A Social Inequality According to Harrison Bergeron By Kurt Vonnegut
Completely Equal Society is a Myth
Since the genesis of time people have strived to achieve complete equality. We have tried to give people “equal rights” nonetheless; it has failed to create perfect uniformity. Now imagine the world where the government has created rules and regulations that bring people down to the same level. Imagine what would happen if the government decided to create equality through regulating people’s intelligence, wealth, power, and attractiveness. It might sound like a perfect place to live in until we don’t go into the depths of this ideal society. Imagine how a government would accomplish this mission of creating a society which upholds equality and uniformity while putting down outstanding behaviors and traits. The answer to that question can be found in a short dystopian fiction story called (Harrison Bergeron), written by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. The story sets the plot in 2081. Keeping in mind the story was first published in 1961, the plot is set way ahead in the future where the world is not progressing. The reason for this stoppage in progression for the society as a whole is the fact that equality is being imposed forcefully. The story revolves around a Handicapper General named Diana Moon Glampers, who is responsible for maintaining equality amongst people. Glampers has achieved this task by requiring strong, intelligent and beautiful people of the society to wear handicaps of ugly masks, earphones or radios, and heavyweights correspondingly. This brought people that were intelligent, beautiful and strong down to the level of people that were less intelligent, ugly and weak. A glimpse of the world Diana Moon Glampers created can be seen when Kurt Vonnegut Jr., quotes in his story “Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.” (Harrison Bergeron). On the other hand, Harrison Bergeron son of Hazel and George Bergeron is trying to gain his freedom by breaking loose from his handicaps. However at the end, Harrison has to pay for his desire to outstand with his death at the hands of Handicapper General, who once again restores equality in the society. The story shows us how having an ideal equal society would do more harm to individuals than do good. By taking away our emotions, knowledge and individuality, the society is devoid of outlandish creativity and thinking. Thus, the world that is equal in every way possible is just not the right world for us to live in. Limiting our creativity and stopping us from being different from the person next to us, will only cause harm. Regardless of the pros and cons of having a uniform equal world, it is just not possible to achieve such a goal. It is human nature to express and be different from the person next to us. If this desire to be different is chained, sooner or later human nature will resist this idea of equality as shown by Harrison Bergeron.
Kurt Vonnegut is praised by many critics as stated “…many critics continue to praise Vonnegut as a ‘masterly stylist,” a jazz improviser in prose, and an author who has reinvented the American novel” (Kurt Vonnegut). Although Kurt Vonnegut was a talented writer, he has not made an effort to describe characters in a way most short-stories would. Moreover, the flow of the story is monotonous and there is little plot setting. This is because the story is based on the world that is equal in every single aspect, which has taken away peoples’ uniqueness. The fact that everyone is the same, just limits the ability of creativity and outstanding behavior to protrude not only in the world, but also in the representation of the story. This leaves little to no space for Vonnegut to create a fabulous character with exaggerated traits. In the story, Hazel did not wear any handicaps, although George wears a radio in his ear and weight around his neck because he was more intelligent and powerful than Hazel. Hence, proving that everything is not equal even in a world where perfect uniformity is the top priority. Moreover, the characters in the story were able to learn about the strengths of other people through their handicaps. This was because the characters knew what strengths each handicap, issued by Handicapper General, was supposed to suppress. A handicap such as the Earphones symbolized that a person was smart; the Mask symbolized a person was beautiful, and the Weights symbolized a person was physically strong. Bigger and conspicuous handicaps meant that a person was more exceptional than the rest of the society. Thus individuality cannot be extinguished as Benjamin Reed writes in (Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice) “The attempt to achieve forced equality through social engineering—by delimiting positive qualities rather than ameliorating shortcomings—is futile, because individuality is inherent and only incompletely repressible.” This is true because the handicaps acted as a symbol of a person’s abilities, hence individuality still survived in the characters subconsciously. It is quite ironic how the Handicapper General set out to limit individuality but ended up helping it standout even more.
