in a trap, but is unhurt by the experience. Ulysses becomes friendly with Mr. Grogan while Homer is working.
Mortality and Grief
Perhaps the principal theme of Saroyan’s writing, mortality plays an essential role in The Human Comedy. Not only do several characters die in the novel, but it deals with the external matters connected to death, especially the individual process of grieving.
The Macauley family patriarch, William Macauley, has been dead for two years when the novel opens, though he is a presence both in the thoughts and actions of his surviving family and as a ghost who communicates with Mrs. Macauley. His absence is felt, though not understood, by young Ulysses, and he is warmly remembered by his son Marcus in his letter to his brother Homer. At once, he is seen as gone, which is how Ulysses feels, and always there because of the impact he has had on the rest of the family. Saroyan plays with this idea in several of his works, and here is exploring the idea of memory as a form of living.
We see all of the stages of grief -- denial, bargaining, depression, anger, and acceptance, represented at various times throughout The Human Comedy. Homer delivers a message from the War Department to Mrs. Sandoval telling her that her son has been killed. He feels the need to add that it must be a mistake and that he must be alive. Mrs. Sandoval, though, seems to accept this as truth immediately, and moves forward. Homer, in his youth, is at the first stage of grief, denial; Mrs. Sandoval is reacting as if she is at the final stage, acceptance. We see Homer get angry after delivering the news from the War Department, as well as briefly after the death of Mr. Grogan. Felix, following the death of Mr. Grogan, seems to be experiencing the third stage, bargaining.
As the stages of grief happen differently for everyone who encounters them, Homer deals with his brother’s death with a bit of anger. “When my father died, it was different,” Homer says following the receipt of the death notice for his brother. “He had lived a good life. He had raised a good family. We were sad because he was dead, but we weren’t sore. Now I’m sore and I haven’t got anybody to be sore at.” This passage shows Homer reflecting on the undirected anger he is feeling, the second stage of grief, whereas he had previously gone to the third stage, depression, with the death of his father.
But it is ultimately the idea of acceptance that seems to be the main message. After learning of the death of Marcus, we see the family come together to sing as Tobey George meets the family he has heard so much about. They bring him in as if he is immediately a part of the family. We are left with the idea that yes, they have had to accept the reality of their loss, but there is still life here, and they must live it in spite of their grief.
Small Town Life
Ithaca, California, is not a real town, but it is closely modeled on Saroyan’s own hometown of Fresno. Saroyan was born in Fresno and spent much of his youth in the city. The location of the town, the climate, and the agricultural nature of the real and fictional cities are near-exact duplicates. Ithaca is a town that is ethnically diverse, much like Fresno, and is a stop along the railway. The town is not a large one, and thus there are a few stores, a market, a chain store, likely what would be called a supermarket today, a telegraph office, schools, a theater, and a few other shops. Most towns like Ithaca were built around thoroughfares -- roads, rivers, or train tracks -- as a way to ensure arrival of goods, and to allow for the export of items to other towns. Ithaca, with a largely agricultural setting, would have relied on the train to get its goods both in and out of town. Saroyan opens the novel with Ulysses waving at the African-American worker on the train and this may well be a nod to the important role the train plays in everyday life in Ithaca.
As we are presented with Ithaca, we are shown how it is not yet a town of the 1940s in many ways. The telegraph office would not have been completely out of place, but by the 1940s, most telegraph operators had been replaced by Teletype machines for receiving and printing messages, and multiplexers and repeaters for transmitting messages further down the line. There are cars mentioned, but even the telegrams are delivered by bicycle messengers.
Saroyan gives us a series of glimpses of life in Ithaca that indicate a time of simple concerns and a town that values inclusion and charity. Mr. Spangler is a good example of the way of life in Ithaca being different from what we would expect. When he is faced with an armed robber, he simply hands over the money, not because he is afraid, but because he can tell the robber needs it. He engages with the robber not as a threat, but as a person who needs help. This is in stark opposition to how this same scenario would likely play out in bigger cities.
Saroyan’s presentation of small-town life is in direct opposition to the way that small towns are shown in stories by contemporaries like Sherwood Anderson and Ray Bradbury. Saroyan sees the good in small-town life, and perhaps even shows a longing for the simplicity of it. Saroyan negatively portrays the visit of Rosalie Simms-Pibity, with her insistence on pronunciation and the listing of all her accomplishments to the Ithaca Parlor Lecture Club. This insistence on formality seems far from the norm for Ithaca, and Homer’s reaction to receiving the dime tip for delivering the telegram to her plays on the idea of how those from the big city see small-town life.
