Conditions in Society

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In his Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s Kurt Vonnegut reflected on a 1983 speech he gave at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City:

American TV, operating in the Free Market of Ideas ... was holding audiences with simulations of one of the two things most human beings, and especially young ones, can't help watching when given the opportunity: murder. TV, and of course movies, too, were and still are making us as callous about killing and death as Hitler's propaganda made the German people during the frenzied prelude to the death camps and World War II.... What I should have said from the pulpit was that we weren't going to Hell. We were in Hell, thanks to technology which was telling us what to do, instead of the other way around. And it wasn't just TV.

With these words, Vonnegut reminds us of his 1961 story ‘‘Harrison Bergeron,’’ particularly its use of television, which desensitized Hazel Bergeron, Harrison's mother, to the murder of her own son, which she witnesses while watching television. True, she sheds tears over what she sees, but she has become so numbed by watching television that she cannot remember why she is crying. Robert Uphaus, in his 1975 essay, ‘‘Expected Meaning in Vonnegut's Dead-End Fiction,’’ pointed out that ‘‘The history of mankind, Vonnegut implies in the story, is a history of progressive desensitization partly spurred on by the advent of television.’’

No doubt, Vonnegut—either while writing the story or after sending it for publication—heard about Newton Minow's famous 1961 speech about television programming, called "The Vast Wasteland’’ [Reprinted in The Annals of America, Vol. 18, 1961-1968: The Burdens of World Power]. Minow specifically mentioned violence as a contributor to this wasteland when he listed what a viewer of television would see in a typical day:

game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials—many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And, most of all, boredom.

Near the end of the speech, talking about programming, Minow pleaded for ‘‘imagination ... not sterility; creativity, not imitation; experimentation, not conformity; excellence, not mediocrity.’’ He added, "The power of instantaneous sight and sound is without precedent in mankind's history. This is an awesome power. It has limitless capabilities for good—and for evil.’’

In ‘‘Harrison Bergeron,’’ Vonnegut uses some of the same ideas when he portrays television as a kind of desensitizing, numbing, and clearly thought-stifling, rather than thought-provoking, medium. When Harrison goes not to the seat of government to start his revolution but instead to the television station, Vonnegut illustrates that "awesome power’’ Minow describes in his speech. Harrison's power to reach the people and make a new reality (declaring himself emperor), Vonnegut agrees, stems from controlling television. Clearly, the government, in the form of the Handicapper General, also understands that power.

While it would be facile to blame television completely for the condition of society in the story, the negative consequences of television, such as encouraging people to not think, form a basis for the rest of the story. The ratification of ludicrously absurd amendments to the constitution requiring a "Big Sister'' (United States Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers) to monitor the population vigilantly for compliance, effectively creating a police state which ruthlessly enforces the laws, probably results from an uninformed and frightened population. We could see television as a first cause, even though several other causes for the social and political setting of...

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the story likely contributed directly to the ignorance and fear. These causes include an absurd extension of efforts to ensure equality of opportunity to various people formerly excluded from such opportunity either by law or by custom. In other words, sincere efforts to promote equal opportunity by otherwise well-intentioned people could serve as a different kind of opportunity, one that unprincipled politicians or power brokers could exploit by making the victims into the criminals, or into socially unacceptable monsters to be feared by the rest of the population. Another contributory cause points to excesses of unbridled and unethical competition, a kind of social Darwinism.

