Study Guide

Harrison Bergeron

by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Harrison Bergeron Analysis

Style and Technique (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Since writing his earliest stories, Vonnegut has been called a science fiction writer, a term, he says, that for many people is another word for a bathroom receptacle. Although there are elements of science fiction in his stories, he is more clearly a fantasist—one who creates a believable but purely imaginary world such as one finds in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). He frequently resorts to dystopias (negative views of the future) to comment on modern society.

His style here is straightforward and matter-of-fact, as if he were sharing a story with his fishing buddies. Vonnegut does not interfere with the narration of this story to wink at the reader, implying that it is all a joke. Here, as in other stories and novels, Vonnegut appears to be a serious writer who uses the trappings of a futuristic science fiction world to entertain readers while he “poisons our minds with humanity.”

The story’s narrator never passes judgment on the words or deeds of the characters. Instead, his description of those actions becomes increasingly unbelievable. For example, as Harrison Bergeron and his dance partner dance and leap into the air, they finally manage to kiss the ceiling. Thus Vonnegut shows that Harrison represents someone so alien to his society that he can even defy the laws of gravity by seeming to float as easily as he was able to toss aside his shackles and handicaps.

Vonnegut’s outstanding stylistic trait is his use of black humor—humor that relies on the use of darker, more pessimistic, even depressing views of the absurdities of life. In a century when science and technology have been used to harm rather than help humankind, Vonnegut’s bitter antimachine, antitechnology images clearly reinforce the themes of the story. Instead of improving machines to make life easier, Harrison’s society—and thus ours—relies on outdated, nineteenth century tools to encumber the superior members of his culture to prevent either growth or experimentation. This is Vonnegut’s effort to make readers rethink their comfortable complacency and imagine instead what life would be like in such a world. The irony is that humans already inhabit such a world.

Harrison Bergeron Historical Context

The Modern Civil Rights Movement
In the late 1940s progress, albeit in fits and starts, began to occur in the movement toward...

(The entire section is 1176 words.)

Harrison Bergeron Setting

The story is set in the year 2081, in a middle-America very understandable by contemporary readers of October 1961, when the story was first...

(The entire section is 283 words.)

Harrison Bergeron Literary Style

Setting
Setting the story 120 years in the future allows readers to more easily accept some of the more absurd events in...

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Harrison Bergeron Literary Qualities

"I always had trouble ending short stories in ways that would satisfy a general public," Vonnegut notes in Timequake. "In real life ....

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Harrison Bergeron Social Sensitivity

In his book Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s, Kurt Vonnegut reflected on a 1983 speech he gave at the...

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Harrison Bergeron Compare and Contrast

1964: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. Title VII of the Act establishes The Equal Employment...

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Harrison Bergeron Topics for Discussion

1. What is equality? Can you come up with various definitions?

2. Reread the moment of the transcendent kiss between Harrison and...

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Harrison Bergeron Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. What is "equality" as defined by the American Bill of Rights? By the civil rights movement during the 1960s in America? How do these...

(The entire section is 377 words.)

Harrison Bergeron Topics for Further Study

Research the process by which proposed amendments to the United States Constitution pass Congress and are ratified into law. Based on what...

(The entire section is 166 words.)

Harrison Bergeron Related Titles / Adaptations

The short story "Harrison Bergeron" was adapted for video by Showtime and released on video in 1995. The production starred Sean Astin and...

(The entire section is 65 words.)

Harrison Bergeron What Do I Read Next?

The New Atlantis, Francis Bacon's 1627 version of utopia (an idealized community or state). Bacon conceived of a community of scholars...

(The entire section is 463 words.)

Harrison Bergeron For Further Reference

Abel, David. "Vonnegut Redux: Lost Man on Campus." Reprinted in Edmonton Journal Qune 3, 2001): E13. An interview with Vonnegut and...

(The entire section is 356 words.)

Harrison Bergeron Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Frye, Northrop, ‘‘The Nature of Satire,’’ in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 14, October, 1944....

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Harrison Bergeron Bibliography (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Kurt Vonnegut. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000.

Boon, Kevin Alexander, ed. At Millennium’s End: New Essays on the Work of Kurt Vonnegut. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Broer, Lawrence. Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989.

Giannone, Richard. Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Kurt Vonnegut. London: Methuen, 1982.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. “Slaughterhouse-Five”: Reforming the Novel and the World. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. The Vonnegut Effect. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Vonnegut in Fact: The Public Spokesmanship of Personal Fiction. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

Klinkowitz, Jerome, and Donald L. Lawler, eds. Vonnegut in America. New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1977.

Klinkowitz, Jerome, and John Sorner, eds. The Vonnegut Statement. New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1973.

Lundquist, James. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1976.

Merrill, Robert, ed. Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.

Morse, Donald E. The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut: Imagining Being an American. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.

Pieratt, Asa B., Julie Huffman-Klinkowitz, and Jerome Klinkowitz. Kurt Vonnegut: A Comprehensive Bibliography. 2d ed. Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String Press, 1987.

Reed, Peter J. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976.

Schatt, Stanley. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Boston: Twayne, 1976.

Tomedi, John. Kurt Vonnegut. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.