Saroyan often works with the idea of what America means as a part of a larger narrative structure. His settings are places of kindness, and more importantly, places where various kinds of people can interact, largely positively. Saroyan, who grew up an Armenian-American in the racially diverse city of Fresno, often writes about characters from different backgrounds, and even if interactions are not completely positive, the reason for conflict is rarely due to racial divides.
We are given characters whose English is not altogether perfect, but they are all working together to give each other the best possible life. When a character is shown to see themself as above others, they are painted not necessarily as a villain, but as a fish out of water, someone who doesn’t necessarily belong, and who at the very least requires time to come to understand. This shows in the class dynamics present throughout the book, and is most evident in the way Homer views, and later accepts, posh Hubert Ackley III. There is distrust and more than a little envy, but eventually, there is an understanding of their differences and a settling of Homer’s grudges.
The mixing of ethnicities in the Fresno of Saroyan’s youth, where large populations of those from Armenia, Mexico, Japan, and the Philippines interacted with the Anglo population, sometimes led to tension. While Saroyan makes note that the white population of Fresno looked down on the Armenians in The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse, and it is true that most ethnic groups at the time were confined to enclaves, there was more mixing of races on a daily basis in Fresno than in most cities in America at the time. We see little strife in Ithaca coming from ethnic issues in The Human Comedy.
When Homer delivers the War Department notice to Mrs. Sandoval, as well as when he delivers letters to others, he treats every person with the same respect, regardless of ethnicity. Even when he encounters someone he is not fond of, he still gives them their due attention. Homer appears either unaware of their differences, or perhaps he is only aware of the differences that directly affect his life, such as those of class and social standing in high school. We see there is tension, but then acceptance once gaps are bridged. This message appears in several of the vignettes in The Human Comedy, and also in Saroyan’s popular short story collection, My Name is Aram.
Little Ulysses Macauley also has a scene that addresses racial considerations having little importance. In the opening scene of the book, as a train drives by, he and an African-American train worker wave at each other. In this moment, we see that Ulysses has no compunction about interacting with a Black man from a population not largely present in Ithaca. We see that Ulysses is excited at the possibility to see him again, not because this is an exotic encounter, but because the man waved back and sang. The interaction is highlighted -- that by being the only one who waved back at the four-year-old, the man becomes a part of his world. That distinction is key to understanding Saroyan’s view: everyone is judged by their actions and their interactions.
William Saroyan deploys quite a unique style in his writing. He is sometimes called a minimalist for keeping his writing direct and to the point rather than filled with excessive description. This economy of language may have come from the short form works he wrote for the first decade of his career. In The Human Comedy, he allows himself a bit more freedom in his writing, while still maintaining a tight format.
One notable style choice is that the stories of the Macauley family and Ithaca are not told in a straight, traditional, point-to-point narrative. Instead they are broken into a series of scenes, some of which are detached from the main action. They are generally laid out chronologically, though some stories have no literal connection to others, and they could be placed anywhere in the story and not change anything.
In structure, The Human Comedy is closest to a coming-of-age story. Homer can be read as the main character, and most of the action is either his or reflecting on his situation. At the age of 14 and getting his first job, he is at a critical turning point in his life, and that turning point helps inform the rest of the story.
Study Questions/Essay Prompts
- Why does Homer feel so uncomfortable staying with Mrs. Sandoval after delivering the news of her son’s death?
- In what ways is Ithaca, California like the town you live in? In what ways is it different?
- What elements of William Saroyan’s own life did he use as inspiration for The Human Comedy?
- What is the significance of the title The Human Comedy?
- What role does religion play in The Human Comedy?
- How would you deliver the news of the loss of a family member to the rest of your family?
- Saroyan’s other works often feature Armenians as the central characters, but here we are given the Macauleys, who appear to be an Anglo family. Why do you think Saroyan made that choice?
My Name is Aram by William Saroyan, Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1940
Fresno County Historical Society Curriculum on Migration - https://www.valleyhistory.org/central-ca-migration-curriculum
The History of the Telegraph in California - https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/41168703.pdf