Harrison Bergeron: A World Where Equality Fails
One would expect that having their son taken away and being wanted by the government would leave an impact on them, but not in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s world of Harrison Bergeron. In Harrison Bergeron, society functions by full equality, meaning in every aspect, everyone is equal and no one is better than another. In today’s society, equality is something that is fought so hard for, but Vonnegut uses the dystopian world of Harrison Bergeron to comment about the negatives consequences and flaws of a world that lives in full equality and as well as the impact of mass media and how it desensitizes people today. Vonnegut communicates the idea of equality failing people by showing the events and dynamics within the Bergeron family.
From the beginning, Vonnegut introduces the setting of the world. Vonnegut establishes that it is a dystopia. This takes place in the future of the year 2081 in the United States, where everyone is monitored by the Handicapper General. Another way that this fits into being a dystopia is that there are cruel punishments and fines for defying laws. For example, the story states, “Two years in prison and two thousand dollars fine for every ball I took out.” This is an example of a cruel punishment set in this world to keep people from defying the laws. Not only is it cruel, but it’s dehumanizing, which leads to another reason for how the story is dystopian. People with above-average have to wear handicaps to limit things that they are better in, which is dehumanizing because it forcefully takes away people’s qualities, mostly qualities where they were naturally born with. People in this society are constantly forced to limit themselves so that everyone is equal. Even though it’s meant to be fair, it brings in the idea that it is not fair because people that are above-average have to suffer living with handicaps in order to make the average be maintained. By creating this dystopia Vonnegut is able to criticize the flaws of the possible world of equality and demonstrate these flaws.
Vonnegut also uses imagery to continue to depict the dehumanizing circumstances that the citizens have to live in. Throughout the story, there is a pattern of Vonnegut using imagery mostly to show the audience the dehumanizing handicaps. George like other above-average people in this society has to live with handicaps. For George, he has to live with weights to limit his strength and signal sending headphones that block his thoughts. These handicaps are only a few of the many that these characters would have to face. When Vonnegut describes these handicaps they are detailed visuals. For example, when it comes to describing the handicaps seen on the ballerinas it says, “They were burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked…” and when it came to describing George’s handicaps it says, “… forty-seven pounds of birdshot in a canvas bag, which was padlocked around George’s neck.” These descriptions emphasize the struggles that the above-average suffers within this society. It’s how Vonnegut is telling the audience that there’s something wrong here. It questions if the idea of equality for all is possible because even though people are all the same here, it’s not equal that in order to achieve this that some have to live with handicaps. Visuals are also used to show the consequences of pain that George and the ballerinas have to face, “It was such a doozy that George was white and trembling, and tears stood on the rims of his red eyes.” From these visuals, it shows where the idea of equality for all falls short. People’s abilities are being limited, playing into the idea of a dystopian world. It shows that people are being tortured due to equality, an idea that is supposed to be positive.
The story also uses figurative language to paint the suffering of the handicapped. The use of this figurative language adds emphasis to the horrible circumstances of the handicaps like the imagery does. When George usually starts to think, his thoughts get intruded by the loud signals of the headphones he wears, “His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.” This simile illustrates that people can’t even think on their own because of the handicaps. They can’t have free thought because they are constantly being interfered with a loud signal. When people aren’t allowed to think on their own or have complex thoughts, it is limiting, adding to why this is a dystopian universe. No one is allowed to go above average, continuously limited by the handicaps that the government monitors. But not only do the figurative language paints the negatives of handicaps, but the freeing possibilities without them. During the dance scene between Harrison and the Ballerina, it was shown to be beautiful. They are dancing with an “explosion of joy and grace” and looking like “They leaped like a deer on the moon.” This use of language is the only time Vonnegut describes things in a positive light, the time that people are rebelling. Even though they’re breaking the law, it’s beautiful and free. This only adds on to the message that equality is limiting while when things are different and embraced for it, beauty will grow out of it.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. uses symbolism throughout his story in order to compare it to mass media and the discrepancies of full equality. Harrison Bergeron is a symbol himself, he’s a symbol for rebellion and being above average. In this, he is a symbol of freedom. Although this world is equal, no one is free in it, no one is allowed to strive for more due to the laws of the land. But Harrison Bergeron neglects this and embraces his better qualities even though it was brief. He wasn’t afraid to break the law like everyone else that is conditioned to. Harrison is a symbol that challenges the idea of equality. Harrison challenges the government ideas and is a very small minority willing to do so, which is meant to be seen as a threat to society. Another symbol is the television, this is how the Bergerons are getting their news and entertainment, a reflection of today’s mass media. In today’s world, people get everything they know through computers, phones, and televisions. How the Bergerons react to news is symbolic of how people digest news today, easy to move on from traumatic events because of how desensitized people have become. Vonnegut is trying to demonstrate how this dystopian world for equality has desensitized people’s minds, which is a comment on how in today’s society people are desensitized to violence in the world. Mass media has a great impact on the way people think and even though it educates people there are negatives influences from it, and that’s violence being shown so often will negatively impact the growing minds by desensitizing it (Mughal). This reflects how the Bergerons are so desensitized because of their society that they barely even remember or react to their son’s death on television. Due to the equality laws, Hazel is the average for everyone, which is a low bar and George has to stoop himself down to her level making them both being unable to comprehend and process the information they intake. How Hazel forgets the traumatic event so easily is a reflection of how people today are able to move on from horrible news and world events easily because of the fast paced news cycle of media. Even with that said the channel their watching is also a reflection of how media controls their society. There’s probably only one channel that they only have in this universe which also works to limit personal opinions and differentiating ideas (Joodaki). Also, the ballerinas are a symbol of distractions. They symbolize entertainment and the distractions media gives people, reflective of real-life as well. To avoid seeing the horrors of the world we distract ourselves with entertainment (Solnit). This is the role that the ballerinas play for the Bergerons, they are merely just a distraction from the suffering. A distraction from having to think about the lives they live.
