52 Stories #18: “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Next up on “#52Stories Sprint Week” is Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 story, “Harrison Bergeron,” recommended by friend-of-the-blog Matthew Tuck! Thanks for suggesting this one, buddy!

What did I think about Vonnegut’s story? Let’s get into it!

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The Pitch

In a society where fairness is enforced, the exceptional are considered a threat to order and happiness.

The Payoff

Oh man, this one was fun. What a great concept. Vonnegut’s subversive wit shines here as he gives a glimpse of a society gone mad with equity. The focus of the story isn’t so much on plot as on fleshing out the brilliant concept–how a government might enforce “equality” by driving everyone toward a common middle. It’s a bit ironic that Vonnegut, who was personally sympathetic to the ideas of socialism as a way of benefiting the common man, describes a kind of ideologically and characteristically socialist state. At any rate, this story is a hoot. Definitely find it and check it out.

The Takeaways

Let’s not waste any time. On to the hail of spoiler-filled bullets, which by government mandate will not be any longer or more wordy than any other post’s bullets:

  • First line: “The year was 2081, and everyone was finally equal.” From the outset, Vonnegut’s sardonic voice sets up the reader for what’s in store.
  • [AH! I’m having a hard time organizing my thoughts. I want to talk about everything at once! I apologize for repetition and stream-of-consciousness points. Blame it on these infernal headphones.]
  • The story describes an equality-by-government-fiat, held in place by multiple constitutional amendments and by the iron will of the Handicapper-General of the United States, Diana Moon Glampers. Over the course of the story (which is not only short but fast-paced in its humor and movement), Vonnegut describes the pursuit of “equality” as the intentional flattening of excellence or personal exceptionalism. Success, brilliance, and genius are privileges (if you’ll forgive the modern label) for which the gifted should feel shame (e.g. a ballerina apologizing for having a beautiful voice and going on to speak with an exaggerated squawk) and be willing to be penalized. The goal in this society is to be as close to average as possible, so as not to offend others who are less gifted than you. I don’t know about you, but this seems a bit…relevant, almost 60 years later.
  • George and Hazel Bergeron are sitting in their living room, distracted and dazed by television. This seems like a pretty clear commentary on media-obsessed culture, but that could just be a surface level reading since it’s such low-hanging fruit. Their passivity in the light of the screen is demonstrated when they barely register the exciting and tragic events that unfold before their eyes. Nevertheless, Vonnegut takes that trope up a notch by noting Hazel’s sudden bursts of tears–as if awareness and understanding are trying to fight through the fog. Very likely, her tears at the beginning are in part for their son, who was stolen away by the government for being too gifted.
  • The satire of the “handicaps” (a word always used to describe the arbitrary encumbrances placed on people, never actual disabilities) takes on an absurd degree. George’s noise-headphones to prevent extended deep thought, the masks and weights worn by the dancers, the burdens placed on Harrison by the state, all demonstrate how far well-intentioned people will go in the name of equality. This takes a more ridiculous turn when men with actual speech impediments are shown to be the newscasters of this society. Hazel’s response to a frustrated news anchor who can barely get words out perfectly encapsulates this thinking: “That’s all right–he tried. That’s the big thing. He tried the best he could with what God gave him. He should get a nice raise for trying so hard.” This is “everyone-gets-a-ribbon” thinking at its fullest.
  • By contrast, George refers to the age when people competed with each other all the time as “the dark ages.” People are afraid of being better than anyone else, of succeeding if others fail.
  • The namesake of the story is George and Hazel’s son, Harrison. Though he’s said to be only 14 years old, he’s described as an Adonis. The reader seems to be encouraged to visualize him as older, more powerful and self-possessed, a seven-foot-tall superman who breaks free of his bonds and declares himself to be the Emperor on live television before he and a beautiful ballerina he proclaims will be his queen are shot and killed, live on air, by a shotgun-wielding Handicapper-General.
  • To be honest, the only real critique I have for this story is that when Harrison himself shows up, he’s just a little too much. He’s described as an almost epic figure, which makes his original stated age ridiculous. His aggrandized statements are completely silly (although that, to be fair, is age-appropriate), and the description of the dance became too fanciful for my taste. I was all-in for the biting social satire, but the gravity-defying ballet dancing took me out of the moment.
  • In the end, Harrison is dead, the TV broadcast is interrupted, and George and Hazel miss the whole thing. George was distracted and Hazel was dazed, and they exchange a tragic bit of dialogue. George asks why Hazel has tears in her eyes, and she says she doesn’t know–perhaps there was something sad on the television before the program stopped. “Forget sad things.” “I always do.” “That’s my girl.”
  • One wonders if a society full of Hazel’s and George’s is destined to be ruled by a bureaucracy that demands an average populace. If a people can be lulled into complacency, and discouraged from striving for excellence, they would be pretty docile in the right pair of strong hands.

This one was a delight to read. And as an added bonus, I hear there is a short film adaptation that was made recently. I’m planning on seeking that out. I’ll let you know what I find!

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

 

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