With imperfect eyes, total equality is hard to accomplish, especially with the notion of judgment and competition constantly tempting otherwise. However, the high hope of peace and utopia in fulfillment has always been a human thrive. Throughout history many men have attempted such perfection. Karl Marx inquired the structure of communism through the Manifesto to ensure equality to a large socially grouped people. According to Vonnegut, so did the U.S. government, in the year 2081. In the outrageous short story of “Harrison Bergeron”, many historic achievements and ideas, like the Manifesto, can closely parallel with that of the future outlook described by Vonnegut.
Vonnegut shows the ridiculousness of the outcome of this, at the time, popular ideology with satire and exaggerations.
Harrison Bergeron opens with a paragraph that immediately gives a background setting to the story as a whole. The time of 2081 is indicated, but more importantly the author chose to mention the “211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution”.
This is important because of the historical pattern that has developed. The Constitution of the United States had 23 amendments when this particular story was written (26 amendments currently). This original number of twenty three was achieved between 1791 and 1961, which is over a time period of one hundred and seventy years. This story itself sets place one hundred and twenty years from the initial composure of the story in 1961. During those years the amendments took over an eight hundred percent increase in number. This is important because of the trend that occurs within socialism and the same augmentation.
If one were to view the regime of Adolf Hitler, this same rapid development of laws and dictation is observed. He subtly moved into power and changed things around in little time also sky-rocketing the laws and what not. From the first paragraph it is safe and monumental to conclude that this over excessiveness is comparable between both images of the story and of Hitler’s time period.
With this view, the whole story continues with dark and sullen being good descriptions of the tone of “Harrison Bergeron”. The tyranny represented is illustrated using certain imagery senses. Vonnegut describes the month of April as being uncharacteristically clammy and in the same sentence as the month the H-G men took George and Hazel’s fourteen year-old son away. This parallels the two into a category of gloomy feelings by means of the loss of a son and the usual warmer and growing April into clammy.
He also describes the pounding feelings of oppression with the physical weights of bags of birdshot and sashweights. This oppression continues not only on the physical aspect of the people, but also the mental when the extremely riveting noises cause the smarter person’s ideas to flutter. This is indicated where George winces several times until the point he turns white and trembles. Originally I thought that the noise only came about when one would think of a certain thought that was “unfair or unequal” in comparison to another not-so-bright person.
In actuality the text states this occurs approximately every twenty seconds. The ballerinas, who also have the mental blocks by means of transmitting, fall down to the ground and hold their temple at the same time as George goes through his experience. This was to scatter that geneosity immediately. This tactic is so controlling, people do not even have a chance to think of something brilliant at times. Whether an over-average thought is made or not, the government transmissions are sent to avoid any ideas “just in case”.
Because this practice helps cancel out any preconceived notions, there is no chance for someone to devise any type of plan for more then 20 seconds, until all information is lost. Vonnegut chose this imagery to describe the horrific feelings associated with entrapment and self helplessness. In anyway possible, it appears that everyone is held back.
Anything good that a character may obtain is forced to be hidden by the handicaps placed on them. People are not forced to exercise so they could be equal with the stronger; rather the strong must equal themselves by adding weights to make them weaker. This produces a sickly and depressing view of society. The people themselves become lesser. After time, the dictatorship of downward living becomes almost a way of live. George has been carrying this burden of forty seven pounds for so long now around his neck that he says it does not bother him anymore. It has become apart of him. When one has become desensitized from the situation, there is no hope for an uprising or change.
This is why the person who is in their mid thirties living with their parents all their life are most likely not going to move out anytime soon on their own will. After a longer period of time, it almost becomes comfortable and natural. To move on would actually be harder to accomplish.
This imagery shows the complete control on all aspects of life by the dictator. Any type of free thought is immediately forgotten after sounds of automobiles crashing and shotguns going off. In reality, this can be controlled by altering all aspects of the media, as a man takes over and impresses his will on the given society, what he wishes to be let out to the public can be publicized; what he does not want to be exposed, however, will not be publicized. (Compaine) The government in the story, with the playing by the orchestra in an ill-manner, does the same thing. The true beauty of music is hidden, and the fake, cheap music is displayed.
