Harrison Bergeron | Study Guide

Kurt Vonnegut

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Harrison Bergeron | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

The Year 2081

It is 2081, and everyone in the United States is equal in every possible way. Three amendments to the Constitution have ensured that no one has an unfair advantage over anyone else. The strong wear heavy weights, the intelligent have their thoughts interrupted by deafening noises transmitted through government-mandated earpieces, and the beautiful hide their faces with ugly masks.

George and Hazel Watch TV

Although the Handicapper General has recently taken George and Hazel's son away to prison, they can't dwell on their sorrow. Hazel, of average intelligence, doesn't seem to remember, and George, who is quite smart, can't focus because of the horrible sounds that come frequently in his ear from the radio transmitter, wrecking his train of thought. The two watch a televised ballet performance. George begins to think that dancers should not be encumbered by bags of bird shot, but a screech ends the thought. Hazel notices his wince and expresses envy of the variety of sounds she can't hear. If she had the job of Handicapper General, she remarks, she would choose chimes for Sunday's noise. Hazel reckons she would be good at the job because she knows perfectly well what "normal" is. George agrees, and his thoughts begin to turn to their "abnormal" son, Harrison, when a noise from his earpieces makes him cringe. Several ballerinas wearing earpieces are thrown to the floor in agony at the same moment.

Hazel suggests George lie down to rest the huge bags of weight he wears. He hardly notices them, and he rejects her suggestion that they secretly lighten the bags by letting out some of the bird shot. After all, George explains, if everyone flouted the laws, they would be right back in "the dark ages" of competition. Hazel agrees that would be terrible. Just as George begins to explain how it would affect society, another noise chases his thought away.

Harrison Escapes

An announcer breaks into programming with a news bulletin. For a few moments, he tries to read the news bulletin, but his speech impediment, like that of all announcers, keeps him from getting out the words. He gives up and hands the bulletin to a ballerina. Hazel praises him for his effort. The masked ballerina makes her naturally melodious voice as neutral as possible and reads the news that Harrison Bergeron has escaped from jail, where he'd been held for plotting to overthrow the government. He is "under-handicapped," she reports, and dangerous.

A picture of the young man shows on the screen. He is seven feet tall, covered in heavy sheet metal and chains, and wearing a red clown nose, thick glasses, and huge earphones. Harrison Bergeron looks like "a walking junkyard"; no one has ever had more handicaps.

Just then the camera shakes, and the studio appears to jump, a movement George seems to remember from when Harrison lived at home. He realizes Harrison must be there in the studio, but the sound of a car crash incapacitates him and drives the thought from his mind. When George looks again, the screen shows his son, who has broken into the studio. Addressing the audience, Harrison declares himself emperor and rips off all of his encumbrances, revealing his handsome face. With everyone in the studio terrified and cowering, he invites the first ballerina brave enough to rise to be his empress. A volunteer stands, and he tears away her handicaps. She is shockingly beautiful.

Harrison and the Ballerina Dance

Harrison removes the handicaps of the musicians and demands they play well, promising to reward them with positions of leadership. He and the ballerina dance as no one has ever seen a dance performed. They leap and twirl, reaching toward the ceiling. They jump so high they actually kiss the ceiling, seeming to pause the laws of gravity for a time, as they embrace each other in the air. At that moment the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, bursts into the studio and kills the two dancers with a shotgun. She orders the musicians to put their handicaps back on, and the television goes black.

Normal Life Resumes

Hazel is crying when George returns from the kitchen, where he'd gone for a beer. She doesn't know what made her cry except that there was something upsetting on the television. George advises her to forget about distressing things, and she agrees that she always seems to. A horrible sound makes him grimace. Hazel says it must have been a bad one. George tells her she could "say that again." Hazel repeats her comment.

Analysis

Irony

The overarching situational irony of "Harrison Bergeron" is that in the attempt to create an egalitarian society where there is no longer competition, people who are disadvantaged are not elevated; instead, everyone else is "handicapped" so that they can no longer use their talents and abilities. George's headphones blast him with jarring noises any time he tries to have a meaningful or coherent thought, for example, and he is constantly exhausted by the extra weight he must carry so that he is not stronger than anyone else. No one is allowed to do well, let alone excel. In fact, the news announcer, like all announcers, has a speech impediment, making his job practically impossible. The dancers are masked and laden with weights, making them "no better than anybody else would have been" so no one watching would feel bad about themselves in comparison. But no one, it seems, can feel good, either—except, perhaps, Hazel, who is so average she has no handicaps. She is doomed to live a life in which she is blissfully unaware of what is really going on around her. As the standard of normal, there is no help for Hazel, who can't even understand her own emotions, recall her memories, or have normal family ties.

