Literary Analysis of Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron

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University of Richmond
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In his short story Harrison Bergeron, Vonnegut exposes the danger of having a society that has all individuals being equal in every way. The threat comes in through the factors of execution and the outcome of the social equality (Joodaki, Hossein, & Mahdiany 73). The governments amendment of the countrys constitution allows the use of deadly force to achieve its goal of equalizing everybody. This clause enables torturing of citizens to make a non-competitive society by suppressing any form of advantage individuals possess. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains (Vonnegut 387). The intelligent are forced to wear transmitters in their ears which prevent them from using their full mental potential and lowering their mental capacity to that of the other dumb or slow people. The strong people are forced to carry weights that slow them down and wear them out. The pretty people are forced to wear masks and plastic noses to hide their beauty. This way people cannot rise to fight for their rights as they get taken away from them. The government kill the smart people and lead people to cowardice and dormancy as a result of the fear of reprisal. Equality gets achieved at the end but at a significant cost of freedom and progress of the people.

The government is depicted to be socialist where only a few people make all the decisions for all the others. Vonnegut in this picture tries to pose the question what makes the people in the government so unique than the others that they make all the decisions? Are they not people just like the rest of the people? Are they not capable of making mistakes as well? It is meant to mean that all systems can make errors be it dictatorial or democratic if people stopped paying attention.

In this context, Vonnegut depicts the television as a potent tool. This fact is evident by the presence of TV all over the story in different aspects. The government uses the tv as means to calm and distract people. Hazel and George have been sitting in front of the tv the entire time. They cannot comprehend an idea fully without getting distracted by something on TV. For example, we see Hazel crying about their son, but then she gets distracted by ballerinas on tv and then quickly forgetting why she was sad and even crying. It also happens when their son broke out of prison he decided to go on live tv and make his statement. The killing of Harrison on live television also shows how the Handicapper General of the United States, Diana Moon Glampers, is meant to warn other people from removing their handicaps and telling them the consequences of such actions. The television is also used to relay the message when Harrison escaped prison informing the public of the danger they face from interacting with him.

"A buzzer sounded in George's head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm. That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did," said Hazel. "Huh," said George. "That dance-it was nice," said Hazel (Vonnegut 387). Noise in this story was used to increase violence and vigor. The sounds in Georges' ear often disperses his thoughts. He tries to think about the dancers and is interrupted by the sound of a milk bottle getting smashed with a ball peen hammer. "My God-" said George, "that must be Harrison!". The realization was blasted from his mind instantly by the sound of an automobile collision in his head (Vonnegut 1998). He realized his son on tv, but the sound of a collision made the realization escape his grasp. A memory of how the old days used to be, inequality and competition is interrupted by the sound of sirens. The siren is used to represent the policing of thoughts and ideas by the government. Foreshadowing is described by the sound of twenty-one-gun salute when George thinks about his son Harrison. It foreshadows his eventual death by the gunshot from Diana Moon Glampers. Georges final noise is that of a gun riveting, which an appropriate echo of his sons Harrison death.

There are quite some symbols in the text. Harrison is a perfect symbol of rebellion, individualism, defiance, and desire for freedom in the current American setting. He differs from other people in the story by his strength to such an extent that he defies the law and deviates from the social norms currently practiced by all people. He seeks to free other people as well unlocking their full potential, thus, giving them an opportunity to think freely. Harrison tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper, tore straps guaranteed to support five thousand pounds. Harrison's scrap-iron handicaps crashed to the floor. Harrison thrust his thumbs under the bar of the padlock that secured his head harness. The bar snapped like celery. Harrison smashed his headphones and spectacles against the wall. He flung away his rubber-ball nose, revealed a man that would have awed Thor, the god of thunder (Vonnegut 387). The show of strength seeks to prove to the other people that beneath their limitations and restraints they are also beautiful and talented in their different ways. In the end, the death of Harrison symbolizes that if there is any speck of defiance left in America in 2081, it would soon eradicate and it has no place in the society.

There are some humorous moments in Harrison Bergeron regardless of the dull mood of the story or melancholic comedy. An excellent example of humor is when the announcer on tv has a speech impediment so severe that he had to hand over the message to the ballerina to read. Hazel thinks that the announcer deserves a raise just because of trying so hard while else it is a result of utter incompetence on his part. There is a use of dark humor where Havel is portrayed to be sweet and so stupid at the same time and remarkably similar to the Handicapper General. Hazels idea of using religious chimes to suppress the thinking of intelligent people like George is hard to ignore as well because she sympathizes with her husband but also thinks of new ideas to add to his world of hurt. There is a comical effect in the situation where Hazel and George are not able to remember their conversations just moments after they talk about certain things.


Works cited

Hattenhauer, Darryl. "Th politics of Kurt Vonnegut's" Harrison Bergeron." Studies in Short Fiction 35.4 (1998): 387.

Joodaki, Abdol Hossein, and Hamideh Mahdiany. "Equality versus Freedom in Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut: A Study of Dystopian Setting." International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature 2.4 (2013): 70-73.


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