The Human Comedy

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The Human Comedy

by William Saroyan


A novel set in fictional Ithaca, California, in the early 1940s; published in 1943.


A young telegram messenger and his family are affected by World War II.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Born August 31, 1908, William Saroyan grew up the son of immigrant Armenian parents in the ethnically diverse central Californian town of Fresno. Saroyan faced discrimination from teachers and townsfolk during his youth. Twenty years later he detailed some of those memories in The Human Comedy, setting them during World War II, which was unfolding as he wrote the book. The fictional incidents inspired by his memories paralleled many acts of discrimination and violence faced by people of different ethnicities in the United States during the Second World War.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

World War II and the Holocaust

By 1943, when The Human Comedy was published, a major conflict had been taking place between Axis and Allied powers over much of Europe for four years already. In September 1939, Germany’s dictator, Adolf Hitler, ordered his troops to kill “without pity or mercy all men, women and children of the Polish race or language” (Polmar and Allen, p. xv) as he invaded Poland in his quest to conquer the world. The Axis forces included Germany, Japan, and Italy; the Allied forces at first were Great Britain and France. In December 1941, Japan bombed the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, whereupon the United States reversed its neutral stance and joined the Allied effort, declaring war on Japan. Soon afterward, the United States also declared war on Germany and Italy as well. Americans who had previously referred to the conflict as “that European war” now found the threat of global disruption and domination was a bit closer to home.

Hitler had risen to power in Germany by force, and on a promise to revive the faltering German economy. He swore to save the “Fatherland” from “non-Aryans,” that is, people deemed of non-Germanic descent; he was also determined to get rid of any opposition to the German Nazi Party. His targets were divided into ethnic, social, or political groups, such as Polish people in general, gypsies, homosexuals, and communists. The Nazi Party focused an especial hatred toward Jews, whom Nazi propaganda insisted were “enzymes of destruction to countries and races” (Distel and Jakusch, p. 20) and whom it blamed for the economic chaos in Germany following World War I. Typically, during periods of economic stress conservative leaders have often “scapegoated” others, that is, blamed minority ethnic groups for the existing problems. At the same time such leaders have portrayed their “own people” as historically superior to others. Nazi leaders employed both tactics.

Days after Hitler seized power in 1933, “grousers and grumblers” (meaning “communists”) (Distel and Jakusch, p. 39) were arrested, as others, primarily Jews, eventually were. Early prisoners were sent to the first concentration camp, built in the small farming community of Dachau. By the war’s end in 1945, approximately 7 to 8 million people had died or been murdered in nearly one hundred concentration camps and death camps spread throughout Europe. Nearly 6 million were Jews.

There was a range of reactions in the German population to all this killing. Some, the most fervent of Nazis, participated in it. On the other hand, it is believed that many Germans were not aware of the full extent of the atrocities until after the war. Third, there were also bands of citizens in Germany and its occupied lands who fought a dangerous underground campaign against the Nazis. These groups were generally known as “the Resistance.”

Discrimination against U.S. immigrants

In the novel, August Gottleib asks his friend Enoch, “You afraid of the Chinese?” (Saroyan, The Human Comedy, p. 264). The incident illustrates an attitude some Californians held toward newcomers who immigrated to the United States from the mid- to late nineteenth century. These immigrants were seldom welcomed with open arms, in part because established citizens feared competition for limited jobs and resources. During periods of economic hardship, newer immigrants were blamed for “taking” jobs from Americans who considered themselves more bona fide citizens. Asian immigrants, such as the Chinese and Japanese, had a particularly difficult time finding acceptance, partly because their cultures and customs were considered unsettlingly different. Grand openings of Chinese laundries and Japanese markets were often picketed, and the “Keep California White” campaign became a regular feature of election platforms.

The growing tensions between the United States and Japan prior to World War II added new fuel to anti-Asian sentiments in the western United States. The California coast was the nearest potential target for Japanese forces. In a fever of paranoia, American citizens accused Japanese immigrants who maintained their cultural ways of having close ties to Japan and therefore being a danger to security. A 1940 magazine article falsely stated that there were 250,000 Japanese soldiers secretly in California and that Japanese fishermen off the California coast were really officers in the Japanese imperial navy.

