Kurt Vonneguts Short Stories
A Close Comparison of “D.P.” and “Harrison Bergeron”
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.
The Dangers of Equality: A Close Reading of “Harrison Bergeron”
Many people believe that total equality for any race, sex, or religion is worth the effort. Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” focuses on individuals’ greatest qualities and the altering of them to exceed the average standard. For example, those of higher intelligence were forced to wear devices inhibiting their ability to think. Beautiful citizens were forced to conceal their looks with a hideous mask. Additionally, they were forced to weight themselves to impair their gracefulness. The importance of the story is for the reader to comprehend that the base of any society is for citizens to have the opportunity to reach their full potential. The outcome of attempting to make an “equal” society resulted in citizens living in fear of their abilities. Kurt Vonnegut demonstrates his theme that forced equality is achieved at the expense of freedom and individuality. Vonnegut focuses on the story’s setting, character actions, and imagery to support the theme.
“Harrison Bergeron” has an elaborate setting in a dystopian future that supports his theme. The short story revolves around a couple named Hazel and her handicapped husband George watching ballerinas dance on television. When readers are first introduced to the story it states, “The year was 2081 and everybody was finally equal. They were not only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th amendment.” (195). Due to the implementation of the Constitutional Amendments added to the Bill of Rights, this demonstrates the theme of every citizen being forced to be equal. The insistence on the concept of total equality by commanding individuals to neglect their advanced qualities. Moreover, a society cannot thrive if individuals are tortured to fit into the society’s standards. Another example is in Hunter Baker’s article where he states, “When government attempts to affect substantive outcomes through active interference, it sets citizens against each other and threatens the social cohesion necessary for the broader society” (Baker 4). In addition, this statement goes hand in hand with the theme. The reader is shown in “Harrison Bergeron” how the government attempts to strip citizens of their rights by striking fear in the citizens that disobey the biased laws. For instance when Harrison Bergeron escapes from jail, Harrison is portrayed as a brave, strong, attractive, alpha male. Harrison Bergeron removes his restraints and handicaps, the physical strength and the beauty he reveals triggers citizens to be reminded that underneath their own handicaps they are intelligent and talented.
The actions Vonnegut creates for the characters demonstrate to the reader that the clear theme for the short story is forced equality, which achieved at the expense of freedom and individuality. Near the end of the story, it states, “It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the handicapper general, came into the studio with a double-barred ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor” (199). Due to the murder of Harrison Bergeron and the beautiful ballerina, it confirmed that because they were murdered, they were and would never be equal in the eyes of society. Citizens with higher intelligence and talent were given complete equality instead of being obliged to endure the inhumane punishment of restraints and handicap devices. On the contrary, handicapped citizens deserve the privilege of being able to assert themselves in any way they pleased. At the end of Vonnegut’s story, he displays a conversation between George and Hazel. Hazel says “Gee-I could tell that one was a doozy” and George responds back, “You can say that again,” Hazel responds “ Gee-I could tell that one was a doozy” (200). This particular action demonstrates to the reader that Hazel is below the average intelligence. Also having no mental handicap herself, she is unaware that the government is demoralizing every citizen with restraints or a handicap. Referring back to the story, George tells Hazel to forget sad things and Hazel responds with “I always do” (200). The government coerces equality by intimidating every citizen that disobeys the law. The citizens have no choice but to forget the desperate situation they are surrounded by and to internalize the fear that the government will severely punish them if they display any outstanding abilities.
