What is the main theme of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s short story "Harrison Bergeron"? What is the theme other than "the danger of total equality"?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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A theme is an underlying idea found all throughout a piece of literature that helps unify the work. A theme is also an idea that's universally applicable, an idea the reader can take away with him/her. The difference between a work's theme and a work's subject is that a subject is merely what the work is about, whereas the writer's opinion can actually be found within the theme.

To say that the major theme in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s short story "Harrison Bergeron" is "the danger of total equality" would most definitely be missing a major point in his short story because equality is never actually achieved in the short story; it's only superficially achieved, so we could never call something that doesn't really exist, like equality, a danger. Instead, Vonnegut's short story is pointing out an ironic truth: no two different groups can be treated fairly at the exact same time; to be fair to one person is to shortchange the other.

Vonnegut is pointing out the dangers of conformity, a danger we've seen all throughout history. For example, in wanting a superior, uniform race of people, the Nazis wanted to eliminate anyone who was different from that race, such as the Jews, the disabled, the homosexual, etc. The characters in Vonnegut's story are trying to do the exact same thing: they are trying to create a uniform majority by eliminating any of the minorities, including the beautiful and the intelligent.

Hence, it can be said that Vonnegut's true theme is the danger of believing equality is the same thing as conformity. To be equal, we do not have to believe that we all have to be exactly the same. What's more, we don't have to limit those who are exceptional or gifted to raise up those who have natural impairments. Only by raising the bar higher do we help those with weaknesses achieve anything beyond their limits. Hence, we can even say that a second main theme is the need to raise standards to help the weaker achieve beyond their limits.

Textual evidence that supports the themes of either the danger of equating equality with conformity or the need to raise standards can be seen in Harrison's actions. When Harrison entered the TV studio, he immediately removed his own handicaps and the handicaps of all who were talented, including the musicians and ballerinas. He then set out to defy all laws, including the laws of gravity and motion, in order to raise standards to show the true meaning of freedom, or as he phrased it, "Now ... shall we show the people the meaning of the word dance?"

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