By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Harrison Bergeron’ is a 1961 short story by the American writer Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007). The story can be categorised as ‘dystopian satire’ or a ‘satirical dystopian story’, but we’ll say more about these labels in a moment. The action of the story takes place in the future America of 2081, where everyone has been made truly equal, physically, mentally, and aesthetically.
You can read ‘Harrison Bergeron’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Vonnegut’s story below.
‘Harrison Bergeron’: plot summary
The story is set in the United States in 2081. True equality has finally been achieved: nobody is allowed to be stronger, more beautiful, or more intelligent than anyone else, so people who are deemed to have an unfair advantage are forced by law to use ‘handicaps’ which limit their powers or talents. A Handicapper General, named Diana Moon Glampers, is in charge of ensuring everyone obeys the law and wears their assigned handicaps at all times.
The story focuses on a couple, George and Hazel Bergeron, whose fourteen-year-old son Harrison is taken away so that he can be ‘handicapped’ because he is abnormally strong and intelligent. George is of above-average intelligence so is forced to wear earpieces which transmit distracting noises every twenty seconds, so that he cannot concentrate or, or think about things, for too long and thus use his intellect to his advantage.
George also carries forty-seven pounds of birdshot in a canvas bag, hung around his neck, to reduce his natural athleticism. When his wife suggests opening a hole in the bottom of the bag and removing some of the lead balls, because she can see how worn-out he is, he reminds her that such a crime carries a prison sentence and a fine.
George and Hazel watch ballerinas dancing on television, but George is unimpressed by them, since they aren’t very good: no more than average, at least, because they are not allowed to be supremely gifted at ballet. The naturally attractive dancers, like other beautiful people in society, are forced to wear masks which make them look less attractive.
The ballet show is interrupted by a live news broadcast, which reveals that their son, Harrison Bergeron, has escaped from jail, where he had been held on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. Harrison enters the studios where the ballerinas are dancing, and tears off the handicaps he has been made to wear, which include a red rubber ball for a nose (like a clown) to make him look less handsome, and a large pair of headphones rather than the small radio his father is made to wear.
Harrison then announces that he will become emperor of the world, and asks for a woman to claim her prize as his empress. One of the beautiful ballerinas steps forward, and he removes her mask and frees her of her handicaps. He does the same to the other dancers and the musicians, and orders them to play good music.
Harrison and the dancer then ascend to the ceiling, floating above the ground, and exchange a long kiss. At that moment, Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, arrives and shoots them both dead, before ordering the dancers and musicians to put their handicaps back on.
George, who was in the kitchen getting himself a beer, misses the killing of his own son live on television, while Hazel, owing to her low intelligence, almost immediately forgets what she has seen.
‘Harrison Bergeron’: analysis
This story is satirical, but what precisely is Vonnegut satirising in ‘Harrison Bergeron’? Is he taking aim at the idea of state-mandated equity, which forces everyone to be mediocre, in order to show the absurdity of such a notion? Or is he, in fact, satirising those who would oppose attempts to level the playing field for everyone?
This latter interpretation is not as unlikely as it may first appear. The first thing to establish is that Kurt Vonnegut was aware of the dangers of government overreach, and the future society depicted in ‘Harrison Bergeron’ is clearly one in which the state has too much power over the individual. They can force people to carry bags of bullets around their necks to disadvantage them physically, and even prevent them from thinking too much. People are fed a diet of mediocre television to keep them docile and compliant.
This aspect of ‘Harrison Bergeron’ reads almost like a more extreme version of Ray Bradbury’s dystopias of the 1950s: not just Fahrenheit 451, in which books are banned because the government wants to keep everyone stupid and passive, but Bradbury’s short story ‘The Pedestrian’, in which the police threaten to arrest a lone man walking the streets of an evening because he isn’t sitting in front of the television, consuming a diet of cultural dross, like everyone else.
