Harrison Bergeron – A False Embodiment of a Truly Equal America

In the short story “Harrison Bergeron”, Kurt Vonnegut describes an America that finally embodies equality in the truest form, where no one person overshadows any other person, and all people who have any additional talents or good looks are stifled by the government’s stringent laws. This reading, both deeply dark and ironically satirical, captures a real-life critique of the core values that America prides itself on – and supposedly carries out in the most effective way – while pointing to the obvious flaws regarding some of these beliefs.

Vonnegut makes his satirical target very clear from the get-go, stating “the year was 2081, and everyone was finally equal […] they were equal every which way. Nobody was better looking than anyone else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anyone else (1). It seems as though Vonnegut directly responds to the Declaration of Independence that America was founded on, which states that “all men are created equal” – and Vonnegut refutes that by saying that, some 300 years after this document was created, America has finally gotten it right and made everyone equal through extensive trial and error. Vonnegut indirectly reveals his thoughts on total egalitarianism through his tale revolving around Hazel, George and Harrison, pointing out that although an aim for true equality is understandable, a world in which everyone is leveled off under the same conditions could be dangerous. Vonnegut touches on this in the second paragraph, stating, “some things about living still weren’t quite right, though” (1). He starts the second paragraph off with this contradictory statement to undercut the happiness and thrill that one might feel about a place that embodies genuine equality to its most literal sense. The use of the word “though” reveals that, although at surface level, true equality might seem to be an ideal situation, there are severe downfalls to placing everyone on the same playing field in a functioning society.

Vonnegut furthers this outlook in the way he chooses to describe how equality is achieved in this futuristic society. He uses the word “mental handicap” (1) to describe how George, a superior man with above-average intelligence, was handicapped and unable to utilize his natural given talents because of this all-equal society that is America in 2081. He was “required by law to wear it at all times” (1) to ensure that he would never have more intelligence than any other person, namely his wife, Hazel, in this case. Vonnegut’s choice in diction emphasizes the unfair nature of this “handicap” that was mandated by the government and placed on people who were more capable – smarter, prettier, happier, etc. – and further emphasizing the issues with a truly equal society. The word “handicap” has a distinct stigma attached to it that implies a quality that hinders ones success and power to perform basic tasks to the best of one’s ability. By placing a “handicap” on people, like George and the performing ballerinas, the government is disallowing them to utilize their full talents and skills.

Vonnegut’s short story portrays a supposedly ideal culture of equality and balance between all people of society. Vonnegut inserts both his own personal outlook on egalitarianism, as well as the effects he projects would happen should this type of society be implemented. Through directed diction and phrases comparable to historical American documents, Vonnegut displays the problems with true egalitarianism and how that outlook could affect society in the long run.

2 thoughts on “Harrison Bergeron – A False Embodiment of a Truly Equal America”

  1. This is one of my favorite short stories ever! I love how Vonnegut says things like “America finally got it right” and other positive statements that are clearly very ironic. His tone says even more than his actual words here. Beautiful women wear masks, especially smart people have an alarm go off in their minds every few minutes, and strong people have weights attached to them. In the end of the story, George and Hazel watch their son, Harrison, an exceptionally extraordinary boy, be killed for removing his many handicaps on television. What do you think the message of the story is? Does Vonnegut think that the cultural and political state in the U.S is discouraging differences, even good ones? Is this meant to be an ironic, extreme depiction of where our country’s discourse is heading?

  2. I thought this post did a very good job at close reading and you even made me interested in looking up this text myself. I find myself fascinated by dystopian texts that use bits of reality to make a satirical commentary on social or political injustices. From your description of this short story, it reminded me of other texts like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Divergent,” which all (I would argue) can be connected to contemporary conversations. I looked at the publication year of your story which appears to be 1961, so I would be interested in hearing what you have to say about your text’s implications today.

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