How does Vonnegut use irony and satire in "Harrison Bergeron"?

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Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" is a heavily ironic short story, utilizing all three forms of irony to create a criticism concerning the ideal of an equal society. Vonnegut's picture of an equal world is one that denies genuine excellence, while being supported by suppression and the use of force. In the process, he satirizes and challenges these very ideals society is aiming to achieve.

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Irony and satire both turn on words or situations meaning the opposite of what they appear. Writers use these forms of humor to poke fun at absurd situations or moral failings.

Equality usually means opening up opportunity to all people so that nobody is disadvantaged. In "Harrison Bergeron," it means denying opportunity to all people so that everyone is disadvantaged. Society is leveled to the lowest common denominator so that no person will feel disadvantaged because someone else with greater talents has excelled.

Vonnegut's satire depends largely on hyperbole or exaggeration. He takes what were recent tendencies in US society in his time period to protect self-esteem and exaggerates them to an absurd level. In his dystopic society, everyone with any sort of talent or ability has to wear handicapping devices to destroy the effectiveness of their abilities. Harrison's intelligent father, for example, wears a hearing device that interrupts his thinking every few seconds with loud noises. The ballerina Harrison dances with starts out weighted down with weights so that she cannot be too graceful.

Vonnegut also uses dramatic irony to create comedy. Harrison's parents, for example, take their cruel and absurd situation as normal and accept that it is for the higher social good. We as an audience know the opposite is true.

Vonnegut also satirizes the use of force to solve problems when he has the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, shoot the dancers.

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In "Harrison Bergeron," it is not simply the case that Kurt Vonnegut employs heavy use of irony but, moreover, he utilizes the different kinds of irony to searing effect. Generally speaking, the use of irony is divided into three subcategories: situational irony, dramatic irony, and verbal irony. Vonnegut uses all three of these forms and occasionally will even employ more than one of them simultaneously.

An example of this can be seen in the short story's opening paragraph, which combines verbal irony and situational irony:

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way.

To summarize, verbal irony tends to rely on sarcasm, where the literal meaning of the words are in opposition with the intended meaning behind it. In this case, we have the narrator allegedly praising the attainment of genuine equality, even as he is (in truth) ridiculing the very ideal of equality in this sense. As the paragraph continues from here, and as we begin to learn more about what this equality entails, Vonnegut begins to introduce the situational irony that will shape his story in general.

When we imagine equality, we tend to envision it as an ideal, imagining that a future that successfully achieves this ideal would be a more just society than the one we currently live in. But Vonnegut ruthlessly upends those expectations, exploring a world where equality is imposed, and all forms of genuine self-actualization and excellence are ruthlessly suppressed through the use of force. In the process, his ironic tone begins to approach a level of absurdity: with their handicaps in effect, for example, the ballet dancers cannot dance (even though that is their occupation), thus defeating the very purpose of having televised ballet to begin with. Vonnegut's picture of an equal society, thus, takes on a degree of madness: it is entirely irrational, which is precisely the point he is making regarding the very notion of equality to begin with.

Finally, there is dramatic irony, where the audience is aware of story-relevant details even as the characters are not. An example of this can be found in the scene where Hazel suggests that George relieve some of his handicap and relax while in the safety of his house. Here we see George alluding to what he refers to as "the dark ages," a time "with everybody competing against everybody else." Ultimately, in this scene, they are speaking disparagingly about the society of the real world, viewing it as a mad, unjust dystopia, even as readers would view the same of the fictional society in which they reside.

All of these uses of irony add up towards a brutally satirical picture of what equality really means and the methods that might be required to impose it. In so doing, Vonnegut is trying to hold up to criticism and ridicule the very utopian ideals that lie behind this notion of equality altogether. For Vonnegut, it seems, this form of equality amounts to a denial of human achievement and can only result in widespread misery.

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One needs to look now farther than the first paragraph to realize that Vonnegut's tale is laced with irony and satire.  The strongest hint is when he mentions that there are over 100 ammendments in the Constitution.  All these ammendments are designed to make society "perfect."  Later on George and his wife Hazel are discussing how George's handicaps, the bags of birdshot tied to his legs, are terribly inconvenient and painful.  Hazel suggests George break a law and remove the bags since he isn't competing against anyone at home.  George replies that if he broke the law so would others and they'd end up right back in the "Dark Ages".  These examples depict there is no such thing as a perfect society.  Equality (in looks, strength, intelligence, etc.) does not bring about perfection and competition is essential for a thriving economy.  In every society there are winners and losers.  There is no way around that.

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"Harrison Bergeron" is structured as satire to offer a critique on people's claims that we should all be equal.  Through the story, Vonnegut questions the assumed benefits of having a truly equal society.  Throughout the story, ironic situations work in the service of developing the story's theme.  For example, Harrison is an extraordinary person:  he is physically attractive and strong, he is incredibly intelligent, and he is talented.  As a result, he is forced to wear a series of handicaps to make him "equal" to those who are different from him.  Ironically, Harrison is able to break free of those handicaps and still be the person who he really is.

