Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised 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.
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The Modern Civil Rights Movement
In the late 1940s progress, albeit in fits and starts, began to occur in the movement toward full civil rights for African Americans in the United States. Beginning with Jackie Robinson, major league baseball began the process of integration, as did the military in the late 1940s. In the 1954 case known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the United States Supreme Court decided that the doctrine of ‘‘separate but equal’’ facilities set forth in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case no longer held true. A year later, the Supreme Court ordered lower courts to use ‘‘all deliberate speed’’ in desegregating the public schools. In the Deep South, governors, state legislatures, and local school boards resisted, in some cases passing laws to try to thwart the ruling. In addition to the landmark Supreme Court ruling, an African-American woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the front of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to sit in the back as a local ordinance required. Her subsequent arrest led to a boycott of downtown businesses by African Americans. It also gave the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., an opportunity to begin his crusade for civil rights long denied African Americans in the South. In September, 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower had to call out the Arkansas National Guard, as well as regular Army troops, to enforce desegregation of Little Rock, Arkansas, schools. In February, 1960,...
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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 published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or 1968, when it appeared in the collection Welcome to the Monkey House. In this story there are television shows with stars much like George Burns and Gracie Allen, there is striving for social equality, and there is sufficient leisure time for ordinary working folk to watch television from the comfort of their own homes. But the television shows are populated by dancers and musicians and announcers aggressively equalized by handicaps such as heavy weights, ugly masks, and noise-making hearing aids, as is one of the two viewpoint characters, George.
The frightening extent to which the Handicapper General goes to maintain this crippling version of "equality" makes the story seem at first to be set in a fantasy world, or an alternate reality. But if one is aware that the author is an international traveler who has spent time in American public schools and universities, in the army, and in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, and has conversed with Nazis, Biafrans, Communists, and his Cape Cod neighbor, all on their own home turf, the Handicapper General's final solution is possibly the least unrealistic element in the story.
Far more unreal is the way Harrison's parents immediately forget why they are sad, and the sound of a riveting gun...
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Setting the story 120 years in the future allows readers to more easily accept some of the more absurd events in ‘‘Harrison Bergeron.’’ The actual physical location of the story does not matter and, therefore, is unknown. One glaring anachronism—a concept or an object not known or invented at the time of the story; or an object that belongs to a previous era—should be noted: the use of a shotgun. Readers might expect that some exotic form of weaponry would have been developed and used that far into the future. Similarly, the idea that 213 Amendments to the Constitution would have been ratified predicts a radical change in American legislation. At the time the story was written, only twenty-four amendments had been passed by the Congress and ratified by the states, the first ten of which (known as the Bill of Rights) became law in 1791. In the 170 years between 1791 and the time the story was written, only fourteen additional amendments had been ratified. Ironically, the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments of the story restrict the civil rights of most people, as opposed to the amendments over the first two hundred years of the nation.
Point of View
The story is told in the third-person-limited point of view; the narrator is not a character in the story, but he is privy to the thoughts of one character. Readers are allowed to know what George Bergeron is thinking, as when he "was toying with the vague notion...
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"I always had trouble ending short stories in ways that would satisfy a general public," Vonnegut notes in Timequake. "In real life . . . people don't change, don't learn anything from their mistakes, and don't apologize. In a short story they have to do at least two out of three of those things, or you might as well throw it away." Vonnegut admits he could handle that much. "But after I had a character change and/or learn something and/or apologize, that left the cast standing around with their thumbs up their asses. That is no way to tell a reader the show is over." In his salad days (youthful indiscretions—heyday), Vonnegut sought the advice of his then literary agent as to how to end stories without killing all the characters, and was told that nothing could be simpler. "The hero mounts his horse and rides off into the sunset." This story, "Harrison Bergeron", is clearly one of the ones where the author was willing to kill off a few characters.
Any cursory study of Vonnegut's fiction will reveal that the author starts and stops his stories in media res, that is, in the middle of things, with little or no attention paid to such literary devices as introductions, denouements, character development, or foreshadowing. This story is no exception. Vonnegut does not show the readers his characters and let the audience learn what they do in their world. Instead, he flat-out tells readers everything up front, in words of one and two syllables...