Most readers of ‘‘Harrison Bergeron’’ fasten on the first paragraph's announcement that everybody was ‘‘equal every which way,’’ which piques interest since perceptive readers know that people, in fact, are unequal. The story quickly clarifies both the origin of this equality (Amendments to the Constitution) and the ways people have become ‘‘equal’’: everybody above normal in any way has been required to bear handicaps of astonishingly low technology for such a futuristic story. If one is physically strong, he or she must wear weights to negate that strength. If one is intelligent, he or she must wear a mental handicap radio that emits a ‘‘sharp noise’’ (for example, an auto collision, a siren, a twenty-one gun salute) three times a minute. If one is physically attractive, he or she must wear a mask or some other disfiguring apparatus (for Harrison, a red rubber nose, black caps on his teeth at "snaggle-tooth random,'' and shaved-off eyebrows hinder his good looks). Perceptive readers see through this illusion: if everyone were equal in every which way, the various handicaps would not be necessary. Conversely, the story remains silent about the fate of those unfortunates who fall below normal. No attempt is made to elevate them to normal or average surfaces, nor is an attempt in the near future. As Martha Meek pointed out in Critical Survey of Short Fiction (1993), ‘‘The reader is suddenly aware that the idea of equality has been made an instrument of social control’’ after Diana Moon Glampers kills Harrison. Readers also respond incredulously by asking how something like this scheme could happen in America. Vonnegut answered this question in a 1973 address to the international writers' organization P. E. N: "If tyranny comes to my country, which is an old one now, (and tyranny can come anywhere, anytime, as nearly as I can tell), I expect to go on writing whatever I please ... as long as what I write is fiction.'' That same year, speaking at the dedication of the Wheaton (Illinois) College library, he defined a library as ‘‘the memory of mankind. It reminds us that all human beings are to a certain extent impure. To put it another way: All human beings are to some extent greedy and cruel'' (both speeches are reprinted in Wampeters, Foma, & Granfalloons). In 1979, speaking about Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court at the one-hundredth anniversary of the completion of Twain's house in Connecticut, Vonnegut went further: "I suggest to you that the fatal premise of A Connecticut Yankee remains a chief premise of Western civilization ... to wit: the sanest, most likeable persons, employing superior technology, will enforce sanity throughout the world'' (reprinted in Palm Sunday). We could argue that Vonnegut uses ironic inversion in "Harrison Bergeron''; insane persons enforce the insanity described as equality in the story.

Vonnegut's reference to Adolf Hitler in the speech at St. John's ironically uses a twentieth-century instance of elected officials gradually turning a nation into a tyrannical dictatorship, in part by scapegoating and demonizing the Jews. In ‘‘Harrison Bergeron,’’ a twenty-first century America enacts Amendments to the Constitution that scapegoat or demonize inequality, regardless of its origin. Americans, in general, do not want to admit that such a government could be in power. But Vonnegut has spoken, indirectly, about this aspect of the story. In a graduation speech at the University of Rhode Island in 1990, titled "Do Not Be Cynical about the American Experiment, Since It Has Only Now Begun,’’ (reprinted in Fates Worse Than Death) he avowed, ‘‘The most extraordinary change in this country since I was a boy is the decline of racism. Believe me, it could very easily be brought back to full strength again by demagogues.’’ Ironically, Vonnegut adds that the minorities, "with guts and great dignity ... coupled with the promises of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution,’’ brought about the change in racist attitudes.

Lest readers think that Vonnegut endorses by satire a continuation of the status quo ante (or current conditions) in relation to equality, that is, legal and customary inequality, he has commented publicly that he learned social equality through his attendance at public schools of Indianapolis. Later in life, he endorsed legal equal opportunity on at least two different occasions. In the University of Rhode Island graduation address, Vonnegut talked about slavery as a social disease unrecognized for the first one hundred years of American history. Toward the end of the speech, after criticizing Thomas Jefferson and other slave owners who proclaimed America as a beacon of liberty, he declared, "only in my lifetime has there been any serious talk of giving women and racial minorities anything like economic, legal, and social equality. Let liberty be born at last.’’ Vonnegut leaves little doubt about his stance on this issue. Earlier, in a 1988 piece for Lear's magazine, he wrote, ‘‘But I find uncritical respect for most works by great thinkers of long ago unpleasant, because they almost all accepted as natural and ordinary the belief that females and minority races and the poor were on earth to be uncomplaining, hardworking, respectful, and loyal servants of white males.’’ In that same piece, he mentions going to a luncheon for a Soviet filmmakers' union official and talking about glasnost (the term for attempts made in the Soviet Union to openly discuss their social problems, a practice which had been taboo since the 1920s). He added, ‘‘Our country has a glasnost experiment going on, too, of course. It consists of making women and racial minorities the equals of white males, in terms of both the civility and respect to be accorded them and their rights under the law.’’

And what of the ‘‘dark ages’’ of unbridled competition? Does Vonnegut agree that competition should be retired in the name and practice of total equality? In various interviews and other non-fiction writing, Vonnegut has shown a disdain for social Darwinism, the theory that individuals or groups achieve advantage over others as the result of genetic or biological superiority. Darwin's theory, in shorthand, survival of the fittest, says that species (not individuals or social groups) adapt to their environment and evolve in order to survive. Those species which do not adapt and evolve become extinct. Social Darwinism says, in essence, that only the best people deserve to survive and thrive. In the 1973 Playboy magazine interview, Vonnegut sharply rebukes social Darwinism:

I'm not very grateful for Darwin, although I suspect he was right. His ideas make people crueler. Darwinism says to them that people who get sick deserve to be sick, that people who are in trouble must deserve to be in trouble. When anybody dies, cruel Darwinists imagine we're obviously improving ourselves in some way. And any man who's on top is there because he's a superior animal. That's the social Darwinism of the last century, and it continues to boom.

