What is the effect of the futuristic setting in “Harrison Bergeron”?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator
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.

These are the opening sentences of Kurt Vonnegut's short story, "Harrison Bergeron"--words that indicate the setting in which "equality" has been forced.  A setting in which "everybody was finally equal" implies that the weak have been enabled and the strong have been weakened.  It is a world of mediocrity in which Harrison Bergeron, brillant and athletic, is held captive.  For, he, now, is considered abnormal and can only be normal by having handicaps imposed upon him: He wears weights to encumber his athleticism. A red rubber ball is on his nose,

The rest of Harrison's appearance was Halloween and hardware. Nobody had ever born heavier handicaps. He had outgrown hindrances faster than the H-G men could think them up. Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.

In contrast, Harrison's mother Hazel is "normal" because she wears no handicaps.  However, she is mentally dull and weak in her efforts to perceive reality; her husband George, on the other hand, must wear handicaps similar to those of Harrison, but not so many. Clearly, then, the mentally and physically strong are weakened in order to elevate the weak to the level "playing field" of mediocrity.  And, when Harrison, in a supreme act of individuality rebels, the Handicapper General breaks the law in order to suppress what may start a revolution; she shoots Harrison with a shotgun--an anachronistic weapon for 2081--so that the enforced mediocrity may continue.  With Harrison's death goes the death of attempts at individuality and superiority and freedom. And, the use of the twentieth century weapon ties the message to contemporary times.

Significantly, Kurt Vonnegut, the author of this story, wrote his narrative in the wake of the civil rights movement, fearing that with the new legislation requiring hiring quotas and other forced acts of "equality," the federal government could eventually somehow propose schemes that would enforce equality of outcome. Also, the fear of Communism loomed over America at this time, and Vonnegut saw in this threat the enforced "equality" of people, as well.  So, his futuristic setting acts as an exaggerated prophetic backdrop for what could happen.