Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” is about a futuristic society where beauty is destroyed to create equality. It centers around the highest official, appropriately named, the General Handicapper. His only role to to seek out and find to people who are skilled, pretty, or good at sports and forced them to hide away these talents through masks and waits. It is through basic literary elements that Vonnegut creates and develops the theme that general conformity leads to the deformation of humanity.
The short story begins in the future, “The year was 2081” and Vonnegut immediately puts out the benefits of this futuristic society, stating “everybody was finally equal” and not just equal “before God” but in “every way” possible (Vonnegut, 1968, p. 7). Vonnegut’s description foreshadows what is to come in the novel and certainly this forced equality can only lead to a dangerous and potentially deadly ending. Conformity and the effects of uniformity is a common theme in the bulk of science fiction literature and Vonnegut’s short stories are no different.
However, in “Harrison Bergergon” not just the theme of uniformity is explore but also the stripping away of humanity. This short story, the government forces everyone to be equal –“nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. ” (Vonnegut, 1968, p. 7). Government agents force people who are beautiful to wear ugly masks and people who are thin are forced to carry around weights. The goal of all this control is to make sure that everyone has the same handicaps, the same features, and the same feelings.
Even odder is that smart people were forced to wear radios which interfered with there brain functional creating a human society where everyone was equally stupid. By eliminating the the issues, which modern society still deals with, of racism, sexism, and discrimination based on looks, Vonnegut’s future society should be healthy and happy because everyone is the same. However, in the pursuit of equality the loss of humanity took place. Humanity is based on the idea of independence and individualism. The featured protagonist of this short story and namesake is Harrison Bergeron.
He is a bright and friendly boy who has the most hated qualities in his society. He is intelligent, handsome, tall, and strong. Due to Harrision’s features he is required to do several things to compensate for all his good quality. He is subject to radio noises which stops his concentration and focus. He has to carry hundreds of pounds of extra weight. He also have to wear sun glasses which gives him a head and he has to undergo surgery fort o make him ugly. While awaiting his surgery he escapes and takes over a news station. On air he takes off his handicaps and is revealed to society.
When enters the station he is looks “like a walking junk yard,” required to wear “a red rubber ball for a nose, keep his eyebrows shaved off, and cover his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle-tooth random” ( Vonnegut, 1968, p. 21). He also meets up with a ballerina and she too casts off her imposed disabilities. When the couple dances they shrug off the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well,” leaping to kiss the thirty-foot ceiling until finally “they remained suspended in air inches below the ceiling, and they kissed each other for a long, long time. ” It is then that Glampers enters with her shotgun” (Vonnegut, 1968, p. 22).
Unfortunately both are killed by the General Handicapper. As a sub plot his parents are watching the news station but once everything is said and done they can not remember what has happened due their forced handicaps. Irony is another literary device that Vonnegut uses in this short story. Vonnegut comments on the look-ism which is apparent in American society. Vonnegut even appears cynical about what passes as average in America. “Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts” (Vonnegut, 1968, p. 20).
The observation on the ballerinas continues the undercutting humor: “They weren’t really very good–no better than anybody else would have been, anyway” (Vonnegut, 1968, p. 20). Heavy irony emerges in the plodding Hazel’s missing the point, as when she sympathizes with the stuttering announcer for trying “real hard” to do his best or suggests George might remove some of his weights in the evenings. Compounding the irony she says, “‘I think I’d make a good Handicapper General. ‘ ‘Good as anybody else,’ said George. ” The range of sounds and the comic brutality of their effect provides another source of comedy.
One of George’s winces prompts Hazel to ask the cause. “Sounded like somebody hitting a milk bottle with a hammer,” he replies. Another sounds like a twenty-one gun salute that leaves George “white and trembling” and leaves two of the ballerinas on the floor clutching their temples. The final one is a riveting gun. “Gee–I could tell that one was a doozy,” said Hazel. “You can say that again,” said George. “Gee–” said Hazel–“I could tell that one was a doozy. ” (Vonnegut, 1968, p. 41) Hazel’s stupid behavior and mindset symbolizes the dumbing down of America.
In addition the television is equally symbolic. When this book was written, the television was now found in every home throughout the country. It became the way that people communicated and received news. Reading, literature, and human interaction decreased and was replaced by the mindless chatter of television shows and governmentally run news broadcasts. Hazel’s aversion to the old days when she could be made to feel like “something the cat dragged in” (Vonnegut, 1968, p. 22) obviously is not very persuasive The narration in “Harrison Bergeron” is also interesting.
This is because the narration is third person, as if person is looking back on the events that just happened. Third person omnipresent is an interesting choice for narration because it allows the reader into the minds of all characters. For example Vonnegut reminds the readers, in third person narration Nobody can be in any way superior to anybody else, as guaranteed by “the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of the agents of the United States Handicapper General” (Vonnegut, 1968, p. 20). In particular, the motivations of each character which inspire their actions and words.
“Harrison Bergeron” is a very unique short story because Vonnegut manipulates basic literary elements and creates a satire of American ideals and societal norms. Vonnegut is able too, in a tongue and cheek manner, show how the government can create a society which lacks humanity. A government that is left uncontrolled can exert such great power that it can destroy what makes human unique creatures on this planet. In doing so, people become mindless and vulnerable to the governmental propaganda that tells the citizens of a society that these rules are for their own good.