What is individuality in "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Individuality does not exist in Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," and that is the primary theme in the story.

The story begins this way:

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.

To enforce this constitutional mandate, everyone is given handicaps which limit their abilities, and the more abilities one has the more handicaps one gets.

The goal of the 211-213 Amendments to the Consitution have made sure that everyone is equal; in doing so, they have created a world where individuality does not exist. If no one can sing better than anyone else, there is no standout music. If no one is allowed to exercise his genius, we have no inventors who will be known through the ages for their unique way of thinking--and no inventions. If no one artist can be any better than anyone else, paintings and sculptures will all look the same and can no longer be considered "art."

Vonnegut's point, of course, is that equality should not mean "same-ness." It should be okay for some dancers to be better than others because everyone has different gifts. The one character who does not conform, Harrison Bergeron, is killed and his own parents are so dehumanized by equality that they are no sadder about his death than they would be about anyone else's. Individuality is a critical component of the human spirit, according to Vonnegut; if it is gone, so is the will to live. 

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