What is the setting of "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The setting of Kurt Vonnegut's story entitled "Harrison Bergeron" is a futuristic America in the year 2081. In this society, new Constitutional Amendments have been passed to enforce the equality of everyone. Agents enforce the laws that make mediocrity mandatory. In this way, everyone is the same.

Those who are naturally mediocre are the most fortunate because they do not have to wear any handicaps. Among this group, Diane Moon Glampers has been appointed the Handicapper General.  She enforces the mandatory wearing of handicaps by those who are smarter or more talented than others. George and his son, Harrison, are among those forced to wear heavy handicaps. When they have independent thoughts, such ideas are immediately removed by the transmission of noises sent through their mental-handicap radio. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter sends out a piercing noise, such as the sound of a riveting gun so that they lose their thoughts.

The narrative of "Harrison Bergeron" depicts a society set in a time in which there are no longer any civil rights, and technology desensitizes people. When Harrison, "a genius and an athlete," escapes from prison, he enters the setting of the television station viewed by citizens of his society. There, he attempts a coup as he declares himself emperor. He then takes a beautiful ballerina, who has been dancing with others, frees her of her handicaps, and claims her as his Empress. However, it is not long before Ms. Glampers ends the rebellion. With a double-barreled shotgun, she shoots the Empress and the Emperor. Then, after reloading, Ms. Glampers points this gun at the musicians who have taken off their handicaps. She then orders them to replace the handicaps on themselves, putting an end to any civil disobedience.

When the invasion of the broadcasting station by Harrison occurs, George Bergeron is away from the television in his home. His wife Hazel has watched, though, and she has seen Harrison on the screen. However, by the time George returns, she has forgotten why she is crying. Consequently, George does not learn of the fate of his son.

Of the two elements of setting (time and place) in Vonnegut's story, time is the more important one. In the year 2081, individual rights have been lost; mediocrity is the law. Bizarre handicaps such as bags of birdshot are worn around the neck; masks are worn by people who are more physically gifted than others. Mental-handicap radio signals send charges to the brain, shifting thoughts and ensuring mental mediocrity. Individual rights have been stripped from the citizens by Amendments to the Constitution and by the use of technology. 

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The first line of "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut gives readers the most important details about the setting of this story:

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.

Immediately we know that this story is set in the distant future, in a place where everyone is now equal. 

As the story continues, we have two specific settings. The first is Harrison Bergeron's house and the second is a television studio, and they are connected. Harrison is doomed for trouble because, even at the age of fourteen, he is far beyond others in most ways, and the government has run out of ways to try to equalize (lower) him to the same abilities and skills as everyone else.

As Harrison's parents are sitting and watching the television, they see a news bulletin that announces Harrison's break from jail. Soon the news shows Harrison breaking down the door to the television studio, which is the only other setting for the story. 

What the house and the television studio actually look like is unimportant; what is important is that both exist. Obviously the most significant aspect of setting for this story is not place but time and mood; the place is the future and the mood is a time when an oppressive government tries to make everyone equal.