By: Rachael Carmichael
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was onto something when he wrote the fictional dystopia, Harrison Bergeron, disguised as a utopian society set in the United States in 2081. In this short story, everyone is finally “equal” due to the creation of the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments of the Constitution. The government-mandated equality is purportedly essential for the success of the community; however, when freedom and individuality are taken away from the citizens, it becomes a dystopia.
The story begins in the living room of Harrison’s parents, Hazel and George Bergeron. This is where we first learn how equality is enforced in this society. George, like many others, is burdened with handicaps: one in the form of a small radio in his ear that gives off loud noises to prevent him from thinking, as well as a forty-seven-pound bag of birdshot, the smallest shotgun ammunition, that hangs around his neck. Hazel is an “average” person in this society who does not require any handicaps, while George has two in order to be considered equal to her.
This widespread phenomenon of handicapping has become the norm in this dystopian society, and no one is able to question these laws, except for one: Harrison Bergeron. The idea of no one being better than another person is a common theme in the making of a utopia, but equality is not always achievable. When handicaps are forced upon people, that takes away their individuality. For example, George is an intelligent man, but he is unable to think deeply about anything due to the loud noise of his handicap. This is to put him and his wife on the same skill level.
Harrison, who is 14 years old, is able to defy these laws, and handicaps, by constantly breaking his restraints and escaping from jail. Harrison’s ability to take off his handicaps seems superhuman. He bares extreme versions of the handicaps, such as: large headphones, heavy scrap metal, and large spectacles that make him half blind. These limitations serve both to limit his extraordinary potential and to punish Harrison for not complying with the rules of the United States Handicapper General, the law enforcer. Since his parents, and the community at large, won’t be able to think deeply about what he is doing or even remember this event, he is a fleeting symbol of hope for them. He shows readers that, even if efforts seem futile, by continuously resisting harmful laws there’s hope for a better society, and that people should not give up fighting for a better life. Compared to others in this community, Harrison has the strength and courage to do what no other person will do – going against the government by taking off his handicaps.
The consequences of his actions are isolation and having more intense handicaps forced upon him. Harrison is the only one who knowingly suffers in this utopia since he can see the oppression. This is evident when Harrison breaks into a televised ballet performance that his parents happen to be watching at home. Compared to everyone else, he is the only one wearing extensive handicaps. The idea of a society being a utopia blinds people from seeing their unique abilities and characteristics.
The televised ballet establishes a distance between dancers and audience; no one attends the live performance. The ballerinas also are not able to perform to their full potential due to the weights they’re being forced to carry around. This hinders their creativity for this art form, but the viewers don’t know this since everyone is used to watching the dancers with their weights, unable to dance to the best of their abilities. Nor would they be allowed to think too deeply about the mediocre performance because of their own handicaps. When Harrison takes off his handicaps, as well as the lead ballerina’s, it is to show her and the rest of the audience what is being taken away from them, individuality.
Harrison and the ballerina’s dance is a symbol for the potential freedom that citizens can have, but their deaths at the hands of the handicapper general reveal the hold that the government has over the society and their ability to strip their citizens of their freedom and individuality. This highlights how this dystopia is disguised as a utopia, because the desire for equality seems good for people like Hazel and George, but for people like Harrison and the ballerina, having their individuality stripped from them shows the pitfalls of this social oppression.
In our modern society, everyone has unique characteristics, whether they are strong, beautiful, or smart just like the characters in Harrison Bergeron. However, unlike our society, this dystopia is built on the foundation of not letting people be strong, beautiful, smart, and anything else that makes them unique. The lack of freedom the citizens have is evident when they are too scared to follow Harrison’s example of taking off the handicaps. They know the punishments that will be given to them if they defy the rules, which is why they only watch as Harrison tries to convince them to take off their handicaps as well.
This short story is a lesson for societies who want total equality at the cost of sacrificing individual rights. Harrison Bergeron’s society is built on the inequality between individuals, ultimately making them “equal” with their peers, and forever less than the government officials. Instead of equality being essential for success, embracing people’s individual abilities can create a more prosperous utopia.
The Mission. “What Happens When Everyone Is Finally ‘Equal’ – The Mission – Medium.” Medium.com, Medium, 4 Oct. 2017, medium.com/the-mission/what-happens-when-everyone-is-finally-equal-3827f134150a.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Harrison Bergeron. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction , 1961.