Discussion Topic

Society's influence and values in "Harrison Bergeron"

Summary:

In "Harrison Bergeron," society values enforced equality to the extreme, suppressing individuality and excellence. Government-imposed handicaps ensure no one surpasses others in intelligence, beauty, or strength, reflecting a dystopian view of equality where societal pressure stifles personal achievements and freedom.

Expert Answers

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

How does society influence thoughts and reactions in "Harrison Bergeron"?

In the society in "Harrison Bergeron", people are greatly affected by the role of the government. The society believes in and depends on complete equality amongst all of the people. In order to accomplish this, people must use handicaps. If a person is above average in intelligence, they are forced to have sounds played loudly in their ears frequently to disrupt their thoughts. If a person is beautiful, they have to wear ugly masks. If a person is strong or fast, they have to wear weighted bags to counteract their strength. The goal of this is to make everyone feel equal and so that no one would feel inferior or superior. Overall, this change takes away everything that made a personal an individual. It makes it so that what once could have been an interesting character trait is taken away and replaced with sameness. George and Hazel, in particular, are affected negatively because they are unable to discuss or even process that their son Harrison has been killed because Hazel's mind is so average and George's handicap keeps him from thinking too deeply. Harrison, of course, is very negatively affected by the society's rules. He was born to be strong, incredibly strong, and very attractive, but society has tried to muffle all of this. He is forced to use many handicaps, and when he finally lashes out and tries to be the great ruler that he was destined to be, he is murdered for disrupting the peace of the society.

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

How does society influence thoughts and reactions in "Harrison Bergeron"?

In "Harrison Bergeron," the government refuses to allow citizens to have original thoughts and prohibits their reactions to certain incidents in order to possess autocratic authority over everyone. The society permits this control in order to promote a perverse equality that forces all Americans to reduce themselves to the level of the least of its citizens in order to avoid competition.

George and Hazel Bergeron are perfect examples of this perverse equality. George possesses intelligence that is "way above normal," while Hazel "couldn't think about anything except in short bursts." In order to make them equal, Hazel is not given a special education; rather George has a mental handicap installed in his ears that "keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains."

The society permits this equality because it seems as if some past conflict was created by competition, which is why George is okay with his handicaps. When Hazel suggests that he remove some bird shot from a 47-pound bag he has to wear, George declines by saying that if he and others removed their handicaps "we'd be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else." With society allowing the government to remove any chance of original thought, there is no chance of an uprising or even a democratic challenging of the powers. Instead, in the name of equality, people have decided to give up their individuality to become non–free-thinking people.

This story serves as a reminder that powers, governmental, religious, or economic, will often try to remove individuality in order to exert greater control over their followers.

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

How does society's outlook in "Harrison Bergeron" impact individual freedom?

This story makes it very clear that the outlook of any society can have massive impact on the individual freedoms as experienced by its people. This story is an example of a dystopia, or an example of a future world where certain liberties such as freedom have been exchanged in order to create peace and stability, or the "perfect" society. However, dystopias never are "perfect" societies, because the peace and stability that is created is always at the cost of certain fundamental human characteristics that are necessary to make us human. In this story, it is the way that society has pledged itself to radical equality that has limited human freedom:

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way.

In this society, we see that the individual freedom to be good at something and to use your natural gifts to excel in one area is prevented because of society. In the same way, society can also hinder individual freedoms through other laws and practices that it adopts.

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

What conclusions can we draw about the society in "Harrison Bergeron"?

The society of Kurt Vonnegut's short story is one of forced equality, an equality that diminishes talent, intelligence, and beauty. Individuality exists no longer.

With the use of technical manipulation and the addition of three amendments to the Constitution, everyone is now "finally equal." But, it is an equality in mediocrity. For, Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General to whom Hazel Bergeron bears a strong resemblance, is the standard. In fact, as Hazel talks to her husband George, she remarks, "I think I'd make a good Handicapper General," and her husband responds, "Good as anybody else."

For those like George Bergeron and especially his son Harrison, as well as the pretty ballerinas, mandatory handicaps and masks serve to equalize their looks if they are prettier or their brains are keener. For instance, George must wear forty-seven pounds of bird shot around his neck. When he has certain thoughts, a twenty-one-gun salute fires in his head. The Bergeron's son, Harrison, is only fourteen, but he has been put into prison for plotting to overthrow the government. His creativity has, unfortunately, been channeled into revolutionary activities because his natural aptitudes have not been fostered. Stymied as he has been, Harrison also has to tote a plethora of handicaps. 

This forced equality and oppressive prison sentence has caused Harrison to rebel. When he comes to the television station, he attempts to free the beautiful ballerina that he makes his empress. Together they "leaped like deer on the moon." Ironically, it is Diana Moon Glampers who fires a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun, killing them, and making them equal again.

While all this occurs, the television goes off in the Bergeron home, and it blacks out whenever something happens to someone. This technology is numbing, and distracting, rather than intellectually stimulating.  

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

What values does society hold according to "Harrison Bergeron"?

In Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron," equality is not only desired in society: it is imposed. Handicaps are created for the people who are better at something. The central characters in this short story consist the Bergeron family. Between the mother and the father, the father is the more intelligent one. What does the Office of Handicapper-General do? 

Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn't think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

Physical handicaps are imposed upon the father, George, in order to prevent him from even thinking. He restricted from thinking by a buzzing radio and restricted from movement by 47 pounds of buckshot hanging on his neck. In a world obsessed with equality, excellence is transmogrified into mediocrity: genius is considered a monstrosity.

Harrison Bergeron was a once-in-a-generation genius: he was tall, physically competent, and intelligent. In other words, he would be the envy of this world. Because, however, of his society's fixation with equality, creativity is stultified, even choked to death: both the beautiful ballerina and Harrison were made to wear horrible masks because their physical appeal needed to be covered. When, however, all these accoutrements were removed from their bodies and the two revolted on television, the society totally fixated with equality resorted to the gravest resolution: murder. 

People may not be equal in life, but we are all made equal with death. Martin Heidegger even considered human beings as "beings-unto-death." Death is the great equalizer; death is also the great silencer. Glampers, desperate because she could no longer restrict Harrison and the ballerina, shot them both with a shotgun. 

All became equal once more. 

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

What values does society hold according to "Harrison Bergeron"?

In Kurt Vonnegut's 1961 short story "Harrison Bergeron," Americans live under an authoritarian government obsessed with equality. No one can be prettier, more athletic, or smarter than anyone else. For that reason anyone with an advantage is given a 'handicap' to keep his or her abilities in line with everyone else.

A variety of handicaps are shown throughout the story. A radio earpiece blasts a loud noise in George Bergeron's ear every few seconds to dull his intelligence. Ballerinas on the television wear masks to hide their beauty.

The most prominent handicaps portrayed in the story are those put on the 14-year-old Harrison: three hundred pounds of weights to counter his strength, headphones blasting noise to stop his thinking, and even grotesque makeup to hide his handsome face. When Harrison attempts to shed these handicaps and overthrow the government, the government employs its most extreme handicap against Harrison: murder.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on