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Harrison Bergeron | Themes

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Equality

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that he grew up in the shadow of the Great Depression's effect on his parents and the country. His generation hoped for a better world, a vision that "usually involved socialism or communism, something that would create a more equitable society ... unfortunately neither ... turned out to work very well." In much of his science fiction he imagines government efforts to achieve equality that take the form of alarming constraints on citizens and the promise of technology gone horribly wrong. It is a pessimistic view of human progress, perhaps in light of the failure he observed in the radical efforts of communism and the like to achieve anything even approaching equality as well as the darkness of human nature he witnessed in the war.

In "Harrison Bergeron" Vonnegut imagines a world in which egalitarianism is taken to an absurd extreme, but he is also critical of what many conservative Americans feared such efforts at equality would mean—an effort to erase difference in natural ability. The story begins by asserting that everyone was "equal every which way." No one is permitted to have an advantage of any kind over anyone else. Rather than enabling everyone with equal opportunity and aid, the dystopian government has reduced everyone to the lowest common denominator. In fact the government in the story actually rewards and promotes lack of talent. It is dull, oblivious people such as Hazel who are privileged. The result is anything but true equality. For one thing, the characters are not equal in suffering. The epitome of average, Hazel has no handicaps, but George must carry heavy weights to impede him and endure sounds so painful they make him wince and his eyes water. Harrison is an questionable tragic hero, not only because he wishes to become an authoritarian figure himself, but also because his apparent superiority is rather superficial: he has godlike strength and good looks, but there is no sense that his apparent talents are in any way valuable to society. Oddly, what this society achieves in the way of equality is simply a uniform and rampant mediocrity paid for by those who have talents and abilities that could benefit society. No one is allowed to excel or do better than anyone else.

Authoritarianism

In this dystopia the American ideal of equality has become a tool to control people. The government determines what is average and allowable, and anyone exceeding that standard is judged to have unfair advantage and must be handicapped. With his strength and intelligence, Harrison Bergeron is deemed "under-handicapped" and dangerous. Interestingly, the only person who seems to be unencumbered by handicaps and at the same time efficient and good at her job is Diana Moon Glampers. There is no mention of handicaps that interfere with her ability to ruthlessly enforce the rules that do not appear to apply to her or, apparently, the "H-G men" who come up with the handicap devices. Some citizens, therefore, are not equal. They are allowed advantages, and the government decides who those exceptions are, a principle that is true of authoritarian regimes, not egalitarian ones.

Under such comprehensive government control, people grow accustomed to oppression. George says he hardly notices the bags of weight chained around his neck anymore. The threat of fines and imprisonment may have been necessary at first to force society to submit to being handicapped, but by the time in which the story is set, people such as George have internalized and rationalized their own subjugation. He even accepts his handicaps as inevitable and fair, telling Hazel that they are necessary to keep society from returning to the "dark ages" of competition. Neither of them would want that, they assure each other.

Harrison Bergeron, the tragic hero who rejects authoritarian egalitarianism, does so not in favor of democracy but in order to become a dictator. The teen declares himself emperor, which is just another form of authoritarianism. He promises to give the right of empress to a woman and to make his musicians dukes and earls. Reverting to a feudal system makes all other citizens serfs or slaves, which is arguably no better than their current situation under the Handicapper General. Having known nothing but authoritarian control, the ballerina and musicians in the short story seem to welcome yet another form of it in Harrison Bergeron's promises, likely as their only chance to be one of the ruling class.

Technology as Control

The explosive growth of technological advances in the 20th century prompted many writers to imagine technology's impact on society, with effects ranging from utopias without disease or war to dystopias such as "Harrison Bergeron," in which technology is applied to control and torture humanity. In this story the government uses radio transmissions of deafening noises into earpieces smart citizens are forced to wear, crippling their ability to think. Dystopias like the one in this short story portray the dire consequences of human technological progress gone terribly wrong. When technology is used to handicap an entire society, it halts the advancement of human abilities, which Vonnegut scholar Peter J. Reed says amounts to evolutionary interference. Instead of being used to benefit humanity and make lives easier, as most technology was originally designed to do, technology such as the radio-transmitting earpieces in the story causes suffering and disrupts normal human activities and abilities.

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