"The Human Comedy" by William Saroyan was the author's first full-length novel. He actually wrote a screenplay that was produced with the same title before novelizing his screenplay. Both the movie and book came out in 1943. Saroyan shares many similarities with the novel's protagonist, Homer Macauley, including the fact that both Saroyan and Macauley served as telegraph messengers and both have deceased fathers.
"The Human Comedy" takes place in the fictional town of Ithaca, California. This small town is presented as a sort of American melting pot with families of many different nationalities all coexisting peacefully. Although an exact year is not given, the novel takes place during World War II, and many of the young men of the town are serving in the armed forces.
Point of View
The novel is told from a third-person omniscient point of view. The main character is Homer Macauley, a 14-year-old telegraph messenger. Most of the novel follows Homer on his various adventures. However, some other perspectives are included as well, including Homer's younger brother Ulysses, Thomas Spangler, who owns the telegraph office, and Homer's older brother Marcus.
Main Storyline (Spoilers)
Primarily, "The Human Comedy" is a classic bildungsroman, or novel of development. With Homer's father dead and his older brother in the army, Homer feels it is his duty to provide for his family, so he takes an after school job delivering telegrams. Although we do get to see some of Homer's behavior in school, where he experiences many common teenage plights, including problems with teachers and a rivalry with another student, mostly we see Homer at work delivering telegraphs. He enjoys his job, but the one part of it he does not enjoy is delivering telegraphs that inform mothers that their sons have been killed in the war. These troubling deliveries foreshadow the telegraph that arrives at the office for the Macauley family toward the end of the novel to inform them that Marcus has been killed in the war. The telegraph makes a heartbroken and angry Homer ask, "Who's the enemy?"
Secondary Storyline (More Spoilers)
Although the main storyline focuses on a boy forced by circumstances to grow up a little too fast, the secondary storyline has a more positive theme, focusing on the goodness and kindness of others. Many of the chapters that follow Ulysses on his adventures demonstrate this theme. It is also apparent from the generosity of Thomas Spangler as well as in the descriptions of the Ithaca town folk. Finally, the sad ending is mitigated by the fact that Tobey, Marcus's wartime companion, has survived the war and comes to Ithaca to find the one thing he has always wanted -- a place to call home.
- The William Saroyan Society: Chronology
- "The Nation"; The Cult of Innocence; William Phillips; February 1943
- "The Human Comedy"; William Saroyan; 1971
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