Another way to hinder the different socio-status is to limit the education. I am sure you have heard the infamous saying “Ignorance is bliss”. Because people can not think for over twenty seconds, no real education can be obtained. Like the ballerina who had an exceptional hideous mask, people who are better looking then average must cover up their advantageous looks; therefore one does not know what looks good and what does not because of the lack of distinction between the two. When “Harrison plucked the mental handicap from her ear, he snapped off her physical handicaps with marvelous delicacy. Last of all, he removed her mask. She was blindingly beautiful.” This was a new concept to many people. She was “blindingly beautiful because people did not see what beauty really was until now. With the lack of education, there can be no progress in time.
The television station that George and Hazel were watching was from a live feed with no delay in order to correct mistakes. All live stations are normally three seconds off of the time that the event is occurring. This is to avoid problems with the programming, but this delay is in the year 2004
and was devised years earlier. We are looking at a time period almost eighty years from now.
The picture of Harrison Bergeron in the news report is an actual photo that the camera zooms up on, no digital insertion. The reader knows this from the simile between the vibrations it undergoes, with that of an earthquake, when the giant of a boy enters the room. There are no technological advances once again made from that early time period of the 1960’s in the sense of television programming. The television itself is definitely not a flat plasma screened TV, but rather it is one that burns out when the tube becomes too warm as it does so at the end of the story.
More towards the ending scene of the story, the Handicapper General enters and shoots both Harrison and the ballerina with a ten-gauge shotgun. With the exception of hunting, shotguns have been outdated for some time now. More sophisticated methods of firearm could be used in the future of one hundred and twenty years later but instead a shotgun is still being used.
Vonnegut purposely wrote this story to take place in the far future. But if one were to look at other works about the future, robots and machines that make life an easier place are usually a common theme. In this story, however, it appears to be in the same time period that it was written in. There is no sense of development in time. There is no vast imagination written in this story like so many of the other science fiction works such as Two Thousand Leagues under the Sea, Lost in Space, Star Wars, etc.
Besides the actual tools and physical proof of being a story that has not undergone change over time, the public services or lack there of also hinder the growth. The non diversity and lacking of ability to use an imagination to gain an unfair advantage causes no succession. If it weren’t for the industrial time period of the early 1900’s, the setting might be similar to Little House on the Prairie’s. Vonnegut jokingly uses irony to express the time period before 2081 by using George’s character in saying “If I tried to get away with it,”…, “then other people’d get away with it and pretty soon we’d be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else. You wouldn’t like that, would you?” In comparison to reality, they really are living in the dark ages with the minimal technology.
One of the remaining questions is the beginning of the new society. While there is no evidence of the beginning stages of this seemingly totalitarian government, many instances show that the power is under one person’s will. “Harrison Bergeron” holds a character that appears to have supreme power and dictatorship. Her name is Diana Moon Glampers.
This flat character is mysterious in the fact that there is not much information on her. The only physical information may conclude that she was not an attractive person. The reason she is not physically attractive is from the comparison by Vonnegut between her and her strong resemblance to Hazel, who indeed did not have any handicaps. In order for Hazel to not have any handicaps she must not be attractive, not smarter then your average person, and she must not have an unattainable function from any other person. There is no mention of the handicapper general having any handicaps either.
But at the same time, it seems improbable that she can be completely average otherwise the whole system of the handicaps would not work. In one scene Hazel thinks she would make a good handicapper general because of her idea of charms on Sunday in honor of religion. George quickly reminds her that he would be able to think if that were the case. Hazel offers too many flaws for the success of the system to be true. Just as in the regime of Hitler, the ruler is not equal to everyone else. She has some skill with firearms considering she killed both Harrison and the ballerina with two shots. Perfect aim.
