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“Harrison Bergeron”: A Glimpse of the Future Through Satire
We covered a large expanse of information in our English Il class, from literary analysis to poetry to various forms of narration. Many stories were included for reading to illustrate this information. As much as we covered and read, there were still one or two things I would have enjoyed learning about. In a half-term class, it’s hard to include everything, and that’s understandable. One item that absolutely should have been included, however, is “Harrison Bergeron”: a short story written by Kurt Vonnegut.
In “Harrison Bergeron,” we are rocketed into the future: a dystopian universe created by Vonnegut where the government has amended the Constitution in order to bring equality to the country by placing handicaps on all of its citizens. The story takes place as George and Hazel Bergeron are sitting on their couch at home watching television. Their son, Harrison-who is a genius and was arrested on suspicion of trying to overthrow the government-has escaped from jail and is on the run.
Harrison appears on screen and removes all of his handicaps, declaring himself “the Emperor” (Vonnegut 229). He picks an empress, floats to the ceiling in dance, before the Handicapper General, in charge of enforcing the handicaps that keep this equality in motion, appears on screen with a double-barreled ten gauge shot gun. “She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor” (Vonnegut 230). When George comes back from the kitchen, Hazel has tears on her cheeks but is so dim-witted that she doesn’t remember what caused the tears-the death of her son.
Something sad on TV, she says to George, who then tells her to forget sad things and they go about their lives, not knowing that their son was just brutally shot down on live television. “Harrison Bergeron” is one of Vonnegut’s most important short stories, touching on quite a few literary devices, as well as real-world issues. One of those issues is the system put in place by the government, which is a version of Egalitarianism: a society in which everyone is one hundred percent equal. This idea of equality is satirized perfectly by Vonnegut in this story. “Harrison Bergeron” should have been taught in English ll not only because Kurt Vonnegut as a writer is important to the world of literature, but because satire is equally as important in the literary and the real world.
Kurt Vonnegut is a very important writer that every college student should learn about. Mr. Vonnegut earned his master’s in fine art and worked a string of odd jobs, including joining the army, before dedicating his life to writing in 1950, at 28 years old. Since then, he has written many novels, essays, and other articles. He has won many awards for his works, including the Hugo Award for Best Novel, the National Book Award for Fiction, and the Audie Award for Short Stories/Collections (Akers and Moore 163). He became known as a great writer of the Postmodernism era of fiction. Postmodernism is mostly a period of literary works criticizing the rational, scientific, and societal aspects of the current times. In most of his writing, Vonnegut uses humor to point out the nonsensicalness of some aspects of normal life that people may otherwise not realize. One of his most important short stories, “Harrison Bergeron” was first published in 1961, but by the 1980’s it was being printed in high school and college textbooks. I, myself, (vaguely) remember reading and discussing it in 7th grade. Many of his novels are required reading for AP classes in high school, as well. Novelists Tim Akers and Jerry Moore discuss Vonnegut’s style and Harrison Bergeron in depth, saying that, “Early critical attention tried to determine whether Vonnegut was a satirist, a black humorist, or a science fiction writer; this debate continues. His works are noted for their frank and insightful social criticism, and for their innovative style; they present readers with an idiosyncratic yet compelling vision of modern life” (165). He has many skills as an author and uses them wisely to convey his points. He has a dark and rather odd sense of humor and likes to create his own worlds so that he can use literally every facet of the story to convey his message. His use of satire is full-bodied and used flawlessly to get each point across in every story, thanks to his odd sense of humor and straightforward way with words. He takes his criticism of everyday life or his personal experiences and views and shapes his stories and characters intricately around them, with enough wiggle room to leave the final judgement up to the reader. Is the villain really the villain? Is the hero really the hero? What is right and wrong? His work is one of a kind and should be on the reading list of any first or second year college student.