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How does Vonnegut use dramatic irony in "Harrison Bergeron"?

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something that the characters in a story do not.

In Harrison Bergeron, George and Hazel buy in completely to their society's values. The chief value is that everyone must be equal. Anyone who stands out in any way is given a "handicap" so that he or she will be no better than anyone else. George, for example, is highly intelligent, so loud noises go off in his ears from a radio transmitter that he is legally required to wear in his ear:

Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

George and Hazel both think it is perfectly reasonable that George should be handicapped in this way. They think of their son, Harrison, who rebels against this system, as "abnormal"—they find nothing wrong with the system itself.

This is an example of dramatic irony because we, as an audience, know it is utterly absurd (laughable) and destructive for a society to treat its citizens this way and to refuse to use their talents and abilities.

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How does Kurt Vonnegut use literary devices to convey the theme of "Harrison Bergeron"?

Ultimately, "Harrison Bergeron" is a criticism of egalitarianism (as well as society's tendency to advance social progress through government action). Vonnegut advances this criticism by creating a dystopia in which everyone has been made equal through the use of coercive force. In characterizing this dystopia, Vonnegut makes heavy use of irony and exaggeration, in order to convey the irrationality and madness of this world he is depicting.

First, note that "Harrison Bergeron" is a dystopian story: it provides a picture of the future, set in 2081, in which people have been made equal through constitutional amendment. This has been achieved through the use of handicaps and is backed by threat of force. As is often the case with dystopian stories, Vonnegut uses this vision of the future to provide a warning to his own society, depicting these egalitarian ideals as potentially dangerous and dehumanizing.

Probably the one literary device that ties this story together more than any other is irony. At the heart of irony, you will always find a tension. Note that irony can generally be divided into three kinds: verbal, situational, and dramatic. What is unique about "Harrison Bergeron" is that it uses all three.

In situational irony, the tension lies between expectations and outcomes. In this case, Vonnegut's entire dystopian vision of the future is an example of situational irony: we would expect that a world where all people are equal would result in a more utopian picture, but Vonnegut subverts those expectations.

Verbal irony, on the other hand, involves a tension within the language of the text, by which its literal meaning conflicts with its intended message. You can see an example of this in the story's opening paragraph, beginning from the story's first sentence: "It was the year 2081, and everybody was finally equal." Consider these words, taken independently of any context, and now apply them within the context of Vonnegut's dystopia: that sense of contradiction is an example of verbal irony in practice.

Finally, in dramatic irony, readers are aware of information that the characters within the story do not have. In this case, readers are aware of this society's irrationality and madness. Vonnegut uses dramatic irony to invoke genuine tragedy as well: you can see this at the end of the story, when George and Hazel have watched their son get executed on television and later forget what they have seen.

Finally, Vonnegut makes heavy use of exaggeration in his depiction of characters—particularly in his descriptions of Harrison and the ballerina, who exist as symbols for human excellence and are depicted as blatantly superhuman in their ability. Consider Harrison's size, strength, superhuman intelligence (all at the age of fourteen), as well as the imagery of the dancers leaping up towards the ceiling (a distance of thirty feet). This entire scene has a sense of unreality and distortion to it, reflecting the distorted dystopia in which it is set.

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How is irony displayed in the short story "Harrison Bergeron"?

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., uses irony with great effect in his short story "Harrison Bergeron." 

The name "Diana Moon Glampers" is ironic in itself. "Diana" was the Roman goddess of the moon, suggesting that the woman who holds the office of Handicapper General is lofty and worthy. Giving her the middle name "Moon" is a way mocking the society by showing how dumbed-down it is, and "Glampers" is an ugly-sounding name that seems to be the antithesis of a goddess.

The fact that all the television announcers in the society have a "serious speech impediment" is ironic because in our society, those would be the last people chosen as announcers. 

To state that the ballerina has an "unfair voice" is ironic. How could someone's "warm, luminous" voice be unfair? We might think it unfair if someone is born with a permanently raspy voice, but to be born with a lovely voice should be considered a blessing. That people cannot be happy for others' giftedness shows the warped thinking of this society. 

That Harrison is executed so easily by Diana Moon Glampers after he declares his utter supremacy is also an unexpected twist in the story.

Finally, the ending of the story is highly ironic. After witnessing the capture and death of their son, Hazel forgets it within a matter of a minute or two, remembering only that she had seen "something real sad on television." Many parents who have lost a child, and many others who have lost loved ones, believe at least initially that they will never be able to forget the horror and trauma of that tragedy. George has for some reason stopped watching his son on TV and has left to get a beer, trivializing what should have been the most important thing in his life at that time.

Vonnegut uses irony throughout the story to mock and critique the dystopian society he has created.

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