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.
It might appear optimistic that, despite the almost pathological efforts to destroy all that is beautiful, brilliant, or talented here, Vonnegut implies that a champion will defend these values. His pessimistic view, however, is revealed when Harrison Bergeron throws off his shackles and weights and mask and those of the dancers and musicians, but his only revolutionary act is to dance. That is Vonnegut’s point—that society needs rebels to risk everything in order to make life better. The ironic reality that in order to be fair to one group, society must be unfair or unjust to others is the basis of “Harrison Bergeron” and much of Vonnegut’s fiction. The ignorance and hatefulness of humankind are attacked again and again. Here, as elsewhere, Vonnegut asks what are people for? If there is a grand design to life, a true purpose for suffering, why can it not be discovered?
Can an equal society truly exist? The story, “Harrison Bergeron” gives one perspective answer to this question throughout the story. The story portrays one main conflict between Harrison Bergeron, a genius boy who is very talented, against a “government” that makes the entire society equal by handicapping the more gifted, down to the level of the less fortunate or incapable. Harrison constantly outgrows his tremendous handicaps faster than the government can create them and plans to overthrow the handicap government and society with his genius. The reader learns that there is a constant struggle with the people in the society who are smarter being able to think on there own for a short while to only come and find themselves lost, since their handicaps have kicked in and made their thought process vanish. The reader also realizes that the normal functions of humanity can’t take place: conversations, fascination or entertainment, and the ability of knowledge and the sense of learning, are lost. The absence of uniqueness and diversity are not present and formality and same-ness is enforced and therefore accepted. The story “Harrison Bergeron” shows that equality is a non-valued gift of uniqueness for all humans. All humans can never be truly equal in the eyes of the world.
Near the opening few paragraphs of the story the reader learns that intelligence may be handicapped yet the ability to reason hasn’t been lost. Hazel tells George that she thinks he looks tired. She says, “All of a sudden you look so tired. Why don’t you stretch out on the sofa, so’s you can rest your handicap bag and the pillows, honeybunch.” “Go on rest the bag for a little while. I don’t care if you’re not equal to me for a while.” “You been so tired lately-kind of wore out. If there was just some way we could make a little hole in the bottom of the bag, and just take out a few of them lead balls. Just a few.” George responds by saying, “Two years in prison and two thousand dollars fine for every ball I took out. I don’t call that a bargain.” In this part of the dialogue we learn the more intelligent George, of many intellectual handicaps, still can reason better than his wife who isn’t handicapped. The wife tries to persuade him and convince him that he should take off his handicaps for a while and rest. George can still better understand the consequences of those potential actions and thus can still outsmart his wife by making a different decision. Through this passage, the reader also learns that even in this handicap society of “equality” not everyone is truly equal. If everyone was truly equal George wouldn’t have been able to make a more correct reasoning than another person and choose different actions based on knowledge and reason. This just once again proves that even in a “perfect” society not everything is perfect.
At the end of the story and at the climax the reader learns about the character Harrison Bergeron. The genius boy starts to plot to overthrow the handicapper General and her government. By escaping from jail Harrison proceeds to a TV studio to proclaim his revolt to the rest of the society. Once ripping off his handicaps and the handicaps of the rest of the people in the TV studio area, Harrison began to show the joys of having talents. He asks the orchestra to play their best so he and the ballerina can truly make a wonderful dance and experience what music is supposed to truly be. As the wonderful music is played and the elaborate dance proceeds, the Handicap General herself storms the studio and kills the ballerina and Harrison instantly and orders the orchestra to put on there handicaps immediately or they were to be killed. All this time the Harrison family consisting of Hazel and George are watching all of these actions unfold on TV about their son. After Harrison is shot dead, Hazel begins to cry but just momentarily she stops and can’t remember why she was crying. The author wants to show that not even the parents of a murdered child can grieve over his or her death. These events proved that true emotions couldn’t have been grasped or even been able to take effect. If grief can’t be grasped, can love? This handicapped world of equality just may be one without love and one without knowledge and uniqueness of individuals.
All humans can never truly be equal, be able to express and grasp feelings, and convey their own personal uniqueness. It was proved in this “perfect” society where everyone was to be equal and it was proved incorrect. While one person can reason better than another, an equal society thus cannot exist. Learning that in some cases some individuals have such greater intelligence, they may pose a threat to the collapse of a “perfect” society since the intelligent figure may be more gifted than the leaders of the government and thus be able to out smart them before they can take control of the intelligent figure. Can a perfect society exist without emotions and the ability to share with others? This story of Harrison Bergeron makes the reader consider that exact question and make them think from examples from the story if it is truly possible. The author ends the story with the Handicap government prevailing over its people and thus with the reign of the government. Yet, the author through example actions and accounts supports how a perfect society cannot exist and relays some of the flaws and hindrances that may account to the downfall of the “perfect” society. The author portrays the society winning and prevailing literally but most importantly he only uses that event as the story line and makes the plot support against it. The story of “Harrison Bergeron” will make whoever reads it think about equality and how it can go so far to pose a threat to society and humanity. After reading the story one may feel a great sense of appreciation to an American Democratic society of free expression and allow for the possibilities of using ones gifts to the fullest. Through this story one may believe a perfect society can never exist, yet we wait for the day when the expressions of emotions, the sharing of talents and gifts, and mostly love can all be experienced in the eyes of people who perceive each other as truly equals.
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