Satire is an important literary style and Kurt Vonnegut uses it extensively and masterfully throughout this short story. Satire is the use of humor to illustrate a point in literature. Most satirists use it as a tool to insert their own opinions into their writing, or to exaggerate an idea in order to allow their readers to form their own opinions, or even to sway their readers into thinking one way or another. Vonnegut uses it in “Harrison Bergeron” to show what an absurd idea Egalitarianism is; he uses satire to show what it would essentially take to make everyone equal. Generally, in politics, Egalitarianism is used to describe socialism and social ownership: where goods are distributed evenly throughout society and any profit made by the social or government market would be redistributed to the citizens, thereby equalizing income and making classes obsolete. In the story, he takes the idea of equality literally and expands it to include beauty, strength, and intelligence. If we have the same income, but the woman standing next to me is smarter and prettier, are we really equal? This exaggeration is shown in almost every other line of “Harrison Bergeron”, thanks to his use of satire. The most obvious and absurd example is the handicaps used to prevent people from being themselves. If you were of above-average intelligence, you were given a radio to wear in your ear that emitted very loud noises every couple of minutes in order to disrupt your thoughts. George Bergeron is given one of these devices, being quite smart. In the opening scene, “A buzzer sounded in George’s head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm” (Vonnegut 227). Throughout the story, it appears, emitting sounds from buzzers to a hammer hitting a bell, to a 21-gun salute. George instantly loses track of his thoughts or any line of conversation he’s currently trying to hold. If he were allowed to continue a line of thought for more than a couple of minutes, someone of his intelligence level could realize what was being done to them, how unfair it is, and attempt to do something about it. If you were strong, you were weighed down with bird shot carried in bags that hung from neck, waist, or ankle to bring your strength down to the rest of the populations’. If you were beautiful or handsome, a mask was put upon your face to hide that beauty so that others wouldn’t feel ugly. In “The Politics of Kurt Vonnegut”, Darryl Hattenhauer thinks the events in the story are preposterous. “For example”, he says, “in a society in which no one is more intelligent than anyone else, everyone would be as stupid as the most mentally deficient person in the populace, and, therefore, all would be unable even to feed themselves” (387). He is absolutely correct, it is preposterous. In the story, Hazel Bergeron has no handicaps because she is of average intelligence. In this story, “average” intelligence is actually below-average in the real world, as everyone in this dystopian society is lowered to the intellectual level of the least among them. Instead of creating an equal populace, it creates a dumbed down one, in which people don’t realize that their freedom has been taken away. This is satire because although the implications are dark and depressing, Hazel herself is sweet and humorous in her forgetfulness. The ability to portray something so disparaging as funny is one of Vonnegut’s greatest talents and a top reason as to why he should have been part of our English ll syllabus.
The description of Harrison, himself, is laced with satire, as well. He is the image of defiance: tall beyond imagine, more handsome than any man that stands next to him, and stronger than any of them, on top of it. He bears the most handicaps of all:
Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides… In the race of life, Harrison carried three hundred pounds… And to offset his good looks, the H-G men required that he wear at all times 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 228-229)
Despite all of this, he is described by authorities as “under-handicapped”, which is quite comical given the fact that he carries a weight no human possibly could. Despite what this type of all controlling government has done to him, Harrison’s first order of business upon removing his handicaps and finally finding freedom is to instill his own strict regime. As Paul Thomas, who wrote an extensive article on the radical humor of Vonnegut’s work, asserts, “Vonnegut’s characters are both characters, and they aren’t; his heroes are heroes, anti-heroes, and neither” (89). Until declaring himself emperor, Harrison appears to be the hero of the story: a symbol of intelligence and beauty. Upon his declaration, it becomes unclear if there is a true hero. This is satire because Vonnegut is using humor in order to get his audience to realize that sometimes in life, there is no hero. You must realize that someone you may consider to be a hero is really just a human being with human flaws, like the rest of us. This fact is an important one in life and another reason this short story should have been a part of our class.
