By the year 2081, the search for true equality of all U.S. citizens has led to the creation of scores of amendments to the Constitution. In every case, the effort has not been to raise the standards of those handicapped by their differences or inadequacies. Instead, those who are gifted with superior intellect, physical beauty, or strength are penalized.
Those who are beautiful must wear hideous masks, intelligent people must wear headsets that jangle their brains and nerves with a series of loud, annoying sounds, and those with physical agility or strength must carry sacks of birdshot to weigh them down. Thus, in the race of life, all Americans are handicapped so that no one must ever feel ugly, stupid, or “like something the cat dragged in.”
Diana Moon Glampers is the Handicapper General, whose job is to track down violators of the law and rid society of those who menace the average, the inadequate, the mediocre. If a man wants to rest from the drudgery of carting around fifty pounds of birdshot by removing some pellets, he can be killed. Those, such as Harrison Bergeron, who learn to overcome their handicaps are forced to shoulder ever larger burdens, or noisier apparatus, or face incarceration or execution.
Society has become so repressive that no one dares question the increasing numbers of new laws that call for more handicaps and punishments. All those who oppose the Handicapper General are arrested, thrown into mental institutions, or shot because they threaten the fabric of society. The effects of these governmental policies are appalling. Society is stagnant because those smart enough to develop new technology, medicine, and literature have been permanently handicapped, exiled, or killed.
Television announcers have speech impediments, dancers cannot dance, musicians are tone deaf, and families lose all purpose, continuity, compassion, and love. A good example of this is Harrison Bergeron’s story. Harrison escapes from an asylum that was meant to protect society from him. Fourteen years old and already seven feet tall, he is the handsomest young man possible, and possesses an intellect that would stagger even Albert Einstein. George and Hazel, his parents, are aware of his exploits from reports on television. Harrison threatens the regime, for he would remove all artificial handicaps and enable people to achieve beyond the limits set by their inadequacies.
Instead of attempting to rally support to overthrow the government and create a better society, Harrison merely breaks into a television studio, disrupting the musical show by removing everyone’s masks and handicaps. Choosing the most beautiful of the dancers, he dances higher and higher as the musicians play brilliantly. As the couple leap, they appear to fly in the air as they kiss the ceiling—this is freedom! The sound of two shotgun blasts signals that Harrison and the ballerina have been shot down by the Handicapper General.
Harrison’s parents witness the entire affair on their television, but when George goes to the kitchen for something and Hazel gets sidetracked, neither can remember why they are crying—something sad on television, no doubt.