Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
By the year 2081, the search for true equality of all U.S. citizens has led to the creation of scores of amendments to the Constitution. In every case, the effort has not been to raise the standards of those handicapped by their differences or inadequacies. Instead, those who are gifted with superior intellect, physical beauty, or strength are penalized.
Those who are beautiful must wear hideous masks, intelligent people must wear headsets that jangle their brains and nerves with a series of loud, annoying sounds, and those with physical agility or strength must carry sacks of birdshot to weigh them down. Thus, in the race of life, all Americans are handicapped so that no one must ever feel ugly, stupid, or “like something the cat dragged in.”
Diana Moon Glampers is the Handicapper General, whose job is to track down violators of the law and rid society of those who menace the average, the inadequate, the mediocre. If a man wants to rest from the drudgery of carting around fifty pounds of birdshot by removing some pellets, he can be killed. Those, such as Harrison Bergeron, who learn to overcome their handicaps are forced to shoulder ever larger burdens, or noisier apparatus, or face incarceration or execution.
Society has become so repressive that no one dares question the increasing numbers of new laws that call for more handicaps and punishments. All those who oppose the Handicapper General are arrested, thrown into mental...
(The entire section is 512 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
First published in Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, “Harrison Bergeron” is set in 2081, when equality has finally been achieved by elimination of the exceptionally gifted or by controlling them via technology. Such methods of control include mental handicap radios in ears which emit ghastly sounds to interrupt and control thought, masks which conceal exceptionally attractive faces and clothing which does the same for bodies, and weights that the physically strong carry at all times, like handicaps for horses. However, George and Hazel Bergeron’s son, Harrison, is so exceptionally gifted physically, artistically, and mentally that the HG (Handicapper General) men come and take him away. Harrison escapes, though, and enters a television station where a dance program is being broadcast (which his parents are watching), throws off his physical handicaps, declares himself emperor, and encourages one exceptionally beautiful (and onerously handicapped) female dancer to throw off her handicaps and dance with him and be his empress. During the dance by these two beautiful and gifted people, and at the moment of their kiss, the dancers are shot dead by the Handicapper General. Harrison’s parents, too handicapped and controlled to be able to focus clearly on or understand or respond to the death of their son, simply continue watching television, although George’s ear radio noises are drastically increased to impede comprehension and reaction, and Hazel cries because of “something real sad on television.” She just cannot remember what it was.
“Harrison Bergeron” effectively renders Vonnegut’s vision of the unethical, misguided use of scientific and technological advancements in the future, a frequent theme in his later fiction, such as in Cat’s Cradle in 1963. Under the guise of an admirable equality, those in power in 2081 use technology to maintain their power and the status quo by controlling, by force if necessary, the evolutionary progression of human abilities. Vonnegut would return to this theme of evolutionary interference in Galápagos in 1985, with more subtle examination of the ambiguous permutations. Although a creative and ironically humorous story in which the laughter is, as always in Vonnegut, a painful response to an absurd world, “Harrison Bergeron” lacks the originality and technical creativity of Vonnegut’s best fiction, particularly since Aldous Huxley had more realistically and effectively dramatized the same themes and ideas in Brave New World (1932) nearly thirty years earlier.