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In his book Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s, Kurt Vonnegut reflected on a 1983 speech he gave at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City:
American TV, operating in the Free Market of Ideas ... was holding audiences with simulations of one of the two things most human beings, and especially young ones, can't help watching when given the opportunity: murder. TV, and of course movies, too, were and still are making us as callous about killing and death as Hitler's propaganda made the German people during the frenzied prelude to the death camps and World War II. ...What I should have said from the pulpit was that we weren't going to Hell. We were in Hell, thanks to technology which was telling us what to do, instead of the other way around. And it wasn't just TV.
With these words, Vonnegut is speaking on ideas he used in his story "Harrison Bergeron." In this story, television desensitized Hazel Bergeron, Harrison's mother, to the murder of her own son, which she witnesses while watching television. She does weep over what she sees, but is so numbed by watching television, that she cannot remember why she is crying.
In this story, Vonnegut shows readers that he was deeply affected by Newton Minow's famous 1961 speech about television programming, called "The Vast Wasteland." Minow specifically mentioned violence as a contributor to this wasteland....
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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 Opportunities Commission, which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, sex, national origin, and religion.
Late 1990s: Affirmative action programs, which set guidelines for preferred hiring of minority and women workers and students, come under fire. Businesses and universities are sued for reverse discrimination by whites passed over for various positions and promotions.
1950s: The CIA experiments with various forms of mind control, including testing LSD, a hallucinogen, as a truth serum on U.S. soldiers.
1993: Rumors surface that the FBI is considering using an acoustic mind control device during a standoff with cult leader David Koresh in Waco, Texas. The device, developed by a Russian scientist, is supposedly capable of placing thoughts in a person's mind without the person's knowledge of the source of the thoughts.
1960s: Young people unite in unprecedented numbers to protest the Vietnam War, racism, and sexual discrimination. Vonnegut's writings become very popular in this politically active era.
1990s: ‘‘Hate crime’’ legislation provides stiffer penalties for those convicted of harassment and other crimes directed at people based on their ethnicity, sexual orientation, and physical or mental...
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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 the dancer. What would this scene be like from the viewpoint of one of the musicians? How would he or she react to the sudden arrival of the Handicapper General? Rewrite this scene from the musician's viewpoint, including emotional reactions for the characters as well as their physical actions.
3. Describe a beautiful human being. Can you come up with various definitions?
4. How do the Handicapper General and her agents "equalize" citizens?
5. Are there any positive results to the Equality Laws they enforce?
6. What is a transcendent experience? What effect does one person's transcendent experience have on others?
7. What sort of leader do the people of 2081 need?
8. What sort of leader does Harrison Bergeron set himself up to be?
9. As the Handicapper General is an appointed figure, not an elected one, she does not need to worry about being reelected. What does she have to fear instead?
10. What sort of justice is the Handicapper General dealing out in the America of 2081?
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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 definitions compare to the Equality Laws in this story, and how they are enforced by the Handicapper General?
2. How can an individual's superior talents and strengths be of benefit to her or his family, neighbors, and fellow citizens? How can superior talents and strengths be a negative experience for an individual, or a community, rather than a benefit?
3. Compare the story "Harrison Bergeron" to a short story by Stephen King, perhaps "The Raft." Both authors are American, male, white, and attended college. What distinct differences and similarities can you detect in these two stories? How do the authors' writing styles differ? What can you say about the characters each author creates? How would Stephen King have written the story "Harrison Bergeron"?
4. Draw pictures of each of the major characters in "Harrison Bergeron", and include with each a series of notes describing what elements you took from the story and what elements you decided from your own impressions of the characters. Will you use television and movie actors as your models, or people around you?
5. What is the difference between the words "alike" and "equal"?
6. How useful is this fantasy story when considering real events and motivations? Is this story a good tool for beginning a dialogue on equality and...
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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 you find out, do you think it is likely that the Constitution will have 213 amendments in 2081 ? Why or why not?
Investigate the controversy caused by Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow's May, 1961, speech in which he labeled television ‘‘a vast wasteland.’’ Compare Minow's historical commentary about television to current commentaries and note how much (or how little) has changed.
Read the United States' founding documents—particularly the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, or the Federalist Papers—to determine the promise of equality or lack thereof found within them. Compare the ideas found in these documents with those in documents associated with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s—particularly the 1954 U. S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education—and the early 1960s, particularly Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail’’ and his 1963 speech known as ‘‘I Have a Dream.’’
