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Kurt Vonnegut arguably wrote his story titled “Harrison Bergeron” for a number of reasons, including the following:
- Vonnegut may have wanted to appeal to readers’ interests in prophecies about the future. Thus, the very first words of the story are “The year was 2081.”
- Vonnegut almost certainly wanted to mock the growing emphasis in his day not simply on equality of opportunities (which most people endorse) but equality of outcomes (which many people think is impossible to dictate). This theme is indicated immediately in the opening paragraph, which indicates that by 2081,
everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.
- The paragraph just quoted suggests that Vonnegut is also mocking the intrusion of the federal government into practically every aspect of citizens’ lives.
- The paragraph just quoted may also mock the tendency of many Americans to think that social problems can be solved by political means.
- The story especially mocks efforts to create intellectual equality, a kind of mockery suggested (for instance) by the fact that George Bergeron is actually prevented, by government controls, from using his intelligence.
- The story seems also to mock the “dumbing-down” of American society as a result of addiction to television viewing.
- The story also seems to mock the shallowness of many Americans’ artistic tastes, as in Hazel’s comment about the dance being “nice.” Hazel’s comment suggests impoverished thoughts and an impoverished vocabulary.
- The story also seems to mock sentimentality, as when Hazel calls George “honeybunch.”
- Vonnegut additionally seems to be satirizing the ways in which people become accustomed to oppression, failing to resist it or rebel against it. Indeed, he satirizes the ways in which people become complicit in their own oppression, as when George, contemplating the consequences of resistance, says
“pretty soon we'd be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else. You [that is, Hazel] wouldn't like that, would you?"
"I'd hate it," said Hazel.
- The story clearly mocks the idea that mere effort, rather than real achievement, is all that matters when human performance is assessed. Thus, at one point Hazel says of an announcer who has failed to read an announcement correctly,
“he tried. That’s the big thing. He tried to do the best he could with what God gave him. He should get a nice raise for trying so hard.”
By using irony to mock all the attitudes and behaviors mentioned above, Vonnegut clearly makes a case for a society in which real merit matters more than mere effort.
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