Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 349
The Human Comedy is a WWII-era novel by Willian Saroyan. The author himself grew up in Fresno, California as the son of an Armenian immigrant. The protagonist of Saroyan's novel is Homer Macauley, whose father is deceased. Homer's older brother Marcus, is away in the war when the novel begins,...
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- Critical Essays
The Human Comedy is a WWII-era novel by Willian Saroyan. The author himself grew up in Fresno, California as the son of an Armenian immigrant. The protagonist of Saroyan's novel is Homer Macauley, whose father is deceased. Homer's older brother Marcus, is away in the war when the novel begins, and so Homer takes care of his mother, Kate, his older sister, Bess, and his younger brother, Ulysses.
The novel's 39 chapters tell the story of Homer as he navigates life as an adolescent in middle America. In the beginning of the book, Homer, who works as a telegraph boy, has to deliver news to a middle-aged woman of her son's passing. Homer learns about the world primarily from his experiences at work, under the direction of Mr. Spangler, his boss, and the elderly Mr. Grogan, who also works in the telegraph office.
At the town shop, there works a vivacious and inspiring Mr. Ara and miserly Mr. Covington. Ulysses and Homer regularly shop for provisions there.
At school, Homer is influenced by the upstanding principle, Mr. Ek and the athletic trainer Mr. Byfield. He develops a crush on Helen, who is is the girlfriend of a wealthy young boy named Hubert. At a track meet, the athletic trainer tries to sabotage Homer, but Hubert thwarts the other runners until Homer is back on his feet.
Homer's mother, Mrs. Macauley, is wise and philosophical. At one point in the novel, she is visited by the ghost of her husband, who tells her that their son will soon join him. During a brief interlude the novel's setting switches settings to a train, where the older son, Marcus, is telling his friend, Tobey, about his family back home. Marcus expresses interest in Tobey marrying his sister, Bess.
Soon after, at the telegraph office, Homer finds the aged Mr. Groban dead from a heart attack at his typewriter, having died while typing something addressed to Homer's mother. On his way home, Homer finds Tobey, Marcus's friend, come to announce Marcus' death. He is welcome into the Macauley home enthusiastically, despite the tragic circumstance.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1097
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 low hurdles Homer takes the spot next to Hubert. As the race gets underway, the track coach physically tries to knock Homer out of the race, but Hubert, displaying his inherent sense of honor, stops the other runners until Homer has regained his feet. The race then continues and Herbert and Homer finish in a tie.
While all of this is taking place, Ulysses, who is out exploring again, manages to get caught in an animal trap at a local sporting goods store. The incident draws a crowd of people, and the trap eventually has to be dismantled to release the boy. That evening, Bess and Mary bring three soldiers they meet to the telegraph office to send telegrams to their families, and Homer delivers another death telegram. After Homer leaves for home, a young man tries to hold up the telegraph office, but Mr. Spangler, who has just returned from a date with his fiancé, talks him out of it. That night, Homer has a nightmare containing various elements of the day’s events.
The next day is Saturday. In the morning, Ulysses watches some of the older boys from the neighborhood attempting to steal apricots from a neighbor’s tree. He then goes to buy oatmeal for his mother at Mr. Ara’s grocery store. Back at the Macauley house, Homer and his mother discuss deep life issues. After Homer leaves for work, Mrs. Macauley again sees her dead husband, who tells her that Marcus will be joining him soon.
After the incident with the apricots and the trip to the store, Ulysses goes off with Lionel, an older boy who is developmentally challenged. They go to the public library. Lionel shows Ulysses the many shelves of books and expresses his great love for them, despite his inability to read.
At work, Homer delivers telegrams to a women’s Parlor Lecture Club meeting and to a brothel. At the same time, Ulysses is badly frightened by an individual named Mr. Mechano, who is working as part of a display in a drugstore window. Ulysses goes to find his brother at the telegraph office, and Homer takes him home.
In another part of the country, Marcus Macauley is riding on a troop train with his friend Tobey George. He tells Tobey, who is an orphan, about his family back home. He tells him about his sister Bess and how he wants Tobey to meet her someday. Back in Ithaca, Homer, who has received a letter from his brother, reads it to Mr. Grogan.
Time passes. One afternoon, a train comes into town carrying among its passengers three soldiers. Two of the soldiers are local residents, while the third is a stranger who walks with a limp. Around the same time, Homer discovers Mr. Grogan slumped over his telegraph machine. He has died of a heart attack while typing a telegram. The telegram, still in the typewriter, is from the War Department. It is addressed to Homer’s mother.
After seeing what has happened to Mr. Grogan and finding the unfinished telegram, Homer and Mr. Spangler take a walk and talk, and they eventually pitch a game of horseshoes as darkness falls. While they are playing, the soldier with the limp comes up and talks with them briefly. Later the same evening, the soldier with the limp arrives at the Macauley house. Homer is just coming home. He has earlier recognized the soldier as his brother’s friend, Tobey, about whom his brother had written in his letter home. Mrs. Macauley meets them at the front door and, sensing what has happened, she welcomes the soldier into the house as though he was her own son.