What are the themes of the short story "Harrison Bergeron," by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.?  

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Scott David eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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"Harrison Bergeron" is a satirical look into the potential dangers of our society's desire for equality. Ultimately, Vonnegut is posing that, at a certain point, egalitarianism risks turning into a cult of mediocrity, with any expressions of personal excellence dragged down by force to the common level. In this story, equality is ensured by the use of handicaps. What results from this practice is an absurd mockery of a society.

The character of Harrison Bergeron himself reflects Vonnegut's satirical edge. He is painted as an almost ludicrous figure: only fourteen years old, super-intelligent, super-athletic, and super-strong. This is a story where all qualities are pushed toward the point of absurdity, both in individual excellence (as exemplified by the dancers) as well as in the collective pressure to conform (which is exemplified by the society that surrounds them). Yet the dance ends abruptly through a chilling display of force, with the dancers gunned down and the orchestra forced to re-handicap themselves. This act of violence is all the more chilling when contrasted against the dreamlike distortion of the scene which preceded it.

"Harrison Bergeron" is a story that relies on exaggeration, but there are very real warnings and concerns at its core. This is a story about the dangers of conformity, posing a warning about what nightmares we might create should we overreach ourselves in our desire for equality, especially when that equality is backed up by the use of coercion and force.

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Gretchen Mussey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The main theme of the short story "Harrison Bergeron" concerns equality. In Vonnegut's future America, every individual is equal in every aspect. Americans who are more beautiful, intelligent, and physically gifted are forced to wear cumbersome handicaps and devices that restrict, hide, and impede their movements and mental faculties. Diana Moon Glampers is the Handicapper General and is in charge of enforcing total equality. Like other authority figures, Diana Moon Glampers fears talented individuals and makes it her life's mission to make everyone equal. She eventually kills Harrison Bergeron after he escapes from prison and attempts to usurp power. Vonnegut's future society serves as a warning to the dangers of "total equality," or at least this definition of it.

The themes of individuality and independence are also examined throughout the short story by the protagonist Harrison Bergeron. Harrison is a massive athletic genius, who is forced to wear cumbersome weights and handicaps that impair his physical mobility. He also is forced to wear massive headphones that continually interrupt his thinking process. Despite being imprisoned for attempting to overthrow the government, Harrison escapes from jail and takes over a news station, where he insists that he is the Emperor and attempts to usurp power. Harrison is an independent person, who does not passively allow the government to infringe upon his rights. Although he is unsuccessful, Harrison challenges the oppressive government by using his talents to escape prison and sending a powerful message to the viewers at home watching television.

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kathik eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The main theme in "Harrison Bergeron," by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is equality, but it is not the kind of equality which people generally desire. Vonnegut's short story is a warning that complete equality creates many problems and can even bring with it danger. When everyone is completely equal in "Harrison Bergeron," individuals are basically tortured for being better than anyone at anything. The intelligent wear mental handicaps, the athletic wear physical handicaps, the beautiful wear hideous masks to hid their beauty. In Vonnegut's story, everyone is fearful and nobody (except Harrison) can think for him/herself any longer.

Along with the theme of equality, there is the theme of total conformity. The government runs lives. The government can murder citizens who are so gifted their handicaps do nothing, like Harrison. The people are completely brainwashed to believe the government can do no wrong.

Third is the theme of power through media. The television is constantly running. Again, this is a warning that sitting in front of a TV all day is mind numbing. It acts as a drug for the people, and it is used to keep the people in check. Harrison's murder is broadcast, so that nobody else will think of doing the same. "Look what happens if you do not do exactly what you are supposed to do!  Bam!" 

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