“Harrison Bergeron” is a science fiction dystopian short story by Kurt Vonnegut, originally published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science in October of 1961. The story takes place in 2081 CE in the United States where the government in charge has enacted new legislation to make everyone “equal.” The government enforces handicaps onto the people to accomplish the goal of equality. The handicaps consist of metal headphones that make a variety of loud sounds to prevent higher-level thinking, ankle weights for those who are too agile, and many other mechanical contraptions that prevent people from using their full potential. Harrison Bergeron is centered around the day of a married couple, George and Hazel, who are watching a ballerina program on the television. During the program they witness their son Harrison start an uprising against the government, which is quickly stopped. However, because of their handicaps, they are not able to process what they witnessed for long, and life goes on as usual.
In the same month that Vonnegut published Harrison Bergeron, President Kennedy appointed a twenty-six member panel that was tasked with conducting research and creating solutions to the problems that were experienced by those with disabilities (Minnesota ). This is no coincidence. Before the panel and Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron there was a slow uprising towards more civil rights to people who were disabled which sparked an idea in Vonnegut (Rodney). Vonnegut wanted to explore the idea of how the search and enforcement of too much equality could have detrimental effects on society. Vonnegut explores the idea that by forcing equality it can actually create more inequality by comparing the lives of different characters and presenting an extreme version of equality.
Harrison Bergeron is set in a society where being extraordinary, in any aspect, is looked down upon. Residents in the United States are cherished and valued if they are completely average. George has above average intelligence, so he is forced to wear a metal handicap headphone on his ears which sends out loud, sharp noises every twenty seconds in order to make sure that George, and people like him, do not “take unfair advantages of their brains”(Vonnegut 1). On the other hand, Hazel has what is considered average intelligence which means that she cannot think of anything for more than short bursts at a time. While George and Hazel may have a life together, they do not share the same experiences because of the presence of the forced handicaps.
One day when both George and Hazel are watching T.V. together George hears a loud buzzer sound transmitted from his metal headphones which cause him to wince. Hazel notices George’s action and asks him what was the latest sound he had heard. This conversation leads to Hazel feeling envious of George’s metal headphones because she thinks it would be exciting to hear all the different noises causing George to be a little bit stunned in part to the noise he was hearing, but also because of Hazel’s feelings of envy for his situation (Vonnegut 4). The ignorance that Hazel shows to George’s situation shows how the couple fails to understand each other representing the contrasting lives between the two.
The contrasting life between the two brings up the question of whether George and Hazel are actually equal. According to the government in Harrison Bergeron George and Hazel are equal to each other because they have prevented George from thinking for too long by the use of handicaps which brings George down to the same intelligence level as Hazel. The enforcement of the handicaps greatly changes the quality of life between the two. George suffers significantly because of the constant loud noises that he has to hear, and the noises have led to other health consequences like headaches and hearing loss (Vonnegut 8). The intelligence level of Hazel and the longevity of her thoughts is natural for her so she does not endure any outside pain that reduces her way of life. This situation reveals that enforcing handicaps it actually reduces the way of life and causes greater inequality between those with and without handicaps because it is a greater struggle for those with handicaps to go through life compared to those without handicaps. By trying to create total equality the government has actually created more inequality.
While George and Hazel are watching a ballerina performance on T.V. suddenly they see a mugshot of their son Harrison across the screen. Harrison is covered in almost all possible handicaps metal headphones to suppress his thinking, a mask to hide his good looks, weights on his back to ruin his posture, and so much more. Harrison had been taken from George and Hazel by the government earlier on in their life, so they did not recognize Harrison at first and especially not with all of the enforced handicaps. Harrison turns to one of the ballerinas and declares her his queen and goes on to rip off her handicaps as well, they then dance together in the performance hall in front of the whole nation on live T.V (Vonnegut 8).
