Themes and Characters
This is a fairly typical story from the early part of Vonnegut's writing career. What critic Conrad Festa says of Vonnegut's writing is particularly true for "Harrison Bergeron": "The early satire is primarily concerned with the evils of technology and the follies of the American way of life."
"The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal," is how the story begins, as told from a limited omniscient, impersonal point of view, more like a camera than a human narrator.
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. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the States Handicapper General.
These equality laws are enforced by agents of the Handicapper General, called H-G men, an allusion to the American slang term from the 1940s and 1950s of referring to Federal Bureau of Investigation and Secret Service officers as G-men, the G standing for government.
People are told they are made equal by handicapping devices which bring them down to the normalcy level in the story, which is actually below-average in intelligence, strength, and ability. These devices include weights to stunt speed and strength; masks, red rubber clown noses, or thick glasses to hide good looks and to make seeing difficult; and radio transmitters implanted in the ears of intelligent people, which emit a variety of sharp noises three times a minute to prevent sustained thought. The stated intent is so that nobody will have an advantage over anybody else.
Perceptive readers will see through the fallacy: if everyone were truly equal, the various handicaps would not be necessary. The story remains silent about the fate of those who fall below normal, except to say that television announcers all have speech impediments. There are no "equalizing" attempts to elevate anyone to normal or average.
Although he is only fourteen years old, the title character, Harrison Bergeron, stands seven feet tall and is an athlete who bears heavier handicaps and more grotesque masking devices than anyone else. He is so intelligent that, at the beginning of the story, the Handicapper General has Harrison arrested "on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government."
That is exactly what Harrison tries to do when he escapes from custody. But instead of going to the Legislature, he goes to the television station to publicly declare himself Emperor. He selects a ballerina as his Empress, not a social leader; and rather than going out into the world to free the oppressed, the two dance on camera. "Neutralizing gravity with love and pure will," the couple leaps high enough to kiss the ceiling and float there in mid-air, kissing each other. They remain suspended until Diana Moon Glampers, the United States Handicapper General, enters the television studio and blasts the couple out of the air with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun.
Harrison's actions suggest that power does indeed corrupt, or at least, ability does. Upon...
(The entire section is 1324 words.)