Harrison Bergeron Analysis
- Kurt Vonnegut's writing style in "Harrison Bergeron" mixes elements of satire with the traditional tropes of science fiction to craft a scathing critique of government imposition and forced equality. Instead, "Harrison Bergeron" identifies individual exceptionalism as a source of social good.
- "Harrison Bergeron" is 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.
Last Updated September 6, 2023.
In “Harrison Bergeron,” Vonnegut explores the concept of equality through a satirical lens. Although equality is generally understood as a positive ideal, Vonnegut flips the concept on its head, showing the evils of forcing people to be homogenous and thereby denying their individual natures.
One could argue this tale is trying to justify class systems and the enforcement of a subservient class, but upon further analysis, it seems Vonnegut is making an astute point about celebrating differences. Instead of forcing all ballerinas to participate at the same poor level, society should embrace its citizens’ talents and allow them to excel. Instead of weakening the strong, society should celebrate their strength as an inspiration and a challenge to others. But in the Bergerons’ world, competition is considered the greatest form of evil, as George and Hazel indicate in their conversation.
While there is a lack of competition in Vonnegut’s 2081 society, there also seems to be a lack of happiness. Everyone is at the same physical and mental ability level, but that equality is achieved by placing an immense burden on some while leaving others as they are. George must wear weights to hamper his movements, and because he is highly intelligent, he must wear an ear radio that plays thought-shattering noises every twenty seconds. While this puts him at the same cognitive level as his wife, he undergoes far more physical and emotional pain than her to achieve a perceived form of equality. One wonders whether the citizens of this supposedly equal society are happy.
It seems that Hazel, in her ignorance, does seem to find a form of happiness—or perhaps contentment—in conversing with her husband and watching the television. Even when she does have moments of sadness, when prompted to speak about her tears, she can’t recall the cause and moves on from the grief. This cycle of memory loss acts as a balm for Hazel, and thus her natural lack offers her freedom from certain sources of pain. But the story fundamentally frames Hazel’s forgetfulness as a weakness, because it leads to a cyclical, narrow reality.
Vonnegut humorously but poignantly satirizes this cyclicality in the story’s final lines. After Hazel comments on the alarming sound in George’s ear, he replies, “You can say that again.” Hazel takes him literally and repeats: “Gee . . . I could tell that one was a doozy.” This moment illustrates one of Vonnegut’s signature techniques. That is, the juxtaposition of humor, often laced with a particularly American hokeyness, with thematic seriousness. The breezy, colloquial tone of Hazel’s comment stands in tension with the tragedy of the scene.
It seems the point Vonnegut wants to reveal about the human condition is not about the differences between people but rather the way we judge these differences. A harsh judgment of differences—and a resulting harsh view of competition—drives the society to create physical restrictions. But without such differences, individuality and creativity would be negated. We see this exemplified by the musicians who must play averagely and the ballerinas who must all look and dance the same. The eradication of difference is the death of art, a point Vonnegut clearly makes through the killing of Harrison and the unmasked ballerina.
It’s also notable that the leader of the Handicappers is a woman, given that women have been oppressed throughout American history and still fight for equal pay and status. Vonnegut’s choice can be read as a way of giving power to women, or it could be a way to demonstrate that women would abuse offices of power. To dig deeper, consider the other women in the...
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story. Hazel is the only character who shows compassion, as shown in her desire for George to rest and remove some of his handicaps. The ballerina who steps up in rebellion against a world that aims to deny her natural talent and beauty does so with grace and strength. While men are generally considered the dominant group in the real world, in Vonnegut’s tale, we see both men and women becoming rebellious and, conversely, upholding the status quo. In this sense, Vonnegut has arguably offered a genuine depiction of equality in this tale.
The story’s larger point may be that while differences can cause anger, hatred, and even violence, the removal of differences can impact the world in similarly negative ways. It seems Vonnegut’s tale implicitly argues for a balance between the two possibilities, one where equality can exist so that the individual can thrive.