Although both “D.P.” and “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut are situated in starkly different time periods, these short stories touch upon the same idea of the individual’s status within society. “D.P.” takes place in an orphanage runs by Catholic nuns in the German village of Karlswald on the Rhine, while “Harrison Bergeron” takes place in a futuristic society; here, individuals are stripped of free will in a dystopian society similar to that depicted in George Orwell’s 1984. In both cases, the protagonist is seen as restricted; Joe is unable to leave the orphanage and seek his father, and George Bergeron is unable to fully cultivate his mind. Despite such disparities, Vonnegut consistently touches upon themes of society and human nature, and the intermingling of an individual and his respective authority.
From the onset of “D.P.”, the restriction of freedom of the “Eighty-one small sparks of human life” is made evident, as the children are “kept in an orphanage”, and “Marched […] through the woods, into the village and back, for their ration of fresh air” (Vonnegut 161). The manifestations of order that the children are confined in, and the manner in which Joe is shielded from the topic of his father when the nun constantly digresses to the topic of the sparrow, demonstrate the hindrance of knowledge that bars the children from understanding the world around them. During a time in which the children should experience parental love, nurturing, is replaced by an abnormal lifestyle as they are sheltered from the real world. The title, which may stand for “displaced persons” (Vonnegut 167), also shows the effect of war on the development of the young. In a sense, Vonnegut satirizes war and the effect it has on innocent children in society, who are also exposed to a form of racial profiling, when the village carpenter and others in the village speculate “the nationalities of the passing children’s parents” (Vonnegut 161), and feeding Joe information about a “Brown Bomber”, “American soldier”, and “more water than you have ever seen” (Vonnegut 163). When Joe attempts to pursue knowledge and search for his father, he is sent back by the troops. Interestingly enough, the troops treated Joe much kindly than did the orphanage, giving him chocolate, and commenting, “By golly, I don’t believe the boy’s ever seen chocolate before […] Talk about displaced persons […] this here’s the most displaced little old person I ever saw. Upside down and inside out and ever’ which way” (Vonnegut 167). In the end, Joe is filled with false hope for the return of his “father.”
In “Harrison Bergeron,” George Bergeron is a puppet in society in which socialism seems to be the goal – a twisted form of socialism, where extreme attained equality ironically results in a restriction of rights and thus an inherent inequality. In this dystopian world set in 2081, the United States Handicapper General is the Big Brother of this society, where each individual is placed under the constant scrutiny of the “H-G men,” and where intelligence and beauty are scraped down to a bare minimum in order to ensure “equality”. In this sense, Vonnegut blatantly satirizes enforced equality and a socialistic society. Although in a theoretical sense, achieving full equality is a positive notion, Vonnegut presents the shortcomings. George and Hazel are subdued to a meaningless life; “Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else […] George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear […] to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains” (Vonnegut 7). Rather than protest, George completely obeys the restrictions placed on him, while oblivious to the arrest of his son. Individuals in this society who are too beautiful, too strong, and too intelligent, are given “handicaps” to render them average, which ironically is not “equality”, as they are not given the freedom to exert their natural-born abilities. Harrison Bergeron encapsulates a character who stands out as an anomaly to society, much like Winston, who realizes the manipulation of the government. The hindrance of the grace and beauty of the ballerinas with the lighthearted tone of the story seemingly gives a touch of twisted humor; at the end, all is well and normal life is resumed. The robotic nature of life and the lack of variety gives off a sad sympathy in the reader. It is interesting to note the symbolism of Harrison’s appearance on television; although it is very obvious that something is wrong, his parents do not notice, symbolizing the utmost power of the dystopian government.
In both narratives, the father-son relationship is the most interesting, although these relationships are different in both scenarios. Vonnegut’s treatment evokes a feeling a sadness and pity, as both stories show how a corrupted society (or just society in general) tears apart families and the lives of individuals. The oblivion and false optimism shown in George and Joe is heartbreakingly sad, as they are blissfully unaware of what they are truly missing in life. Joe yearns for a fatherly figure, and is unable to escape the orphanage, while George is unable to escape the society that he completely succumbs to and believes to be perfect and deserving. Ultimately, the negative impact that society and warfare have on an individual is exemplified in both protagonists.