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In the story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., the reader is presented with the idea of how the government imposes equality on citizens by using handicaps and therefore holds individuals back from achieving their complete potential. Equality undoubtedly remains the primary theme in the story; as Harrison is portrayed as a character of individuality, the tonality changes, conveying the dysfunctionality of the government as well as how the narrative is an allegory for an ideal community.
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Why equality is the central theme of Harrison Bergeron
Harrison is a figure that embodies the fire of rebellion and independence that still lives on in the minds of Americans. According to the Handicap General, Harrison is identified as a problem and given a harsh handicap rather than being regarded as equal to everyone else. For instance, Vonnegut writes: “It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor.” Any human being who would venture to perform the act of his or her own free will is subject to the death penalty. Although Harrison caused no harm to anybody, he was a threat to the leadership of the government because they had established a state of equality between citizens that came at the cost of misery and loss of life.
Vonnegut resorts to the use of mood and tone as a means of sufficiently revealing the theme, since the story begins with an extremely gloomy mood as he depicts the Handicaps and humanity in general. He begins the first passage by stating: “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.” This introduction reveals Vonnegut’s vision of a terrifying, coming society where everyone was equal. No one possessed the right to be smarter, stronger, more beautiful, or quicker than anyone else. Constitutional Amendments and the agents of the United States General Handicapper will see to it that this is the case, therefore people are forced to carry handicaps to correct their intelligence or appearance, which by law are demanded to be worn constantly. Vonnegut does not approve of this sort of equality, as its premises are simply unsafe. However, when Harrison escapes from prison, the narrative acquires a more cheerful mood: “They leaped like deer on the moon. The studio ceiling was thirty feet high, but each leap brought the dancers nearer to it. It became their obvious intention to kiss the ceiling. They kissed it.” The author proceeds to portray this scene as if Harrison has surrendered and no longer gives a damn, so he appears to be relieved and calm. This feeling of lightness and contentment is reflected in the fact that the mood of the story alters from a pessimistic mood to a delighted one.
This short story is an allegory of an ideal society that is supported by a centralized government, which reflects the dysfunctional government that is presented in the narrative. The phrase, “all this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th amendments to the constitution,” shows the reader the fact that equality was introduced by the government. There are certain individuals who are compelled to carry weight to limit their physical strength, masks to conceal their attractiveness, and even headphones to restrain a person from concentrating on more than one thing at a time. The theme of the story is equality and control. If an external authority able to manipulate the minds, attitudes and behaviors of citizens were to take away any self-governance, all that would be left would be the hulls of these single-minded individuals.
On the whole, the primary and fundamental theme of “Harrison Bergeron” is equality because of the reasons that the character of Harrison is portrayed by the author as the embodiment of individuality, there is a change in tone that represents the dysfunctionality of the government, and that the story is an allegory for an ideal society. Vonnegut ultimately concludes by implying that absolute equality is not the worthiest thing to aspire to in the future, and that the consequences it can bring to society are similar to how the people in the story suffered, and that the pursuit of equality is catastrophic.