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Since the dawn of time, equality has been a dream for mankind. However, has anyone ever considered what genuine and absolute equality would entail? Through his short story “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut masterfully investigates the concept of absolute justice. This story reveals another, negative aspect of the equality we may desperately seek, and the associated threats that will arise in the years to come.
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The central contradictory symbols of equality and distinctiveness in the book
In this narrative, we find that Diana Moon Glampers is a symbol of total and absolute equality, while Harrison Bergeron is a symbol of inequality, which is used to achieve fairness for one person. The beginning of the plot depicts the environment of how this special nation lives: “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal in every which way. Nobody was smarter than anyone else. Nobody was better looking than anyone else. Nobody was stronger and quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the…Amendments to the Constitution, and…vigilance of agents of the United States.” (Vonnegut 234)
The antagonist in the story, Handicapper General Diana Moon Glampers, is presented as a “sixty-year old virgin who, by almost anybody’s standards, was too dumb to live…No one had ever loved her. There was no reason why anybody should. She was ugly stupid and boring”. This particular statement reveals that in this type of society, there is no requirement to distinguish oneself from the crowd or to be “gifted”. Being like everyone else and unremarkable is the same as meeting the highest expectations. As Handicapper General, Diana takes great care to ensure that no one is more outstanding than the others. If someone dares to break the law, she has the right to execute them. However, this goes against the rules that were designed to prevent supremacy. Since Diana has the right to decide who is unequal, it is apparent that this grants her more authority than others. Therefore, from a certain point of view, this can be perceived as unlawful. This implication conveys to the reader that complete justice and equality are not generally effective.
While equality in a certain aspect is wonderful, too many details can turn the tables dramatically. If we accept this way of perceiving the world, then there is no distinction between a brilliant mind and a foolish person. This is where Harrison’s parents enter the picture. His mother, Hazel Bergeron, is described as being of “perfectly average intelligence, …And [while] George Bergeron’s intelligence was way above normal,” (Vonnegut 234). In order to be a law-abiding citizen, George has to carry “a little mental handicap radio in his ear” (Vonnegut 234). The radio is meant to broadcast terrifying noises to keep him from reflecting and to minimize his brain’s work. His above normal intelligence” provides him with an edge over other people like Hazel and Diana.
In the story Vonnegut designed, he employs Harrison as a vivid symbol of individuality. He is portrayed as a “Genius, an athlete, and should be regarded as dangerous…Instead of a little ear radio for mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses…Scrap metal hung all over him…he wears at all times a red rubber ball for a nose, keeps his eyebrows shaved off, and covers his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle tooth random.” (Vonnegut 236) Harrison’s extreme handicaps will instantly reveal to you that he is not like everyone else. He is “regarded as dangerous”, the audience is aware that he has something to contribute to the society, but he is still grounded.
While individuality is important, Harrison extends the limits. He, like Diana Handicapper General, demonstrates that too much of a good thing can go wrong. Harrison discovers his independence and bursts into the television broadcast studio and cries out: “I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!” (Vonnegut 237). This mindset removes equality. Undoubtedly, things like intelligence, muscles, and appearance should be recognized. But they should also be denigrated. Vonnegut realizes that even individuality can be a fallacy, as we humans are prone to greed and jealousy.
Consequently, Vonnegut investigates both extremes — overly equal and overly unfair. In his satire of where the world is going, he also suggests that we should stop halfway. If there is no harmony between equality and identity, the universe will never evolve. As we approach 2081, we must aspire to an equality that celebrates and welcomes individuality.