Distorted Equality in “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut
The governments of the USA and other most developed countries of Europe take various measures to protect democracy and cultivate democratic principles, ideas and values among their citizens. These measures include ensuring equality and justice for all the people and creating equal opportunities for the favorable and comprehensive personal and professional development of humans and economic, political, and social prosperity and welfare of the whole society. However, sometimes numerous members of different parties and political elites of different countries declare that they struggle against inequality and injustice, but they establish false and distorted equality and strive to control all the spheres of life of the population of these countries. Kurt Vonnegut in his short story “Harrison Bergeron” describes the analogous development of events. Kurt Vonnegut emphasizes that distortion of ideas about equality and justice and intervention in life of citizens lead to dehumanization and deindividualization of humans, making them parts of the big mechanism in the totalitarian system.
One of the most famous and influential American writers of the twentieth century created his short story “Harrison Bergeron” in 1961 (Cross 14). He begins it in the following way, “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They were not only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way.” (Vonnegut). The beginning of the work of literature is very inspirational and astounding. The audience may think that the author will describe happy and comfortable life of all the people because of equal opportunities and chances to realize their potential and achieve excellent results in their personal and professional development. However, the further description of the “equal” and “just” world of the future makes the audience doubt the truthfulness of this “equality”. No citizen was smarter, better looking, stronger, or quicker than other people, and agents of the US Handicapper General are responsible for checking whether a particular individual complies with these requirements or not. The presence of the specific authorities and services, responsible for total equality of all the citizens of the USA, indicates that this equality is distorted. The US government does not stimulate or give people an impetus for the development by providing equal opportunities for all the citizens; instead of it, it just forces all the people to be equal to each other.
The short story depicts life of George, Hazel, and Harrison Bergeron. He is fourteen years old, seven feet tall, a genius and an athlete. All these features distinguish him from other citizens of the country. The officers of the US law enforcement agencies understand that it is inappropriate for this individual to remain a member of the equal and just society of the USA. He thinks about the overthrow of the government, existing in the USA (Mentor). The agents of the US Handicapper General take away Harrison Bergeron from his mother Hazel and father George because of his inability to comply with the requirements of equality.
However, this event does not have a big impact on life of George and Hazel because of their loyalty to the existing government and political order. Kurt Vonnegut shows the ways how the government maintains control over their life and prevents them from struggling against it. A mother of Harrison Bergeron has “a perfectly average intelligence”, so she “could not think about anything except in short bursts”; although a father of the main character possesses “was above normal intelligence”, he has “a little mental handicap radio in his ear” (Vonnegut). This mental handicap is connected to the government transmitter, and this device sends out sharp noise to prevent George and people with similar abilities of brains from using their brains for the analysis of the situation and evaluation of the operation of the political and social system of the country. The system stimulates total dullness of the citizens and their inability to use critical and analytical thinking to understand that the government violates their human rights and fundamental freedoms (Radical Scholarship). The agents of the US Handicapper General do not regard a mother of Harrison as a threat to the existing order because she has a low intellectual potential. They take specific measures to limit the intellectual activity of George, minimizing the threats to the stability of the existing political system.
Kurt Vonnegut also underlines that mass media, namely television, plays a crucial role in hampering the development of analytical and critical thinking skills of citizens. Mass media seizes minds of humans, forcing them to “consume” television programs and news and live in their own artificial world (Joodaki and Mahdiany 71). The author of the short story demonstrates that parents of Harrison Bergeron interact only with the television. They do not meet with other people, being isolated from the world. Meeting other people and interacting with them imply that individuals may exchange their views and thoughts with each other and make each other think about different phenomena and problems of the country. Hazel and George do not have any opportunity to express their thoughts and listen to other humans, that is why they have no chance to doubt the principles regarding equality and justice, established by the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments of the US Constitution.
All these circumstances stipulate that people, living in such “equal” and “just” USA, lose their individuality. They become dehumanized and deindividualized parts of the big mechanism in the totalitarian system. Kurt Vonnegut might be referring to the totalitarian system of the Soviet Union. Most rulers of the Soviet Union, especially Stalin, strived to establish total control over all the spheres of life of ordinary people. Stalin ordered officers of law enforcement agencies to suppress all the attempts of citizens to defy his power by killing and imprisoning millions of members of the society of the USSR. He wanted to cultivate fear among citizens of the country by conducting such policies. Moreover, the ruler of the Soviet Union tried to conceal mass poverty and inhumane conditions of life and work of millions of the citizens by blaming a lot of people for preventing the government from establishing equality all over the country. The rulers of the USSR thought that the same salary for different jobs and the same opportunities for all the citizens to be killed or imprisoned for their deeds were the main features of equality and justice in the country. Stalin made a lot of efforts to persuade the population of the Soviet Union that no individual was better looking, richer, and more intelligent than others. The political, social, and ideological system of the USSR forced clever and intelligent members of the society not to realize their potential and not to become cleverer than the overwhelming majority of the Soviet population. The totalitarian system cultivated the principle, according to which no individual was unique and unreplaceable, so every person could be replaced with millions of other people. Many people lost their individuality and regarded themselves as small parts in the big Soviet system.
Kurt Vonnegut describes deeds of Harrison Bergeron in a specific way. The main character enters the television studio, cries that he is an Emperor, stating that “everybody must do what” he “says at once” (Vonnegut). He selects his Empress from various ballerinas at the studio, then they dance and spring into the air, abandoning the laws of the land, the law of gravity and the laws of motion. However, then the Handicapper General comes into the studio and kills them with her “double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun” (Vonnegut). The event shows that the totalitarian system does not allow any individual to threaten the principles of its existence, namely the principle of “equality” of all of its citizens. The episode shows that any person should not differ from others in any ways; instead of it, every person should suppress his/her individual features, traits, and qualities. However, Kurt Vonnegut does not regard the main character of his short story as a martyr or fighter for true equality and liberation of people. The writer shows that Harrison Bergeron also losses his best individual qualities and traits. The phrase “I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once” indicates that this boy does not strive to establish equality and destroy the existing totalitarian system (Joodaki and Mahdiany 72). He just wants to become the most influential and powerful figure in this system, disregarding human rights and fundamental freedoms of other individuals. Kurt Vonnegut underlines that the system has adverse effects on individuality of the most intelligent and strongest members of the American society.
Kurt Vonnegut in the short story “Harrison Bergeron” describes the American society in the nearest future, where the government distorts the principles of equality and justice. The author of the work of literature shows the destructive impact of the totalitarian system and its mass media on life of Hazel and George Bergeron, making them passive observers. They lose their individuality and unable to use critical and analytical thinking to realize the impact of the system on their minds. Harrison Bergeron revolts against the system, trying to seize the power and become the Emperor, but the system exterminates him. Kurt Vonnegut emphasizes that the system distorts minds of the most intelligent citizens, making them lose their individual features and stimulating them to become oppressors of other people. One of the most famous writers of the twentieth century stresses that it is impossible to establish true equality and equal opportunities for all the people within the totalitarian system.”