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Harrison Bergeron is a satirical dystopian short story by Kurt Vonnegut Junior, published in 1961. This story is set in the future, specifically in 2081. The 211, 212, and 213 Amendments of the constitution brought complete equality to America; therefore, no one is better than anyone. Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, enforces all equality laws through her agents. To achieve this equality, everyone with above-average intelligence wears handicap devices like weights, masks, and noise-releasing radios. The story has the effects of a totalitarian government as the central theme. Vonnegut uses symbolism and satire to convey his theme, also using characterization and craftily applying a setting to achieve this thematic purpose.
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The story starts by mentioning that it is 2081 when America has achieved equality. The Handicapper General’s agents enforce the equality laws, making citizens with above-average intelligence and admirable physical features wear handicap devices. For example, beautiful people wear masks, strong ones wear heavy weights, and intelligent people wear radios that release loud noises to disrupt their thoughts (Vonnegut, 2021). In April 2081, the government took Harrison Bergeron, the son of Hazel and George Bergeron. George was brilliant and strong; therefore, he had the radio and weights as handicaps. Hazel had the average acceptable intelligence, which contextually means she was dumb. The couple is watching ballet on television, where the ballerinas are also handicapped to curb their graceful dancing and beauty. A news bulletin comes up, and the reporter struggles to read it due to his speech impediment before passing the bulletin to a ballerina. The announcement is that Harrison Bergeron has escaped prison, and people are warned to disassociate with him. George notices that it is his son, but the thought is interrupted by noises from the radio in his ear.
Harrison makes his entrance into the studio where the ballet is happening, looking hideous due to the handicaps he carries. He tries to defy leadership by taking his handicaps off, declaring himself emperor, and selecting an empress among the ballerinas. However, the Handicapper General walks into the studio and kills Harrison and the empress. Hazel watches that sad moment but cannot remember what she has watched. The central conflict of the plot is between Harrison Bergeron and the government. Harrison disagrees with the totalitarian government that controls society by making people handicapped in the name of equality. This conflict is resolved by the Handicapper General killing Harrison Bergeron and his empress, which ends the conflict.
The story’s first line says, “It’s the year 2081, and everyone is finally equal” (Vonnegut, 2021). This line shows that the story’s time setting is the future. This set engages the readers visually by setting the mood and preparing them for the character development (Latiff & Feisa, n.d.). The story’s physical setting is America, specifically in Hazel and George’s living room, a newsroom, and a ballet theatre. The physical setting provides the platform for Vonnegut to show the extent of control of the totalitarian government. That is, the government controls people’s homes, entertainment, and the media. These three are key aspects of control that totalitarian governments use to enforce their power. Therefore, Vonnegut uses the time and physical setting to meet his thematic purpose of showing the effects of a totalitarian government.
Vonnegut uses direct characterization, where he explicitly tells his readers about the qualities of the characters. He describes the government by telling the audience about the three amendments it uses to enforce equality among its people. Vonnegut makes it clear that the government is totalitarian. Also, he describes Hazel as having a perfectly average intelligence. Her forgetfulness, representing the perfect average person, shows the extent of pain that people with above-average intelligence experience while with handicaps. Vonnegut describes George as strong and intelligent, hence his 47 pounds weight and radio in his ear (Vonnegut, 2021). Also, Harrison is strong, handsome, and has nice teeth. Harrison’s good qualities are hidden under heavy weights, blinding glasses, and covered teeth. The characters show that the more intelligent or beautiful one is, the more handicapped devices they get to hide these good qualities.
Vonnegut uses the handicaps to symbolize the control of the totalitarian government. An overly controlling government has limiting effects on its citizens, which limits society in general. Harrison Bergeron symbolizes defiance and the spark of individuality that many Americans may still have (Kumral, 2016). His willingness to defy the law and die represents how costly freedom is. Therefore, once people lose it to a totalitarian government, it will take rebellion from people ready to die to get their freedom back (Joodaki & Mahdiany, 2013). When “Harrison rips off his handicaps,” it symbolizes him breaking free from totalitarian control (Vonnegut, 2021). His declaration of being emperor also implies that freedom and individuality are above equality. In short, Vonnegut uses symbolism to convey his theme to his audience clearly.
The story is a satire that shows the absurdity of the government’s control of society. Vonnegut mocks the government and America’s ideologies of equality and uses satire to ridicule society (Joodaki & Mahdiany, 2013). When the story opens by saying that everyone in America was finally equal thanks to the three amendments, he mocks the American policies. He shows that Americans have equality at the expense of their ability to think, develop, act, and move. One’s full potential is crippled to fit in an equal society. He shows society’s deficiency in the idea of true equality. The end lesson of this satire is that the perfect equality that he witnessed people strive to get is not worth it.
The story is a satire with an engaging plot physically set in America and with a time setting of the future. Vonnegut tells of how America is finally free in 2081 because of the three constitutional amendments. However, this equality is at the expense of people’s individuality and ability to explore their full potential. The Handicapper General and her agents enforce laws that subject intelligent people to handicap devices that curb this intelligence. The use of direct characterization, symbolism, and satire allows Vonnegut to fulfill his thematic purpose: to show the effects of a totalitarian government.
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- Joodaki, A. H., & Mahdiany, H. (2013). Equality versus Freedom in “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut: A Study of Dystopian Setting. International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature, 2(4), 70-73.
- Kumral, N. (2016). Mind Versus Heart or Vice Versa: Semiotic Reading of Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut. Ars Artium, 152.
- Latiff, M. F. A., & Feisal, H. S. (n.d.). The Poverty of Equality: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Harrison Bergeron [Unpublished master’s thesis]. University Selangor.
- Vonnegut, K. (2021). Harrison Bergeron. I, Me, You, We, 113-122. Routledge.