So, Vonnegut clearly decries the kind of competition related to social Darwinism. Vonnegut has championed a free market of ideas and has fought censorship against his own books, and for writers in other countries whose works are suppressed by their governments. As a writer competing in the marketplace of ideas, he has done fairly well, even though he does not believe he has received fair critical treatment during his later years. In essence, he has complained that critics expect writers always to write their best; they cannot be allowed to write a bad or even mediocre book.

Kurt Vonnegut gives the reader of ‘‘Harrison Bergeron’’ a futuristic United States of America in which minds have been so softened or desensitized by television and other forces (fear of enemies) that the people give up their individual rights and aspirations, presumably for the good of the whole society. Sadly, this sacrifice of the individual to the good of society does not improve conditions for the above average, the average, or the below average citizens (who seem to have disappeared, perhaps eliminated?). Instead, in the resulting power vacuum, a ruthless central government created by legislation controls people's lives, which have become as meaningless as if they were machines or automatons. As Stanley Schatt claims in Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., ‘‘what really is lost’’ in such a process ‘‘is beauty, grace, and wisdom.’’

Source: Joseph Alvarez, ‘‘An Overview of 'Harrison Bergeron',’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999. Alvarez is an instructor in the English and Foreign Languages department at Central Piedmont Community College in North Carolina.

An Overview of "Harrison Bergeron"

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Kurt Vonnegut is a contemporary American writer best known for his satirical novels. His experiences during World War II, and then as an employee at General Electric, caused him to question many of the power structures in the United States: the government, corporations, the military, and bureaucracies in general. He was most concerned with situations in which the individual was a victim of oppression, and any society that reduced the individual to a mere number, or that limited the individual's opportunities to improve. Vonnegut did not believe that everyone could be better, but that everyone should have the opportunity to try. Therefore, he reacted against any form of suppression that prevented anyone from trying.

As he began his writing career, he might have taken one of two approaches to bring these concerns to the public. He could have chosen to be didactic, lecturing on the ills of society, preaching sermons or writing editorials for newspapers. Instead, he chose another route as his mode of expression: satire.

Satire is a special form of literature that seeks to expose foolish ideas and customs in a society. Satire does not lecture; instead, it exaggerates a part of society and lets the readers decide what to do about it, if anything. Most of the time, satire is witty; sometimes it is subtle; at other times it is blunt. In any case, the satiric writer's task is to ridicule an object, an idea, or a custom, in order to show what the writer thinks is wrong with it. Even though the satire may seem silly or ridiculous, it is not frivolous. The short story, ‘‘Harrison Bergeron,’’ may look inconsequential, but Vonnegut's real point is a serious attack on the idea of enforced equality.

Some of the world's best authors were satirists: Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, George Orwell, Mark Twain. Many current TV hit shows are satiric: Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, Wayans Brothers, and Mark Russell's PBS Specials. Editorial cartoons are also fine examples of satire. All of these have a common purpose: to expose the weaknesses of some part of society in amusing ways.

The Declaration of Independence says, ‘‘All men are created equal.’’ But what happens if a government or some other power takes that notion literally? Can everyone really be equal to everyone else? Does the idea of "a level playing field'' mean that everyone gets to win, or that no one wins? Kurt Vonnegut has described this kind of society in ‘‘Harrison Bergeron.’’ It was first published in 1961 in Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine and later included in his collection of short stories Welcome to the Monkey House, published in 1968.

As a satirist, Kurt Vonnegut's job is to develop and extend his observations to their most extreme or absurd conclusions, to attack a target and turn it upside down and, as Northrop Frye says [in University of Toronto Quarterly], to ‘‘complete the process known as reductio ad absurdum’’ (to reduce to absurdity). In the late 1950s, Vonnegut saw countries like the USSR espousing a society with no class distinctions. In ‘‘Harrison Bergeron,’’ he creates a society, seemingly American, whose government has gone awry in its attempts to make everyone equal. Some citizens carry extra weights, wear ugly masks, or listen to loud noises in order to ensure that no one can get ahead of anyone else. Therefore, all people are "equal." Even in 1990s some groups and countries still try to equalize everyone. Some religious cults require members to wear similar clothes; the people in power in China often appear in public wearing the same drab clothing.

