Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Kurt Vonnegut’s purpose in “Harrison Bergeron” is clear and unequivocal. He wants to show that a society that exalts the lowest common denominator (the homely, the stupid, the mediocre) by handicapping all those with talent, intellect, and beauty, can never help those with natural disabilities. For Vonnegut, fundamental human decency demands that society give such people more assistance in reaching up, aspiring to be more than the mere appendages of society. It is the exceptional people who improve society—the nonconformists, the dreamers, the different. Failure to inspire all people will lead inevitably to the destruction of such a society. It is appropriate to legislate equality before the law in the areas of education, employment, and justice, the author suggests. Too often, he warns, people assume that equality means being the same. This is simply not realistic. Conformity for its own sake can be frightening, as seen in Nazi Germany, which attempted to rid Europe of people who were different—Jews, Poles, Czechs, gays, and the mentally and physically disabled.
Although one may laugh at the seeming absurdity of Vonnegut’s story, he asserts that society has gone far down that road already. Because some people are stupid, labels on poison must instruct all users not to eat it, shampoo bottles come with instructions for use, and cigarette labels proclaim that they cause cancer while people continue to smoke them. Society has been forced to...
(The entire section is 484 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Harrison Bergeron Themes. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
As a theme, freedom remains in the background of the story, emerging when Harrison escapes from jail. In the story's futuristic society, freedom is no longer a bedrock American value; enforcing the law that makes those who are "above normal'' equal to those who are "normal" has become the major social value. Forced equality by handicapping the above-normal individuals evolved as a response to the demonized concept of competition (which existed in ‘‘the dark ages’’) in all its possible forms. Vonnegut suggests that freedom can be taken away relatively easily, especially since the forced equality in the story has been authorized by Amendments to the Constitution.
Civil rights have become extinct in "Harrison Bergeron.’’ The culture values mediocrity to the point that the people accept oppressive measures in the name of equality. Ironically, no one really benefits from these misguided attempts to enforce equality, except perhaps the incompetent, such as the television announcer who, "like all announcers, had a serious speech impediment.’’ In Hazel's words, the announcer's incompetence should be forgiven because his attempt is "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.’’ Should anyone in that society dare to become above average, he or she is immediately punished, as is Harrison, who is executed for shunning...
(The entire section is 1229 words.)