Kurt Vonnegut also applies satire to television in this short story. He revolves the entire plot around it, as George and Hazel are watching this all take place on their TV, sitting on the couch in front of it. He uses satire to show us his view of television: how it desensitizes and lowers the thinking power of citizens. Author Peter Reed, who has written two novels discussing the work of Kurt Vonnegut, talks about the numerous ways in which he integrates television into his stories. He says, “The stories which have such technology-related plots are generally set in recognizable, mundane worlds rather than the exotic settings frequently common to science fiction. Their purpose often seems to be, in fact, to cause reflection on what the impact of technological innovations might be on the daily lives of ordinary people” (Reed). So although “Harrison Bergeron” is science fiction, it’s setting is relatively normal. The government doesn’t need to use “exotic” means to keep its citizens distracted while removing their freedom and individuality. Instead, it uses TV to keep them thoroughly distracted without them being any wiser about what’s going on, because TV is just as entertaining to them as it is distracting. Vonnegut also implies that it’s the government’s intent to lower the intelligence of its citizens by creating mind-numbing television. Just as the handicaps prevent the intelligent from thinking for too long of a period at a time, television acts as a de-stimulant for thought for those considered “normal”, such as Hazel. Though she has nothing interrupting her thoughts, she is too focused on what’s currently happening on the TV to remember what happened only moments ago, as in the instance of her son being murdered. Mere seconds later, she cannot even remember what had happened. As sad as this is, it’s highly reflective of our own society today. This bit of satire is perhaps the most important in the story, as it is so closely tied to our current reality. As humorous as the last statement is, when Hazel cannot even remember what has happened only moments before, it is ultimately the saddest part of the story and the overwhelming reality of the world we live in today. People spend so much time watching the entertainment that television provides, they pay little attention to what’s happening in the real world and therefore are much less active in it. Laws pass, elections are held, terrible travesties happen in our country, as well as others, and no one is the wiser because catching up on the latest season of popular television shows is far more important to the average citizen. The fact that Vonnegut takes this fact and introduces it to his readers as satire hopefully opens up their minds and allows them to realize that this is more than just fiction. More people should be introduced to this reality and that would be the case if it were part of our English ll syllabus.
Satire is incredibly important in the world of literature, and in our everyday world, as well. Some of the world’s most well-known and respected authors were satirists. Shakespeare, George Orwell, and Mark Twain are just a few most memorable ones. It isn’t just an important literary device, either. Satire can also be found in some of the most popular television shows of the modern day. Researcher Carl Mowery touches on this in his overview of “Harrison Bergeron”, stating that, “Many current TV hit shows are satiric: Saturday Night Live, In Living Color, The Simpsons, Wayans Brothers, and Mark Russell’s PBS Specials. Editorial cartoons are also fine examples of satire. All of these have a common purpose: to expose the weaknesses of some part of society in amusing ways” (Mowery). Family Guy is a wonderful example, as well. These shows are wildly popular for their wit and their ability to poke fun at important current affairs without seeming too serious. A few friends I know would rather watch shows such as these then watch the news itself, as you get the majority of the facts without the bias of the news station or reporter. Instead, these shows present the facts in a humorous way and let you interpret it and form your own opinion on real-world issues while being entertained at the same time. “Harrison Bergeron” does this, as well. The absurdity and humor of the handicaps keeps you entertained during the story, though overall it’s quite serious and informative.
Without a thorough conversation or lesson on what satire truly is and how it works, one can completely miss it in a story (or television show). It can be hard to pin down, unless you have covered it extensively and know what to look for. Satire is an important aspect of literature and everyday life, and it is something everyone should get a lesson on in college. Kurt Vonnegut is a master of satire. He is a very important writer, overall, and should be included in a college curriculum. His straightforward, yet creative, writing style brings something unique to the table. His use of satire to criticize the government, ideas of equality, and the effects of television on society as a whole makes this short story more than a story, but a critical examination of aspects of life in the United States. For these reasons, “Harrison Bergeron” should have been included in our English ll syllabus.
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