Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron" is full of irony. Perhaps the most glaring irony is the idea of imposing complete equality on a population through state power. Anyone who has the power to do this is clearly grossly unequal to everyone else in the society and violates its central principle. This point is made when Diana Moon Glampers, who has no special abilities herself, is able to get rid of Harrison at the end of the story simply by shooting him.
Germane to this is the idea Vonnegut raises in the first paragraph when he mentions equality "before God and the law." This is the type of equality that liberal democracies have typically valued and which clearly means acknowledging that everyone is different but treating them all in the same way. To try to make everyone the same is a radical misunderstanding of the principle of equality.
Another irony is the fact that within the story, a Communist system has reduced everyone in American society to the lowest common denominator. In the 1960s, when "Harrison Bergeron" was published, the United States was locked in fierce competition with the Soviet Union, which was dedicated to producing world champions in every area, from athletics to chess. Any country which has to fend off international competition must encourage excellence. However, Vonnegut suggests, the reductio ad absurdum of Communism is possible only when a nation has triumphed over all others and can then concentrate on destroying itself through insane policies.
The irony in “Harrison Bergeron” is how the dystopian society in the story defines “equality”. To the government and its citizens, “equality” means to make everyone the same. We tend to see equality as guaranteeing the same rights for all people, and that includes allowing someone to be an individual. However, the society in which George, Hazel, and Harrison live handicaps its people in order to ensure that no one is better than anyone else in anything. If you’re smart like George, you have loud noises pumped into your ears through small ear buds that cut off all thought. For Harrison who is young, handsome, tall, and strong, he is weighed down by 300 lbs of metal, has ear buds, and wears thick eyeglasses.
The society does not believe in the values of equality like free speech and personal freedom. Instead they view equality as making everyone identical with no one having unique abilities or gifts to become superior. The irony lies in the way Vonnegut portrays the society’s definition of “equality”.
One of the major ironies within “Harrison Bergeron” is that in their society’s attempt to not make people feel bad they still cannot mask, pun intended, that some people are superior to others.
In the world of Harrison Bergeron, beauty is seen as an unfair physical attribute that is countered by making people wear masks.
“…their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in.”
The use of masks, however, does not keep people from knowing that the person is beautiful. For example, the text refers to one of the ballerinas:
“She must have been extraordinarily beautiful, because the mask she wore was hideous.”
If the true purpose of the mask was to make people equal and not feel bad, then the mask would have to prevent people from knowing how beautiful the person was. As seen in the quote, the uglier the mask the more beautiful the person.
An additional irony is that physical handicaps become obsolete and have to be replaced. In seeking to eliminate physical superiority in an individual the handicap only serves to make the individual stronger. Again the irony is exposed through the description of the ballerina when the text reads,
“And it was easy to see that she was the strongest and most graceful of all the dancers, for her handicap bags were as big as those worn by two-hundred pound men.”
Since we are able to make a comparison of handicaps worn by individuals, it is possible to know their true abilities, negating the purpose of the handicap.
Together the masks and the weights are intended to hide and hinder the beauty and skills of the ballerina, yet they only serve to let the audience know how beautiful and strong she really is.
There are several examples of satirical irony in "Harrison Bergeron." First, when Harrison is younger, his parents do nothing when the H-G men come to take him away. They simply follow along with whatever they are told to do, and even if Hazel would have protested, she would have soon forgotten where Harrison went because of her lack of intelligence.
Additionally, in most societies people who are beautiful, strong, intelligent, etc., are valued and have easier lives. In "Harrison Bergeron," however, Vonnegut creates a society which seeks to make people uglier, weaker, and dumber so that they will blindly follow the regime.
Finally, it is ironic that in handicapping Harrison with heavy weights, the government has made him stronger; and even though, he meets an untimely demise at the story's end, he most likely lived more in those few minutes of rebellion than any of the government workers or his own parents did.