Some would argue that the punishments shown throughout the story seem to be harsh and unjust with the crime. George reminds hazel that if he were to take out one birdshot from the bag, he will be fined two thousand dollars and imprisoned for two years. Harrison also goes through unjust punishment. It is easy to not see his character from all his handicaps, but he is only fourteen. The height of seven feet, and the simile of a walking junkyard, tricks the reader into thinking he is older. In reality though, he is not. His punishment is ultimate death. No trial, no juvenile hall, only sudden death by a shotgun.
This punishment in particular is most significant. It can be argued that in a way, Diana Moon Glampers and Harrison Bergeron are very similar. With the conclusion of Diana not having any handicaps and running the whole system, Harrison becomes her competition. Glimpses of Harrison becoming out of control is shown by the amount of handicaps he has. The image described is excessively attempting to hold him back. “Ordinarily, there was a certain symmetry, a military neatness to the handicaps issued to strong people, but Harrison looked like a walking junkyard. In the race of life, Harrison carried three hundred pounds.” Even with all the societal pressures, it only made him stronger.
In the H-G’s eyes the only way to diverge the competition is to eradicate it, which she does immediately. Just as in any socialistic government, any threat of overthrowing authority is immediately thwarted. Hitler saw the Jews as a threat and attempted to drive their race into extinction. Harrison tried to start an uprising by making his actions available on television for all to see. He also chose his “empress” and shook the orchestra into playing what he wanted. Harrison Bergeron symbolizes the uproar of the people who do not cope with dictatorship and censorship.
The end of the story concludes with the death of Harrison and his new found love. Not only did they die in vein, but it was publicized for all to see on television. It is as if to remind the people what would happen if they were to try to rebel. It went from people wanting to be more equal to total loss of independence and death for those who chose otherwise. George and Hazel then continue as if nothing happened.
“You been crying?” he said to Hazel.
“Yup,” she said,
“What about?” he said.
“I forget,” she said. “Something real sad on television.”
“What was it?” he said.
“It’s all kind of mixed up in my mind,” said Hazel.
“Forget sad things,” said George.
“I always do,” said Hazel.
“That’s my girl,” said George.
This shows that not only has there been no change since the time period of this story being written, but also it appears there will never be any change. If their son was murdered on television and they were unaware of the significance, then in the future, there will be no affect either.
The education aspect, public services, lack of growth in technology, and the lack in growth of weaponry are all consequences of a non-diverse group of people. Vonnegut uses many of the literary elements to portray this message. The use of satire makes it a way to look at the concepts of the time as ridiculous. Does he ever believe that people would go to this extent to carry out equality? The answer is no, he would not. But the outcome may not be too far fetched. The prosperity of this country came from the free enterprise that it holds so valuable unlike many of the other countries. Competitive edge is what people thrive on. Competition is what puts the wealth into the economy. This competition in all these inventions are what brought America this far.
Using the television set for an example, the first company to market the new flat screen televisions gained more money then the people who did not, at least initially. The second firm then researches and attempts to make a better product. This is where the progression comes from. (Mitchell)
If every person symbolically stood for a part of the body, a human being would be comprised. Vonnegut shows that if the arm and legs were brought down to act as a toe, the system would be set up for failure. Just as much as if the toe was brought up to act as the head, this same failure would be achieved. Every piece is a body part, but a different function is what makes the body as a whole work. People must realize that no matter what race, age, looks or anything else, they are just as much a human being as the next person. The difference comes in their abilities to specialize in certain areas of life.
Compaine, Ben. “Domination Fantasies” Reason. Los Angeles: 2004 Vol. 35, Issue 8;
Literature Resource Center Crt. Joseph Alvarez.
Exploring Short Stories, Gale Research, 1998
Mitchell, Gregory. “Why law and economics’ perfect rationality should not be traded for
behavioral law and economics’ equal incompetence” Georgetown Law Journal Washington: Nov 2002. Vol. 91, Iss. 1; pg. 67 http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88
Reed, Peter. “Hurting ‘Til It Laughs.” Kurt Vonnegut: Images and Representations. Ed.
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