At a Glance

  • Equality: Rather than suggest that all people should be equal, this book imagines a world where the United States governments has forced citizens to be equal by means of cruel handicaps. In the end, Vonnegut depicts the dangers of focusing on artificial equality rather than celebrating differences.
  • Intelligence, beauty, and strength: These abilities are targeted by the Handicapper General, who strips characters of their extraordinary physical and mental attributes so that others won't feel inferior. These handicaps are superficial, however, and can't change one's inherent characteristics.
  • Freedom: Vonnegut uses the despotic government to explore this theme. Equality and freedom are not the same thing, Vonnegut notes, and though the characters in the novel are superficially "equal," none of them are truly free under the oppressive rule of the Handicapper General.

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Kurt Vonnegut’s purpose in “Harrison Bergeron” is clear and unequivocal. He wants to show that a society that exalts the lowest common denominator (the homely, the stupid, the mediocre) by handicapping all those with talent, intellect, and beauty, can never help those with natural disabilities. For Vonnegut, fundamental human decency demands that society give such people more assistance in reaching up, aspiring to be more than the mere appendages of society. It is the exceptional people who improve society—the nonconformists, the dreamers, the different. Failure to inspire all people will lead inevitably to the destruction of such a society. It is appropriate to legislate equality before the law in the areas of education, employment, and justice, the author suggests. Too often, he warns, people assume that equality means being the same. This is simply not realistic. Conformity for its own sake can be frightening, as seen in Nazi Germany, which attempted to rid Europe of people who were different—Jews, Poles, Czechs, gays, and the mentally and physically disabled.

Although one may laugh at the seeming absurdity of Vonnegut’s story, he asserts that society has gone far down that road already. Because some people are stupid, labels on poison must instruct all users not to eat it, shampoo bottles come with instructions for use, and cigarette labels proclaim that they cause cancer while people continue to smoke them. Society has been forced to protect the innocent, which is noble, but it also must protect the lazy, the incompetent, the mediocre, so that no one accepts responsibility for their actions.

In “Harrison Bergeron,” as elsewhere in his writings, Vonnegut carefully suggests that humanity is at once noble and the cause of much unnecessary suffering. Democratic institutions may help to control people’s baser natures, but even the most well-meaning behavior can create new problems. Civil rights laws, affirmative action laws, and equal employment opportunities committees have all been seen as either the best efforts of humanity or the worst of fuzzy thinking.

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