But the other key theme in Vonnegut’s story, besides government overreach and the state’s attempts to keep everyone intellectually lazy, is the one for which it is perhaps best known: egalitarianism, or the struggle for equality between all people. And on this issue, ‘Harrison Bergeron’ strikes a more ambivalent note.
On the one hand, the idea of state-mandated weights, radios, and masks to render supremely strong, clever, or beautiful people as weak, stupid, and ugly as the rest of the population strikes us as preposterously evil. Rather than pushing for a race to the bottom, a responsible and progressive government would seek to encourage weak citizens to pick up weights and build up their muscles, educate less intelligent members of society, and devise surgical techniques (such as plastic surgery) to make ugly people more attractive.
In one respect, then, Vonnegut’s story reads as a bedfellow of those satires which view communism or socialism as a way of making everyone equally miserable and poor, rather than trying to make everyone equally successful and financially comfortable.
Such an analysis is certainly defensible when we turn to the story and witness the ways in which, for instance, George Bergeron is effectively punished for his natural intellect by being bombarded with state-sanctioned noises on a regular basis: a peculiar kind of torture. The idea that one’s fourteen-year-old son could be taken away simply for being unusually strong and intelligent is abominable.
And yet Vonnegut doesn’t actually tell us why Harrison is taken away initially. We are just told that he has been taken away: nothing more. The news broadcast announces that he has been imprisoned for trying to overthrow the government.
Given George and Hazel’s short memories, and the fact that the story is focalised through them, we don’t learn, despite the story having a supposedly ‘omniscient’ third-person narrator, whether Harrison was simply taken away for being different or arrested because he had already presented a threat to the state by plotting a coup.
After all, George and Hazel have been allowed, following the application of their handicaps, to live ‘freely’ (at least relatively so) in their own home. Why was Harrison taken away? Because he was not just a little bit more intelligent than the average person, but vastly more ingenious than everyone else, so that all existing handicaps were useless on him? Or because he is already plotting something? The story refuses to tell us this.
Similarly, although the shooting of Harrison and his new girlfriend at the end of the story is shocking, Harrison’s lust for power – seeking to use his natural height, strength, and intellect to become ruler of the whole world – also strikes us as a nightmare prospect, so that the shock of his death is likely to be tempered with some degree of relief.
‘Harrison Bergeron’, in the last analysis, is a story which invites us to consider the lengths we are prepared to go to as a society in order to achieve equality. Clearly there are some things, like dancing or athletics or even thinking, which some people are more naturally gifted at than others. Do we want to punish them for their natural talent, or appreciate the things their gifts allow them to do? Just because we will never be an Olympic athlete, do we think it unfair that others get the chance to win a gold medal?
Most reasonable people would answer ‘no’ to this question. People are different, with different talents and skills. An ugly person might be extremely clever. A clever person might be a physical weakling. A body-builder might be thicker than a whale omelette. And Vonnegut’s point in ‘Harrison Bergeron’ appears to be twofold: first, that failing to accept that people are different from us is bad, and second, that government overreach is also bad.
And it is worth remembering that in 1961, when the story was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, America was still struggling towards the legislation which would recognise that all citizens were in fact equal before the law. The Civil Rights movement would, throughout the 1960s, see African-Americans asserting their equality as racial segregation was gradually written out of state laws.
What this means is that ‘Harrison Bergeron’ is both a satire on the absurd attempts to make everyone the same and to disregard the important differences between us, and a story which rejects the human impulse to use one’s innate sense of superiority (whether real or merely assumed) in order to gain power over other people.
In this regard, Diane Moon Glampers is the villain of the story for seeking to impose equity on everyone using totalitarian force, but Harrison Bergeron himself is also a warning about what may happen if individuals are allowed to use their innate privileges for evil or depraved ends.
At the same time as it is a warning against enforced equity (i.e., everyone will be as mediocre as everyone else), the story also carries the seeds of an opposing message, namely that those who seek to enforce difference and to use their innate differences from others to attain power and privilege are also to be rejected and opposed.