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, turned such fears into action. In early 1942 Japanese residents living anywhere along the entire coastline from Oregon to Los Angeles were put under strict curfew. The state of California fired its Japanese employees, and the assets of the Japanese there were frozen. Finally, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the military the right to expel anyone from his or her home and confine the person elsewhere for an unlimited amount of time. Some business interests encouraged taking such action on the Japanese, the real intent being to do away with Japanese competitors or to take over land owned by Japanese immigrants. One month later, the War Relocation Program was fully operational. One hundred thousand Japanese U.S. citizens and legal aliens—men, women and children—were herded into internment camps in several western states, surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire. The Manzanar internment camp sat in the hot, dry Owens Valley, in eastern California. One “resident” of it said that at 110 degrees the sun baked him until he felt like “walking southern fried chicken” (Davis, p. 68). An inmate taking a shower was usually one of about 150 others inside one large room. Two large families lived in one-room huts without any furniture except beds. All Japanese books were banned. Some inmates were killed in uprisings; many older Japanese men and women died behind barbed wire after spending their lives as hard-working—and tax-paying—immigrants.

After the war, many returned to destroyed farms and ransacked homes and tried to rebuild their lives. To compensate them, the government over the next twenty-three years awarded $38 million in property damages to 26,500 Japanese, although altogether 100,000 people had been interned and an estimated $400 million in property had been lost. No evidence was ever found to accuse one single Japanese resident of aiding Japan in the war. In 1990 the United States formally apologized to the 60,000 survivors of the concentration camps. Each was awarded $20,000.

Segregation in the U.S. armed forces

Ironically, although the United States joined the Allied forces in the fight against the German ideology of racial superiority, its own armed forces practiced racial segregation. Throughout U.S. history, military leaders had boldly claimed that they thought African Americans were racially inferior, accusing them as a group of being “cowardly” and unsuited for combat. Very few blacks were allowed to choose the military as a career, but when a war broke out, blacks would be called upon to serve in menial labor positions such as digging ditches, unloading cargo, or chauffeuring white officers.

African Americans suspected that the military aimed to keep blacks from serving in combat for one significant reason: if blacks did not defend their country, they could not press for full rights of citizenship, such as equal access to voting, education, and employment. In response, the 1940 newsletter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) insisted that blacks must serve in the upcoming world conflict: “This is no fight merely to wear a uniform. This is a struggle for status, a struggle to take democracy off the parchment and give it life” (Dalfiume, p. 26).


A 1941 editorial from the Pittsburgh Courier entitled “Hitlerism at Home” rebuked the Department of War for its acceptance of segregation policies in the armed forces: “The War Department has bowed… to the doctrine of white supremacy and racial separatism with a zeal that Dr. Joseph Goebbels [Germany’s Nazi Propaganda Minister] would regard as commendable” (Dalfiume, pp. 74-5). Knowing that such African American publications wielded great influence on their readers and had the power to sway voters, politicians became very nervous about such publications’ editorial stances on government policy. Elected leaders became especially wary around election time since both the Democratic and Republican Parties counted on the black vote to win elections.

In the twenty years between the end of World War I and the entry of the United States into World War II, African American organizations had grown stronger, as had their struggle for civil rights. In the early 1940s the black press—publications such as the Pittsburgh Courier and the NAACP’s organ, the Crisis—played a major role in airing African American grievances and challenging whites in places of power to afford blacks a greater role in the war.

Despite the pressure, all the U.S. armed forces continued their policy of segregating African Americans from white soldiers and barring black soldiers from combat through most of World War II. Military leaders argued that the white troops would be “demoralized [by] the mixing of colored and white soldiers” (Dalfiume, p. 38) and that the military should mirror the segregation

found in American society for reasons of safety and efficiency. In the novel, when the white soldiers Marcus and Tobey are singing on the train together, no black soldier would have been there to join them. Most black soldiers were segregated even on the way to training camp, travelling in segregated train cars or sitting on trunks in the baggage cars. Thereafter they received training for noncombat positions in segregated camps, generally in the southern United States. Many white citizens vehemently protested the existence of these black training camps near their towns. Some black soldiers on leave were shot and killed by white police. There were lynchings of black soldiers as well. Racial riots also increased during the World War II years, peaking in 1943 with disturbances in Detroit, Michigan; Mobile, Alabama; and Harlem, New York.

