Sonny’s Blues vs Harrison Bergeron: Compare & Contrast
This paper examines the different literary styles of two famous authors and discusses it in terms of writing style, characterization, and development of themes. The two writers are James Baldwin and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. who exert a strong influence on generations of writers after. The two stories are “Sonny’s Blues” by Baldwin and “Harrison Bergeron” by Vonnegut, Jr.
In “Sonny’s Blues” the reader is immediately given a hint of the theme of the story by a title that refers to or pertains to the blues, meaning in this instance one of depression and sadness. It is indicative of foreshadowing (giving hints of things to come in the story) wherein Sonny has an abiding tendency of getting melancholic about his situation in Harlem, the part of New York City that is mainly composed of black Americans, where violence, illegal drugs, and high crime rates predominate in people’s lives. Many young blacks in this city try to get out of their neighborhood in order to escape poverty caused in large part by racial discrimination. The word “blues” really has two meanings: firstly, referring to melancholy or ennui and secondly, to the music of jazz. It is a very potent symbol of the angst and despair felt by many blacks who think their lives are not going to improve no matter how hard they try to get themselves out of poverty. Jazz is used more increasingly as a form of subtle protest by people who are discriminated against and a way to raise people’s consciousness and force them to seek political and social changes. This sets the theme of a person’s downward descent into crime and drugs but eventually also his redemption. In contrast, the short story of “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is where everyone was also dumbed down but this time, by a secret government afraid of intelligent people, to the level of being morons. The fiction here is upbeat by being humorous, as it explores the idea of equality in the extreme, an ideal portrayed as being ridiculously, absolutely absurd (Buckley, 2011, p. 2).
The life story of Sonny was narrated to the reader by his elder brother, who is now well settled (has a family of his own) and a stable income as a teacher while Sonny’s character is to be depicted as a person who struggles with internal turmoil, trying to find his own identity by a resort to jazz music, which had become the unofficial sound of political struggles (Saul, 2003, p. 145), described as race-affirming, soulful and militant. Contrary to his elder brother’s perceptions that jazz is worthless music, Sonny had embraced it as a liberating form of music and the outcome in this action was that Sonny finally found peace with himself, because he aspired to be a musician. On the other hand, Bergeron as a 14-year old genius has been handicapped in order not to let him have an undue advantage over other, more ordinary, or average people (Farrell, 2008, p. 185).
The story of “Harrison Bergeron” is set some 120 years into the future where the setting of the story is irrelevant to the readers because they are more interested in learning about some of the absurdities that permeate the story, like an anachronistic shotgun (which is old technology) in a future that should have utilized state-of-the-art weaponry while the time period of this story has the United States Constitution has an incredible 213 amendments already! (in contrast to the present-day 24 amendments only). The setting of “Harrison Bergeron” is futuristic and also very hypothetical to illustrate the author’s idea of how an individual struggles against an oppressive or paranoid governmental body intent on subjugating its own citizens while the setting of “Sonny’s Blues” is a real place like Harlem and the time period is retrospective, which is in the opinion of most academics, a disguised reflective autobiographical account of the life of James Baldwin as he had himself experienced discrimination in his own country, but in his travels to Europe and in many ways saw how progressive the Europeans can be, without practicing racial prejudices.
Buckley, C. (2011, November 25). “How It Went.” The New York Times.
Farrell, S. E. (2008). Critical companion to Kurt Vonnegut: A literary reference to his life and work. New York, NY, USA: Infobase Publishing.
Saul, S. (2003). Freedom is, freedom ain’t: Jazz and the making of the sixties. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Books.