Throughout the short story, Vonnegut includes multiple uses of imagery to portray his theme that forced equality is achieved at the expense of freedom and individuality. For instance, Hazel asks George, “Why don’t you stretch out on the sofa, so you can rest your handicap bag on the pillows, referring to the forty-seven pounds of birdshot around his neck” (197). This demonstrates that the citizens believe they are equal, but by requiring handicapped citizens similar to George Bergeron to wear restraints and “handicap bag” on their bodies, they are not receiving true equality. Another example of imagery during the story is when it is stated that, “to offset his good looks, the H-G men required that Harrison Bergeron wear at all times a red rubber ball for a nose, keep his eyebrows shaved off, and cover his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle-tooth random” (198). Vonnegut included this sentence in the short story to provide support for the theme by demonstrating that for Harrison to be equal in society’s standards, he was forced to degrade himself and obey the rules of the handicap general. An important statement in the story is “Harrison tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper, tore straps guaranteed to support five thousand pounds” (198). This sentence from the story proves and supports the theme. No matter a number of restraints and handicap devices on an individual obliging them to demote him or her will never be the solution. The short story of Harrison Bergeron demonstrates that even though the government may attempt to enforce equality although the strong and intelligent individuals will revolt against the laws that demoralize citizens.
In the final analysis of Vonnegut’s short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” Vonnegut’s use of setting, character actions, and imagery unite to support the theme that forced equality is achieved but at the expense of freedom and individuality. In Vonnegut’s futuristic dystopia society had not pursued to make new amendments that severely impacted the equality of citizens. The reader would not inquire the knowledge of how damaging it can be to allow the government to demoralize citizens with certain abilities. Through the actions of characters, the story demonstrates to the reader that forcing citizens to wear restraints and handicap devices is not the definition of true equality. The short story of Harrison Bergeron allows the reader to see that having forced equality does not compare to having true equality.
“Reflections on Social Justice, Government, and Society*.” Reflections on Social Justice, Government, and Society*.
Hunter Baker , 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2017. Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. “Harrison Bergeron,” Backpack Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Ed. XJ. Kennedy and Diana Gioia. 5th ed. New York: Pearson, 2016. 194-200. Print.
Live Free or Die: Adapting “Harrison Bergeron” to the Film ‘2081’
Throughout human history, people have been much more influenced by individuals that can bring the situation down to a more human and relatable level. Whether it be in politics or on a daily basis, those who can relate with whom they wish to influence are much more prosperous and successful. Chandler Tuttle was attempting to convey this with his short film 2081, an adaptation to the famous short story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, a tale of the impracticality of true equality. Both mediums of storytelling took a much different approach to the same situation. Although the settings were the same, the two opposing stories described a much different protagonist. The Harrison created by Kurt Vonnegut was “clanking, clownish, and huge,” with a comically large height, extreme strength, and the unnatural ability to fly. However, in 2081 he is presented in a much more realistic manner, with average height and increased strength, but no crazy superhuman abilities. Chandler Tuttle also presents a much more humanized character with understandable emotions and desires. Because of all this, Harrison Bergeron is a much more relatable character in the short film 2081.
One of the distinct differences between the two mediums is how the characters behave and the abilities they posses. Kurt Vonnegut took a much more comical approach to how Harrison looked, whom he described to wear a “red rubber ball for a nose.” In an attempt to make Harrison look more ugly, the Handicapper General “kept his eyebrows shaved off, and covered his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle–tooth random.” These handicaps seemed much more humorous than the handicaps presented in the film, which makes it seem like Harrison shouldn’t be taken as seriously. The 2081 approach to the handicaps takes a much more subtle approach by not having any handicaps that interfere with his beauty, but rather deal with his extraordinary strength. Although they both posses this great strength, “Harrison Bergeron” takes it to such an inhuman level it would be impossible for the people on the television and those in the theater to relate with. While Harrison in 2081 can only tear off his handicaps and throw them across the room, his unrealistic counterpart can laughably “snatch two musicians from their chairs, [and] wave them like batons” in the short story. This detail from Vonnegut regarding his strength is further evidence that he is attempting to convey something much different than the relatable, inspirational version from Chandler Tuttle. Furthermore, in “Harrison Bergeron” the author completely disregards physics when “neutralizing gravity with love and pure will, they remained suspended in air inches below the ceiling, and they kissed each other for a long, long time.” Compared to the superhuman figure created by Kurt Vonnegut, 2081 brings forth a simple protagonist with human abilities and goals.
