Kurt Vonnegut is celebrated more for his longer fiction than for his short stories. Nonetheless, Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” originally published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science in October 1961, and currently available in the author’s collection, Welcome to the Monkey House, is a very popular short story and is often cited as an example of dystopian science fiction with an emphasis on egalitarianism. One segment of the 1972 teleplay Between Time and Timbuktu was based on the story, and it was later adapted into a TV movie, Harrison Bergeron (1995), with Sean Astin in the title role.
Set in 2081, the story depicts society’s vain search for absolute equality. Specifically, this new world does not attempt to raise standards for the disabled or handicapped but rather chooses to implement a more onerous solution: to impede those who have superior intellect, beauty, or strength. This solution deprives individuals of their talents by employing masks, loud noises, and weights in an attempt to level the playing field for the less talented. Actually the government is attempting to place all members of society at the level of the lowest common denominator, a process that is overseen by the United States Handicapper General, the shotgun-toting Diana Moon Glampers, whose primary goal is to rid society of anyone who might threaten mediocrity and inadequacy. A similar (though less developed) version of this character and idea appeared in Vonnegut’s earlier novel, The Sirens of Titan.
In this brave new world, the exceptional are consistently repressed, arrested, thrown into mental institutions, and ultimately killed for failing to be average. The central and title character, Harrison Bergeron, is, of course, a threat to this community since he is physically fit, handsome, intellectual, and, what is worse, rebellious. As a result, he is forced to bear enormous handicaps. These include distracting noises, 300- pounds of excess weight, eyeglasses to give him headaches, and cosmetic changes to make him ugly. Despite these handicaps, however, he is able to invade a TV station and declare himself the new emperor. He then strips himself of his handicaps and begins to dance with a ballerina whose amazing beauty and skills have also been distorted by the authoritarian government in an attempt to restrict her advancement and recognition as a superior individual. As the couple dance in defiance of the “rules,” the two defy gravity as they “kiss” the ceiling and assert their artistic independence as well as their refusal to be controlled by an outside authority. The story ends abruptly with two shotgun blasts, suggesting to the reader that there is no forgiveness for those who defy society’s demand for conformity to the ordinary. Added poignancy is created by the framing story, in which Bergeron’s parents are watching TV and observe their son’s demise but cannot concentrate enough to remember the incident or assess its importance. Vonnegut’s point seems to be that without the nonconformists, the dreamers, and the different, society is doomed. The good intention of equality is marred by the way society decides to maintain it. To be fair to one group, it must necessarily be unfair to another. Yet if the brilliant and talented are hindered, society will be unable to improve, and the status quo will be all it can hope for.
Vonnegut’s more pessimistic view of life may be termed absurdist. In this future society, growth and experimentation are no longer fostered, and science and technologies are devised to hurt rather than to help humankind. The complacency of Harrison’s parents who witness his murder and yet cannot remember why they are so sad indicates they both have submitted to a world where rebellion is not tolerated and where sameness is fostered and encouraged.
While many critics have considered Vonnegut’s story as an attack on the attempt to level all individuals, what Vonnegut is really assailing is the public’s understanding of what that leveling entails. Critics like Roy Townsend and Stanley Shatt seem to have missed the underlying irony of “Bergeron,” as well as its unreliable narrator, preferring to stress the obvious and ignore the fact that the story line offers an assessment of the foolishness that is “common sense.” Common sense is shown to be ridiculous in its assumptions about equality and in its belief that a sense of morality and ethics is intuitive. Moreover, since Vonnegut’s politics were Leftist in nature, it is unlikely that he would attack the concepts of communism and socialism.
In fact, it is Harrison himself who embodies the past oppression of a dominant culture, and readers should remember his desire is to be emperor, to reassert his superiority and the power it entitles him to wield. Instead Vonnegut seems to satirize society’s limited view of egalitarianism as only intelligence, looks, and athleticism. He never addresses income distribution (the separation between rich and poor) or class prejudice (the difference between the powerful and the powerless) even though both are signifcant issues for America. The mediocrity Vonnegut decries is not a result of the future but a continuation of past practices, an antiintellectualism that is depicted in Harrison’s parents, Hazel and George, whose ideas seem to be shaped by what they see on TV and little else. Controlled by a corrupt value system that says to ignore sad things and be satisfied with normality, it is their world that is condemned more than the world of Diana Moon Glampers. They have facilitated her rise to power with all the coldness and sterility that one might associate with the lunar goddess. Freedom is not the greatest good for the smallest number; nor does it hold that a classruled society will promulgate economic success. Though the story’s message appears quite simple, its moral is rather complex, forcing individual readers to think twice before they reduce its meaning to a sentence or two. Vonnegut was clearly not just trying to side with the radical Right’s objections to big government, and “Harrison Bergeron” is definite evidence of how his convoluted texts beg for more contemplation than they have been previously given