Study Guide

The Human Comedy

by William Saroyan

The Human Comedy Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Human Comedy, dedicated to Takoohi Saroyan, was first written as a screenplay under a contractual arrangement with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but in 1943, with the film version in production, Saroyan used the script scenario as the basis of his first and most popular novel. Set in Ithaca, a fictional name for Fresno, the work is based on some of Saroyan’s boyhood experiences and familiar reminiscences. In fact, the Macauley family, central in the plot, has parallels to Saroyan’s real family, without, however, a similar heritage.

The novel’s main character, Homer Macauley, is a fourteen-year-old adolescent with a job and some experiences that relate to actual events in the author’s life. With his father deceased and his older brother in the Army, Homer must assume adult responsibilities beyond his years. He is a surrogate father to his younger brother, Ulysses, and the provider for his whole family. At the outset of the novel, he has secured a part-time job as a telegraph messenger boy, which takes him into a variety of homes and businesses to encounter the richly delineated and variegated characters that people the novel.

Apart from Homer, the most engaging characters are Mr. Grogan, the old, rummy telegraph operator; Spangler, the telegraph office manager; Homer’s mother, Kate Macauley; Miss Hicks, Homer’s teacher; and Ulysses, his younger brother. These and a few others, such as Marcus, Homer’s older brother, are rather representative of the vintage Saroyan character who, though well enough individualized, shares with the rest a simple faith, love for life, and inherent goodness.

Although there is a central, persistent concern with the disruptive impact of World War II on the lives of these characters, the novel, like Saroyan’s early sketches, provides a series of vignettes that are only loosely connected. Some have no inherent connection to the central focus of the novel or causal relationship to scenes juxtaposed to them. Nevertheless, most offer charming, human-interest interludes and comic leavening to the novel’s more serious themes and...

(The entire section is 860 words.)

The Human Comedy Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Ulysses Macauley, the youngest member of the Macauley family, is out exploring the world. Among the many things he sees is a freight train, and on the train there is a black man riding on a gondola car. The man is singing “Old Kentucky Home.” He and Ulysses wave to each other until the train is out of sight.

Ulysses’ brother, Homer, is fourteen and has just started an after-school job as a messenger in a telegraph office to help support his family. Homer works with Mr. Grogan, an elderly telegraph operator, and Mr. Spangler, the young office manager. The atmosphere in the telegraph office is friendly and easygoing, and Mr. Spangler gives Homer a quarter to go and buy two pies for Mr. Grogan and the boy to share. While they are eating the pies, Mr. Grogan types a message that has just come in. It is addressed to Mrs. Rosa Sandoval, informing her that her son has been killed in the war.

At the Macauley home, Mrs. Macauley, the mother of Ulysses and Homer, is playing the piano and singing with her daughter Bess. They are playing a song for Marcus, the oldest of the four Macauley children, who is away serving in the U.S. Army. While they are playing, Mary Arena, Marcus’s girlfriend, comes in from next door and joins them. Later, when the young women go upstairs to put Ulysses to bed, Mrs. Macauley sees and talks to her husband—who died two years earlier.

Still at work, Homer delivers the telegraph to Mrs. Sandoval and is deeply moved by the experience. When he returns to the office, he has to awaken Mr. Grogan, who is partially inebriated and asleep at the telegraph machine. When Homer returns home, he finds his mother waiting up for him, and they talk for a while before he goes to bed.

The next morning on the way to school, Homer talks briefly with an old Spanish-American War veteran. Later, while attending his ancient history class, Homer is distracted by Hubert Ackley III and Helen Eliot. Hubert is a member of a well-off family in town, and Helen is his girlfriend. Homer is attracted to the girl. During the class, Hubert and Homer get into a verbal exchange, and the teacher, Miss Hicks, tells them that they must remain after school. This is troubling to both of them since they are expecting to participate in an after-school track meet. During the class, Homer also gives a lengthy discourse on the human nose and its role in history.

Miss Hicks plans to have a talk with Homer and Hubert after school. However, the track coach, Mr. Byfield, comes in and lies to her, saying that the principal has given permission for Hubert to be released. Eventually, Miss Hicks allows Homer to leave too, and when the team lines up for the...

(The entire section is 1097 words.)