“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...