What is the underlying message of "Harrison Bergeron?"

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gmuss25's profile pic

gmuss25 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The underlying message throughout the short story "Harrison Bergeron" concerns the dangers of total equality. In Vonnegut's dystopian America, the government has amended the Constitution to make every citizen entirely equal in virtually every aspect of life. Citizens are forced to wear cumbersome mechanisms that prevent physically and intellectually talented individuals from reaching their full potential—all so that they will remain equal with everyone else. While equality that pertains to individual rights is commendable and just, Vonnegut presents a society that has taken equality to its furthest extent. In Vonnegut's dystopian America, individuality is utterly suppressed, and citizens suffer for being gifted or attractive. Harrison Bergeron is forced to wear heavy, cumbersome weights, an incredibly ugly mask, and enormous earphones in order to make him equal with other citizens. When Harrison escapes from prison and attempts to overthrow the government, the reader is filled with a sense of excitement and hope. However, the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, ends Harrison's life before he can fulfill his dream. The reader is left with a pessimistic, concerned feeling towards the concept of total equality. Vonnegut's short story was meant to provoke thought on the ideas of individuality, personal rights, and equality.

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belarafon's profile pic

belarafon | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Many dystopian stories end with a message of hope, of the possibility that the system will change, the people will rise up and evil will be vanquished. Not so with "Harrison Bergeron." This story is deliberately bleak and depressing; here, total government control of the populace is not only inevitable, but impossible to fight.

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. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.
(Vonnegut, "Harrison Bergeron," tnellen.com)

One strong message of the story is that the attempt to make everyone equal, not only in status (all men are created equal) but in fact, results in stagnation of culture and society. Instead of treating all people the same way, the government here attempts to make everyone physically and mentally the same so nobody will feel badly. The result is total control of the populace, and when Harrison rebels, he is struck down as evil, a man who rightly believes himself to be superior to others. Exceptionalism is therefore seen as a negative trait, while the pursuit of the perfect average is seen as moral.

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