In "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., why did Harrison say that he is emperor? 

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mrs-campbell eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The society that Harrison comes from stifles any sort of individuality, freedom of expression, talents, strengths, gifts or abilities.  Harrison has spent his entire life being told that he needs to fit in, and that his gifts and physique make everyone around him feel inferior.  Being told that over and over, and being given such difficult handicaps to deal with, must have been very difficult and frustating for Harrison.  Here is a kid who, at fourteen, was "a genius and an athlete...[and] exactly seven feet tall" who has also spent a good part of his life trying to be himself.  Those attempts to be himself and to reach his potential have landed him "in jail," from which he escapes for his final escapade on the dance floor.

So, imagine being shackled your entire life and then to all of a sudden be free, dancing with a beautiful girl.  You would probably feel completely elated and joyful, and like you were on top of the world.   In comparison to the miserable, shackled life you led before, you would feel like an emporer.  You would feel powerful, strong, and like you could do anything.  So, here Harrison was, dancing to beautiful music with a beautiful girl, free from jail and all of his handicaps, for the first time in his life:  he had to be feeling good.  And that feeling was probably what prompted his declaration that "I am the emporer."  He wanted to show everyone what he "could become," his true potential.  And, he did, for a moment, before his demise.

I hope that those thoughts help a bit; good luck!

Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Harrison Bergeron is a fourteen-year-old boy who rebels against his tyrannical government. When he takes over the television studio, he has broken out of the jail where he had been "held on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government." In a society that demands mediocrity in all its citizens, Harrison is a threat, as he is both a genius and an athlete, a boy who is "underhandicapped."

When Harrison bursts into the studio, after ripping the door off, he stands in the center of the room and declares:

I am the Emperor! . . . Do you hear? I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!

He then stamps his foot, which shakes the entire studio. With all eyes on him, Harrison further declares:

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 then tears off his government-imposed handicaps.

In declaring himself an Emperor, Harrison rebels against the government that holds him down and tries to destroy his individual excellence. His is an act of wild and youthful independence and bravado. The entire story is developed through satirical exaggeration, and Harrison's declaring himself the Emperor fits the satirical tone of the narrative.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In concurrence with the point made that Vonnegut's story is filled with satire, Harrison Bergeron's act of declaring himself emperor is, indeed, excessive.  But, then, that is the purpose of satire: to show in an exaggerated form so as to effect reform.

As his story was published in 1961,Vonnegut's point underlies the concern of some in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement that talent and natural aptitudes would be mitigated in society so that others would not be made to feel inferior, that education would be dumbed down for the masses, etc.  In addition, Vonnegut's story was published during a period in which Nikita Khrushev threatened to destroy America from within; the proliferation of missiles in Cuba also threatened the safety of the U.S. 

Vonnegut also recognized that most revolutions are overthrows that replace the old with simply a newer version of the same. He understood that communism s it was practiced led to the failure of its basic promise to provide its workers equality in a classless society.  "Harrison Bergeron" illustrates how people do not want to all be equal, and a government that strives to make people all "equal" is doomed to failure. 

blacksheepunite eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Harrison calls himself an emperor because he is saying he is the natural ruler of the people. The reason he claims this title is that he is physically and intellectually superior to most of the people and, therefore, (he thinks) the one MOST fit to rule.

At the time he does this, he has broken free of the restraints imposed upon him by his society. He has literally and figuratively discarded the shackles that he has been living with.

In calling himself the emperor, he is publicly rejecting the values of his society. He is saying that society should not be run by the most incompetent, or most ignorant. He is saying that society, instead, should be run by the people who are best suited for the job. The smartest people should be ruling the world. They should be the most powerful, and they should be in control.

The person who opts to be his empress is someone with similar attributes. She is a good dancer, and is beautiful. She is also brave enough to take a risk and be herself. His choice, if it can be called that, is simply the person brave enough to stand along side him.


accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think we need to see this claim to be "emperor" as reflecting Harrison's own belief in himself and his abilities, but also the result of his pent up frustration of never having received praise and recognition for the wonderful genius that he was. It is certainly a rather exaggerated claim, yet for someone who has been forcibly handicapped throughout his entire life, perhaps the relief of casting aside his handicaps and being allowed to shine gives him such a boost that he is able to make such an outrageous claim.

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As you've already read in the posts above, Harrison is a larger-than-life character.  His grandiose claim of being Emperor is just another of those exaggerations.  Let's be honest, it has to be a pretty restricted and limited world when a fourteen-year-old is the most extraordinary and free person in it.