Harrison Bergeron: the Rebellion for Freedom
Beauty masked. The strong are forced to pretend to be weak. The brightest minds forced to average intelligence. Equality in all people with all abilities is only possible with complete control and a lack of freedom to be different. Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian, science fiction, “Harrison Bergeron” was published in October of 1961. The story takes place in a futuristic America that is plagued with the obsession of everyone being equal. People who are graced with bright minds, beautiful faces, or strong bodies are given handicaps to take away their so-called advantages of life. When young Harrison rebels by taking off his handicaps in an attempt to overthrow the government, his dream of freedom dies with his fateful end. Equality cannot be controlled for it is an allusion of grandeur that is rebelled against for the freedom individually. In the story “Harrison Bergeron”, Vonnegut uses the characters of Harrison, George, and Hazel Bergeron, the handicaps, and Harrison removing his handicaps and dancing in the story to show that a society that has controlled equality leads to rebellion for freedom.
The characters represent the negativities of controlling society’s individually by forcing everyone to be equal. Vonnegut proves the negativities of controlling a society’s individuality by having a ballerina state, “Harrison Bergeron […] has just escaped from jail, where he was held on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. He is a genius and an athlete, is under-handicapped and should be regarded as extremely dangerous”. Harrison represents a spark of defiance and individuality; he has none of the pusillanimity and passivity that characterizes the rest of the characters in the story. He is an over-dramatized, towering, brave, breathtakingly strong, and attractive alpha male. Harrison is everything that the futuristic American government aims to hide from the average world. Vonnegut also explains how the government uses fear to manipulate its tortured citizens behave by using George and his reasoning to keep his handicaps despite his unhappiness towards his handicaps by stating, “Two years in prison and two thousand dollars fine for every ball I took out […] I don’t call that a bargain”. George, an intelligent man, must wear weights around his neck to dampen his strength and radio that obstruct George from thinking deeper than the average person in society. Despite his negative feelings towards his handicaps, George is not valiant and believes in obeying the law and avoiding risks; he also believes that by standing this burden of wearing his handicaps, he is doing his duty as a citizen and for the wellbeing of society. Hazel, the wife of George and the mother of Harrison, is scattered brained, dumb, and represents the average American without handicaps. In Farrell’s analysis of “Harrison Bergeron,” Farrell states, “Hazel Bergeron makes readers shudder at the specter of the “average” American, a creature Vonnegut describes as unable to think ‘about anything except in short bursts’”. Hazel represents the dumbing down of the handicapped citizens, forcing humankind to not adapt and evolve to new challenges; sending the entire race back to an era of unintelligent beings. By forcing society to conform to average intelligence, beauty, and strength, rebellion sparks from those who dare to challenge the inequality of forcing all to be the same.
The handicaps are the government’s way to control individuality. At the beginning of “Harrison Bergeron,” Vonnegut explains that no one was smarter, more attractive, stronger, or faster due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments in the American Constitution. Farrell then goes on to explain that “the highly intelligent people are forced to wear mental handicap radios in their ears, which transmit terrible noises whenever they start to think deeper than their average comrades. Beautiful people are made to wear disfiguring masks or to mar their faces. Those deemed above average in other ways are required wear heavy metal weights attached to their bodies”. The government has been able to control the equality of its citizens by making it illegal to be different, and by fear tactics, such as prison, money, and death, to keep those with illegal advantages from rebelling for their freedom. These laws were put into place so average citizens would not feel inferior to their counterparts. In Joodaki and Hamideh’s literary analysis of “Harrison Bergeron”, the two state, “George thinks that ballerinas shouldn’t wear handicaps! Hazel thinks George’s burden is too much! But they cannot go farther as the others are not much different: they are all handicapped, they all share the same unseen problem, which cannot be seen by these people for they aren’t allowed to see someone different, there is no other shape in front of them to compare, they are suffering from equality”. With the ability to control the thoughts, and actions of its citizens, the government is able to destroy any amount of individuality that could be used against the average person living in society.
The dance towards the end of the story represents the feeling of rebellion that cannot be expressed through words. Joodaki and Hamideh explain Harrison’s expression and need of freedom in the form of dance by stating, “‘Seeking for the freedom which they couldn’t fight for with words […] in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang’ […] to show the desired liberty with their body language. The body which “‘reeled, whirled, swiveled, flounced, capered, gamboled, and spun and leaped like deer on the moon’” proving they can do whatever they want[ed] to”. When Harrison rips off his steel restraints and handicaps, the physical strength and beauty he reveals represents that underneath all the restraints and handicaps, the other handicapped citizens are still talented or lovely, and no one or any handicap can take away who they truly are. The dance between the ballerina and Harrison represents the protest to be an individual and the rebellion from anything that keeps individuality from happening.
In “Harrison Bergeron,” Vonnegut theorizes that total equality is not an ideal worth striving for. It is a mistaken goal that is dangerous to people and society in both execution and in the after effects. To achieve corporeal and psychological equality among all Americans in the story, the government tortures its citizens with advantages. The pulchritudinous must wear hideous masks or disfigure their faces, the perspicacious are forced to listen to earsplitting noises that obstruct their ability to think, the elegant, and robust are forced to wear weights around their necks, arms, and feet. The insistence on total equality seeps into the citizens, who begin to dumb themselves down or hide their special attributes in order to continue to live in this toxic society. Some behave this way because they believe in going along with the government’s goal, and others, like George, because they fear that the government will punish them grievously if they display any of their remarkable abilities. The outcome of this quest for equality is cataclysmic, and America becomes a land of frightened, halfwitted, slow people all for the sake of equality. Government officials kill off the extremely gifted, who choose to rebel, with no fear of recrimination from the society it controls. Equality is more or less achieved, but at the cost of freedom, individual abilities, and achievements.
- Farrell, Susan. “‘Harrison Bergeron.’” Critical Companion to Kurt Vonnegut, Facts On File, 2008. Bloom’s Literature, online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=&itemid=&articleId=18057. Accessed 21 Feb. 2019.
- Joodaki, Abdol Hossein, & Hamideh Mahdiany. “Equality versus Freedom in ‘‘Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut: A Study of Dystopian Setting.” International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature [Online], 2.4 (2013): 70-73. Accessed 22 Feb. 2019
- Vonnegut, Kurt. “Harrison Bergeron” 1961. PDF file.