Essay about Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron
“Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron is a satirical short story that deals with the themes of equality, media, and government control. It is a short, yet powerful piece that approaches the popular topics from an unpopular perspective and ultimately makes an unforgettable impression on the reader with its hidden warning. The themes explored by the author in this short story are equality as well as political and media control and manipulation. The ultimate message of the short story is that the goals of equality should be taken with caution and that no absolute equality is possible in the human society unless it is created and maintained through a cruel and jarring system of control such as described by Vonnegut.
From the very first words of Vonnegut’s short story, it is evident that the main theme of the piece is equality. “They were equal every which way” he writes, nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. In these lines, the author uses the stylistic device of repetition to emphasize the main idea that complete and total equality has been achieved and thus seems to set the context for the rest of the events in the story. Soon, however, the reader sees the discrepancy between the narrator’s statement about equality and puzzling aspects of the short story’s reality such as mental handicaps for beautiful, intelligent, or talented people not to stand out. This is clearly not how the readers expect anyone to identify the principle of equality. Still, as Vonnegut follows with the plotline, the image of his “equal” human society gets progressively more alarming
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In Vonnegut’s reality all people with any intelligence, talent, or other positive attributes are potential threats to the well-being of the society. As such, as soon as the characters start talking about breaking laws and changing society, George’s mental handicap is triggered, and the man is literally punished for thinking or speaking out of line. Similarly, Harrison Bergeron’s only crimes are that he is an athlete, and a genius, while the ballerina on TV the ballerina suffers more because she stands out against all others as more beautiful and more talented. Through these elements in his story, Vonnegut mocks the alternative side to the popular ideas of equality, the side that proclaims equality by asserting that everyone is the same.
As a result, people with a different intelligence, degree of education and effort are evaluated in the same fashion which eventually leads the society back to the past. As such, it is possible to interpret Vonnegut’s ironic criticism of forced equality as a reference to the ideology of socialism according to which all people have equal opportunity but at the same time must conform to a single government that supervises their lives and controls what they think, say, or do. In this case, the story might be pointing out that the ideas and goals of equality, enforced rather than encouraged, will be following similar political and social patterns to those in the communist societies of the 20th century. Even within the modern context of a society that challenges any attempts at removing personal freedom and controlling the private lives of individuals, Bergeron puts down a darker, less hopeful interpretation of equality. If taken to the extremes, the ideas of equal society can spiral into the already familiar socialist scenario where, disguised as equality, a totalitarian system rules with a strong grip on the society’s freedom, democracy, as well as a potential to develop and improve.
One of the leading themes in Harrison Bergeron is the theme of media, television, and media control. Apart from that, throughout the entire story, the main characters are sitting in front of the television and taking in all the information presented to them with complete acceptance. Any attempts to interpret the things that George sees or hears on the TV end up in punishment. The mental and physical handicaps used to make everyone equal serve as another instance of Vonnegut’s satirical irony. The traditional understanding of the word handicap is of something that complicates one’s chances of success or progress, yet here, in the ultimate “equal” society, it is supposed to be a tool to improve the people’s lives. In this respect, Vonnegut’s story is almost built on paradox. Interestingly, Hazel does not have a mental handicap, therefore able to express her thoughts more freely. However, the fact that her thoughts and ideas are not controlled does not say much about her intelligence, pointing probably to the fact that she is too ignorant and average to pose any real threat to the regime. This idea is proven in the very last line where Hazel takes a figurative expression literally. With those who do have a mental handicap, but still manage to break through the haze of forced ignorance, the government uses carefully thought-out scenarios with hidden meanings on television, such as Harrison’s riot and death by the Handicapper General, the figure supervising the regime.
A major point that attracts the attention of the reader is the ridiculous description of Harrison’s appearance on TV. The image of George and Hazel’s son is overly exaggerated – “all Halloween and hardware”, “a walking junkyard” (Vonnegut). A fourteen-year-old boy is shown to be seven feet tall among all other scary attributes: shaved off eyebrows, black caps on his teeth, and a red ball on his nose as a finishing touch to his extraordinary appearance. These descriptions are almost dripping with Vonnegut’s sarcasm to the point that it is impossible not to recognize it. Overall, the description of Harrison’s appearance is part of the overall theme of media and television and is a major jab at the famous media strategies of manipulation and hidden political agendas in media broadcasting. The strategies used here resemble the wartime propaganda that portrayed criminals and enemies of the state in an overly exaggerated and often dehumanizing manner to remove all pity, compassion, or understanding from the target audience’s minds and imbue them feelings of fear and hate instead.
Vonnegut’s story is full of irony and satire. The narration of the events is presented in a mocking tone that adds a humorous effect but at the same time reinforces the dark themes introduced in the story by the author. Part of Vonnegut’s blunt but impressive style is the way he writes in simple and short sentences. The narrator’s tone stays mocking and ironic until the very end of the narration, leaving it to the reader to recognize and interpret the themes. Apart from that, Vonnegut uses interesting and entertaining language that is more humorous than poetic.
At the same time, this down-to-earth, blunt manner of presentation manages to convey the story’s themes and messages with both clarity and dramatic effect. As such, at one point, Vonnegut compares George’s thoughts to burglars running from a burglar alarm, which is an accurate representation of how the government controls and chases away any even remotely radical thoughts and ideas. Another instance of ironically humorous language in Vonnegut’s short story is when he uses the slang word “doozy” to refer to such alarming things as George being “kept in check” by his mental handicap. Both George and Hazel react calmly to what sounds like enormous pain, thus giving Vonnegut’s presentation of equality an even more unsettling impression. In general, the language of the short story is quirky and hilarious while Vonnegut’s sharp humor takes the reader by surprise and makes them think deeper about the issues of equality as presented by the author. The narrator states that there was total equality now in human society, but then proceeds to add that “some things about living still weren’t quite right, though” (Vonnegut). As the story goes on, the reader realizes that this is a major understatement, and nothing is right with this kind of society. There are familiar themes of government and media control, propaganda and manipulation, as well as an unfamiliar but alarming interpretation of equality.
All in all, Vonnegut’s short story presents a shocking picture of a reality in which equality has been achieved by means of totalitarian control and fear. Although it is with humor and sarcasm that Vonnegut finishes his story when he presents a hilarious exchange between George and Hazel, the implications of the ending are far from optimistic. It has a sobering effect on the readers, making them wonder about their own reality and whether they are also being deceived and manipulated into believing in some things without even realizing it. Ultimately, Vonnegut’s unusual take on equality warns about how reaching absolute equality may very well be an unrealistic as well as a potentially disastrous goal.
- Green, Jafar. “”Harrison Bergeron 1995.”” YouTube. YouTube, 25 Sept. 2014. Web.
- “”Harrison Bergeron Summary & Analysis.”” LitCharts. Web.
- Vonnegut, Kurt. Harrison Bergeron. Mercury, 1961. Print.”
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