Issues Of Lost Authority, Television, And Forced Equality In Harrison Bergeron Kurt Vonnegut
Equality is something many people had to fight for. Imagine in a dystopian United States in 2081 when everyone is equal. Above average people have handicaps so they are equal to normal people. A powerful symbol in this story is the TV which Harrison’s parents are watching. In this story lost authority, television impact, and forced equality are all seen.
Television is a very important symbol in this story. The television in George and Hazel Bergeron’s living room shows the story. Television is an immensely powerful force that sedates, rules, and terrorizes the characters in “Harrison Bergeron.” To emphasize television’s overwhelming importance in society, Vonnegut makes it a constant presence in his story the entire story takes place as George and Hazel sit in front of the TV. The television functions primarily to keep the citizens sedated. Hazel cries, but because she is distracted by the ballerinas on the screen, she doesn’t remember why she is crying. The government also uses TV to enforce its laws. When talented people like Harrison are on the loose, the government broadcasts warnings about them. The government shows the photograph of Harrison with his good looks mutilated and his strength dissipated by handicaps which were,”300 pounds of metal, a red rubber nose, headphones, and spectacles”. The photo is a way of finding the supposedly dangerous escapee even if the citizens can’t remember, but it is also a way of intimidating television viewers. It gives them a visual example of what happens when someone with a handicap escapes, “Harrison is killed and his parents who just watched him die and forget it seconds later”. Television further turns into a means of terrorizing the citizens when Diana Moon Glampers shoots Harrison with her double barrel shotgun. The live execution is an effective way of showing viewers what will happen to those who disobey the law. The government also uses the television for propaganda.
Lost authority is seen for the brief moments when Harrison proclaims himself Emperor, destroys his state-issued handicaps, and dances beautifully on state TV, the government’s power is lost. Although the moment is short-lived (a government agent shoots Harrison dead while he’s dancing), his dissent nonetheless shows that individuals might still have power under totalitarianism. Harrison’s exceptional existence proves that equality isn’t absolute (or else he wouldn’t have been able to achieve such an extraordinary feat), and therefore that the state’s power is not omnipotent. However, even though Harrison Bergeron is an extraordinary individual whose very existence poses a serious threat to the totalitarian government of Vonnegut’s story, his execution by the government and his parents’ subsequent inability to recall witnessing his murder ultimately suggests that, once the government has consolidated enough power, individual dissent has little effect. Vonnegut writes that, as Harrison danced, “Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well.” The language and imagery of weightlessness (the destruction of physical handicaps; the physical “neutraling of gravity with love and pure will” as Harrison and the ballerina float to the ceiling) surrounding Harrison’s performance suggests that dissent can bring freedom for those who are subjected to state authority. Indeed, just as Harrison’s dancing suggests broader liberation.
Forced equality is seen in the futuristic world of “Harrison Bergeron,” the government applies physical and mental handicaps to individuals with above-average strength and intelligence in order to guarantee that all people in society are equal. While equality is often regarded as a positive condition of democratic society, Vonnegut’s dystopian portrayal of an absolutely equal society reveals how equality must be balanced with freedom and individualism in order for society to thrive. Although in the story all people are “finally equal” in “every which way,” Vonnegut suggests that forbidding individualism causes society to suffer. For instance, the distribution of mental handicaps prevents citizens from thinking critically or creatively. In the case of George, who has “way above normal intelligence,” citizenship in an equal society comes at the price of his ability to critically question the world around him. George clearly has the impulse to question the invasive nature of government regulations on equality, particularly with regards to the handicaps’ negative effects on the arts (he watches shackled dancers on TV who are forbidden from displaying any above-average talent), yet the presence of his own mental handicaps prevents him from pursuing this line of thought: “George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped,” Vonnegut writes.
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