As the war progressed, an increasing number of soldiers were needed in Europe and Africa. As a concession to the black voters during elections in 1940 and 1944, several segregated black units had been trained for combat, but never sent out of the United States. But slowly things began to change. In February 1943 the navy promoted its first African American officers. In July the air force expanded its black troops and dropped all barriers to promotion. In 1944, a year after the novel was published, all facilities on military posts would be desegregated, but not the units of troops themselves. Finally, due to a severe shortage of soldiers in the winter of 1944-45, units of black troops were sent to fight beside white troops in Europe at the Battle of the Bulge. The experience of working well together with black soldiers profoundly changed the attitudes of many white soldiers.

The prejudices suffered by African Americans during World War II were only part of a general racist attitude that affected other ethnic minorities within the American military as well. From 1942 to 1945, magazines such as Life, Look, Colliers, and the Saturday Evening Post published war-related advertisements featuring blond, tall servicemen. There was a conspicuous absence of any features that might be construed as Jewish, Central European, or black. In fiction or film, GIs could be nonwhite, but never in advertising, a medium that allowed only ideal imagery. The Allied soldiers depicted were all white Anglo-Saxon. This attitude reflected prejudices in larger American society, which are mirrored also in The Human Comedy by a controversy over who will represent Homer’s school in a low hurdle race.

Women join the war effort

During the depression of the 1930s, one out of nine married women, mostly at the poverty level, took some kind of job to bring in supplementary income to add to her husband’s salary. She did this work outside the home in addition to her estimated fifty hours of back-breaking housework every week. Despite her sacrifice, most people believed that a woman shouldn’t work if her husband did, because, they reasoned, she would be taking a job away from another man who needed employment. This attitude is reflected by Homer’s fury in the novel when he tells his sister Mary, who has been looking for a job: “Any work that has to be done around here men can do. Girls belong in homes taking care of men” (The Human Comedy, p. 232).


The artist Norman Rockwell honored young women taking part in the war effort with a cover on the Saturday Evening Post: “a muscular but pert, rosy-cheeked young woman, rivet gun slung across her lap… her loafer-clad foot firmly planted on Mein Kampf [Hitler’s autobiography]… a powder puff and mirror peeking out of her coverall pocket” (Gluck, p. 12). Similarly the Woman’s Home Companion complimented American women for learning how to put planes and tanks together, although it added that they were also learning how to look smart in overalls and be glamorous after work.

By 1942, however, thousands of workers were needed to build airplanes for the war. At first unemployed men filled most of these positions, but as they were drafted for combat more and more older married women donned overalls and goggles and stepped into these positions; they were quite pleased to receive a wage of 60 cents an hour. Still, more hands were needed. It was more difficult to get young single women into the plants because some had college ambitions or thought office work was more “respectable.” A propaganda campaign was launched to glorify the role of women in the war effort. The campaign starred “Rosie the Riveter,” a fictional, attractive young female plant worker whose equally fictitious boyfriend “Charlie” was in the marines.

Many women had to face the scorn and taunts of some of the men who resented their presence,

Fictional NameReal-life Source
IthacaFresno, California
Katey MacauleyTakoohi, Saroyan’s mother
Matthew MacauleyArmenak, Saroyan’s father
Marcus MacauleyHenry, Saroyan’s brother
Mary MacauleyCosette and Zabel, Saroyan’s sisters
Homer MacauleyWilliam Saroyan
Ulysses MacauleyWilliam Saroyan
Miss HicksMiss Brockington, Saroyan’s teacher
Tobey’s orphanageFred Finch Home, Oakland
Telegraph OfficePostal Telegraph Company

and others were sexually harassed. Still their work and contribution were taken seriously. For many it became an exciting first experience in being appreciated in the wider public sphere, rather than only receiving praise for their insular roles within the family. They also discovered abilities they had never dreamed they had.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Fourteen-year-old Homer Macauley has had to grow up quickly in the small farming community of Ithaca, California. His father died several years ago, and his older brother Marcus has been sent off to fight in World War II, leaving the Armenian family behind in the slums of Ithaca. Now the oldest male living at home, Homer has a mother, an older sister named Mary, and his younger brother Ulysses to take care of. An opportunity to deliver telegrams all around Ithaca sounds wonderfully important to Homer, and he takes the job. He gets along just fine with Mr. Grogan, described as the fastest telegraph message-taker in the world. But Homer soon learns that his job entails the worst heartache he’s ever known, as he must time and again deliver telegrams from the War Department to mothers telling them of the deaths of their sons in combat.

