Harrison Bergeron Themes
The main themes in “Harrison Bergeron” are equality versus individuality, the illusion of freedom, and the importance of memory.
- Equality versus individuality: The Handicapper General’s policies, and the subsequent stagnation of society, highlight the dangers of focusing on artificial equality rather than celebrating individual differences.
- The illusion of freedom: Vonnegut notes that equality and freedom are not the same thing. Even though the characters in the novel are superficially equal, none of them are truly free.
- The importance of memory: The story shows that in a society that suppresses its citizens’ memories, change and progress are rendered impossible.
Last Updated on December 11, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 983
Equality versus Individuality
In “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut presents a society in which equality is valued above all else and attained at the cost of individuality. The oppressive and often absurd ways in which the characters are equalized through physical and cognitive handicaps implicitly argue for the importance of individuality.
Although the story is critical of an equalizing society, it does not merely satirize the aim of equality among citizens in heavy-handed terms. Indeed, Vonnegut’s characters express coherent reasons to strive for a level playing field. Chief among these are the eradication of jealousy and competition. When Hazel suggests that George remove some of the lead balls from the weighted bag hung from his neck, he replies by citing the underlying logic of his handicaps. He argues that if citizens began removing their handicaps, “pretty soon we’d be right back to the dark ages again, with everyone competing against everyone else.” Hazel agrees, noting that society would “fall apart.” It is ironic that the very handicaps George and Hazel are condoning prevent their conversation from advancing any further. George’s reply—“What would?”—illustrates the stupefying effects of his cognitive handicap.
The story argues for individuality by showing the repressive effects of equalization. This repression occurs in small, quotidian ways, such as in George’s artificial handicaps: the bag of birdshot he wears and the earpiece that emits thought-shattering sounds at twenty-second intervals. The story suggests that many citizens share George’s experiences of daily suffering in the name of broader equality.
But perhaps more importantly, this repression occurs on larger stages, preventing humans from achieving excellence of any kind. This diminishment of excellence can be seen in the televised dance program George and Hazel are watching. Because the dancers are all handicapped for their physical gifts—weighed down and masked—their performance is poor. As George remarks, the ballerinas are “no better than anybody else would have been.” The same is true of the accompanying musicians, whose benchmark for “normal” playing is “cheap, silly, false.” Indeed, a world that criminalizes individual gifts and talents is shown to be a world without virtuosity or beauty. Harrison Bergeron represents the apotheosis of this kind of repression. He is the most gifted citizen of all—and thus the most diminished. Because he refuses to quell his individual excellence in the name of collective uniformity, he loses his life.
The Illusion of Freedom
In the story’s authoritarian society, the ideal of equality becomes an oppressive weight that all must bear, albeit to differing degrees. While the citizens speak favorably of equality, it can be argued that the driving force for this social structure isn’t equality at all. The driving force is fear in the form of authoritarian rule, one that negates the freedom of its citizens.
The story’s citizens generally accept the idea that their society’s vision of equality is preferable to jealousy and competition. But this acceptance doesn’t stem from empathy or compassion—it stems from harsh consequences in the form of fines, jail time, and even death. This fear is illuminated when Hazel suggests that George relieve some of his burden; George refuses, because he would face steep consequences if he attempted to do so. For George, it is better to bear his harsh handicaps than to risk losing the life he currently has. He has the illusion of choice, but in no way is George actually free to make said choice. With the government using fear tactics, he is a prisoner no matter which choice he makes. Moreover, George cannot conceive of any alternative for long, because his very thoughts are limited.
Vonngeut’s story shows that while difference may cause jealousy and competition, without it, society is doomed to face a monotonous and controlling reality in which each citizen must forfeit their basic rights. Indeed, what the story’s characters gain in equality comes at the cost of their freedom.
The Importance of Memory
“Harrison Bergeron” illustrates the importance of memory in social and political life. Memory allows people to learn from history, draw on personal experiences, consider alternative choices, and ultimately navigate towards a better future. Vonnegut makes this point by showing what happens when citizens are stripped of their capacity to remember.
In the society of Vonnegut’s story, citizens are forced through cognitive handicaps to live in a kind of eternal present moment in which they cannot reflect on the past. George and Hazel Bergeron represent typical citizens in this society, and their artificially truncated conversations show the effects of the Handicapper General’s efforts to bring all citizens to a low level of cognitive functioning. Because of the thought-deterring sounds emitted in George’s earpiece—and because of Hazel’s average intelligence—the couple cannot discuss any topic in any deep or sustained way.
Their compromised rapport is most evident in the story’s final scene. They watch on television their son’s failed attempt to break free of his handicaps and overthrow their society’s authoritarian structure, but they are left with, at most, a vague sense of sadness. What they have witnessed carries immense significance, for they have glimpsed the possibility of a different society and seen the death of their own child. And yet this significance is never registered, because the event is wiped from their minds almost immediately. George recognizes his son on the broadcast, but the realization is quickly deleted from his mind. And after Harrison’s death, Hazel is left only with the impression of having seen “something real sad,” and she admits that “it’s all kind of mixed up in my mind.” They cannot learn from the event, because it is immediately subsumed into a forgotten past. Indeed, George contributes to this erasure of memory when he advises Hazel to “forget sad things.” This exchange illustrates clearly that change is hopeless without memory.
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