The Dangers of Equality: A Close Reading of “Harrison Bergeron”
Many people believe that total equality for any race, sex, or religion is worth the effort. Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” focuses on individuals’ greatest qualities and the altering of them to exceed the average standard. For example, those of higher intelligence were forced to wear devices inhibiting their ability to think. Beautiful citizens were forced to conceal their looks with a hideous mask. Additionally, they were forced to weight themselves to impair their gracefulness. The importance of the story is for the reader to comprehend that the base of any society is for citizens to have the opportunity to reach their full potential. The outcome of attempting to make an “equal” society resulted in citizens living in fear of their abilities. Kurt Vonnegut demonstrates his theme that forced equality is achieved at the expense of freedom and individuality. Vonnegut focuses on the story’s setting, character actions, and imagery to support the theme.
“Harrison Bergeron” has an elaborate setting in a dystopian future that supports his theme. The short story revolves around a couple named Hazel and her handicapped husband George watching ballerinas dance on television. When readers are first introduced to the story it states, “The year was 2081 and everybody was finally equal. They were not only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th amendment.” (195). Due to the implementation of the Constitutional Amendments added to the Bill of Rights, this demonstrates the theme of every citizen being forced to be equal. The insistence on the concept of total equality by commanding individuals to neglect their advanced qualities. Moreover, a society cannot thrive if individuals are tortured to fit into the society’s standards. Another example is in Hunter Baker’s article where he states, “When government attempts to affect substantive outcomes through active interference, it sets citizens against each other and threatens the social cohesion necessary for the broader society” (Baker 4). In addition, this statement goes hand in hand with the theme. The reader is shown in “Harrison Bergeron” how the government attempts to strip citizens of their rights by striking fear in the citizens that disobey the biased laws. For instance when Harrison Bergeron escapes from jail, Harrison is portrayed as a brave, strong, attractive, alpha male. Harrison Bergeron removes his restraints and handicaps, the physical strength and the beauty he reveals triggers citizens to be reminded that underneath their own handicaps they are intelligent and talented.
The actions Vonnegut creates for the characters demonstrate to the reader that the clear theme for the short story is forced equality, which achieved at the expense of freedom and individuality. Near the end of the story, it states, “It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the handicapper general, came into the studio with a double-barred ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor” (199). Due to the murder of Harrison Bergeron and the beautiful ballerina, it confirmed that because they were murdered, they were and would never be equal in the eyes of society. Citizens with higher intelligence and talent were given complete equality instead of being obliged to endure the inhumane punishment of restraints and handicap devices. On the contrary, handicapped citizens deserve the privilege of being able to assert themselves in any way they pleased. At the end of Vonnegut’s story, he displays a conversation between George and Hazel. Hazel says “Gee-I could tell that one was a doozy” and George responds back, “You can say that again,” Hazel responds “ Gee-I could tell that one was a doozy” (200). This particular action demonstrates to the reader that Hazel is below the average intelligence. Also having no mental handicap herself, she is unaware that the government is demoralizing every citizen with restraints or a handicap. Referring back to the story, George tells Hazel to forget sad things and Hazel responds with “I always do” (200). The government coerces equality by intimidating every citizen that disobeys the law. The citizens have no choice but to forget the desperate situation they are surrounded by and to internalize the fear that the government will severely punish them if they display any outstanding abilities.
Throughout the short story, Vonnegut includes multiple uses of imagery to portray his theme that forced equality is achieved at the expense of freedom and individuality. For instance, Hazel asks George, “Why don’t you stretch out on the sofa, so you can rest your handicap bag on the pillows, referring to the forty-seven pounds of birdshot around his neck” (197). This demonstrates that the citizens believe they are equal, but by requiring handicapped citizens similar to George Bergeron to wear restraints and “handicap bag” on their bodies, they are not receiving true equality. Another example of imagery during the story is when it is stated that, “to offset his good looks, the H-G men required that Harrison Bergeron wear at all times a red rubber ball for a nose, keep his eyebrows shaved off, and cover his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle-tooth random” (198). Vonnegut included this sentence in the short story to provide support for the theme by demonstrating that for Harrison to be equal in society’s standards, he was forced to degrade himself and obey the rules of the handicap general. An important statement in the story is “Harrison tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper, tore straps guaranteed to support five thousand pounds” (198). This sentence from the story proves and supports the theme. No matter a number of restraints and handicap devices on an individual obliging them to demote him or her will never be the solution. The short story of Harrison Bergeron demonstrates that even though the government may attempt to enforce equality although the strong and intelligent individuals will revolt against the laws that demoralize citizens.
In the final analysis of Vonnegut’s short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” Vonnegut’s use of setting, character actions, and imagery unite to support the theme that forced equality is achieved but at the expense of freedom and individuality. In Vonnegut’s futuristic dystopia society had not pursued to make new amendments that severely impacted the equality of citizens. The reader would not inquire the knowledge of how damaging it can be to allow the government to demoralize citizens with certain abilities. Through the actions of characters, the story demonstrates to the reader that forcing citizens to wear restraints and handicap devices is not the definition of true equality. The short story of Harrison Bergeron allows the reader to see that having forced equality does not compare to having true equality.
“Reflections on Social Justice, Government, and Society*.” Reflections on Social Justice, Government, and Society*.
Hunter Baker , 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2017. Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. “Harrison Bergeron,” Backpack Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Ed. XJ. Kennedy and Diana Gioia. 5th ed. New York: Pearson, 2016. 194-200. Print.
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Many people believe that total equality for any race, sex, or religion is worth the effort. Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” focuses on individuals’ greatest qualities and the altering […]