An this short, but moving tale, we
An Analysis of “Happy Birthday, 1951” “Happy Birthday, 1951” is a 20th century short story by American author Kurt Vonnegut. In this short, but moving tale, we see the efforts of an old man to raise a young boy on the tail end of the Second World War.
Contrast and characterization are used in this story to illustrate how people are products of their environment Characterization plays a large part in “Happy Birthday, 1951”. With the aid of this literary device, we are able to understand what drives the two main characters of this story.The viewpoint character, an old man, has experienced various wars: “I can remember when armoured infantry was black and red…’ ”(97). He is old enough to have seen the worst of war. Based on the timeframe, the reader could even assume that he may have been a soldier in the past. Due to these experiences, he values peace very much. As he tells his young charge: “ ‘I’d like to take you where you’ve never been in all your life…’ The thought made the old man excited and happy.
This would be the gift… ‘Tomorrow, I’ll take you away from the war’ (95).He feels guilt over not being the most exemplary of father figures to the young boy “ ‘I haven’t been a very good father, letting you go without birthdays this long’ ” (94). On the other hand, there is the young boy. Growing up in post-WW2 Europe, all he has ever known is destruction. It is evident that the young boy admires soldiers very much, and has studied them very intensely: “ ‘Black and red is the engineers… Plain black is the military police…’ ”(97). He is excited by the sudden intrusion of soldiers into his underground world (94).
This is typical of boys his age, and is a contrast from the more peaceful views of his elderly guardian.The young boy has spent his whole life in the catacombs of a war-torn city. When he is exposed to surroundings that are different from this, he becomes uneasy. Throughout the story, these two characters, with differing ideals on war, are contrasted, showing readers how they are truly products of their different environments. This striking contrast is shown very well in the latter half of “Happy Birthday, 1951”, when the old man takes the boy to the forest to show him “ ‘Eden! As it was in the beginning- trees, sky, and water’ ”(98). This conversation is particularly telling: “After lunch, the boy fidgeted.
It’s very quiet,’ he said at last. ‘It’s as it should be,’ said the old man. ‘One corner of the world-as it should be. ’ ‘It’s lonely. ’ ‘That’s its beauty. ’ ‘I like it better in the city, with the soldiers and-’ ‘No you don’t… You’re too young, too young to know what this is, what I’m trying to give you.
But, when you’re older, you’ll remember, and want to come back here- long after your little cart is broken’ ”(99-100). To the reader, it is plainly obvious that the old man’s gift is a heartfelt gesture. However, the boy is agitated due to being completely out of his depth.Each character’s background is clearly shown. With contrasting these characters, Vonnegut elicits an emotional response from the reader.
“Happy Birthday, 1951” is a cautionary tale. Through the use of contrasting characters, Vonnegut has shown the consequences that a person’s environment can have on them. Indeed, who can say whether this tale is truly fictional? How many children are there in this world that have only known war as their surrounding for their childhood? With the current conflicts in the Middle East, this story strikes a chord within us all.