Commentary

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Last Updated on February 16, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 365

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.

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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 Instead of improving machines to make life easier, Harrison’s society—and thus ours—relies on outdated, nineteenth century tools to encumber the superior members of his culture to prevent either growth or experimentation.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.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on December 11, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1089

Setting

Setting the story 120 years in the future allows readers to more easily accept some of the more absurd events in ‘‘Harrison Bergeron.’’ The actual physical location of the story does not matter and, therefore, is unknown. One glaring anachronism—a concept or an object not known or invented at the time of the story; or an object that belongs to a previous era—should be noted: the use of a shotgun. Readers might expect that some exotic form of weaponry would have been developed and used that far into the future. Similarly, the idea that 213 Amendments to the Constitution would have been ratified predicts a radical change in American legislation. At the time the story was written, only twenty-four amendments had been passed by the Congress and ratified by the states, the first ten of which (known as the Bill of Rights) became law in 1791. In the 170 years between 1791 and the time the story was written, only fourteen additional amendments had been ratified. Ironically, the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments of the story restrict the civil rights of most people, as opposed to the amendments over the first two hundred years of the nation.

Point of View

The story is told in the third-person-limited point of view; the narrator is not a character in the story, but he is privy to the thoughts of one character. Readers are allowed to know what George Bergeron is thinking, as when he "was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn't be handicapped.'' The events in "Harrison Bergeron'' are related by an objective narrator. The narrator does not draw conclusions, make decisions, or make judgments about the events. The objectivity of the narrator suggests a distancing from the hostile world of the story.

Satire and Black Humor

The story uses satire and a kind of humor known as black humor. The humor mostly involves George and Hazel, although the appearance of Harrison (red rubber nose, artificially snaggle-toothed, three hundred pounds of handicaps) can be seen as comical. George and Hazel's dialogue at the end of the story alludes to comics George Burns and Gracie Allen, who had a popular television show in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At the end of each show, George and Gracie performed a stand-up routine related to that night's episode. Often, George would say to Gracie, ‘‘You can say that again,’’ and she would reply the same way Hazel replies to George Bergeron: She would literally repeat what she had just said. Gracie Allen's comic persona mirrors Hazel's persona; both seem somewhat scatterbrained. The humorous dialogue between Hazel and George Bergeron could be considered black humor, which has proved difficult to define. Related to both sick humor (making fun of, say, a person's disability) and gallows humor (people laughing in the midst of helplessness), as well as the absurd (so far-fetched as to be nearly implausible), black humor can incorporate all of these characteristics. It can be defined as the juxtaposition of pain and laughter, unusual fact and calmly inadequate reactions, and cruelty and tenderness. The ending dialogue between Hazel and George juxtaposes all three of those pairs, as Hazel and George have just witnessed the killing of their son. Satire, ridiculing a person, place, or idea with the notion of effecting change, always involves morality. Here, Vonnegut satirizes the notion of handicapping people to enforce equality, the failure of rebellion, the apathy engendered in people who watch television, and authoritarian government. As Conrad Festa claims in Vonnegut in America,

Stories such as ‘‘Harrison Bergeron’’ ... 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.

Allusion

Vonnegut uses several allusions—references to people, historical events, and other literature outside the text—in ‘‘Harrison Bergeron.’’ The month of April, which ‘‘still drove people crazy by not being springtime,’’ is doubly allusive, initially referring to the first line of T. S. Eliot's 1922 poem, "The Waste Land": "April is the cruelest month....’’ The second allusion derived from April stems from the first: the title of the poem also serves in part as the title of a 1961 speech by then Federal Communications Commission Chair Newton Minow, referring to television as "a vast wasteland.'' The abbreviation of the Handicapper-General agents, "H-G men,’’ ironically alludes to the abbreviation ‘‘G-men’’ (for government agents; i.e., Secret Service agents, FBI agents). Generally, these government agents were held in high esteem, unlike the H-G men, until the 1960s and 1970s, when their activities came into legal and ethical question. The allusion of Diana Moon, the Handicapper General's first and middle names, refers to the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana, who is associated with the moon. Diana was known for her vengeance, which could explain the ruthless killing of Harrison Bergeron in the story. Thor, identified in the story as the god of thunder, was, in Norse mythology, the oldest and most powerful son of Odin, king of the gods. He possessed great strength and skill in fighting. This allusion serves to underscore Harrison's strength without his handicaps. There is an indirect reference to cartoonist Rube Goldberg, which highlights the absurdity of the handicapping technology, especially for such a futuristic story. Rube Goldberg's cartoons generally depicted elaborate schemes to accomplish the simplest tasks. For instance, instead of an alarm clock, Goldberg might construct a chain of events from the sun reflecting light onto a bird, which might then peck at a string, which would then release a bowling ball that would trip a lever, opening a door to a rooster cage, allowing the rooster to emerge and signal an alarm with his crowing. The more complex these mechanisms are, the funnier. Thus, the various handicaps described in the story seem much like Rube Goldberg cartoons, and seem humorous to readers who recognize the allusion. The final allusion is to the comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen, and to their television show. The dialogue at the end of the story reflects similar dialogues at the end of the "Burns and Allen’’ television show. Gracie, who played a scatterbrain, would indeed repeat lines when George used the phrase, ‘‘You can say that again,’’ just as Hazel Bergeron does in the story. Television's role in the story is to numb, desensitize, or otherwise occupy the time of citizens, and to prevent sustained thought on the part of those of normal intelligence.

