What represents individuality in "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut?

Quick answer:

The short story "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut portrays a futuristic society in which individuality is suppressed for the greater good.

Expert Answers

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

Kurt Vonnegut portrays a society in which individuality is a serious threat to general social well-being. While people in this future society acknowledge that there are individuals, every difference from the norm is perceived as unfair and therefore threatening. Each person must be "handicapped"—modified appropriately to suppress their individual features.

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

portrays a society in which individuality is a serious threat to general social well-being. While people in this future society acknowledge that there are individuals, every difference from the norm is perceived as unfair and therefore threatening. Each person must be "handicapped"—modified appropriately to suppress their individual features.

Differences in individuality are shown in Hazel and George Bergeron, a married couple. Hazel is of average intelligence and requires no adjustment. George’s "intelligence was way above normal," so he "had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times." The transmitter sends out signals to mess with his brain, "to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage."

Individuality in the society is suppressed in artists as well. While performing, ballet dancers all wear handicaps to keep them equal so they cannot actually leap about. This is intended to keep others from feeling bad if they were to see "a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face."

Harrison, Hazel and George’s son, has been imprisoned for being abnormal, but he escapes. He is required to wear the heaviest handicaps, "all Halloween and hardware," consisting of earphones, spectacles, and massive amounts of metal weights. Harrison’s dangerous abnormalities include being seven feet tall, "a genius and an athlete."

When Harrison invades the ballet studio, announcing he will become a great ruler, one of the ballerinas steps forward to become his Empress. For a brief moment, the dancers shed their handicaps and are revealed as individuals:

They reeled, whirled, swiveled, flounced, capered, gamboled, and spun. They leaped like deer on the moon.

The performance does not last long.

For each and every one, their individuality is a crime. The Handicapper-General enters and shoots the Emperor and Empress dead.

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

Vonnegut examines a society void of individuality, where government agents handicap talented, beautiful, and intelligent citizens in order to make them equal with everyone else. In Vonnegut's future American society, every citizen is completely equal in all facets of life—Harrison Bergeron is the only example of individuality in the entire short story. Harrison is an extremely talented, athletic teenager, who was arrested for plotting to overthrow the government. Despite his cumbersome handicaps, he manages to escape from prison, take over a television studio, and declare that he is the nation's emperor, before he is shot by the Handicapper General. Vonnegut's short story does not discourage equality but instead warns readers of the consequences involved with oppressing talented individuals in order to appease less talented people. Vonnegut is a proponent of providing equal rights to every citizen regardless of race, social status, gender, or religion, but he does not support laws and regulations that punish talented individuals. Vonnegut argues that individuality should be celebrated and believes that a society where everyone is forced to be equal is bland and depressing. George's and Hazel's reaction to their son's death also reveals how dehumanizing a society that is void of individuality can become.

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

Individuality does not exist in Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," and that is the primary theme in the story.

The story begins this way:

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

To enforce this constitutional mandate, everyone is given handicaps which limit their abilities, and the more abilities one has the more handicaps one gets.

The goal of the 211-213 Amendments to the Consitution have made sure that everyone is equal; in doing so, they have created a world where individuality does not exist. If no one can sing better than anyone else, there is no standout music. If no one is allowed to exercise his genius, we have no inventors who will be known through the ages for their unique way of thinking--and no inventions. If no one artist can be any better than anyone else, paintings and sculptures will all look the same and can no longer be considered "art."

Vonnegut's point, of course, is that equality should not mean "same-ness." It should be okay for some dancers to be better than others because everyone has different gifts. The one character who does not conform, Harrison Bergeron, is killed and his own parents are so dehumanized by equality that they are no sadder about his death than they would be about anyone else's. Individuality is a critical component of the human spirit, according to Vonnegut; if it is gone, so is the will to live. 

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

What does Vonnegut seem to say about individuality in "Harrison Bergeron"?

In "Harrison Bergeron," Vonnegut suggests that equality achieved by means of violence can be no true equality; moreover, without superior individuals in a society, there can be no advancements made in a culture.

Vonnegut's message about individuality is that it must be fostered because there are dangerous forces in a society that wishes to exert control upon all its citizens even with the best intentions. Certainly, the society of Vonnegut's narrative is forcibly mediocre so that no one is a threat to others or to the governing powers. This safe mediocrity is achieved with masks and other disfiguring devices placed on beautiful faces, as well as cruel handicaps that either weigh down the agile and athletically superior. Intelligent and creative thoughts are stifled through painful jolts of loud, discordant noises that scatter ideas. Furthermore, if these means are not effective, then those who would yet exert their individuality are imprisoned.

It is disturbing that Diana Moon Glampers bears a close resemblance to Hazel Bergeron, who is so perfectly "average" that she does not wear one single handicap. That she is the Handicapper General suggests that Glampers resents anyone who has more talent or intelligence than she; therefore, she makes certain that these people are controlled. Moreover, she is not opposed to exerting this control through violence. For, when Harrison breaks into the television station, the ultimate media of mind control, Glampers fires a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun twice, killing both Harrison and the beautiful ballerina.

Vonnegut leads the reader to wonder when people are all forcibly reduced to the mediocre level of Diana Moon Glampers, who will be a real leader, an inventor, an artist, a composer, or a scientist who finds a cure for a disease? 

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

In "Harrison Bergeron," what does Kurt Vonnegut seem to say about individuality?

In "Harrison Bergeron," Kurt Vonnegut implies that human individuality is dangerous to a society that feels the need to control its citizens. The entire story revolves around this idea that "everybody was finally equal." But people weren't equal in actual ability or opportunity. Instead, the United States passed Constitutional amendments to ensure that everyone was equal in inability. In other words, the government (particularly the handicapper general) instituted a system of control that removes all individuality from America's citizens.

Vonnegut's first examples of this idea of control by removing citizens' individualities are George and Hazel Bergeron. Hazel suffered from "perfectly average intelligence" while George's "intelligence was way above normal." Regardless of George's mental superiority and his ability use this intelligence for the common good, the government, under the direction of the handicapper general required George to wear "a little mental handicap radio in his ear ... at all times." Intermittently, the government would send out distracting sounds that would prevent George (and others with above average intelligence) from thinking too hard, thus possibly challenging the system of control the U.S. government has instituted.

Harrison Bergeron, George and Hazel's son, exemplifies Vonnegut's statement about the power of human individuality to challenge a system of control. Vonnegut indicates the power of individuality as Harrison, at the story's climax, "tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper" and "snapped [his head harness] like celery." In addition, Harrison leaps 30 feet into the air with the ballerina he chose to be his empress. However, Vonnegut, again, shows how the government and other powers fear individuality. In the middle of this expression of the self, Diana Moon Glampers, the handicapper general comes in with a shotgun and kills Harrison and his empress.

By the end of the story, it is clear what Vonnegut is implying: stick with the system of control and lack any form of self and live or rip off the shackles of control, soar to the roofs of building with a single leap and die.

Last Updated on