Kurt Vonnegut, the author of the short story “Harrison Bergeron,” is a satirist. Satire is a literary form that uses humor, often of the biting and sarcastic variety, to draw attention to problems in society.
Eugenics, according to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary is the “science that deals with the improvement of hereditary qualities of a race or breed.”
Vonnegut’s story is a futuristic tale set in 2081. As in George Orwell’s 1984, the government has become powerful and intrusive. In this society it is the government’s goal to make everybody equal, regardless of any natural strengths or advantages that they may have. People who have above-average intelligence wear earpieces that interrupt their thought processes; people with strength and grace are burdened with weights to slow them down; physically attractive people wear ugly masks.
While “Harrison Bergeron” does not examine eugenics as it is defined above, it does look at the idea of using artificial means to eliminate individuality and competitive advantage. This is just another means to reach the same end: absolute equality. According to the character George, without this equality,
. . . pretty soon we'd be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else.
Vonnegut is spoofing (satirizing) the idea that people should be forced into an equality that does not really exist.
The following excerpt shows how this equality is achieved. The ballerina is part of a television show that the characters are watching:
"Ladies and Gentlemen," said the ballerina, reading the bulletin. She must have been extraordinarily beautiful, because the mask she wore was hideous. And it was easy to see that she was the strongest and most graceful of all the dancers, for her handicap bags were as big as those worn by two-hundred pound men.
The handicaps serve the same purpose that a eugenics program would—they modify peoples’ natural qualities and abilities.