What is Kurt Vonnegut satirizing in the short story "Harrison Bergeron?"
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"Harrison Bergeron" is open to interpretation as to the aim of its satire. Some believe it to be a straightforward dystopian story, with the individual oppressed and eventually crushed by the collective. Others believe it to be a satire on exactly that sort of story, with a ludicrously overpowered hero and an equally ludicrous dystopian government. In either case, most of the satire is aimed directly at government, with politicians taking egalitarianism to incredible extremes, and forcing "equality" on everyone through lowering standards.
"If I tried to get away with it," said George, "then other people'd get away with it -- and pretty soon we'd be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else. You wouldn't like that, would you?"
"I'd hate it," said Hazel.
"There you are," said George. The minute people start cheating on laws, what do you think happens to society?"
(Vonnegut, "Harrison Bergeron," tnellen.com)
Of course, "cheating on laws" usually refers to cheating and breaking rational laws, not the insane laws of the story. The government here believes that it can erase jealousy, envy, shame, and resentment through elimination of exceptionalism -- similar themes are seen in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. However, the actual result is stagnation of culture and society, as nobody can have new ideas. Essentially, the story is a satire on freedom (individualism) versus enslavement (collectivism), although the actual satire is up for grabs.
In order to correctly answer this question, one must first know what satire is. Satire is an author’s criticism toward something he/she feels is stupid. Now that we know what satire is, we can proceed to answer the question. Kurt Vonnegut is mainly satirizing the ideal society that the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, has put together based on equality one other thing which I will discuss later. First let’s focus on the equality aspect of the society. Glampers has manipulated everyone into wearing handicaps in order to make everyone equal. Everyone is fine with the handicaps, so the average reader would think. However, upon close examination, the intellectual reader would realize that everyone is actually very miserable. No one can be themselves because the Handicapper General has decided that everyone should be equal based on one person. This is where the mention of Hazel comes into play. Hazel is considered, by the Handicapper General, to be perfect. Therefore Hazel is now the bar to which everyone else must be lowered. The second thing Vonnegut is satirizing is the idea that everyone should receive praise for accomplishing nothing. You can depict why Vonnegut feels this way by examining the following quite from the story.
At least he tried, that poor man should get a raise for trying so hard.
Even though the announcer accomplished nothing, Hazel believes he should receive a raise for just trying. Keep in mind everyone is based on Hazel, and if Hazel thinks he should get a raise, so will everyone else. This is how you tell the author thinks this sort of praise is incorrect.
Ugh. It's a shame this is what people get out of this story. I realize it's a few years on, but maybe somebody will come along with a similar question.
In Harrison Bergeron, Kurt Vonnegut was satirizing the works of objectivists like Ayn Rand and their fears of egalitarianism and communism. The world he created with mediocre people and a Handicapper General was clearly a satire of their fears, while the hero he created was clearly a satirization of Ayn Rand's perfect Mary Sue types who are always perfect and always right and can do no wrong. ("Mary Sue" type means somebody who writes themselves and all their beliefs into the main character, who is always right and always perfect. It's usually a sign of a bad author.)
The absurdity is not how everybody was forced to be equal and therefore stupid, but rather how the perfect, smart, tall handsome heroic superman was able to leap up from the crowd and instantly demand that things be done his way and all the average people just instantly fell in line with things he wanted them to do because he was so perfect.
As a superman, he was able to declare himself emperor and order a beautiful woman to leap from the crowd and into his arms and become his empress because he willed it, and even manage to defy the laws of physics themselves because he was such a perfect superman among mere mortal idiots.
Vonnegut later revisited and expanded on this idea -no doubt because so many objectivists and people who read Rand read Harrison Bergeron and came to the conclusions of the two teachers above, and many, many other sources available on the Internet at large- in his novel Breakfast of Champions.
In Breakfast of Champions, Wealthy but Mentally Unbalanced Businessman Dwayne Hoover reads a book that he believes to be a message from the creator of the universe assuring him that he alone is a strong individual with free will and that everyone but him is a mere robot, therefore he can do what he wants. Hoover then goes on a violent rampage, assaulting a dozen people before being taken into custody.
In the same book Vonnegut literally spells out things that he considers to be problems in the U.S., including Inequality and Oppression, things which are the natural conclusion and result of Objectivism.
It's funny that the Kurt Vonnegut scenes in Back to School were so dead-on. (In the movie, Rodney Dangerfield is a self-made millionaire who goes back to college when his son does. During the film he hires Kurt Vonnegut himself to write a term paper on one of Vonnegut's novels. Dangerfield's professor tells him he doesn't get Vonnegut at all and gives him an F.)
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