One of the biggest ways that Vonnegut shows how the people in the story suffer because of the equality laws is through dialogue. In the dialogue that’s held by Geroge and Hazel throughout the story, it reveals and tells a lot to the readers about the society the Bergerons lives in. The image of equality making the world perfect quickly falls apart as the conversation between the two continues. Not only is the truth about this world reveal, but also about the characters. Through the dialogue, you could see that Hazel is flat in comparison to George. It is shown that George makes attempts to thinking on his own but fails to do so due to the signals that interferes with his thoughts.When George is shown to have greater depth than Hazel is when he starts to think about the possibilities that dancers shouldn’t be handicapped and when he thought about his son on television, but none of those thoughts lasted because of the pain he’s in. His memories and thoughts are limited to being as long as Hazel’s in this society, constantly suffering for being born with more. Even when Hazel notice his suffering she’s intrigued in the sounds he hears, “‘I’d think it would be real interesting, hearing all the different sounds,’ said Hazel a little envious.” This reveals the mindset that the society has. Instead of being worried she’s more envious of her husband’s pain. People are so bored of being equal in this world that they start to think about the pain that they can cause or bring upon themselves. Even when she begins to worry for George, she tries to convince him to letting some lead balls loose but he is reluctant because of the consequences. The consequences in this world are so high that people are willing to suffer than cheat the system. The equality is managed and run by the force of fear instead of willingness, which continues to depict the flaws and failures of the idea. In this conversation, it can be concluded that George and Hazel barely remember their son. When Harrison got killed on live television, Hazel couldn’t even recall the event and easily move on from it. This event of seeing their child killed broadcasted on live television would’ve been a traumatic experience, but they moved on like it was nothing in their casual conversation. This really shows the horrors of full equality, Vonnegut is exploring the idea that equality in every aspect is a flaw goal to reach for. It shows how desensitize people have become due to the influence of their government. Lastly, how Harrison uses his dialogue is very different from everyone else. Harrison speaks highly of himself, calling himself an “emperor.” It’s reflective of how monarchs would talk. This is used to reflect how Harrison is supposed to represent a negative in their society. He’s supposed to remind the reader of the “dark ages” that George mentioned. Even though Harrison speaks like this he symbolizes the opposite and is freedom, despite the fact that the society might see him as chaotic and insane for defying the laws.
Harrison Bergeron is a dystopia based on equality. It’s a world where Vonnegut gets the audience questions the theory of full equality. With this dystopian Vonnegut is able to display the negatives of operation on full equality and the flaws of its idea. By doing so he uses the dystopian world, imagery, figurative language, symbolism, and dialogue to display his discontent with the idea of full equality in society.
- Joodaki, Abdol Hossein, & Hamideh Mahdiany. ‘Equality versus Freedom in ‘‘Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut: A Study of Dystopian Setting.’ International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature [Online], 2.4 (2013): 70-73. Web. 1 Nov. 2019
- Mughal, M. A. “Mass Media and Its Influence on Society.” Think Research Expose, http://thedailyjournalist.com/pen-and-pad/mass-media-and-its-influence-on-society/.
- Solnit, Rebecca. “American Dystopia More Reality than Fiction.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 1 May 2012, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/american-dystopia-more-reality-than-fiction/.
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