Kurt Vonnegut

Harrison Bergeron

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Harrison Bergeron Summary

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Set in the year 2081, American author Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical short story “Harrison Bergeron” (1961) depicts a fascist American society that enforces the physical and intellectual “equality” of all people through the assignment of mandatory handicaps to individuals who excel. Vonnegut’s story alludes strongly to the practices of the FBI and Secret Service in the 1940s and 1950s, which enforced equality laws that did more to serve their private political ends than improve human flourishing. The story follows George and Hazel Bergeron, the parents of a son with superhuman cognitive and physical traits whom they observe commit an act of “terrorism” on live TV to rally against American fascism. The formal collision of Harrison’s public speech and George and Hazel’s private struggle to understand it criticizes the efficacy of modern methods of political activism in a heavily mediated and desensitized world.

“Harrison Bergeron” takes place in the past, and begins by stating, dubiously, that in the year 2081, “everyone was finally equal.” A series of Constitutional Amendments (by that time, they number in the hundreds) have enforced equality. The campaign to implement these laws is led by the permanent installation of a Handicapper General, whose employees are called H-G men, in reference to the G-men of American intelligence institutions. Individual equality is physically induced by handicap devices, which are supposed to bring everyone to a normal level. These include permanent weights that impede movement, aesthetic alterations like clown noses which make people uglier, glasses with thick lenses to decrease vision, and ear implants which emit piercing shrieks that prevent people from forming complex thoughts.

In April, the narrator says, the H-G men arrest Harrison, the teenage son of George and Hazel, on suspicion of planning a radical government overthrow. Though he is only fourteen, Harrison is over seven feet tall, beautiful, classified as a genius, and possesses superhuman athletic abilities. As a result, he is fitted with handicaps that distort his features out of recognition and impede him terribly both physically and mentally. Hazel, his mother, is a “normal” person and, therefore, has no handicaps. She sits by her TV with George and observes with interest the sounds being emitted from his ear implants. George, in contrast, has a high IQ, and the implants emit a different noise several times a minute to distract him. Hazel, though she is a normal person, is not oblivious to his pain. She advises him to remove some of his weights, but he refuses, giving a philosophical defense of the commitment of the citizen to adhere to the equality laws.

George and Hazel begin to watch a dance program on their TV when it is suddenly interrupted. A news anchor appears and warns the people tuning in that a dangerous criminal named Harrison Bergeron has escaped from prison. The broadcast is immediately interrupted when Harrison breaks through the doors of the television studio. He launches into a monologue directed at his audience, including the dancers and musicians in his immediate presence, who wear handicaps that make their performances mediocre.

In his speech, Harrison declares himself emperor, asserting his physical and intellectual dominance over the population. He states that despite his many handicaps, he is inherently stronger and smarter than the rest, and proceeds to tear them off, which is a capital offense in the country. Insinuating that others can achieve greatness, he demands that the musicians remove their handicaps; they begin to play beautifully. He also demands that the ballerinas remove their disfiguring masks and weights. He selects one as his partner and begins to dance with her. They leap higher and higher as the music culminates. At its climax, he leaps with the ballerina to the thirty-foot-high ceiling. They remain there, as if suspended by magic, for several seconds, and kiss. Before the moment ends, Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, bursts into the studio. She shoots Harrison out of the air with a shotgun, killing him.

Back in George and Hazel’s living room, they struggle to process what they have just watched – not because their son has been killed in front of them, but because they have already forgotten, more or less, what they saw. They wonder aloud why they feel so sad. George, whose thoughts have already been scattered, tells Hazel that it’s best to “forget sad things.” His thoughts scatter again, and Hazel replies, “I always do.”

A classic modern satire, “Harrison Bergeron” caricatures the placeholder term “equality,” interrogating what its actual implementation might mean in a society that not only lacks a definition but allows a government made up of self-interested ideologues to define terms for them.