At a Glance
- "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.
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.
The Modern Civil Rights Movement
In the late 1940s progress, albeit in fits and starts, began to occur in the movement toward full civil rights for African Americans in the United States. Beginning with Jackie Robinson, major league baseball began the process of integration, as did the military in the late 1940s. In the 1954 case known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the United States Supreme Court decided that the doctrine of ‘‘separate but equal’’ facilities set forth in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case no longer held true. A year later, the Supreme Court ordered lower courts to use ‘‘all deliberate speed’’ in desegregating the public schools. In the Deep South, governors, state legislatures, and local school boards resisted, in some cases passing laws to try to thwart the ruling. In addition to the landmark Supreme Court ruling, an African-American woman named...
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