What are possible themes and support for these themes in the story "Harrison Bergeron"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Kurt Vonnegut's futuristic society demonstrates the dangers of striving to make an uniform society. Satirically Vonnegut begins: "The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal." However, in this society's  efforts to "level the playing field" for everyone, individual civil rights are sacrificed.

Equality comes at a price 

A major theme in "Harrison Bergeron," equality is only attained by valuing mediocrity since those with little ability can not elevate themselves; so, the bright and talented, the beautiful and the creative are suppressed by means of handicaps that limit them to the level of the "average." For example, George Bergeron must wear ear radios that send hideous noises to drown out his higher thoughts. His wife Hazel wears no handicaps as she is naturally rather simple-minded.

But, by making everyone "equal," innovations, inventions, and creative beauty are destroyed, and the society becomes stagnant because ingenuity is not permitted. Indeed, it is the maverick, the creative daredevil, the one willing and eager to take risks that brings growth and invention and progression to a society. Therefore, when no one gets "left behind," everyone suffers because intellectual leadership is repressed because mediocrity must be enforced.

Diana Moon Glampers is the Handicapper General who enforces equality even to the point of violence. Her loaded shotgun is symbolic of the abnegation of truth, beauty, grace, and wisdom. For, when Harrison breaks out of prison and destroys his handicaps, he and a beautiful ballerina leap "in an explosion of joy and grace," but Diana Moon Glampers loads her shotgun and orders the musicians to replace their handicaps. Then, the Handicapper General shoots the rebels, sacrificing the individuals for the sake of equality. "There was the sound of riveting gun in his [George's] head" is all that the father knows of what has happened to his son, while Hazel only realizes that "something sad" has happened.

Ignorance as a Norm

In the effort to make everyone intellectually equal, the intelligent are made to wear handicaps and those without become the average. Hazel Bergeron wears no handicaps, but she is simple-minded and can remember nothing. When the television announcer cannot even enunciate well enough to read an announcement, Hazel says, 

"That's all right--...he tried.  That's the big thing. He tried to do the best he could with what God gave him. He should get a nice raise for trying so hard."

Thus, the mediocre are praised and the intelligent are punished. (It is interesting that Hazel's words written in 1968 are now familiar as many excuse themselves with "I tried." )