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The short story "Harrison Bergeron" was adapted for video by Showtime and released on video in 1995. The production starred Sean Astin and Christopher Plummer. The director, Bruce Pittman, was nominated for Canada's Gemini award for "Best Direction in a Dramatic Program or Mini-Series." Readers might wish to examine other short stories from Welcome to the Monkey House, the collection in which "Harrison Bergeron" was republished.
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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 and scientists who rule for the benefit of each other and mankind.
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel. In this dystopian (from dystopia, the opposite of utopia, a world in which realities undermine ideals), satirical portrait of a futuristic society, citizens have given up much of their own humanity for the social good in another totalitarian political system.
"I Have a Dream,’’ Martin Luther King's 1963 speech. King delivered this famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to a crowd of civil rights demonstrators. It called for a society in which people have equal opportunity and are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
‘"he Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,’’ Ursula K. Leguin's 1973 story. In this vaguely futuristic society, the good of the community, including everything from personal happiness to bountiful crops, depends on the severe maltreatment of one child, a scapegoat. Without the scapegoat, the citizens of Omelas believe their whole society would fall apart. The title characters who leave cannot stand to base their happiness on the suffering of another person, especially a child.
"The Vast Wasteland,’’ Newton Minow's 1961 speech. In this speech the new Chair of the Federal...
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For Further Reference
Abel, David. "Vonnegut Redux: Lost Man on Campus." Reprinted in Edmonton Journal Qune 3, 2001): E13. An interview with Vonnegut and several English professors and students from Smith College, showing that Vonnegut is writing again and continuing to spread his satirical viewpoint on life and literature. This insightful article includes several excellent quotes from Vonnegut and his associates.
Alvarez, Joseph. Entry on "Harrison Bergeron." In Exploring Short Stories. Detroit: Gale, 1998. A critical commentary on the story, with useful character summaries, discussing "Harrison Bergeron" in light of Vonnegut's own beliefs about conditions in American society.
Festa, Conrad. "Vonnegut's Satire." In Vonnegut in America: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Kurt Vonnegut. Edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and Donald L. Lawler. New York: Delacorte Press, 1977. An essay on how Vonnegut's use of satire as it changes over time.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. Kurt Vonnegut. London: Methuen, 1982. An analysis of Vonnegut as a contemporary writer, largely through the discussion of his major novels. A readable, light biography as well as literary analysis. This book is highly-recommended to young adult readers trying to understand Vonnegut's motives as well as his fiction.
Mowery, Carl. Overview of "Harrison Bergeron." In Overview of Exploring Short Stories. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998. A discussion of the ways...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Frye, Northrop, ‘‘The Nature of Satire,’’ in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 14, October, 1944.
King, Larry L., ‘‘Old Soup,’’ in New York Times Book Review, September 1, 1968, pp. 4-5, 19.
Levitas, Mitchel, ‘‘Books of the Times: A Slight Case of Candor,’’ in New York Times, August 19, 1968, p. 35.
Meek, Martha (revised by Peter Reed), ‘‘Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.,’’ in Critical Survey of Short Fiction, revised edition, Vol. 6, edited by Frank Magill, Salem Press, 1993, pp. 2364-71.
Minow, Newton, ‘‘The Vast Wasteland,’’ reprinted in The Annals of America, Vol. 18, 1961-1968: The Burdens of World Power, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1968, pp. 12-20.
Nichol, Charles, ‘‘The Volunteer Fireman,’’ in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 222, No. 3., September, 1968, pp. 123–4.
Reedy, Gerard, Review of Welcome to the Monkey House, in America, Vol. 119, No. 7, September 14, 1968, pp. 190-91.
Schatt, Stanley, ‘‘The Short Stories,’’ in Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Boston: Twayne, 1976, pp. 119-35.
Uphaus, Robert W., ‘‘Expected Meaning in Vonnegut's Dead-End Fiction,’’ in The Critical Response to Kurt Vonnegut, edited by Leonard Mustazza, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994, pp. 165-74.
Vonnegut, Kurt, ‘‘Address to P.E.N. Conference in...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised 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:...
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