The loneliness that fills Homer as he becomes aware of the problems that beset the wider world is difficult, but life in Ithaca goes on, as shown by the sequence of incidents that make up the novel. Soldiers on leave take Mary and her friend to the movies; Homer has a terrible crush on a snooty girl; young boys steal apricots from an elderly man’s tree; and four-year-old Ulysses, who hears war talk all around him, confronts his fear of death.

Homer talks late one night with his mother after two bewildering days of delivering telegrams telling of death. “I thought a fellow would never cry when he got to be grown up, but it seems that’s when a fellow starts, because that’s when a fellow finds out about things” (The Human Comedy, p. 187). His mother adopts a philosophical attitude to the war, as many do to find comfort in chaotic times filled with news of daily casualties and the fear of losing the war. She does not blame anyone, not even the Germans: “The evil do not know they are evil…. [T]he evil man must be forgiven every day. He must be loved because something of each of us is in the most evil man in the world” (The Human Comedy, p. 189). But forgiving does not mean an acceptance of evil. His mother tells him that it is a wise man who tries to take pain out of the world, and she teaches Homer that he must take responsibility for the situations around him. “The world waits to be made over by each man that inhabits it, and it is made over every morning” (The Human Comedy, p. 189).

Mr. Grogan, the telegraph message-taker, echoes Mrs. Macauley’s feelings:

Every man in the world is trying. The thief and the murderer are trying… as a man’s conscience struggles with the opposites in his own nature, so do these opposites struggle with the whole body of the living—in the whole world. That is why we have a war. The body is fighting off its diseases.

(The Human Comedy, p. 129)

The philosophical perspective with which Homer’s mother and old Mr. Grogan approach life gives Homer the strength that he needs to deliver a telegram to his own mother that starts with the words “The War Department regrets to inform you….” Mrs. Macauley had said that if this news should come she would “believe the words, but not the message” (The Human Comedy, p. 35) because her son could never truly be dead in her memory. A soldier friend of Marcus, Tobey, has also just arrived at the house, a survivor of the war, and an orphan without a family. He will become the focus on which the family can rebuild their lives, and allow them all to live up to the words of the mother: “Try to love everyone you meet” (The Human Comedy, p. 36).

Fighting another war at home

Homer learns that his mother may be right about each person changing the world every day when he stands up to the gym teacher to defend his right to run the school’s low hurdle race. Although his school is filled with students from every background—Armenian, Italian, Jewish, German and Spanish, Mr. Byfield picks only one boy, Hubert Ackley III, a rich white boy from the nice part of town, to represent the whole school. When Mr. Byfield blocks Homer’s path during the race, Homer runs smack into him, refusing to give up his right to run. Rushing to Homer’s defense is an Italian youth, Joe Terranova. When Byfield pushes Joe to the ground and calls him a “dirty little wop” (The Human Comedy, p. 77), Homer tackles him, and another teacher, Miss Hicks, chides Byfield for his prejudice. The experience to which Homer and Joe are subjected reflects racism on the home front during the World War II era. This is evident in the protection of one group’s interests—represented by the Caucasians Mr. Byfield and Ackley—over the interests of ethnic minorities such as the Italian and Armenian. Mr. Byfield’s attitude of entitlement and effortless abuse of people parallels the attitude the Nazis had about their rightful dominance over different ethnic groups in Germany and Europe as a whole. Homer wants to be angry at the gym teacher, just as he wants to be angry at the Germans because of his brother’s fate. In the end, though, he doesn’t see any use in such anger, not even in hating the Axis powers against whom his brother fought.


Many of the characters and incidents in The Human Comedy are based on real-life situations from William Saroyan’s Fresno, California, childhood. Fresno was, in fact, the destination of many immigrants from a multitude of countries at the turn of the century. Saroyan’s grandmother had brought her Armenian family over from Turkey to escape genocide at the hands of the Turks. Just as Homer’s father in the novel has died, Saroyan’s father, Armenak, died when William was three. Saroyan modeled the loving, compassionate ghost of Mr. Macauley, who goes on living in his wife’s imagination, on his family’s recollections of the religious Armenak, who showed concern for the poor and ill, even though he himself was both. Mrs. Macauley is based in some respects on Saroyan’s widowed mother, Takoohi, to whom the book is dedicated. The fictional mother’s enduring strength is based on this woman, who worked as a servant in San Francisco; Saroyan’s actual mother, however, was stern rather than warmly philosophic as Mrs. Macauley is in the novel. Some of the characters’ sentiments regarding the interconnectedness of all human life (“The peasant’s prayer is my prayer, the assassin’s crime is my crime,” she says [The Human Comedy, p. 189]) likely come from poetic writings that Armenak left behind, and from his father’s warm-hearted brother, Mihran, to whom Saroyan was very close.


