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Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian science fiction story “Harrison Bergeron” was first published in 1961 in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. It has since been adapted for film and television in PBS’s Between Timid and Timbuktu series, Showtime’s Harrison Bergeron, a 2008 short film also titled Harrison Bergeron, and a 2009 short film titled 2081. The story was republished in Vonnegut’s collection Welcome to the Monkey House in 1968. This guide references the e-book version of Welcome to the Monkey House: The Special Edition.
The story is set in the year 2081. It introduces a future where, the narrator says, “Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else” (18). The narrator adds, “All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the constitution, and the to the unceasing vigilance of the agents of the United States Handicapper General” (18). The Handicapper General creates the story’s first conflict when “the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron’s fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away” (18).
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The next scene shows George and Hazel watching television. For an unknown reason, tears are on Hazel’s cheeks. After a conversation about the ballet dancers on the screen who aren’t dancing any better than anybody else would, Hazel notices George wince when sounds go off in his radio earpiece. He says it “sounded like somebody hitting a milk bottle with a pen hammer” (20). She comments: “I’d think it would be interesting, hearing all the different sounds” (20). Hazel resembles Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers. She suggests new sounds George’s earpiece could emit, then says, “I think I’d make a good Handicapper General” (20).
After the sound of a twenty-one-gun salute rings in George’s ear, Hazel suggests he “rest [his] handicap bag on the pillows” (21). She adds, “If there was just some way we could make a little hole in the bottom of the bag, and just take a few of them lead balls. Just a few” (21). George rejects the idea, not only because of the consequences of “two years in prison and two thousand dollars fine” (21) but also because of the principle. He argues: “‘If I tried to get away with it […] then other people’d get away with it—and pretty soon we’d be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else” (21).
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An announcer interrupts the television broadcast, but nobody can understand what he says because, “like all announcers, he had a serious speech impediment” (22). A ballerina takes the microphone, apologizes for her beautiful voice, then says, “Harrison Bergeron, age fourteen, [...] has just escaped from jail, where he was held on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. He is a genius and an athlete, is under-handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely violent” (22). An image of Harrison appears on the screen.
Suddenly, Harrison comes into the television studio and steps onstage. He proclaims himself emperor, calling himself “a greater ruler than any man who ever lived!” (24). The narrator says that he then “tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper, tore straps guaranteed to support five thousand pounds. [...] He flung away his rubber-ball nose, revealed a man that would have awed Thor, the god of Thunder” (24).
He tells the audience that he will select an empress from whoever rises to claim “her mate and her throne” (24). A ballet dancer rises, and Harrison pulls off her handicaps. The two begin to dance beautifully, then they jump in the air and kiss. Soon, the Handicapper General enters the studio with a shotgun and shoots Harrison and the dancer. She then aims at the musicians, telling them to put their handicaps back on.
The story ends back with George and Hazel forgetting the televised killing of their son. George has not thought about the broadcast because he left the room for a beer and “paused while a handicap signal shook him up” (26). He sees Hazel crying, asks her why, and she says, “I forget [...] Something real sad on television.” After committing to “forget sad things,” George winces at “the sound of a riveting gun in his head” (26).
By Kurt Vonnegut Jr.