Not only do the two protagonists differ in their appearance and strengths, but the Harrison in 2081 has goals that are much easier to relate with. First, Tuttle presented Harrison with an impressive opening speech discussing the horrors he faced when dealing with Handicapper General. Despite the fact that “for the last six years, [he] had been held prisoner by the state—sentenced, without trial, to torture without end,” Harrison survived and now has a cause to fight for. By explaining Harrison in this way Tuttle was able to convey a character much different than the comical brutish version in the short story. Humans love it when the underdog wins and Tuttle captured this by showing how the “extraordinary, it seems, was simply out of [HG’s] reach.” The film presented much more relatable goals such as stopping injustice and dying for freedom, whereas Harrison in the story wanted to become an almighty emperor. The words “‘I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!’” aren’t as inspirational as “Let us shine a light so, at last, all the world can see!” The result of who connected with the crowd was clear when in 2081 the audience was shocked and horrified at his death, but largely unmoved in “Harrison Bergeron.”
In conclusion, despite the original goals of their rightful creators, 2081 was much more successful at creating a likable, relatable character. While Kurt Vonnegut portrays a character that even he didn’t take seriously, Tuttle shows a more humanized character with hopes and dreams. The audience is obviously much more willing to listen to him when he isn’t claiming to be an all powerful ruler, but instead someone who just wants to make a change. All the details provided by Tuttle make Harrison much more relatable in the film and quite possibly “the greatest man you have never known.”
The Tension Between the Powerful and the Powerless: Political Manipulation in “All the King’s Horses” and ‘Wag the Dog’
Oppressive norms of conformity that individuals are expected to adhere through political confinement from tyrannical legislators serve as a catalyst for societal conflict between the powerful and powerless. This political interference in individual’s lives is explored in ‘Barry Levinson’s’ Wag the Dog and in ‘Kurt Vonnegut’s’ short story, All The King’s Horses. Both composers depict the outcomes of oppressive political movements that damage the unity between social classes and the autonomy of the individual. This representation of people and politics is deliberately fashioned to persuade us to initiate active participation in politics by placing an emphasis on the ramifications of societal conflict by corrupt leaders. This ultimately demonstrates the diverse ideologies of the different social classes in society infringed by the strains established by political intervention.
People subjected to overbearing and restrictive political constructs rigidly enforcing oppressive expectations ultimately uncover independence through conflict; political or social. Levinson composed Wag the Dog as an appreciation to the faceless many who suffer under tyrants, contextually alluding to orthodox beliefs dictating the president’s supremacy. By using idiom in “If the tail were smarter the tail would wag the dog”, Levinson represents the citizens as subjects to manipulative powers established within a polyarchy whilst politicians individuality holds immense power validating their transgression of existing barriers through the potency of the dynamic political agenda, depriving the development of individual thought. Similarly as stated by ‘Eleftheria Tabouli’, “photographs of warfare have nothing but reproduced particular conceptions of war and not the war it really was”, where “conceptions” are molded to align with perspective favoring corrupt parties. Levinson takes advantage of the form, a film to highlight the strange phenomenon that a corrupt ‘leader’ is shrouded while strategists are imposed with the responsibility to fabricate a renewed reputation to ‘distract public opinion’. Paradoxically the most powerful person in society is the most immature, the imbalance of power between the immature dictator and mature subjects leads to conflict, ultimately demonstrating that this power play of politics is the source of conflict.
