An Analysis and Critique of the Linguistic Features of “Harrison Bergeron” and “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”
ANALYSIS AND CRITIQUE OF INFLUENCES ON THE USE OF LANGUAGE
To change “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut into the style of “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” by Emily Dickinson, what needs to be taken into consideration is the unique style that Dickinson honed to perfection. Dickinson had a flow that was curated through her prose, the line breaks, and sporadic capitalization. Dickinson’s poem was published in 1886 while Vonnegut wrote “Harrison Bergeron” in 1961. This span of almost 80 years showed a slight alteration in certain words in their vernaculars. For example, while Dickinson chose the term “livelong June,” (7) Vonnegut would’ve written it in a more modern way such as, “through the month of June.” To translate Vonnegut’s piece into Dickinson’s style, these words need to be taken into consideration. Though despite this, not many words from Vonnegut’s piece would be considered out of place for Dickinson’s time period. Rather, the format of the sentences would need to be changed as opposed to the words themselves.
It also needs to be taken into consideration the difference in the mediums. To translate a short story into a poem with flow and abnormal grammar requires a change in structure and an understanding of the pattern Dickinson used. For example, consider the following quote from “Harrison Bergeron”:
“Everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.” (Vonnegut 1).
This quote is filled with repetition, which gives it a flow of its own. Understanding that flow helps curate the change from paragraph to poem. In finding the rhythm, the line breaks can be chosen accordingly. This rhythm can also be found in the sentence structure itself. The beginning of the sentence makes sense to be a new line, as well as commas or pauses mid-sentence.
With these concepts in mind, the excerpt from Vonnegut’s piece can be rewritten as follows:
Everybody was – at last! equal
Not only – by God and the Law,
but equal in fact – in Every Way!
nobody was smarter than anybody,
better Looking – Stronger – Quicker!
3.2 INTENDED MESSAGE
Vonnegut’s intended message is altered slightly in terms of subtext. The reader gets the point across of the extent to everyone’s equality, which was the intended message. Though this change in flow and exaggeration makes the satire overtly clear. This goes against the rules of satire where it’s hidden in the subtext and the reader must think critically about it. Through the exaggeration of lines such as “but equal in fact – in Every Way!” makes it clearer that this is a satirical piece. The reader is more likely to think about the line and wonder why it was written as emphasized as it was, which will lead to the conclusion of satire much sooner than the original piece. Though one may argue Vonnegut’s use of repetition made this just as clear through exaggeration as well. While this is true, the addition of repetition as well as capitalization is an extra, unnecessary level of emphasis.
3.3 RECOMMENDATIONS TO ALIGN WITH STANDARD USE OF LANGUAGE
Vonnegut’s short story is written in Standard English and has no informal language or ethnic or regional characteristics. Therefore, nothing would need to change for “Harrison Bergeron” to align with the standard use of language. Dickinson, on the other hand, utilizes non-standard use of grammar such as unusual capitalization, lowercase letters, and sentence fragments. If Dickinson’s poem were translated to be written in Standard English, the random capitalization and lack thereof and sentence fragments would need to change to be full sentences. This would dramatically change the tone and theme of the poem, dulling it down. For example, if the first few lines were changed to be Standard English, it would change to be something along the lines of:
I’m nobody. Who are you?
Are you nobody as well?
In that case, we have something in common.
Don’t tell anyone you’re nobody because they would tell everyone, don’t you know?
This change transforms the poem’s erratic tone of persuasion to be comfortable in being a nobody into simply a conversation between two people talking about being unknown by the masses. While the meaning is still there, it is not as impactful.
3.4 CONTRAST OF LANGUAGE DUE TO DIFFERENT TIME PERIODS
Vonnegut’s writing is not far off from something one would read today. “Harrison Bergeron” was only written in 1961, so there wasn’t much room for linguistical evolution from what is typical today. The sentences were short and concise to reach a broader audience. The style is straightforward and direct, while the characters’ dialogue is more casual, and Southern dialects are filled with contractions and sentence fragments.
Dickinson, on the other hand, wrote “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” in the 19th century with heavy levels of informality. Though not particularly embodying the literary era of this time period as she often went against the grain with her writing style, certain words make it clear as to which time period the piece was written in. Two examples of this are her usage of the word, “livelong” in place of where one today might say “entire” as well as “dreary” in place of where one today might say “depressing.” These words both have since lost their popularity in modern literature, which shows the change in language over about 150 years.
3.5 POSSIBLE ENVIRONMENTAL, HSTORICAL & CULTURAL FACTORS OF THE TIME PERIODS
Dickinson wrote her poem at some point in the 19th century. It is unknown when exactly this piece was written as it was published after her death. Regardless, she lived through the Transcendentalism movement in Massachusetts, where she lived through her life. (Blair 2020). The transcendentalists were avid believers in going against the societal norm. This poem goes along with their beliefs of not needing popularity and celebrating the anonymity of life. This is the most probable factor in the inspiration behind this piece.
Vonnegut, on the other hand, was alive through the 20th century. It is speculated that “Harrison Bergeron” was a satire piece on the Cold War and communism. (Hattenhauer 1998). This would work because the theme of Vonnegut’s short story was that everyone is equal in every possible way, which is a main theme of communism. Vonnegut had written other pieces which focused on being anti-war, and he was vocal about his views on the world. He enlisted into the U.S. Army during World War II at age 20 (Allen). With all this background, there is probable reason to believe one of the factors which played into the creation of “Harrison Bergeron” was the popular discussion of politics at the time, communism specifically.
3.6 INFLUENCES OF THESE FACTORS ON THE LANGUAGE USAGE IN THE TWO SELECTIONS
Vonnegut’s language usage in “Harrison Bergeron” could’ve been influenced by his experience with war. This is not to say in the sense that the war taught him to speak this way, in short and concise sentences, but more that his reasoning for writing so clearly was so a wider audience would read the story and understand the meaning behind it. He was openly anti-war and anti-class system in the ways he spoke in America in the 1960s when war and class systems were greatly popular. His reasoning for writing as clearly as possible was to persuade others of his beliefs. He studied journalism at Cornell, which could’ve assisted in his ability to write so clearly, straight to the point (Allen).
Transcendentalism was most likely the reason behind Dickinson’s sporadic syntax. As the Transcendentalists often went against the grain in societal norms, so too did Dickinson in her writing. Poetry is already a more freeform writing style than a novel or short story for example, but even with this added freedom, Dickinson went above and beyond to be unique in her style. For example, consider the following lines, “How dreary – to be – Somebody! / How public – like a Frog -” (Dickinson 7-8). The capitalization of the <s> in “Somebody” and the <f> in “Frog” are non-standard English. The reasoning for this could be because of Dickinson’s belief in being contrarian to the popular styles of her time as a transcendentalist.
Blair, Walter. “American Renaissance.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 24 July 2020, www.britannica.com/art/American-literature/American-Renaissance#ref42259.
Vonnegut, Kurt. “Harrison Bergeron”. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1961.
Dickinson, Emily. “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” Poems, Vol 2. 1886.
Hattenhauer, Darryl. “The Politics of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron.’” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 35, no. 4, Fall 1998, p. 387. ESBCOhost, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=7239232&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Allen, William Rodney. “A Brief Biography of Kurt Vonnegut.” Vonnegut Library. Retrieved from: https://www.vonnegutlibrary.org/kurt-biography/