The underlying message of "Harrison Bergeron," which does not lie very far from the surface, is that this type of equality is not worth the price you have to pay for it. Given the handicaps with which he has been weighed down, Harrison, understandably, rejects the concept of equality altogether and wants to create a society of vigorous individualism. Vonnegut's view, however, is subtler than that of his protagonist. He does not necessarily regard it as a bad idea for opportunities to be distributed equally (at least, there is nothing in the text to suggest this). However, he clearly sees that forcing equality of outcome on a society would reduce everyone to the lowest common denominator. The government handicaps the intelligent so that they are no longer exceptional in relation to others.
There is a related point about the confusion surrounding the word "equality." Apart from differentiating equality of opportunity from equality of outcome, there is a more basic mistake, emphasized in the first paragraph, of misreading "equal" to mean "the same." Equality before the law, for instance, does not require that everyone should have the same abilities or resources. It simply means that someone accused of a crime will be treated in the same way as anyone else, whether they happen to be rich or poor, handsome or ugly, clever or foolish.
In Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron," the United States has transformed into a dystopian nation, where the government suppresses individualism in order to create a completely uniform society, eliminating all forms of competition and making everyone equal in all areas of life. Since talented, intelligent citizens are considered a threat to the government, they are forced to wear various handicaps that significantly limit their above-average abilities. Heavy bags of birdshot are strapped to physically stronger or larger citizens to restrict their movements, intelligent civilians wear handicap radios in their ears to disrupt their thoughts, and beautiful people are required to wear ugly masks. The government's intention of securing equality for all is taken to the extreme and negatively impacts the lives of talented individuals like George and Harrison Bergeron.
The main message of Vonnegut's story concerns the importance of balancing equality with freedom and individualism. In the story, the totalitarian regime takes extreme measures to ensure equality, with no regard for personal rights or individualism. Their solution to forming a more equal, less competitive society creates a dystopia, where the most talented, skilled citizens are severely punished. People with above-average abilities suffer, and standards across the country are significantly lowered to appease less talented civilians. Although Vonnegut advocates for equality, his short story reveals the importance of balancing equality with freedom and individualism. While creating equal opportunities for all is an amicable goal, Vonnegut warns against invasive government policies that restrict personal rights and individualism in the name of equality.
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.
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.