Vonnegut saw evidence of forced equality around him and believed that it was not good for a country, and certainly not good for an individual. In "Harrison Bergeron,'' the individual is reduced to a common norm: "they were equal every which way.’’ These equalities were determined and enforced by the Handicapper General. Notice, in the story everyone is lowered to meet the H-G's standard, not raised to meet a higher standard. It is ironic that there are no restrictions on the H-G nor on the H-G's operatives. Similarly, in Orwell's Animal Farm, the pigs said, ‘‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’’ In ‘‘Harrison Bergeron,’’ to keep George from being ‘‘more equal’’ than anyone else, he is required to wear an ear piece to keep him from developing sequential thoughts. He also wears added weights to keep him from being above average in his physical abilities. This is similar to some horse races that make older horses carry more weight than younger horses. These provisions are intended to make the races more competitive, or more equal.

George and Hazel's son, Harrison, is a special case. He is much more intelligent, more physically capable, and better looking than the rest of society, and even though he is only 14, he is imprisoned as a threat. But he breaks out, removes his handicaps, and, for a brief moment, shows his individuality. He calls on a dancer to join him, and together they soar. Since no one is allowed to look more beautiful or be more physically adept than someone else, or to think new thoughts, the H-G enters and literally shoots down Harrison and the dancer, on live TV. According to Stanley Schatt [in Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.], when the H-G kills Harrison and the Empress, their deaths are symbolic of the death of ‘‘beauty, grace, and wisdom,’’ the three characteristics that are the object of the H-G's control over society.

The Handicapper General then threatens the musicians with death unless they return to their "normal" handicapped status. The 2081 society's norm is enforced by violence and through the threat of violence. In the story, Vonnegut does not specifically ask the reader to agree or disagree with the point that equality through violence is not equality at all. The reader must come to his or her own conclusion.

For satire to succeed, the characters must be believable. Even though the characters may be the victims of silliness, oppression, or some other indignity, the reader must be able to identify with them in some manner. If they are not believable, then the satire will fail.

And Vonnegut is a master of satire. In "Harrison Bergeron,'' the simple folksy dialogue between George and Hazel is especially effective. In these exchanges, Vonnegut lets his characters say things in understated ways, for example: ‘‘That was a doozy.’’ Or, after George winces at another sound in his ear, and Hazel asks what the sound was like, he says, ‘‘Sounded like somebody hitting a milk bottle with a ball peen hammer.’’ These quiet conversations are simple and believable, in direct contrast to the noise blasting away every 20 seconds. Vonnegut does not have to say that this is absurd; the reader can feel this without having it pointed out.

It is important to note that in Kurt Vonnegut's satire, most of the characters are sympathetic and likable, even though what is done to them is not. Hazel and George are symbols of good people. They obey the laws and they try to live their "equal" lives without complaining. Hazel is a quiet, docile woman, who meets the criteria set by the H-G for equality without any added handicaps. Despite her ‘‘perfectly average intelligence’’ and physical attributes, she reveals an innate individuality. She believes that the TV announcer ought to get a raise "because he tried to do the best he could.’’

However, the most revealing part of her comment is the conclusion: ‘‘... with what God gave him.’’ In this society, it is the H-G's job to neutralize the natural attributes that every citizen was given by God. Here, Hazel reveals her appreciation for the individuality of others. She also shows a religious appreciation that seems to be missing elsewhere in the society. She would "have chimes on Sunday—just chimes. Kind of in honor of religion'' transmitted through the ear radio. Her intentions to honor religion and to revere God for giving the announcer his talents, reveal her religious leanings. Hazel also shows an empathy towards others' misfortunes, as we see in the very last scene. Even though she does not remember that her son had just been killed, she still cries about "something real sad on television.’’ Hazel's feelings ought to be a continued, placid satisfaction that all is well. But deep within her the sympathetic individual cannot be stifled.

Her husband, George, is a thinker and has physical attributes that the H-G has decided to "equalize." But even in the face of governmental oppression, George has thoughts that are above average. These are interrupted by the noises in his ear, but they occur anyway. He thinks that the ballerinas ought not be carrying weights around their necks. George also shows a sympathetic side when he asks Hazel what she was crying about. George is a practical man, who would rather endure the indignity of his "handicaps" than suffer the consequences of tampering with them. He has adapted to the weights. "I don't notice it any more. It's just a part of me.'' He accepts the laws.

An interesting aspect of George's character is his memory. His short-term memory is disrupted every twenty seconds. "If Hazel hadn't been able to come up with an answer to this question, George couldn't have supplied one. A siren was going off in his head.'' He forgot his question. But as he watched TV, his long-term memory told him that Harrison was the cause of the shaking when "he correctly identified the earthquake,’’ caused by Harrison's footsteps. But George is unable to maintain the connection between these two memory patterns. Therefore he remains content to endure the H-G's treatments.