Literary Qualities

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 649

"I always had trouble ending short stories in ways that would satisfy a general public," Vonnegut notes in Timequake. "In real life . . . people don't change, don't learn anything from their mistakes, and don't apologize. In a short story they have to do at least two out of three of those things, or you might as well throw it away." Vonnegut admits he could handle that much. "But after I had a character change and/or learn something and/or apologize, that left the cast standing around with their thumbs up their asses. That is no way to tell a reader the show is over." In his salad days (youthful indiscretions—heyday), Vonnegut sought the advice of his then literary agent as to how to end stories without killing all the characters, and was told that nothing could be simpler. "The hero mounts his horse and rides off into the sunset." This story, "Harrison Bergeron", is clearly one of the ones where the author was willing to kill off a few characters.

Any cursory study of Vonnegut's fiction will reveal that the author starts and stops his stories in media res, that is, in the middle of things, with little or no attention paid to such literary devices as introductions, denouements, character development, or foreshadowing. This story is no exception. Vonnegut does not show the readers his characters and let the audience learn what they do in their world. Instead, he flat-out tells readers everything up front, in words of one and two syllables whenever possible.

"From the beginning of his professional writing career, Vonnegut demonstrated a strong inclination to write satire," says critic Conrad Festa in Vonnegut in America. "Stories such as 'Harrison Bergeron' [and others] fit easily and recognizably into the satiric genre.... 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," Festa concludes. "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." While it is difficult to call Vonnegut's later writing more sophisticated, his later use of satire is certainly even less traditional than in this story.

When this story first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, it was Vonnegut's third publication in a science fiction magazine following the drying up of the once-lucrative weekly family magazine market where he had published more than twenty stories between 1950 and 1961. The story received no critical attention, however, until 1968 when it appeared in Vonnegut's collection Welcome to the Monkey House. Initial reviews of the collection were less than favorable, with even the more positive reviewers commenting negatively on the commercial quality of many of the stories.

By the late 1980s, however, "Harrison Bergeron" was being reprinted in high school and college literature anthologies. "Popular aspects of the story include Vonnegut's satire of both enforced equality and the power of the Handicapper General, and the enervating effect television can have on viewers," says Joseph Alvarez. According to him, this futuristic story deals with "universal themes of equality, freedom, power and its abuses, and media influence," and "continues to evoke thoughtful responses about equality and individual freedom in the United States." He also suggests that "Harrison Bergeron" likely draws upon a controversial 1961 speech by then Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow titled "The Vast Wasteland," a reference to a supposed dearth of quality in television programming.

Vonnegut rarely wrote short stories after the 1960s, preferring to write novels which brought him more income. "I still think up short stories from time to time, as though there were money in it. The habit dies hard," Vonnegut commented in Timequake. "All I do with short story ideas now is rough them out, credit them to Kilgore Trout, and put them in a novel."

Setting

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 283

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 published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or 1968, when it appeared in the collection Welcome to the Monkey House. In this story there are television shows with stars much like George Burns and Gracie Allen, there is striving for social equality, and there is sufficient leisure time for ordinary working folk to watch television from the comfort of their own homes. But the television shows are populated by dancers and musicians and announcers aggressively equalized by handicaps such as heavy weights, ugly masks, and noise-making hearing aids, as is one of the two viewpoint characters, George.

The frightening extent to which the Handicapper General goes to maintain this crippling version of "equality" makes the story seem at first to be set in a fantasy world, or an alternate reality. But if one is aware that the author is an international traveler who has spent time in American public schools and universities, in the army, and in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, and has conversed with Nazis, Biafrans, Communists, and his Cape Cod neighbor, all on their own home turf, the Handicapper General's final solution is possibly the least unrealistic element in the story.

Far more unreal is the way Harrison's parents immediately forget why they are sad, and the sound of a riveting gun in George's ear-radio leads them into a verbal exchange echoing comic lines popularized by comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen, from the closing dialogue of their television show. The simultaneous familiarity and inappropriateness of the dialogue make this story an unsettling experience for the reader.

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