Although the character of Marcus is sent off to the front lines in the novel, Saroyan did not believe the United States should get involved in the war. He felt that its entry into World War II would only bring more deaths and misery, and that Hitler should be left alone to fall inevitably from power. Ironically, it was the success of both the novel and movie version of The Human Comedy that caused Saroyan to find himself in uniform. Earlier he had informed the army that he could not serve during the war because he had to support his mother and family, which was certainly true. But with the success of the movie and book, Saroyan paid off all his family’s debts. When the military discovered this, they drafted him. Saroyan returned to civilian life in 1944, in one piece, to his wife and two children.

Saroyan may also have developed the universal, tolerant outlook expressed in the novel at an orphanage in Oakland, California, where he and his three older siblings lived while Takoohi worked. Saroyan stayed at the orphanage for four years, during which “orphanhood, not an ethnic family background, was the distinguishing characteristic” (Lee and Gifford, p. 180). Mixed in with most of the nationalities in Oakland, Saroyan’s two best pals were Irish and Jewish. These years also provided source material for the background experiences of Marcus’s soldier buddy in the novel, the orphan Tobey, who becomes a “son” in the Macauley clan after Marcus is killed in combat.

Along with his older brother Henry, William Saroyan worked as a telegraph messenger in his teenage years, just as Homer does in the novel. The hard-drinking philosophical telegraph operator, Mr. Grogan, is based on an elderly man at the telegraph company. Homer’s sister, Mary, is a composite of Saroyan’s sisters Cosette and Zabel, both of whom also worked to help support the fatherless family.

Saroyan became intimate with the pain of discrimination after he and his siblings were reunited with their mother. The immigrant Armenian community in Fresno was regarded as “even worse than the Jews” (Lee and Gifford, p. 175), another ethnic minority that suffered discrimination at the time. The more prosperous the Armenian community became, the more they were suspected and insulted. Newspaper listings for new tract housing during Saroyan’s childhood proudly boasted of being “inaccessible… to Armenians, Greeks, Chinese and Japanese, being undesirable elements” (Lee and Gifford, p. 189). The cruelty of discrimination in school became the basis for the conflict in the novel between the gym teacher, Mr. Byfield, and the history teacher, Miss Hicks. In fact, teachers like Byfield, who considered the Armenians dirty and lazy, and ignored immigrant children when choosing students for school activities, figured prominently in Saroyan’s childhood.

Publication and reviews

The Human Comedy actually began as a screenplay written by Saroyan for a movie before it became a novel. Metro Goldwyn Mayer set out to make a warm, upbeat family film that would boost wartime morale. While the movie was being filmed, Saroyan fleshed out the screenplay into his first novel.

Critics wrote mixed reviews in response to the novel, a few of them remonstrating that the characters were unrealistic. “No sane mother ever spoke to her son as Mrs. Macauley does,” protested one review, and the work’s characters are “good in a way that human nature is never good” declared another (Christian Science Monitor and Commonweal in James and Brown, p. 714). At the same time, the novel received praise for how convincing the characters are. “Somehow one believes in Ma Macauley” (Springfield Republican in James and Brown, p. 715). “What happens is unimportant; what feelings the events give the characters is all-important. The wonderful thing is how often one shares those feelings” (Yale Review in James and Brown, p. 715).

For More Information

Dalfiume, Richard M. Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces: Fighting on Two Fronts, 1939-1953. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1969.

Davis, Daniel S. Behind Barbed Wire: The Imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1982.

Distel, Barbara, and Ruth Jakusch, eds. Concentration Camp Dachau, 1933-1945, 14th ed. Munich: Comite International, 1978.

James, Mertice M., and Dorothy Brown, eds. Book Review Digest. Vol. 39. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1944.

Gluck, Sherna Berger. Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Women, the War and Social Change. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Lee, Lawrence, and Barry Gifford. Saroyan: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.

Polmar, Norman, and Thomas B. Allen. World War II: America at War, 1941-1945. New York: Random House, 1991.

Saroyan, William. The Human Comedy. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1943.

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