Harrison shows us that the individual can overcome the oppression of the Handicapper General. He is arrested for his exuberant individuality. He is good looking, an athlete, and a genius: the "beauty, grace and wisdom'' described by Schatt. His crime is a conspiracy to overthrow the government, according to the announcement. But we can see that his real "crime" is being a gifted individual. In his brief moments of freedom, he not only transcends the laws of the country but also "the law of gravity and the laws of motion.’’ Unlike his father, he is unwilling to suffer the indignities of the H-G's handicaps. He escapes the oppression of the handicaps he was forced to wear and for his troubles he is shot down and killed. In this scene, Vonnegut shows the reader that even the most oppressive rule cannot totally stifle excellence and individuality.

In the 2081 society, the Handicapper General rules with an iron fist: "Two years in prison and two thousand dollars fine for every ball I took out'' or being shot to death, people would not obey, but ‘‘start cheating on the laws." "And pretty soon we'd be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else.’’ Even George and Hazel recognize that the individual would rise up at the first lapse in governmental controls.

At the end of the story, Kurt Vonnegut implies that there is no government capable of suppressing the individual completely. The inner strength of human nature at its finest is more powerful than ill-conceived laws, and the H-G's rules and guns. However, he leaves unsaid whether or not standing up to an oppressive government is worth losing one's life. This conclusion is left for the reader to decide.

Source: Carl Mowery, ‘‘An Overview of 'Harrison Bergeron',’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999. Mowery has taught at Southern Illinois University and Murray State University.

Vonnegut's Satire

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From the beginning of his professional writing career, Vonnegut evinced a strong inclination to write satire. Stories such as ‘‘Harrison Bergeron,’’ ‘‘Report on the Barnhouse Effect," "The Euphio Question,’' ‘'Welcome to the Monkey House,'' and his first novel, Player Piano, fit easily and recognizably into the satiric genre. That is, they (1) sustain a reductive attack on their objects, (2) convey to their intended readers significances at odds with the literal or surface meanings, and (3) are pervaded and dominated by various satiric techniques. Furthermore, the satiric objects in those works are easily identifiable and familiar, and their satiric significances are obvious. Judged solely on his early fiction, Vonnegut emerges as a somewhat traditional satirist. Were he to have continued writing in that way, we all would have joined hands long ago to slam down the lid on his box.

The early satire is primarily concerned with the evils of technology and the follies of the American way of life, but, beginning with the second novel, Vonnegut broadens his field of attention to issues of a more cosmic dimension, such as the question of the meaning of life. Also, the satire in his work becomes less apparent: as a consequence, the reader's attention is focused more steadily on the fiction. Yet, while his style and form and fiction are more imaginative creations, while his work manifests so much growth and development in technique and thought, it fails to satisfy certain expectations of consistency of idea, and it fails to yield a comprehensive unambiguous interpretation...

Source: Conrad Festa, ‘‘Vonnegut's Satire,’’ in Vonnegut in America: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Kurt Vonnegut, edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and Donald L. Lawler, Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1977, pp. 133-50.

The Vonnegut Effect: Science Fiction and Beyond

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The same ideas which are treated in the novels appear as well in [Vonnegut's] science-fiction short stories. Such pieces as ‘‘Report on the Barnhouse Effect," "Harrison Bergeron," "Welcome to the Monkey House," "The Euphio Question," "The Manned Missiles," "Epicac," and ‘‘Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow'' all concern themselves repeatedly with technological problems only as those problems express and explicate character—the character of the human race. Vonnegut proves repeatedly, in brief and pointed form, that men and women remain fundamentally the same, no matter what technology surrounds them. The perfect example of this might be found in ‘‘Unready to Wear,’’ in which the shucking off of the physical bodies of men has not changed their basic identities, but only freed them to become more, not less, human. The themes, however, which are treated of necessity in piecemeal manner in the short stories, are pulled together in the novels into a world which becomes more complete and whole as one reads on toward Slaughterhouse-Five. The absurd, alienated nature of the universe is dealt with in each novel, always with some new depth of perception, some new slant; characters from the short stories and the earlier novels find their way into the later works. The same city, Ilium, in upstate New York, remains a central symbol of the twisted future of mankind....

Source: Karen and Charles Wood, ‘‘The Vonnegut Effect: Science Fiction and Beyond,’’ in The Vonnegut Statement, edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer, Dell Publishing Co., 1973, pp. 133-57.


Critical Overview