Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” is set in the future (2081), when the government has supposedly made everyone “equal. ” The people of this era are forced equal by technology. These people are denied individuality, and the governments have taken their freedom by enforcing laws. Vonnegut’s story is a satire because the society he depicts is not truly equal, but rather a totalitarian regime under the pretense of equality. I will examine how Vonnegut seems to be implying that in such a society, the government gains too much control and people gradually lose their individuality.
In Vonnegut’s story, “everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal in every which way. ” So how does this differ from the equality we enjoy in our current society? Vonnegut goes on to explain that, in such a society, equality means that “nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. ” But how would this be possible if every human being is born differently?
The government forces citizens to wear different levels of handicap devices according to their differing abilities. For example, a handicap radio is forced on anyone considered smart, a mask is forced on anyone considered beautiful, and heavy bags full of birdshots are forced on anyone considered strong. All these rules are enforced by the “211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution,” and the “unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General. However, this also implicates that equality is not actually achieved because the Handicapper General is evidently not restricted in the same manner. In fact, the Handicapper General, which seems to represent the government, controls the life of citizens. People like George might possess intelligent thoughts such as “maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. ”
However, these thoughts might undermine the Handicapper General’s power, so the handicap radio works “every twenty seconds or so” to “keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains. George’s son Harrison Bergeron, who according to the news channel is “a genius and an athlete,” is regarded as “extremely dangerous. ” After Harrison escapes from jail “under-handicapped”, he is quickly tracked down by authorities and shot by the Handicapper General herself. Vonnegut seems to imply that ironically, power are in the hands of only a few people under the pretense of equality, and that extraordinary people has no place to live in such an authoritarian society. Controlled by the government, citizens also lose their individuality. Masks are worn so beauty is hidden.
When George and Hazel were watching ballerinas on the television, the ballerinas’ “faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. ” Moreover, people who are strong have to wear weights on their bodies. George had a “forty-seven pounds of birdshot in a canvas bag, which was padlocked around [his] neck,” which even Hazel finds pitying. Even voices are controlled. Reading a bulletin, a ballerina had to “apologize at once for her voice” because her actual voice was “a warm, luminous, [and] timeless melody.
Therefore, people in this society lose their individuality and humanity. Vonnegut seems to imply that the government intrudes the everyday lives of citizens under the pretense of equality, just like the communist totalitarian regime of Mao Ze Dong in China. Vonnegut seems to think that equality in the sense of eliminating individual differences would never work. If the government forced handicaps on gifted people, how could we improve our society? Creative thinkers wouldn’t be able to come up with new ideas, technology development would stagnate and the quality of life would deteriorate.
Suppose there weren’t anybody capable of inventing the mobile phone, how would contact your friends and family on the road? In conclusion, “Harrison Bergeron” portrays how people can potentially lose their individuality and unwillingly accept totalitarian control under the pretense of equality. Vonnegut wants to warn us about how dangerous such a society is and how the improper usage of equality is fatal for the human race. We should never sacrifice individuality for equality!