Harrison Bergeron Questions and Answers
by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Harrison Bergeron book cover
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How does the conflict in “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut emphasize the tone?

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Lawrence Rodman eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Harrison Bergeron” is Vonnegut’s jab at making fun of the American fondness for the ‘lowest common denominator’ in certain aspects of civic life. To the objective sociopolitical and anthropological writer’s POV, it can often seem that intellectuality and the intelligecia—The Elite—are under attack. And that the old-guard ideal of American ‘society as meritocracy,’ is bankrupt as we drift further into cultural homogeneity.

As such, the conflict generated is in what you perceive as opposed to the ostensible situation. One part of Vonnegut’s is framed as documentary, but expressed back-handedly, with a sort of horrendous irony that you, the reader, must sense is sarcastic. Vonnegut’s narrative stance is like that of the writing technique of the ‘unreliable narrator,’ in which the text conveys two messages; what he knows and what the reader knows to be a contradiction of character.

As another note, the handicapping or forced behavior-modification in this story is similar to that of A Clockwork Orange, though “Harrison Bergeron” is the earlier work.

Welcome to the Monkey House is a collection of some his earlier short stories, which were once a major feature of popular print entertainment; including the bustling magazine fiction market. (Paperbacks themselves emerged about one third of the way through the Twentieth Century, in time for WWII care packages to the troops could include the latest fiction and entertainment in lightweight, inexpensive editions.) I’m winging it a bit here, but—having survived his tour of duty in that world war—he happens to have been steeped in the paperback of the day; that was indeed Private Vonnegut in his bunk reading James Jones, or another popular author of that ‘manly but tender’ ilk.

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