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...
(The entire section is 388 words.)
"Harrison Bergeron" is set in a future America, when everyone is equal according to Constitutional Amendments, and agents of the Handicapper General enforce the equality laws. George and Hazel Bergeron are watching television at home, discussing George's handicaps that make him equal to her and their fellow citizens, and their son's arrest for suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government.
Young Harrison is only fourteen, but he is a strong and handsome young man who breaks out of custody and into the television station. On camera, he announces his rule as Emperor: "Even as I stand here crippled, hobbled, sickened, I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!" He throws off his handicaps and chooses as his Empress a dancer who steps forward to join him. He removes her handicaps, and the handicaps of the studio musicians. Together Harrison and his Empress dance a transcendent dance—until the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, enters the television studio and shoots them both dead instantly with a double-blast of her shotgun. Glampers reloads and tells the musicians to get their handicaps back on.
While Hazel and George witness their son's death, they both forget why they are so sad.
(The entire section is 208 words.)
‘‘Harrison Bergeron’’ is set in the future, when Constitutional Amendments have made everyone equal. The agents of the Handicapper General (H-G men, an allusion to the practice in the 1940s and 1950s of referring to Federal Bureau of Investigation and Secret Service officers as G-men, the G standing for government) enforce the equality laws.
People are made equal by devices which bring them down to the normalcy level in the story, which is actually below-average in intelligence, strength, and ability. These devices include weights to stunt speed and strength; masks, red rubber clown noses, or thick glasses to hide good looks and to make seeing difficult; and radio transmitters implanted in the ears of intelligent people, which emit sharp noises two or three times a minute to prevent sustained thought.
In April, described as "clammy'' and driving ‘‘people crazy by not being springtime,’’ H-G men take Harrison Bergeron—son of George and Hazel Bergeron—to jail on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. At the age of fourteen, seven-foot-tall Harrison is a genius and an athlete who bears heavier handicaps and more grotesque masking devices than anyone else. George and Hazel are watching a dance program on television and discussing George's handicaps, especially the different sounds transmitted to his mental handicap radio and the forty-seven pounds of birdshot in a canvas bag he wears around his neck. As a...
(The entire section is 530 words.)