In "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, how is equality achieved?

Quick answer:

Vonnegut's story critiques the idea of meritocracy and the concept that people should be judged by their abilities, not their appearance. Vonnegut proposes that this is a ridiculous idea because we are all equal in our humanity.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron ," equality has been achieved by reducing each citizen to the social lowest common denominator. Specifically, this has been done through the passage of the 211th, 212th, and 213th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. In practice, this means that each individual who possesses...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

some trait that makes him or her better than others—intelligence, looks, athletic ability—must wear a handicap that brings him or her down to a lowest common ability. 

An example of the above is the relationship between George and Hazel Bergeron. George's intelligence is "way above normal," so he has "a little mental handicap radio in his ear" that "would send out sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains." Hazel, however, has "perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn't think about anything except in short bursts." As a result, she wears no handicaps. 

In the opening paragraphs of the story, George and Hazel are watching television and Hazel is crying, but, because of her natural short-term memory, "she'd forgotten for the moment what [the tears] were about." George also forgets what he is watching, but that's because of a buzzer that rings in his mental handicaps, which caused his thought to flee "in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm."

While we might see equality as an idea in which people are allowed to raise themselves to the same social standing as others, Vonnegut uses the term ironically as a warning against allowing ourselves to be reduced to an equal unthinking place.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonneget Jr., what has guaranteed equality in the story?

The society attempts to "guarantee" equality through the use of handicaps; these "handicaps" offset any qualities you have that might be extraordinary or talented.  For example, Harrison's father, whose "intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear" that rattled loud, distracting, painful noises into his ear that made him lose his train of thought.  Because of this, it was hard for him to think coherently, with any intelligence.  This, their society thought, helped "to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains."  He also had to wear "forty-seven pounds of birdshot in canvas bag, which was padlocked around [his] neck", because he was taller and stronger than the average man.

This is the society's ingenious plan to keep people from being unequal.  No one had to feel uglier, more stupid, or less talented than anyone else, ever.  Unfortunately, the system does have its hiccups.  Harrison, for one.  He breaks onto the scene, equipped with an absurd amount of handicaps, and for a moment, tears them off and dances beautifully with a gorgeous ballerina (revealed to be gorgeous only after "he removed her mask").  This interruption doesn't last long, however; Harrison is shot down.  And, Vonneget seems to be saying that the handicaps work quite well because his mother and father forget about it nearly right after it happens.  It's a sad but thought-provoking tale about taking equality to dangerous levels.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What has been done to guarantee equality in "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut?

In "Harrison Bergeron," Kurt Vonnegut envisions a future world in which everyone is finally equal. This seems like a lofty and worthy goal, but as the story demonstrates, perhaps equal should not mean everyone is the same.

The story opens in the year 2081, at a time when every citizen in the country is now equal--and not just in a figurative sense. They are literally equal in every possible way.

Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. 

In order to ensure that this happens (as mandated by Constitutional Amendments 211-213), the Handicapper General is responsible for distributing handicaps to anyone who shows any sign of proficiency or talent. For example, if a person has a pretty face, he or she must wear a mask in order to avoid having an advantage over someone else in the looks department. If a ballerina is nimble and agile, she is weighed down with bags of bird shot.

The most outrageous example of this system is found in Harrison Bergeron, a young man (only fourteen years old) who is an exceptional physical specimen with many talents. He is seven feet tall and he is burdened with more and heavier handicaps than anyone else has ever borne. As quickly as he gets them, he outgrows them, which keeps the Handicapper General's office quite busy. 

Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.

Scrap metal was hung all over him. Ordinarily, there was a certain symmetry, a military neatness to the handicaps issued to strong people, but Harrison looked like a walking junkyard. In the race of life, Harrison carried three hundred pounds. And to offset his good looks, the H-G men required that he wear at all times a red rubber ball for a nose, keep his eyebrows shaved off, and cover his even white teeth with black caps at snaggletooth random.

Despite these outrageous handicaps and hindrances, Harrison Bergeron is still more talented and more able than virtually anyone in the country. Of course, his parents would have been outraged, but they are no more sensible or outraged than anyone else--which means they are not sensible or outraged at all.

It is the Handicapper General's job to make sure the proper handicaps are given and kept, and keeping track of Harrison Bergeron's is practically a full-time job--until he decides he has had enough. 

Last Updated on