Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, written in 1961, is a dystopian, revolutionary and commentating story about the dangerous consequences of achieving literal equality through violent and harmful means.
Harrison Bergeron | Summary
The story is set in the future, the year 2081, in a supposedly utopian America, where after the 212, 213, and 214th Constitutional Amendments, everyone was made “equal”. This equality entails making the people undifferentiated and possessing equal qualities and intelligence. Since this is evolutionally not possible, the government creates several “handicaps” to lower the naturally occurring qualities of people, such as making people constantly wear weight and radio over their ears to interrupt their “intelligent” thoughts.
One such “normal” couple is George and Hazel Bergeron. Where Hazel possesses “average” intelligence and “average” body, George has to lug around “47 pounds of birdshot” and a government-issued transmitter that’d interrupt his thoughts every few seconds or so, causing him to not be able to think about anything other than what is in front of him. They have a son, Harrison, 14 years of age, who is apparently a genius and of superior physique, who is taken away by the government. This is to stop him from disrupting society on a larger level.
Hazel and George are watching ballerinas on the television. These ballerinas are also “handicapped”, some of them laden with weights, some with masks, in order to disguise them so that the viewers don’t feel discouraged about their own looks. The ballerinas, due to their handicaps, aren’t very good. In fact, they’re just like everyone else.
Hazel has random thoughts sometimes, that is borderline rebellious, but since she has an “average” wit, her thoughts don’t have weight behind them. When Hazel suggests that George take out some of the weight from his bag, he is against this as he believes in the policies of the government and thinks that if he starts doing this, society will follow and it’d “go back to the difficult times”. George voluntarily takes on the burden of his handicaps because he genuinely believes that whatever the government is doing is for the best.
Hazel is told to bear a strong resemblance to the United States Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, and she entertains this idea of being the General by saying she’d use religious chimes as the sound for the transmitter. While they’re talking in random short bursts, the ballerina dance is interrupted by an emergency announcement, where they inform everyone that Harrison has escaped confinement and is now being chased. The announcement has to be made by a ballerina because the anchor is having trouble with speech. The ballerina has to modify her “warm and luminous” voice into a “grackle squawk” in order to fit into the regime of being equal to everyone else.
Harrison appears on the TV and instantly everything is thrown into chaos. Harrison immediately tears off his handicaps and declares himself the emperor, claiming no one is as strong and superior as him. He then asks the audience if any woman is brave enough to be the empress and a ballerina stands up. They start dancing and Harrison tears handicaps off of other people. This act of rebellion does not last long as the Handicapper General arrives on screen and as everyone watches on the TV, shoots down Harrison and the ballerina. This act of violence is accepted by everyone else. Hazel is shown to have cried but she and George forget about this incident, as always, and the story ends with them commenting on how the event that transpired was “doozy”. They do not remember their own son’s death.
Harrison Bergeron | Analysis
Kurt Vonnegut creates a dystopian world while setting his story in a supposedly utopian society. America has finally achieved its dream and Constitutional principle of equality, albeit through disastrous means. In “Harrison Bergeron,” harsh political and social accusations are leveled against both contemporary America and the America of the 1960s. The story is a satirical critique of how society is going to end up if the government starts taking its honored principle written in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal,” seriously. However, Vonnegut contends that if taken too literally, egalitarian ideas can be harmful.
If we pursue the ideal of equality to its literal and extremely logical conclusion, it follows that individuals must be made to share the same appearance, conduct, and accomplishments. To put equality superficially, the individuals won’t be individuals anymore, they’d simply be factory-made flesh dolls. Vonnegut’s way of achieving true equality is by viscerally disadvantaging the smartest and brightest people. It goes without saying that anyone who seeks to disrupt this enforcement is to be looked for and punished severely. This is followed in the story when Handicapper General shoots down Harrison and the ballerina for committing an act of rebellion against the social standards and the government-enforced structure.
The act of Harrison breaking free of his captivity and removing the handicaps from himself as well as the other people is an act so subversive that it’d have caused an uproar in society. The fact that the General shoots the titular character down on a televised broadcast, shows that the government operates through fear and command. The show of exemplified punishment keeps the citizens under constant threat to their lives and thus, they remain in their fetters voluntarily. This shows that even a single random act of rebellion is enough for the current structure to crumble down and that the authoritarian entity will do anything to avoid this act and would rather eliminate lives, and commit murders and atrocities, just to protect the status quo, the social structure it created.
Even Hazel and George don’t realize the gravity of the situation, that their own son had been murdered. The creation of “equal” people stops any sort of emotional or intelligence quotient from developing within the citizens, leaving them essentially zombies, brain-dead except to perform necessary acts and functioning as bare minimum human beings.
The story eerily reflects today’s world as not only has the treatment of the disabled individuals gotten worse, but the society is also hostile towards them, not giving space or accommodating them within the structure, rather focusing its energy on superficial equality. The fact that many countries and states are operating the society and its standards on fear and enforcement, rather than harmonious existence among all, shows how the story is still relatable. There are still places where certain people cannot exist without the government feeling threatened and the society feels scared that the mere existence of these individuals will bring the entire structure down, that it will have a chain effect on the societal standards, even if they are actively harmful.
With the sheer incompetency and unwillingness to accommodate creativity and imagination, along with the naturally-occurring physical features, while also not willing to make it easier and more convenient for the people with handicaps and disabilities, the government is instead throwing away any chance at progress and advancement of the society. While there is no person who is different from others, it also entails that society is now going to be stagnant and never move forward. The world is made better by conscious efforts and innovations, not blind equality.
This is reminiscent of an Indian folktale where an Indian king orders a child to be cut in half in order to appease two women who are claiming to be its mothers. In the story, the child is safe because one is the mother, and one is not, because they are two different women. The difference saves the child’s life. But if this took place in the world of “Harrison Bergeron”, the child would have died at the hands of an ignorant and cold-blooded authority that does not care for its citizens or their well-being, but instead focuses all its resources and energy on maintaining an empty status quo.
Vonnegut’s story criticizes society for following certain institutions blindly and believing in worse principles simply because they do not want to accommodate differences. The citizens in the world of “Harrison Bergeron” start to make themselves stupid or hide away their unique qualities in their vain search for complete equality. Some people act in this way because they have internalized the objectives of the government, while others do so out of apprehension that the government will punish them severely if they show any exceptional talent. This blind search for equality has fatal results. America turns into a barren nation of timid, illiterate, and slow people, giving no room for any sort of growth, like golf lawns that allow for not a single blade of grass to be uneven. Government officials kill talented and unique individuals without concern for retaliation. Nonetheless, this brand of equality is attained, but at the severe cost of free will, personal freedom, and progress.