Harrison Bergeron Analysis

  • "Harrison Bergeron" is a dystopian short story. Set in 2081, it imagines a future in which society has become so focused on "equality" that it has resorted to cruelty in order to level the playing field for those with "normal" or unextraordinary abilities.
  • Kurt Vonnegut is best known as a science-fiction writer, and "Harrison Bergeron" is a good example of that. Vonnegut's style mixes elements of satire with the traditional tropes of science fiction to create an absurd story with an important message.
  • "Harrison Bergeron" is also notable for the way it depicts the United States government. In Harrison's world, the Constitution has been amended and twisted in order to justify the use of deadly force against innocent citizens. Though the story may seem outlandish at first, it is in fact a powerful example of how well-intentioned policies can have disastrous consequences. 

Analysis

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Since writing his earliest stories, Vonnegut has been called a science fiction writer, a term, he says, that for many people is another word for a bathroom receptacle. Although there are elements of science fiction in his stories, he is more clearly a fantasist—one who creates a believable but purely imaginary world such as one finds in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). He frequently resorts to dystopias (negative views of the future) to comment on modern society.

His style here is straightforward and matter-of-fact, as if he were sharing a story with his fishing buddies. Vonnegut does not interfere with the narration of this story to wink at the reader, implying that it is all a joke. Here, as in other stories and novels, Vonnegut appears to be a serious writer who uses the trappings of a futuristic science fiction world to entertain readers while he “poisons our minds with humanity.”

The story’s narrator never passes judgment on the words or deeds of the characters. Instead, his description of those actions becomes increasingly unbelievable. For example, as Harrison Bergeron and his dance partner dance and leap into the air, they finally manage to kiss the ceiling. Thus Vonnegut shows that Harrison represents someone so alien to his society that he can even defy the laws of gravity by seeming to float as easily as he was able to toss aside his shackles and handicaps.

Vonnegut’s outstanding stylistic trait is his use of black humor—humor that relies on the use of darker, more pessimistic, even depressing views of the absurdities of life. In a century when science and technology have been used to harm rather than help humankind, Vonnegut’s bitter antimachine, antitechnology images clearly reinforce the themes of the story. Instead of improving machines to make life easier, Harrison’s society—and thus ours—relies on outdated, nineteenth century tools to encumber the superior members of his culture to prevent either growth or experimentation. This is Vonnegut’s effort to make readers rethink their comfortable complacency and imagine instead what life would be like in such a world. The irony is that humans already inhabit such a world.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Modern Civil Rights Movement
In the late 1940s progress, albeit in fits and starts, began to occur in the movement toward...

(The entire section is 1176 words.)

Setting

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The story is set in the year 2081, in a middle-America very understandable by contemporary readers of October 1961, when the story was first...

(The entire section is 283 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Setting
Setting the story 120 years in the future allows readers to more easily accept some of the more absurd events in...

(The entire section is 1089 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

"I always had trouble ending short stories in ways that would satisfy a general public," Vonnegut notes in Timequake. "In real life ....

(The entire section is 649 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In his book Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s, Kurt Vonnegut reflected on a 1983 speech he gave at the...

(The entire section is 784 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1964: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. Title VII of the Act establishes The Equal Employment...

(The entire section is 225 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. What is equality? Can you come up with various definitions?

2. Reread the moment of the transcendent kiss between Harrison and...

(The entire section is 180 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. What is "equality" as defined by the American Bill of Rights? By the civil rights movement during the 1960s in America? How do these...

(The entire section is 377 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Research the process by which proposed amendments to the United States Constitution pass Congress and are ratified into law. Based on what...

(The entire section is 166 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The short story "Harrison Bergeron" was adapted for video by Showtime and released on video in 1995. The production starred Sean Astin and...

(The entire section is 65 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

The New Atlantis, Francis Bacon's 1627 version of utopia (an idealized community or state). Bacon conceived of a community of scholars...

(The entire section is 463 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Abel, David. "Vonnegut Redux: Lost Man on Campus." Reprinted in Edmonton Journal Qune 3, 2001): E13. An interview with Vonnegut and...

(The entire section is 356 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Sources
Frye, Northrop, ‘‘The Nature of Satire,’’ in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 14, October, 1944....

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Bibliography

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Kurt Vonnegut. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000.

Boon, Kevin Alexander, ed. At Millennium’s End: New Essays on the Work of Kurt Vonnegut. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Broer, Lawrence. Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989.

Giannone, Richard. Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Kurt Vonnegut. London: Methuen, 1982.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. “Slaughterhouse-Five”: Reforming the Novel and the World. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. The Vonnegut Effect. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Vonnegut in Fact: The Public Spokesmanship of Personal Fiction. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

Klinkowitz, Jerome, and Donald L. Lawler, eds. Vonnegut in America. New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1977.

Klinkowitz, Jerome, and John Sorner, eds. The Vonnegut Statement. New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1973.

Lundquist, James. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1976.

Merrill, Robert, ed. Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.

Morse, Donald E. The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut: Imagining Being an American. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.

Pieratt, Asa B., Julie Huffman-Klinkowitz, and Jerome Klinkowitz. Kurt Vonnegut: A Comprehensive Bibliography. 2d ed. Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String Press, 1987.

Reed, Peter J. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976.

Schatt, Stanley. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Boston: Twayne, 1976.

Tomedi, John. Kurt Vonnegut. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.