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Harrison Bergeron | Study Guide

Kurt Vonnegut

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Harrison Bergeron | Symbols



In its heyday of the early 1950s, shortly before Kurt Vonnegut penned "Harrison Bergeron," television exploded in popularity. Nearly 90 percent of households owned a television by the end of the decade. With this new technology came the hope of increased political discourse. Through televised debates and in town halls, everyone could participate in the political process, resulting, it was thought, in a more informed electorate.

However, what actually happened was that television, including political programming, became more and more associated with simple entertainment. Market pressures encouraged producers to adopt the "least-objectionable programming" philosophy to gain the most viewers, and television saw a decline in the quality of programming as fewer high arts performances were included in lieu of increasingly unrealistic sitcoms and dramas. By the end of the decade, when Vonnegut wrote "Harrison Bergeron," most utopian ideals of the potential of television were shattered, and anti-television sentiments and anxieties began to emerge. Government control of television programming strengthened at the hands of the Federal Communications Commission, which was created in 1934 to protect the public interest but now assumed the power and potential to influence the ideas and opinions of viewers.

The plot of "Harrison Bergeron" unfolds through events that play out on the television and the watchers' responses to it. Vonnegut was critical of television as one example of a technology that impeded intelligent thought. In the short story, television has exactly that effect. The fact that neither Hazel nor George can recall what they've seen on the television, even something as traumatic and memorable as the murder of their own son, is evidence of the mind-numbing capability of television. Hazel can't remember what it was on TV that made her cry, and George is so mentally and emotionally disengaged that he wanders into the kitchen for a beer at some point during his son's brief rise and fall as self-declared emperor.

The story therefore suggests the frightening impact of television on the family. Rather than bringing them together around its glow as it might in a 1950s commercial, the television seems to have erased all memory of their son and broken the family bonds that had once been instinctual. Television thus represents the ways in which technology can impede human intelligence and corrupt family ties, with an overall detrimental effect on society. The link to government control over television in the story also makes it a symbol of authoritarian invasion and mind control.

Radio Transmitters

Although radio technology was created to aid communication, in the dystopia of "Harrison Bergeron" radio transmitters small enough to fit in the ear are used by the authoritarian government to disrupt thought and forcibly subdue citizens of above-average intelligence. The earpieces symbolize technology twisted into a tool of government control. A centralized system sends out ear-splitting noises at regular intervals to all citizens wearing the transmitters, causing pain and making critical thought and memory impossible. The result is a citizenry incapable of questioning or rebelling against a government with absolute power. Technology such as the earpiece is perverted from its original use as a tool to aid human progress to one that imprisons humans.

Bird Shot

The bags that weigh down many characters in the story, meant to inhibit their strength and endurance, are filled with bird shot, a metal form of ammunition. Bird shot symbolizes how this authoritarian society uses the gun to enforce its laws and to keep down its rebellious citizens. The round pellets, usually made from lead, are the smallest size of shot, packed into shotgun shells that explode when fired, dispersing outward to do maximum damage to birds in the wild. In "Harrison Bergeron" the bird shot inhibits the movements of strong people so they are slow and tire easily. Wearing the bags of shot becomes second nature to George, who says he doesn't even notice them anymore. The bird shot has psychological control over him as well. When Hazel suggests he remove even a few balls to lighten his load, George insists that breaking the law in this way would destroy their egalitarian society and lead to chaos.

Many of the dancers on television, too, wear bags of bird shot. One can imagine how difficult it would be to dance, let alone leap, wearing dozens of pounds of metal shot. The bird shot keeps them firmly on the ground and keeps their dance firmly mediocre at best. In contrast when Harrison Bergeron rips off the weights that encumber him and his chosen empress, the two can soar into the air. Just as they hover in the air, shotgun blasts kill them both, much as the detonation of a slug of bird shot would kill more than one bird in a single blast.


To ensure that no one feels inferior, beautiful people in "Harrison Bergeron" are forced to wear masks. There seems to be an inverse relationship between the attractiveness of the person and the mask they must wear, in a ridiculous effort to equalize everything in society, including how people look and perceive each other and themselves. The narrator explains that the ballerina reading the news bulletin "must have been extraordinarily beautiful, because the mask she wore was hideous." Indeed, when Harrison Bergeron removes the mask, the face behind it is revealed as "blindingly beautiful." The masks are constructs, facades created for the sham egalitarianism. Underneath the mask, the ballerina is still beautiful; the handicaps don't change the person's real attributes, just cover them up, suggesting that systems can pretend to be egalitarian but that it's just a mask.

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