"The Human Comedy" Book Summary

by Leah Waldron-Gross Google

Drawing from the symbolism of Homer's "The Odyssey," William Saroyan's "The Human Comedy" tells the story of a 14-year-old boy living in California and working as a telegram boy in the midst of World War I. Published in 1943, the book earned Saroyan a "Best Original Story" Oscar for its later film adaptation.


"The Human Comedy" is set in the fictional town of Ithaca, which sits in California´s San Joaquin Valley. Saroyan grew up in Fresno, which may be the inspiration for the setting, but the Ithaca reference is an homage to Homer's "The Odyssey." While the narrator, Homer, lives primarily in Ithaca, much of the outside world is brought into view through his World War I telegram messenger job.


The 14-year-old Homer lives with his loving mother, Katey, who was widowed when Homer's father, Matthew, was killed in the war. Homer's siblings include older brother Marcus, who is also off fighting in the war, older sister Bess, who is studying away from home at college, and younger, 4-year old brother Ulysses, another nod to "The Odyssey." Homer's father has been dead for two years as the book begins -- he died when Homer was 12. By the end of the book, Marcus will also be killed in the war.


"The Human Comedy" focuses on the juxtaposition of Homer's personal life with his position of messenger boy for the war. Homer must deliver personal, often devastating news from the war, but he is determined to be great at his job. Eventually, the lines between his own life and the telegrams begin to blur, making the world's events more real to him in his safe life. Through his interactions with his family, neighbors and people he meets through his telegram service, he begins a rite of passage into manhood.

Symbolism and Meaning

Drawing from "The Odyssey," "The Human Comedy" is a coming-of-age novel that explores American patriotism during a time of war. Saroyan's own heritage is Armenian, but he grew up in America as the son of Armenian immigrants, which may explain the pro-American sentiment in the novel. The book is also a story of family bonding, as Homer experiences the loss of two family members only to become closer to his mother and other siblings.

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