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Harrison Bergeron | Study Guide

Kurt Vonnegut

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Harrison Bergeron | Context


Dystopian Science Fiction

Science fiction is a modern genre that developed after the Industrial Revolution and advancements in science and technology of the 18th and 19th centuries. While speculative stories and fantasy had long been common in all forms of literature, science fiction adds the element of scientific plausibility. As new machines and technology, such as electricity, dramatically refashioned everyday life, writers began to imagine the impact such advancements might have upon society.

English writer Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's (1797–1851) Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) is often thought to be an early example of a science fiction novel, or proto–science fiction, featuring a scientist who uses electricity to bring a corpse to life. Some common elements of science fiction include robots, space and aliens, and time travel but also examples of technology common to our current world that seemed almost impossibly fantastic at the time. French author Jules Verne (1828–1905) was especially perceptive in Paris in the Twentieth Century (1863), which was not published until 1994. The novel describes raised rail systems, cars, copy machines, and complex digitized banking systems. Authors of science fiction take any number of approaches to the versatile genre, often using satire (ridicule of human vice), allegory (symbolic representation), parody (mimicry of another work), or even more didactic (intended to teach) sermons to explore and expose human nature.

It's not surprising that a genre concerned with the effect of new inventions and scientific discoveries often focused on the future. Authors envision worlds in which technology cures all social ills and society becomes utopian (marked by perfect laws, government, and social conditions). However, other writers explore anxieties over the possible negative impacts of the innovations so rapidly altering society. Dystopian science fiction (marked by dehumanized and fearful living conditions) often features authoritarian governments that control people through medicine or technology or visiting aliens who attempt to destroy the human race, as in the terrifying War of the Worlds (1897) by English writer H.G. Wells (1866–1946). Often such dystopias include a single hero who finds oppression intolerable and rebels or attempts to escape control only to be hunted down and silenced, as in English writer George Orwell's (1903–50) novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

"Harrison Bergeron" is a dystopian science fiction short story in which the government uses technology to erase inequality by forcibly handicapping anyone with above-average ability. The Handicapper General in "Harrison Bergeron" uses machinery—including radio-transmitting earpieces, sight-altering goggles, and government-controlled television programs— to regulate a future society, effectively dismantling family ties, controlling individual thought, and arresting human advancement in the name of so-called equality. Harrison Bergeron refuses to submit to this bondage, however, ripping off the chains and weights meant to counter his strength, removing the earpiece and glasses, and finally taking off the red nose to reveal his handsome face. Tragically, he is shot and killed on live television, and his parents don't even remember it, muddled as their minds are by technologies and regulations that enforce mediocrity.

Social Satire

Satire is a literary form that seeks to create change by subjecting vices to scorn through exaggeration, parody, or irony (establishment of contrasts). Satire adapts well to a number of artistic forms, including theater, poetry, and film. It may be direct, as when a narrator instructs the audience on the moral of the story, or indirect, as when the audience comes to understand something that the characters themselves do not. It may also incorporate humor and tragedy. Its origins can be traced to Roman poetry. Social satire, more specifically, highlights problems in society by making them ridiculous, thus revealing the need for change and encouraging progress. Some examples of social satire include Irish writer Jonathan Swift's (1667–1745) Gulliver's Travels (1726), which satirizes British self-importance, and American satirist Joseph Heller's (1923–99) Catch 22 (1961), which reveals the senseless evils of bureaucracy and war.

In "Harrison Bergeron" Vonnegut satirizes runaway egalitarianism (marked by excessive social, political, and economic equality). One of the founding principles of America, as stated in the Constitution, is the idea that "all men are created equal" and deserve the same rights. This value gave rise to a democratic country in which all citizens purportedly have a say in government through voting and are entitled to equal protections under the law. In the period after World War II (1939–45), many Americans focused their efforts on the advancement of social change in an effort to achieve the promise of the Constitution. This period featured the civil rights movement, the continued growth of feminism, and fights for equal access to education and employment. Vonnegut reacted to the idea that equal opportunities should lead to equal outcomes for all, playing on the fears of what many Americans imagined egalitarianism meant—a complete leveling of abilities. Oddly, communism, which is often viewed as the enemy of democracy, is also centered on the idea of equality for its citizens, seeking to the eliminate class and economic differences that riddle capitalist, democratic systems. In a communist system, the often autocratic government owns all property, and citizens receive equal benefits, at least in theory. As the cruelties and excesses of communist countries began to come to light in the 20th century, Vonnegut's generation witnessed the failure of this system of government to provide real equality. So, while one satirical target is the enforcement of so-called equality prominent in the Soviet communist model, another is the paranoid fears about what democratic equal rights meant to conservative-minded Americans—a major satirical target for Vonnegut throughout his writing career. In Cold War America (1947–91), where tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union focused on nuclear proliferation and the spread of communism, the perceived threats led many American politicians to conjure up nightmare scenarios like the one featured in "Harrison Bergeron."

Vonnegut takes the idea of egalitarianism to its extreme in "Harrison Bergeron." No one is allowed to be better than anyone else, so intelligent people, such as George, are forced to wear earpieces to disrupt their thoughts, and childlike Hazel, incapable of recognizing or remembering even her own son, is judged the norm and not subjected to handicaps. Vonnegut exaggerates the misunderstanding that to be fair to one group, another must be disadvantaged. In the satire the American ideal of equality becomes a tool used to create social oppression. This is egalitarianism run amok, which reduces all citizens to the least common denominator.

Vonnegut's Canon

Vonnegut wrote short stories for magazines during the 1950s to support his family financially while he wrote novels. Many were science fiction. Although some critics have dismissed these stories as commercial, less serious than his other work, Vonnegut used them to explore important themes as well as to develop his voice and style. His work in journalism and short stories shaped his prose, equipping him with the ability to write concisely and employ minimalism. Vonnegut's short stories are often lighter in tone and more humorous than his novels, driven by market demand and the taste of periodical readers.

In Vonnegut's 1959 novel The Sirens of Titan, he creates a dystopia in which aliens enslave humanity and people are handicapped, their thoughts disrupted by implanted radio receivers. Vonnegut explores similar ideas in the science fiction short story "Harrison Bergeron," which was published in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1961 and reprinted in National Review in 1965. Like many of Vonnegut's short stories, it uses dark humor to make the dystopia more palatable to everyday readers without removing the sting of its satire. The story has become one of his best known and most anthologized, appearing in a collection of Vonnegut's short stories titled Welcome to the Monkey House (1968).

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