How are verbal, situational, and dramatic irony used in "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut? 

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Satire is employed in Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" in order to expose the ridiculous idea that people can ever be made truly equal. Vonnegut's satire is developed through the use of humor, exaggeration, and the three types of irony: verbal irony, situational irony, and dramatic irony.

The opening sentence of "Harrison Bergeron" contains verbal irony: "The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal." This statement is ironic because the author states that there is "equality," but he means something entirely different. The equality is a coerced equality, which, of course, is no equality at all. Laws have been passed that are enforced by agents of the government, handicaps have been placed on people, and only desensitizing television programs are broadcast. In one instance of the desensitization of people, Hazel Bergeron, who does not wear any handicaps because she is already "normal" (she has non-threatening looks and mediocre intelligence), watches heavily handicapped ballerinas on the television screen. She remarks, "That dance—it was nice." Her husband, George, who is very intelligent, "was toying with the vague notion that maybe talented dancers shouldn't be handicapped." As soon as he has this independent thought, it is cut off by an annoyingly loud noise in an ear radio he is forced to wear. This noise "shatter[s] his thought," and, as a result, he cannot continue his independent thinking. He must be equal in thought to Hazel.

There is also situational irony in which Vonnegut shows a discrepancy between the expected result and the real outcome of a situation. One situation that should produce outrage is presented in a calm manner. When the omniscient narrator states, "Some things about living still weren't quite right," such as the insignificant fact that "April still drove people crazy by not being springtime," the reader is led to believe that everything is under control and perfected except the weather. However, the reader later learns that in this "clammy month" of April, Harrison Bergeron has been arrested. Although this arrest has been tragic, Hazel and George Bergeron cannot think about it "very hard" because George is forced to wear a mental handicap that prevents him from thinking. Hazel is of the new "average intelligence," which means that she cannot think about anything for more than a few minutes. The parents' reactions to the arrest and incarceration of their son are ironic because people expect them to be devastated by the fact that their son has been taken to prison. They do not expect them to be so desensitized to this tragedy.

Dramatic irony occurs when the reader is aware of something that a character in the literary work does not know. An obvious example of dramatic irony is the fact that George Bergeron does not realize at the end of the narrative that his son has been killed. His wife, who is equal to the Handicapper General, cannot recall why she has been crying. Another example of dramatic irony is the awareness that the reader has about how terrible it is that this society has "forced equality," while mediocre characters such as Diana Moon Glampers and Hazel Bergeron are unaware of this fact.

rmhope eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Harrison Bergeron" is replete with irony, including situational, verbal, and dramatic irony. Situational irony is when the opposite of what is expected occurs. The entire society depicted in the story, therefore, exhibits situational irony. In the effort to create an ideal society where everyone is equal, the government and people have created a dystopia where people are deprived of their basic right to be themselves. It's ironic that people with speech impediments are chosen to be television announcers, and it's ironic that the ballerina apologizes that "her voice was a warm, luminous, timeless melody." One would expect speech impediments to disqualify a person from being an announcer, and one usually apologizes for having a raspy or unpleasant voice, not a pleasant one. That Hazel and George are unable to properly mourn for their son who has just been murdered on TV displays situational irony since that should have been a deeply traumatic event for them, yet they go on as if nothing happened.

Verbal irony is when the words used have an opposite meaning from the message they convey. Harrison Bergeron says, "I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived!" and he claims to be an Emperor. However, the irony of these words is soon revealed when Diana Moon Glampers comes in and shoots him with a "double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun," killing Harrison immediately. Readers realize Harrison's claims were empty; he was just as subjugated as every other person in that society, despite his few minutes of freedom.

Dramatic irony is when readers know something that a character in the story doesn't know. In a sense, the entire story is based on dramatic irony because readers understand the misguided attempts of the society to be fair even as most of the characters are fully compliant with their country's outrageous rules and laws. The ending is full of dramatic irony because readers know the horrible scene that has just taken place on TV, but Hazel immediately forgets seeing her son executed and George missed the whole thing while in the kitchen getting a beer. 

Vonnegut uses different types of irony throughout the story to support his theme that a society where everyone is equal is not necessarily an ideal one.