The Most Dangerous Condition By George And Hazel In Harrison Bergeron
Equality is something every society should strive for, a trademark of a thriving country, and a positive thing worth fighting for, correct? Well, although this seems to be common knowledge for most people, imagine if the world was perfectly equal. No one is smarter, more attractive, stronger, a better speaker, or at an advantage over anyone in any way. Kurt Vonnegut created the short story “Harrison Bergeron” to show the dangerous reality of complete equality, and how a world like this would lead to unfulfillment and a loss of one’s true identity.
“Harrison Bergeron” takes place in the living room of George and Hazel Bergeron in the year 2081. There have been amendments to the constitution to make everyone completely equal, and the Handicapper General makes sure these amendments are being followed. The smart wear earpieces, the strong wear weights, the pretty wear masks, etc. In April, the Bergeron’s fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, was taken away by the H-G men for being a threat. Hazel and George sit in their living room, watching the news. There are ballerinas on the tv, but they “weren’t really very good-no better than anybody else would have been, anyway” (Vonnegut 1). George begins to think about the ballerinas, and he wonders if maybe they shouldn’t have to wear the weights and masks. He doesn’t get very far with his thoughts, though, because George’s above-average intelligence requires him to wear an earpiece that plays thought-racking sounds every 20 seconds.
At random, an important news update flashes on the screen. It reads, “‘Harrison Bergeron…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 dangerous’” (Vonnegut 3). Coincidently, during the news update, Harrison Bergeron bursts into the studio, ripping the door off. George recognizes Harrison as his son, but he soon forgets because of a noise in his earpiece (Vonnegut 4). Harrison then proceeds to call himself the “emperor” and claims one of the ballerinas as his empress. They dance together beautifully and weightlessly but are then shot down by the Handicapper General. Hazel watches this through the television, but George is in the kitchen. When he returns and asks her why she’s been crying, but she can’t seem to remember why.
“Harrison Bergeron”, written by Kurt Vonnegut, was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1961, and then later republished in the Welcome to the Monkey House short story collection (SparkNotes Editors). When it was originally published, the story was believed to have the intent of sparking fear in American citizens, as well as mocking American culture in a couple of ways. As the years have gone on, the interpretations and the time has changed simultaneously. Today, it has been interpreted as what would happen to America if we continue with the trend of “political correctness” and psychiatric drugs (SparkNotes Editors).
In the 1960s, America had a seemingly-bright future. John F. Kennedy was in office: Bright, young, handsome, and promising America a “New Frontier” (History.com Editors). According to History.com, these laws were going to eliminate injustice and inequality in the U.S. This may have been part of Vonnegut’s motivation to write “Harrison Bergeron”. With everyone talking about the new possibilities of equality and justice, he jumped on the opportunity to show the public what would happen if these measures were pushed a little too far, and total equality became ideal. Vonnegut almost seemed to mock America for idealizing equality so much. This was also after the Cold War, and the anti-communist “Red Scare” that took place in the 1950’s (History.com Editors). American people were terrified at the thought of communism, which idealizes equality and strong government control. The Handicapper General in “Harrison Bergeron” is very dictator-like, so I believe Vonnegut was criticizing communism as well, knowing the American people would play into this fear.
I believe this particular story by Vonnegut was extremely effective in conveying the political message he wanted. He used simple language, and ignorant characters to create a satirical story. When a story contains satire, it mocks the characters and creates irony by exposing the foolishness of characters. Hazel, a main character in the story, sat and watched their television the whole time. She is completely enthralled by it, but too stupid to process what is going on, or why it is making her cry (Vonnegut 1). George Bergeron, on the other hand, is pretty smart, but he wears an earpiece that makes him stupid. Regardless of how smart he is, he is oblivious to the fact that the government is corrupt. This is shown when Hazel suggests he removes some of his handicaps, and George says, “If I tried to get away with it…pretty soon we’d be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else” (Vonnegut 2).
Although, like I said, I believe this tactic is extremely effective, it is also manipulative. Instead of presenting your facts straight, you threaten your readers with a corrupt future. This style of reading uses a “fear-factor” to scare the reader, because they never want society to be that way and they never want to be that stupid. According to Psychology Today, “[T]he top motivator is fear. It is such a strong driver of our behavior that it may also form the basis for every other motivator in out lives. Fear…moves us subconsciously” (Wilson). He also disguised his political message in a Sci-fi story. This means that readers who had no idea this piece had political motivation, would read it purely for enjoyment. This was an extremely smart move by Vonnegut and conveyed the message he wanted without coming across as a “boring political essay.” In a way, the story is a wolf in sheep’s clothing: it can be read at multiple levels. On one, it’s a story about a dark future, and on another, a political stance against communism and the liberal mindset of equality.
In conclusion, “Harrison Bergeron” is a masterpiece of a story. It is simple to read, interesting, and has the political message Vonnegut wanted to convey entwined inside. I would recommend this book to anyone from middle schoolers to college scholars because it can be read on many different levels. So next time you hear about equality, take a second to ask yourself “How equal?”
- History.com Editors. “The 1960s History.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 25 May 2010, https://www.history.com/topics/1960s/1960s-history.
- SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Harrison Bergeron.” SparkNotes.com, SparkNotes LLC, 2007, https://www.sparknotes.com/short-stories/harrison-bergeron/.
- Vonnegut, Kurt. “Harrison Bergeron.” Full Text of ‘Harrison Bergeron (& Activity)’, Oct. 1961, https://archive.org/stream/HarrisonBergeron/Harrison Bergeron_djvu.txt.
- Wilson, Robert Evans. “Fear vs. Power.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 11 Mar. 2013, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-main-ingredient/201303/fear-vs-power.
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