There were handicaps that were made to suppress abilities in people, which took away curiosity and emotions from them. While being handicapped by these instruments, a person became really monotone and mundane displayed by how conversations became dull and less intriguing between Hazel and Gorge. This can be seen in the story when George would reply to Hazel mostly with ‘Yup’, ‘Huh’ and ‘Um’. This shows how effective communication was hindered by the thought suppressing handicaps. Moreover, in the story, it is seen multiple times how George’s thought process was interrupted by the excruciating sounds the radio in his ear would play. Joodaki, Abdol Hossein, and Hamideh Mahdiany in their journal quote “E. J. White in her article on “A Philosophical and methodological route to dialogue and difference” says “….the dangerous consequences on mono-logism are “the loss of freedom.” (Joodaki and Mahdiany). This was the case seen in this story, through the monologue of the characters and dull dance showed on the television Kurt Vonnegut was able to depict a society which has lost its freedom of speech and expression. However, some parts of the story suggest that even with handicaps, George who possessed greater intellectual abilities than Hazel had not lost his power of reasoning and imagination. As it can be seen when Hazel suggests George to make a hole in his weight bag and take out some bird shots in order lessen the weight, to this George replies “Two years in prison and two thousand dollars fine for every ball I took out, I don’t call that a bargain.” (Harrison Bergeron). This proves the latter statement to be correct as George was still able to reason his way out of that predicament because if he did not have the ability to reason he would have done what his wife suggested. Furthermore, through the language used by George, it can be said he still had the power of imagination. For an instance when George thought about ballerinas being beautiful and graceful he was able to think that because ballerinas were masked and burdened with birdshot bags. His power of imagination can be seen again when he describes Harrison as a walking junkyard, or when he described the sound of his ear radio as “somebody hitting a milk bottle with a ball peen hammer,” (Harrison Bergeron) All in all, these examples show and relate back to the point of when imagination and creativity are chained, the individual is still able to think and reason even though he is not supposed to. This shows how creating an equal society by imposing such laws would just not work as the human mind and nature lean towards individualism and rebel when being contained.
The emotions, however, were deeply affected. Emotions are the medium through which we generally feel the intensity of an event. Throughout the story, the conversation between Hazel and George remained dull and flat. There were no emotions between them whatsoever; there were no highs and lows in their pitch or their statements. The uniqueness of an individual was indeed present but was subconscious. The environment of an “equally handicapped America” was unappealing, cold and emotionless. The music had lost its appeal, as it was made to sound average. Music gained back its appeal on when Harrison forced the musicians to play his desired music. Lastly, Harrison’s parents witnessed his death but they quickly forgot what had happened, George forgot it due to his handicaps and Hazel due to her short-term memory. Kurt Vonnegut through these symbols and the story wants the readers to realize that a place that is ‘perfectly equal’ might just become a place without love and individuality. As no love was seen in the conversation between George and Hazel, there was no sympathetic appeal seen after Harrison’s death and it was as if nothing happened. Nonetheless, emotions were still there as musicians knew how to play good music and Hazel cried when she witnessed her son’s death. This, once again, shows how even though individualism and emotions are sought to be eliminated but they are just suppressed and are ever present, ready to resurface at any given moment.
On the other hand, Harrison proved to be rebellious; a quality which people of his time had lost. People were portrayed to be too scared of the Handicapper General and her men. The example can be seen in the story when everyone quickly wore their handicaps in mere five seconds given to them by the Handicapper General after Harrison’s death. Harrison was constantly outgrowing his handicaps. He was described as very powerful, athletic and smart. Harrison’s part in the story was the only time the story outgrew the shades of black and white in which it was painted. Kurt Vonnegut showcased his writing abilities to create drama and analogy when the joy Harrison’s dance bought in the melancholy world was described by him as “They reeled, whirled, swiveled, flounced, capered, gamboled, and spun. They leaped like deer on the moon” (Harrison Bergeron). Alas! Harrison was killed for trying to be himself. Moreover comparing this notion with today’s society one might see a small degree of similarity as society generally does not accept people that are ‘different’. Even though the world was brought back to equality, through Harrison’s ill-timed death, it still leaves a void behind to be filled. It makes one wonder that if Harrison turned out to be a rebel, what if there are others like him and what if they come out to protest together with a greater strength than Harrison. Bravo! Kurt Vonnegut proves his writing skills once again by leaving behind his point-of-view through Harrison.
The short dystopian story written by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. has a very dull tone yet it is intriguing, perhaps because everyone wants to know what a ‘perfectly equal’ world would look like. The author does a great job by occasionally including hyperboles and analogies which do a great job in keep the readers intrigued. The symbolic characters, such as Glampers being the oppressor, Hazel and George being the oppressed and Harrison being a freedom fighter, showed how the world has lived under oppression and fought against it with the little ‘freedom fighter’ they had inside them. Through the dystopia, the story is able to make one appreciate the individuality, emotions and love they have. “Harrison Bergeron” makes its readers appreciate their freedom of speech and expression, which furthermore makes a statement that their individuality, emotions and uniqueness cannot be completely taken away from them. The story makes the readers live through a nightmare so that they acknowledge the importance of their uniqueness and think about a superior and greater meaning of equality.
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