Kurt Vonnegut dreamed up a world where everyone was equal. After experiencing a post-WWII America involved in constant war and paranoia, he wanted a world full of pacifism and equality (Study.com). However, he also understood the dangers of equality if it were ever misinterpreted or misapplied. All these ideas collide in his short story “Harrison Bergeron,” where the good folk of America are finally able to achieve equality through the use of mental and physical handicap devices. By using short, simple sentences throughout the story to represent the people’s length of thoughts, Vonnegut illustrates how the handicaps can limit the population’s ability to think deeply and critically and how equality can halt future progress if applied improperly.
Harrison Bergeron starts off as any story would: paragraphs of description, main characters introduced, and some interaction between the characters. As the story progresses, however, one thing becomes evidently clear: the characters speak in short, brief sentences. This is the main form of dialogue between George and Hazel Bergeron, the main characters, as they speak in ways reminiscent of small talk. Throughout the story, neither of these characters are able to say more than three long sentences aloud before their thoughts are interrupted and forgotten, and most of the dialogue involves trying to remember what was just previously said. This has the effect of somewhat diminishing the characterization of the characters, since no matter how different everyone is and how differently people think and feel, at the end of the day, they are all artificially similar to one another in terms of speech patterns and possibly in terms of deeper thought.
In addition to breaking the character’s individuality, the handicaps used in the story also play another larger function. In most of the story, the handicaps serve as a tool to break up the critical thought processes of the people to the “average” level, rendering any character’s previous analysis of a situation useless. Towards the end of the story, George finds his wife sitting in front of the TV, crying. He and his wife share this small piece of dialogue:
George came back in with the beer, paused while a handicap signal shook him up. And then he sat down again. ‘You been crying’ he said to Hazel. ‘Yup,’ she said. ‘What about?’ he said. ‘I forget,’ she said. ‘Something real sad on television.’ ‘What was it?’ he said. ‘It’s all kind of mixed up in my mind,’ said Hazel. ‘Forget sad things,’ said George. ‘I always do,’ said Hazel (paras 82-29).
While this may seem like a routine TV performance, what had actually happened was that George and Hazel’s son, Harrison Bergeron, broke free from his chains and danced with one of the ballerinas, unhandicapped, for a few moments before being shot dead by the handicapper general. Although Hazel had witnessed this live on TV and was able to process the events enough to cry, her average intelligence caused her to forget the events that had just unfolded in front of her, breaking her critical thought process, and with that, causing her to be unable to recognize important, possibly future-altering events.
Similarly, the handicaps used to achieve average intelligence are used to keep people complacent. As a side effect of creating complete equality, the government does not want to lose its grip on the population to be able to keep power. In wanting so, they use the handicaps to break up any ideas of dissatisfaction within the population in order to prevent any uprisings or revolutions. This can be seen in some of George’s thoughts, where somewhat longer, more complex thoughts are shattered by his handicaps to reduce him back to average. After watching a ballerina performance and seeing them be average, the author notes, “George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. But he didn’t get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts” (paragraph 10). George was in the process of a long, complex thought of a somewhat revolutionary idea, but all of this was shattered by his handicap, which made the thought completely useless. Although George may have never been able to lead a revolution, seeing that he was capable of thinking more progressively shows that others in the country have probably thought the same, but have also had their thoughts shattered by the handicaps. With handicaps blocking long, complex, and anti-governmental progressive thoughts, Vonnegut shows that the government may have prevented many revolutions from happening all around the country, preserving their iron rule over the population full of short, broken thoughts and possibly preventing any good, society-altering ideas from becoming a reality.
While everyone in the story is complacent and government-influenced, only one person is able to break free from the reign: Harrison Bergeron. As the only person in the story strong enough to resist all forms of handicaps thrown at him, he is the beacon of rebellion in a world of complacency. He is also the only character who can speak in full, complete thoughts, as if he channeled the whole country’s rebellious spirit in his speech. Although he sometimes speaks in shorter sentences, everything he says has purpose, drive, and weight, all adding into his ungovernable nature. Alongside an unhandicapped ballerina and musicians, he is able to share a performance of limitless ability on live TV in a static world of normalcy. During their performance, it seemed as though “not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and motion as well.” (paragraph 72). With the use of elegant imagery for the dance, Vonnegut not only showcases the individual talents of Harrison and the ballerina, but also uses the dance to serve as a reminder that society as a whole can progress past its limits when individual talents are celebrated instead of shunned, and when people are allowed to reach and exceed their potential. As for Harrison himself, Vonnegut adds him in as a symbol of the amazing things can unfold when people are allowed to properly and critically think in long thoughts.
The world of Harrison Bergeron is an interesting world of suppression and equality. To set the tone of the whole story, Vonnegut employs the use of short sentences to represent character’s thoughts of events that unfold right in front of them, in addition to showing how a lack of critical thinking can damage a society. Using George and Hazel Bergeron, he demonstrates how a side of negative, complacent thought can prevent any good ideas from existing and uprisings from occurring, and using Harrison Bergeron, he shows what could be when individuality and free thought are allowed. After experiencing many wars, Vonnegut wanted a world of peace and equality, but also told a tale to caution the world from moving equality in the wrong direction. With many people currently fighting for equality, Vonnegut portrays a form of equality that humans should not strive for, one that seeks to bring about equality through the destruction of individuality instead of its celebration. Using the story’s world as a guide on what to avoid, we may be able to build a more equal future that helps everyone achieve their full potential without the harm of others.
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http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/harrison.html. Originally published in Mercury Press, 1961.
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