Similarly, within his short story, Vonnegut reveals the role of people in politics through his representation of a network of responses from individuals under governing bodies. Through Colonel Kelly, who is represented as a metonym for the Government, Vonnegut encourages the reader to question politicians and their suitability as representatives of the people. This is evident in “of the lieutenant in those terms – no longer human, but a piece”, where Vonnegut depicts politicians as belittling the freedom of citizens. Vonnegut then represents the everyday citizens through Margaret. The use of asyndeton in “she had taken refuge in deaf, blind, unfeeling shock”, is designed to typify the reaction of ordinary people to political news, suggesting that the ordinary citizen is incapable of any action of consequence due to their limited power. This complements the author’s portrayal, as it encourages increased political engagement within readers through a deeper understanding of the detrimental effects that unregulated power can have on the society. Vonnegut, through his portrayal of political systems as a cause of grief, represents how abuse of power, and the absence of civic participation, can create a political context where the ordinary citizen is subject to the unreasonable demands of the tyrant much as Mussolini made unreasonable demands of his soldiers when invading Abyssinia. This is further evident in Stephen Burts analysis, “that want to tell us so easily what to want, what to do, what to think”, strengthening the idea that individuality and self-expression are inherently foregone and lost. Thus, it is clear that in his representation of people within All The King’s Horses, ‘Vonnegut’ portrays the source of ideology’s power as humanity’s apathy, to provoke action in rejecting such systems of total control and lack of freedom.
In “Wag the Dog”, Levinson warns about the destruction of autonomy when we cede too much control of our lives to the governing forces and allow ourselves to be reduced to the faceless individuals. Power is innately held within the spectrum of the names. The emotive “go to war to protect your way of life” creates an ominous atmosphere triggering defence mechanism against external and unbeknown forces where the individual’s actions are predetermined by governing bodies implanting inclination. The reader gets a hint that the state has betrayed the people when the inquirer asks “what difference does it make if it’s true?” which metaphorically represents political lies and deceit, resulting in the destruction of autonomy of both the society and its people. Transparency allows viewers to acknowledge governing bodies are known to the greatest cumulative power resides in the bottom half of the social hierarchy, the dramatic irony prevalent throughout the film works in effect with satire in the government’s forces desire to leashing its citizens due to the fear or rebellion and deceiving them to obtain greater power. Levinson uses his form to reflect the consequent impossibility of the maintenance of autonomy. Thus the composer, warns against the destruction of autonomy due to political authority, and urge the individual to challenge the hierarchical nature of governing forces.
Correspondingly, the representation of political ideologies in Vonnegut’s All the King’s Horses facilitates his representation of humanity as ‘an incoherent profusion’, as the composer warns the reader that following political doctrines inevitably leads to nihilism. By metaphorically depicting the Cold War, explored through the representation of conflicting ideologies, as ‘a chess game’, which like a battle, ‘can very rarely be won … without sacrifices,’ the author persuades the reader of the ramifications of these political systems, manipulating the audience to share his view that the cause of war is essentially humanity’s preoccupation with retribution and the impact of oppressive political regimes perception of citizens as dispensable – ‘without sacrifices’. The citizens are like pawns that are thrown in the firing line and exploited to achieve the leader’s political objectives. Vonnegut’s representation of the human condition, as innately flawed, aims to provoke re-evaluations of this fallacious mindset towards the apparent instability of society under the burden of corrupt leaders. This is furthered in his representation of America and Russia’s political motivations as simply viewing the other as ‘the enemy’, which, paired with the revelation that “no official State of war” exists, through Major Barzov’s dialogue, condemning both Governments as being unable to justify the impact of their actions in championing their ideologies. Likewise, Auden’s emotive language in ‘Wag the Dog’, convinces us that the destructive ramifications on life are not worth the defense of political ideals, especially when these ideologies destroy individual freedoms within society. Henceforth, both composers challenge the individual to challenge authority and tyrannic regimes as further urged by Stephen Burt, “He might just rise”, being a motif for responders to examine the issues facing society to reach a moderate conclusion and prevent social degradation, denying the proposition of revolution and absolute control.
Ultimately, all representations are inevitably acts of manipulation as composers seek to reshape our views. In Barry Levinson’s film, as well as Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, both composers’ seek to enlighten the responder to the dangers of political ideologies and their impact upon the division created within society into two distinct nationals, branded by their level of freedom and power. Both composers’ seek to represent the impact that power constructs on everyday citizens fulfilling their authorial intentions to encourage action and change through the importance of resistance to the loss of freedom and recognition of the consequences of war. As such the composers highlight the inherent tension between the powerful and powerless through encouraging a revolution for change by faceless individuals limited by the enforcement of control and freedom by despotic legislators.