Harrison Bergeron

harrison bergeron

Harrison Bergeron‘ is a satirical, dystopian science fiction short story written by Kurt Vonnegut and first published in 1961. The story is set in the year 2081. Due to the 211th, 212th and 213th Amendments to the Constitution of America, all Americans are mandated equal.

‘They were not only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way.’ In America no one is more intelligent than anyone else, no one is better looking or more athletic than anyone else. In order to stop any sort of competition in society these measures are enforced by the United States Handicapper General.

The current Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, and her team of agents have developed several forms of ‘handicaps.’ Beautiful people are forced to wear masks, athletic people have to carry weights, and intelligent people have to wear radios in their ears that interrupt thoughts with loud noises. In April 2081 the agents of the Handicapper General take fourteen-year-old Harrison Bergeron away from his parents, George and Hazel. The couple is not aware of the full extent of that tragedy because Hazel is of average intelligence and George has to wear the mental handicap radio.

Later that day the two are watching ballerinas on television where the talented dancers have weights on their arms and feet. The show is interrupted by a bulletin announcing that Harrison Bergeron has escaped from prison. A picture of Harrison wearing several handicaps is shown. Suddenly the photo is replaced by images of Harrison storming the studio. Ripping off all his handicaps he declares that he is the emperor and a greater ruler than anyone else. He chooses one of the ballerinas as his empress, liberates her from her handicaps, and starts to dance with her. A few seconds later Diana Moon Glampers enters the studio and kills Harrison and his empress with a shotgun, and then the screen goes dark.

George Bergeron misses these events, having left to get a beer. He returns and finds Hazel crying on the couch. She says that something sad must have happened on TV, but that she cannot remember what it was. George tells her to forget about sad things.

Vonnegut’s story is politically satirical. Vonnegut highlights the danger of equality sought too vigorously. The demand of absolute equality is the elimination of natural differences. Citizens lose their freedom and their rights as individuals. The result is a nation of dumb and slow human beings who follow their leaders without question. ‘Harrison Bergeron’ can therefore be read as a harsh critique of communism, which champions equality. Vonnegut’s critique also speaks to the violence of McCarthyism on those who did not conform to accepted social norms. Connected to this critique of totalitarianism is the power of the media to spread the political messages and principles as the story unfolds mostly on television.

Vonnegut is influenced by his early work as a journalist. His sentences are short and easily understood so as to be largely accessible. A dystopian setting enhances his social and political critique by imagining a future world founded on absolute equality. Yet Vonnegut also punctuates his dystopia with humor. Even the most horrifying scenes are underlined by jokes or absurdity. When the news announcer is supposed to read a news bulletin he must hand it to a nearby ballerina because he has a speech impediment. The ballerina then has to alter her voice because it would be ‘unfair’ to use her natural voice. This absurdity highlights the madness of the world of ‘Bergeron,’ while also giving voice to Vonnegut’s consistent pessimism.

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