In this way, the story highlights the irony that being fair to one group often disadvantages another. Kurt Vonnegut exaggerates this point to ridiculous extremes in order to satirize such egalitarian efforts he saw rising in the competitive American society of his day and in response to the cruelties and failures of communism in creating equality and prosperity for all. Vonnegut uses irony to make the point that it is not possible to be completely fair or egalitarian and that attempts to do so actually hurt not only those with inferior ability, but also society as a whole.

Absurdity

Vonnegut exaggerates the cruelties of existence in this dystopian short story so much as to make them plainly absurd. Take the appearance of the tragic hero Harrison Bergeron. The young teenager is seven feet tall, and his steps shake the whole studio. He is like a "walking junkyard" with heavy sheets of metal chained all over his body, and his face is disfigured with huge wavy glasses, headphones, shaved eyebrows, black-capped teeth, and in the crowning absurdity, a red rubber clown nose. Vonnegut presents dancers who can't dance, musicians who can't play, and an announcer who can't speak. The author uses the ridiculousness of the story to make the point that if technology, government regulation, political philosophies, and political correctness continue on the path he seems to think they are taking, society will devolve into the painfully absurd.

Rebels

A common feature of dystopian science fiction, and Vonnegut's science fiction as well, is a main character who rebels against an authoritarian regime, an intellectual dissident unwilling to submit to the status quo. The hero, who usually meets tragic ends, is hunted down. Rebels similar to Harrison Bergeron can be found in British writer George Orwell's (1903–50) novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and his compatriot E.M. Forster's (1879–1970) short story "The Machine Stops" (1909).

Harrison is a questionable rebel, as his so-called rebellion will likely lead to another form of authoritarianism. Vonnegut clearly does not champion Harrison as a hero who will free society, though it could be said that Harrison is the sort of hero that an absurd society like the one in the story richly deserves. In a sense, Harrison has been engineered by this authoritarian society; his superiority complex is the direct product of this society's misunderstanding regarding equality.

Vonnegut seems to suggest in the short story that a society that harms and controls individuals desperately needs rebels. The best and the brightest in the story, Harrison Bergeron and the ballerina, display more personality and talent in a few minutes dancing in the studio than one can imagine George and Hazel have seen in their lifetime. Without rebels nothing will change, and humanity will remain enslaved to misguided egalitarianism, which the dark ending of the story makes abundantly clear.

Dark Humor

While Vonnegut explores many of the same disturbing themes in his novels and short stories, his short stories, destined for more commercial publications, are often lighter in tone than the longer works. One way the author accomplishes this is through use of humor. The laughs come with a grimace though, and the humor can only be described as dark. Harrison Bergeron's appearance is described as "Halloween and hardware ... a walking junkyard." He has 300 pounds of scrap metal chained to his body, capped off with a red clown's nose. And he's the hero of the story. When the musicians don't play as well as he desires, he grabs two and uses their bodies as batons to indicate how he'd like it played.

Scatterbrained Hazel is pathetically funny. When George is shaken by a horrific sound in his earpiece, Hazel blithely suggests that wind chimes would be her choice for mind-altering transmissions. They would be more appropriate for Sundays, after all, she explains. The sad thing is that she isn't joking. Hazel is the oblivious object of the last twisted comedic moment in the short story, too. George agrees that a noise in his earpiece was a "doozy" and states that she could "say that again." The standard gag, as she does exactly that, is like a bad joke in a vaudeville radio program. With Harrison Bergeron dead and Hazel's lack of memory, she could go on saying it indefinitely.

Technology

The short story explores anxiety about possible harmful uses of technology in the future, a common feature of science fiction. In "Harrison Bergeron" technology is a tool of an authoritarian government used to control its citizens. With threats of fines and imprisonment, the Handicapper General forces intelligent, capable individuals to wear radio transmitters in their ears, blasting painful, thought-disrupting sounds at regular intervals to keep them from maintaining coherent thought. The medium of television, too, is used by the government to communicate with the population and control what they see, effectively dictating what is normal. Hazel and George find nothing strange about ballerinas and musicians rendered incapable of anything resembling beauty, dance, or music by heavy weights and disfiguring masks. The story paints a picture of technology that has been weaponized to cripple society.

Harrison Bergeron Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 Harrison Bergeron is jailed by the Handicapper General.

Rising Action

2 George and Hazel watch a ballet on TV.

3 Harrison Bergeron escapes and declares himself emperor.

4 Unencumbered, a ballerina and Harrison Bergeron dance.

Climax

5 Diana Moon Glampers kills them as they embrace in midair.

Falling Action

6 Hazel cries and doesn't know why.

Resolution

7 George tells Hazel to forget about whatever upsets her.

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