Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut
“Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut takes place in year 2081. In this future, the government has supposedly made everyone “equal.” The author suggests that total equality is not an ideal worth striving for, as many people believe, but it is a mistaken goal that is dangerous in both execution as well as outcome. To obtain physical and mental equality among all Americans, the government in Vonnegut’s story tortures its citizens. They will gradually lose their individuality by being forced to be equal by wearing various devices. The beautiful must wear a hideous mask or disfigure themselves, the intelligent must listen to incredibly loud noises that provides resistance to the ability to think, and the strong and graceful must wear weights around their body at all time.
Individuality is forbidden to the people, and the government has taken their freedom by enforcing laws. The story is satire because the society the author depicts is not truly equal, but rather a dictatorship under the guise of equality. This story seems to be implying that in a society such as this, the government gains too much control and in the process, people are forced to lose their individuality. The insistence on total equality changes the citizens, who begin to dumb themselves down or even hide their special talents. Some may behave this way because they have submitted to the government’s goals, and others because they fear that the government will punish them if they display any remarkable abilities.
The government forces its citizens to wear different levels of handicap devices depending on their various abilities. For example, a handicap radio, a device that causes loud noises and an assortment of frequencies, is forced on anyone considered smart to prevent them from thinking. While a mask is forced on any individuals considered attractive to hide their beauty. Lastly weights and heavy bags full of birdshots, lead or steel balls, are forced on anyone considered strong. These rules are enforced by the “211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution,” as well as the “unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.” However, this also implies that equality is not actually achieved because the Handicapper General seems to not be restricted in the same manner. In fact, the Handicapper General, who represent the government, controls the life of the citizens.
These handicaps are needed to keep citizens docile like sheep. Intelligent people like George would be capable of thinking thoughts like “dancers shouldn’t wear masks” or “was the dark age really such a bad era, where everyone competed with each other.” These thoughts would undermine the General’s power. To prevent this, the handicap radio works “every twenty seconds or so” to “keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.” George’s son Harrison Bergeron, who according to the news channel is “a genius and an athlete,” is regarded as “extremely dangerous.” for his strength, athleticism, grace and intellect. After Harrison escaped from jail because he was “under-handicapped”, he barged onto the television set that Hazel and George had been watching from their home. Harrison exclaimed “I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!” and chose a ballerina to be his “empress”. After tearing off her weights and her horrendous mask, they expressed their superiority on television by dancing through the air. The musicians at the studio had been handicapped and instructed not to play at their best, but at Harrison’s command, they played to the best of their ability, free from their handicaps now. The music was beautiful enough to inspire Harrison and the ballerina to break all laws of physics with their dancing: “they reeled, whirled, swiveled, flounced, capered, gamboled, and spun,”. They leapt thirty feet to kiss the ceiling of the studio. However, eventually he was tracked down by authorities and shot by the Handicapper General herself with a shotgun.
What makes Harrison heroic is that he wasn’t ashamed of himself and never submitted to the laws to be equal even at the risk of death. This courage is the opposite for his father George, who not only does he suffer with his handicaps, but argues for it. Hazel, despite her average qualities and intellect, sees the injustice her husband deals with and wants to alleviate George’s suffering, but he refused to do so, instead repeating the government’s policy. He was too scared to break the law, and as a result allows the injustice to continue. Vonnegut suggests that nothing can change unless an individual forces it, but that individuals often lack the courage and determination to enforce that chance.