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

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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