Harrison Bergeron Questions and Answers
by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Harrison Bergeron book cover
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Discuss the modern fable "Harrison Bergeron" and its use of irony.

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mwestwood, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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"Harrison Bergeron" is replete with irony as a narrative about a society that assures that all people are "equal." The opening lines certainly are ironic as it relates the forced equality:  

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.  They were equal every which way.  Nobody was smarter than anybody else.  Nobdy was better looking than anybody else.  Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.  All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amerndments...and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Likewise, the intelligent are made to wear the "Handicap Ear Radio" so that they will not take unfair advantage of others.  So, "normal" ironically is average and ignorant. 

As a modern fable, "Harrison Bergeron" is an exaggerated version of some of the "progressive" educational programs designed to ensure that no one is left behind in the learning process.  Test results now show that public schools are  faring worse than before the great "concern." Thus, Vonnegut's story is an indictment against twentieth-century people who are willing to accept mediocrity in order to eliminate "unfair" competition.  "Everyone gets a trophy whether he/she sits on the bench or plays; as long as the person is on the team, he/she wins, too." 

Harrison Bergeron's error is not that he is unwilling to accept mediocrity; he wishes to usurp power.  Healthy competition is what makes people stronger spiritually, mentally, and physically.  Afterall, Darwin's survival of the fittest is based upon natural competition.

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mrs-campbell eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Irony is when the opposite of what is expected happens, and there are several instances of it in the story. One is when George refuses to take some of the weight out of his sacks of birdshot, in order to rest a bit.  One would expect that with such heavy burdens all of the time, he would jump at his wife's suggestion to "go on and rest the bag for a little while."  But he doesn't, citing prison time as his reason for not. Another irony exists in the contradiction between how Harrison Bergeron is portrayed in the news bulletin and through his dramatic entrance versus his real harmless self.  The news bulletin describes him as "extremely dangerous" and then there was "the shriek of a door being torn from its hinges. Screams and barking cries of consternation... announcers cowered on their knees before him, expecting to die."  All of these descriptions lead us to believe that some horrific monster is coming to murder them all.  Instead, Harrison arrives, pulls off his handicaps, and proceeds to dance-a rather ironic move for a supposedly highly dangerous man.

The saddest irony occurs after Harrison is killed; his own mother forgets about it.  She was crying, but when George asks her why, she states, "I forget.  Something real sad on television.”  It is ironic that a mother would forget her own son's death so quickly.

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