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The Human Comedy
Tuesday, January 25, 2000
The Human Comedy Thesis
Written by William Saroyan in 1943, The Human Comedy tells the story of the life of a 14 year-old telegram messenger who delivers death telegrams during World War I. Throughout the series of vignettes, each primary character copes with a death in his or her own way, whether it is of a stranger or a family member. Although the succession of vignettes also depicts a series of “unremembered acts of kindness and of love,” its conclusive conception is that life consists of many acts leading to tragedy, a fact faced by many characters in different ways. In The Human Comedy, each primary character confronts death in his own unique way.
The first instance of tragedy in The Human Comedy is experienced by the young boy, Homer, with the death of his brother, Marcus. When Homer receives a letter from Marcus, who is at War, Homer responds, “If my brother is killed in this stupid War, I shall spit at the world. I shall hate it forever.” In fact, when Homer reads a telegram informing him of Marcus’ death, “he spat, and then sat down, as if in a trance, looking straight ahead.” Accompanied by Mr. Spangler, who tries to comfort him, Homer walks near the city jail and begins to pitch horseshoes, an act that Mr. Spangler hopes will relieve Homer’s grief. Although neither has a talent in pitching horseshoes, Mr. Spangler and Homer play and “wait for the part that died in [Marcus] to die in [Homer], too.” When Homer arrives at his house, he tears up the letter, and, in entirety, Homer copes with the death of his brother by trying to remove any remains of the memory of his death.
Another character in The Human Comedy who copes with death is Ulysses, who believes that a man in a window who is advertising skin cream is dead. Fascinated by the advertisement, Ulysses approaches the window where he becomes “hypnotized by the sight of the man,” Mr. Mechano. After the “day had ended and everybody had gone—The only thing left anywhere was something for which he had no word—Death.” Although the man in the window was not dead, Ulysses experiences a feeling which he understands is death, and, to escape this feeling, he runs, looking for somebody to comfort him. “The world had been wonderful and full of good things to see again and again, but now the world was a thing to escape, only he could think of no direction to take.” This feeling of death is the first kind of fear that Ulysses ever felt, and this experience took away the innocence of boundless happiness that he once had. Similar to Homer, Ulysses escapes the fear that he felt after confronting death by being comforted by a friend, and for Ulysses, this friend is Auggie, who took Ulysses to see his brother, Homer. Homer reminds Ulysses of the happiness that he felt at home, and “when Ulysses saw his brother, a wonderful thing happened to his face. All the terror left his eyes, because now he was home.” Ulysses copes with the feeling of death by being reminded of his home, which was full of happiness and “acts of kindness and of love.”
The last main character in The Human Comedy who reacts to death in a unique way is Lionel, who, while walking with his friend, Ulysses, discovers a funeral. Lionel, at his young age, is very curious, and his curiosity leads him to inquire about the death, which is of the local popcorn man, Johnny Merryweather. Although Lionel did not know the popcorn man, he responds, “It’s Johnny, Johnny Merryweather. One of my best friends, gone to his Maker.” In spite of the fact that Lionel did not know Johnny Merryweather, Lionel felt that he needed to show some respect for the man who died. However, he believed that because he did not know the man, he could only give a certain amount of respect. “Somehow it seemed wrong for Lionel to leave the place where he learned that the man who had died was a man he knew, even though he had never known that the man’s name was Johnny Merryweather.
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The Human Comedy, William Saroyan, Homer
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