The Human Comedy: Who’s Teaching Who? – Book Review
Babies learn everything they need to survive in the culture of today from their parents. Monkey see monkey do. When children’s minds develop and grow, all they know is the world of their family and perhaps a few other adults.
Everything children catch in their young eyes and ears teaches them another lesson. Adults can teach about how to care for the sick, hospitality, and good manners but they also may pass on racist views and preconceived ideas. They seem to focus on the death, war, and financial problems; all present in every day life of characters in William Saroyan’s novel, The Human Comedy. These problems may completely engulf the mind, body, and soul of busy men and women. Adults should take a second and watch their sons and daughters who have much more to teach but not enough pride and experience to lecture their brilliant ideas. According to Saroyan, children are the experts on living life, while adults have the greater knowledge of death. Children take time to recognize the smaller joys of life and therefore can live life with a worthwhile meaning. Adults have gained the experience to educate children on coping with sadness and humbling far out hopes and dreams. Characters such as Mrs. Macauley, Miss Hicks, and Mr. Spangler all play an important role in teaching vital lessons. Adults, in this novel, also state some pointers on how to truly live life, while many adults do not follow these teachings at all. To survive the severe ups and downs of our fluctuating world, adults and children must both teach and learn from each other.
Adults have an advantage of a type of wisdom earned through experience. Americans have learned to treat others with equal respect and accept other’s beliefs. After the contrasting identities, of Hubert Ackley and Homer Macauley, get called in after school, Miss Hicks admits that she did “not [keep Homer] in for punishment, but for education”(56). The strict teacher just wants her “children to be people” (56). Saroyan, through Miss Hicks, explains that children will “be truly human when, in spite of natural dislike of one another [they] still respect one another” (56). This level-headed teacher with good intent, tries to share her personal knowledge with Homer. She does not merely teach with the text, chapter after chapter, but tries to spread her experience of what civilized means. If a few bright children filter in the words of advice from their elders, perhaps when they grow into influential parts of world events, the small after-school lessons of a high school teacher will stick in their heads. These lessons would make a boy grow into a better, more respectful man. Parents and other guardians can also help growing children through the battles of adolescence. Homer’s caring mother knows that “the loneliness has come to [Homer] because [he is] no longer a child” and that this feeling has forever haunted young, curious growing minds. She knows Homer may come home some days “when [his] heart shall be unable to give [his] tongue one word of speech” (34). Mrs. Macauley can relate to the strange feeling Homer has been encased within, because she must have felt it as well. She most likely did not feel as if she could utter a single word when her beloved husband passed away. Adults have gone through the strains of early adulthood, so this enables them to aid in the success of new additions to this corrupt and racing world. Lastly, adults can explain death and teach how young people can deal with this tragedy. When Homer realizes that his brave brother has been killed in the war, Mr. Spangler tries to offer condolence as he informs Homer that a “good man can never die. The person of a man may go, but the best part of him stays. It stays forever”(187). Mr. Spangler is teaching Homer, while Saroyan teaches his readers, that death does not mean that someone has stopped breathing and walking. Even though, a person has left their body form, they have not left the hearts of loved ones. If a person gives and receives love, he will last forever in his teachings, or what he did to improve another life, that is a true legacy. Death should not be mourned because the soul is lost, rather the person who has left our world should be remembered and treasured. The lost identity of Mr. Machano, who teaches Ulysses, without words or even a single sparkle in his eyes, what death really means. Adults can teach the lesson of what they know has been tested and proven true, but they do not always follow this advice. The lonely journeys of children throughout the world of death, hardships, and war can be improved if they take the advice given, along with a grain of salt.
Saroyan gives a few of his favorite adult characters insight on how humans should live life, meanwhile children simultaneously are following these guidelines. Mr. Grogan, who “If [he] didn’t have [his job…he would probably] die in a week” (30), has little hope left and no real purpose to his life. Mr. Machano has absolutely no lifelike characteristics left in him, with no personality visible. Mr. Machano and Mr. Grogan are both examples of humans who have lost hope in themselves and the children who will, according to them, grow up and become war-hungry violent and lifeless beings. However, some adults, although they do not change their future, try to teach the children in hopes that they will have a better life. Spangler, a grown man, goes quietly and humbly through life. While racing a young boy from Western Union to Sunripe Raisin he decided to “pay tribute to innocence” (82) by giving a sweet, lonely girl a kiss on the cheek. He shows in his actions that meeting a life goal, living as a righteous and worthy human being, can include sidetracks of recognizing the small beauty along the way. Children can do this without having to think twice, with each step brings a new colored flower or a new song whistled by the birds. The same pests in that big oak tree, outside of a bedroom window that the busy, hard working professor shoos away, off his well pruned lawn. Lastly, in the world of racist, sexist, and judging people Mrs. Macauley and Mr. Spangler both teach not to fear, but to treat every living thing with the attitude and open mindedness they deserve. When curious Ulysses asks about gophers, his mother answers “they share the Earth with us…They are part of u, and part of all things that live” (23). Similar to this, Mr. Spangler reassures Homer that he should not “let it scare [him]…People are people. Don‘t be afraid of them” (18) when he travels to new places with different types of people. Saroyan uses the “good” adults to point out the characteristics and ideals that children easily follow already.
Children are pure and unaffected by the silly battles and disputes that plague our world today. Their world, although recognizably smaller, somehow has so much more to offer, if a step is taken back to just sit and watch. “Ulysses watched, as he always did” (35). Ulysses goes through each and every day with a bright intent of being right in the middle of anything and everything that is interesting. Children take that extra two seconds to notice the important and the small things in life. A list of Ulysses’ most fascinating finds could include; a new one-of-a-kind trap, the quest to steal apricots of a small, but serious, kid’s gang, or even how a gopher should be treated. Curiosity forms a million and one questions; always asked free of concern. When children enter this world, they are portraits of true innocent, with their minds free of other’s opinions. Homer recites each line of a pray and analysis the meaning in different sections (39). This shows that, unlike adults, who can go through everyday working under someone else’s direction and not understand it at all, children no why they say and act the way that they do. Although they may not be mature enough to take responsibility, children do not fear admitting the truth. Children do not know fear therefore would have no explainable reason to hide from anything or anyone. On the other hand, adults live their life in fear. Our government, society, and world is based on the notion that a less powerful person should and will obey someone with a higher status. Adults rush through life doing what they are told is right and no longer count on themselves to make the correct decision; they could learn from taking a breath and watching youth.
Responsible people rightfully worry and fear for themselves, family and what the future holds. Everyone who lets this fear control their mind and keep them from loving deeply and freely cannot truly live. Children are the only beings who could possibly lick every single last spec of chocolate-chip cookie dough off the spoon of life. However, we still have hope, the human race has the beautiful, yet sometimes dangerous, power of free will. No one is making every Hindu hate Muslims, or every math teacher hate their students. No one is forcing the people who watch the depressing news channels without recognizing how many things they have to be grateful for. All it takes to cure this spreading disease of fear and melancholy is for people to start seeing the sun, still shining behind the rain clouds. For people to express thanks for the moments when a brave, sliver of the sunlight shines down on the wind beaten earth.