Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Harrison Bergeron

Harrison Bergeron

Harrison Bergeron is one of Vonnegut’s science fiction. Science fiction is a speculative fiction and not like the other fantasy works, sci-fi looks forward, really forward. We can see from the setting in this story. Vonnegut takes 2081 as the year, “THE YEAR WAS 2081…” but we do not know the exact or physical place of it. I think this is ‘the unknown’. The story moves only in George and Hazel’s house and in the television studio through their television. In every fantasy works there is an unknown. Human being is always fascinating about the unknown. This is the reason why fantasy appears. The possibilities to make fantasy are still wide and will never ends because of the human’s curiousness will always stay there. The fear of the unknown and the eagerness are the fuel of creating new unknown. People in this era are looking forward in searching unknown because the technology are developing and there will be always some things new to find out or to fancy.

The style of writing in Harrison Bergeron uses past tense because the events are over and the narrator only re-tells it. The story is told by third person omniscient point of view. It knows what happened in both places (George’s house and Television Studio), also knows the character’s thoughts. For instance, it knows what George was thought as “A buzzer sounded in George’s head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.” And “George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped”

One thing that I see clearly in this story is about equality. It is appear in the very first sentence,

“…, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else”. I compare the equality here with the communism by Karl Marx in good general way and communism in Time Machine by H. G. Wells. But then we will see in Harrison’s world the meaning of it is shifting and the old concept of equality was beginning to give way to the new. No longer like the ideal communism.

In Harrison Bergeron, people are forced to be equal due to the 211th, 212th, 213th Amendments to the Constitution. In America itself, they have rules about equality. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Right Act of 1964 into law. Title VII of the Act establishes The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, sex, national origin, and religion. On the other hand, Harrison Bergeron was written and first published in October 1961, which was before the equality law appeared in America. I assume that equality became such a big issue on that time and there was something about America that makes Vonnegut fancies about the future of America in that way.

During the process in reading Harrison Bergeron, one question pops up in my mind. Who is Diana Moon Glampers? Who is she that everybody was orderly handicapped to be equal. As I can see from the passage, Diana is the United States Handicapper General. As powerful side (government), they force their idea about equality to the civil although with the violently. As a result, Diana appeared in the last of story; she fired twice and killed the Emperor and the Empress with a double-barrelled ten-gauge shotgun. The musicians also were threatened by Diana; they should choose whether they want to be shot or to be equal by the handicap. I see a huge distance between Diana (government) and the civil. The government has so much power over the civil, and the civil were so much mistreated by the fear and the law of equality. Ironically, from this situation I assume that the government is not above “average”, so that they use their strength to make the civil equal with them by handicapping the others.

Many themes that I find out in this story, one of them is about freedom. As we know, freedom is an American big value. Vonnegut is trying to display it through Harrison’s escape from jail, removal of his handicaps, and his effort to influence people surround him. As the contrary, I really feel the lack of freedom in this science fiction. Freedom no longer takes place as an important value in United States in 2081. Then it is all about how to make those who are above normal equal to those who are normal. Freedom can be taken away relative easily, especially since the forced equality has been ratified by the Amendments to the Constitution. People cannot freely say what they need to say and think out-of-the box as George was disturbed by noises every time he tried to think about freedom or simply thought like his son, “He began to think glimmeringly about his abnormal son who was now in jail, about Harrison, but a-twenty-one-gun salute in his head stopped that”. If a person is above average in anything, they are also will be handicapped as a result “so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in” .

I also see the civil rights are stolen by law of the Constitution and unceasing vigilance of the Handicapper General as well. This is the result of the lack of freedom; the next chapter is the loss of civil rights. Ironically, the civil rights is the key to get the freedom and equality. In fact the rights cause restrictions and lead to the destruction as we can see in this story (Harrison was die in the end). They force the civil to be completely equal in every single way, at least by the government’s standard. The purpose of equality might be to help or protect one group from being insecure and inferior but on the contrary, it restricts the other group’s right to perform their “above normal abilities”. The second purpose might be to avoid the social and individual competition among human being. We can see from the passage that Hazel and George try their best to prevent their selves from competing others, as “if you could just take a few out when you came home from work,” said Hazel. “I mean you don’t compete with anybody around here. You just set around”. George rejected Hazel’s wish to get away from the birdshot because if he did it, then other people will do so and pretty soon they would be back to the dark ages again when everybody competing against everybody else.

People are made equal by devices which bring them down to the normalcy level in the story. They all have sameness in ability, intelligence, appearance, and strength. For example, there is little mental handicap radio in ear or a tremendous pair of earphones for someone who is intelligent. It was tuned to a government transmitter that sent some sharp noise every twenty seconds or so. (e.g. a twenty –one-gun salute, an automobile collision, a buzzer). There are sash weights and several pounds of birdshot in a canvas bag to stunt the strength. The announcers had a serious speech impediment to cut down their ability. There are also some things used to cover the appearance (e.g. a hideous mask, spectacles with thick wavy lenses, red rubber ball for nose, eyebrows that are shaved off, white teeth with black caps at snuggle-tooth random). I can’t imagine how they look like and how they do their activities with all those things. One thing for sure that people in 2081 are really unequal where they need stuff to cover the differences.

The equality in Harrison Bergeron is made so no one feel inferior to the other. When all people follow one system, no matter how the handicaps were, they all have the sameness in ‘one measure’. The measurement based on the Handicapper standardization. I think this is not a kind of equality that the world wants to achieve. In Harrison Bergeron the equality is forced to the powerless by the powerful side so that it seems repressive. As I told before, in 2081, all people are equal before the God and the law. As the result, conflicts appear because there is nothing equal about a system that handicaps those who are above average to make them same as others. I may conclude that inequality and injustice still exist in Harrison Bergeron although it told they all are already equal.

‘We are so busy with trying to be equal that we forget that what make us really equal are the differences in our talents, our gifts.  It is our job to work and develop them not the government’s job to force their idea of equality on us.  We are what we make of ourselves, not what somebody or bodies decide we should be.’ –anonymous


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