This scene is very different from the rest of the short story because it is the first time where there is excessive description used. In the beginning of the story, Vonnegut only describes the sounds that George hears with his metal handicap headphones (Vonnegut 3). Only when Harrison and the nameless ballerina are dancing does Vonnegut use such vivid imagery like “whirled, swiveled, and flounced (Vonnegut 8). Vonnegut uses such active verbs because he wants to represent the freedom that Harrison and the ballerina feel from removing their burdens. Vonnegut even uses the metaphor of how the two spun so high that they kissed the ceiling representing how they do not only feel physically free, but mentally free as well.
This sense of freedom is short-lived because the government goes on to shoot both Harrison and the ballerina down. This act by the government showcases how with the enforcement of too much government control it can have horrible consequences. After this act Vonnegut retreats back into his technique of using minimal description. Vonnegut uses minimal description when describing handicaps and uses excessive description when there are no handicaps. This inverse relationship is Vonnegut trying to display how this search for equality is causing there to be more harm than good.
Vonnegut’s experience of living through a revolutionary time for those who are disabled gave him the idea of how the search for total equality can have horrible consequences. By providing this different perspective through the vessel that is Harrison Bergeron it forces people to think if total equality is even possible and if it is how would the United States achieve it and at what cost.
Digravio, Vic. “The Last Bill JFK Signed – And the Mental Health Work Still Undone.” CommonHealth, 2013, https://www.wbur.org/commonhealth/2013/10/23/community-mental-health-kennedy
Goodman, Michelle. “How to Use Professional Envy to Your Advantage.” The Seattle Times, 2019, https://www.seattletimes.com/explore/careers/how-to-use-professional-envy-to-your-advantage/
Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities “The Quiet Revolution.” Parallels in Time: A History of Developmental Disabilities, Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, 2021, https://mn.gov/mnddc/parallels/five/5c/1.html.
Mr8ighty8, “Women and Men are NOT Equal.” Independent Thinkers, 2014, https://mr8ighty8.wordpress.com/2014/07/29/women-and-men-are-not-equal/
PBS Producers, “The Gang of 19 – ADA Movement.” PBS North Carolina, https://www.pbs.org/video/the-gang-of-19-ada-movement-hxrjxw/
Price, Alan. “John F. Kennedy and People with Intellectual Disabilities.” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, 2020, https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/jfk-in-history/john-f-kennedy-and-people-with-intellectual-disabilities
Resnick, Brian. “Motivated Ignorance is Ruining our Political Discourse.” Vox, 2017, https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/5/15/15585176/motivated-ignorance-politics-debate
Rodney, William. “A Brief Biography of Kurt Vonnegut.” Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, American Writers Museum, 2017, https://www.vonnegutlibrary.org/kurt-biography/
Rothman, Joshua. “The Equality Conundrum.” The New Yorker, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/01/13/the-equality-conundrum
Tarrant, James. “Harrison Bergeron.” Prezi, 2011, https://prezi.com/kkeeb_sh6yfa/harrison-bergeron/
Vallefin, Juan. “2081 (Dir. Chander Tuttle, Año 2009).” YouTube, uploaded by Juan Cruz Vallefin, 24 May. 2019, https://youtu.be/_GVHgpCnBmk
Vonnegut, Kurt. “Harrison Bergeron.” Mr.Dwyer Brunswick High School, 2020, http://www.brunswick.k12.me.us/hdwyer/harrison-bergeron/
Vonnegut, Kurt. “Harrison Bergeron.” T.nellen, 2020, http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/harrison.html.
Watts, Ethan. “Solemn (Instrumental).” YouTube, uploaded by Ethan Watts Music, 17 Oct. 2018, https://youtu.be/UlAhfPe_SkA
Featured Image Source:
Murman, Chris. “What Can We Learn From Harrison Bergeron In Today’s Climate.” Medium, 2017, https://medium.com/@chrismurman/what-can-we-learn-from-harrison-bergeron-in-todays-climate-6dc08195f832