The Effect of True Equality
According to the Declaration of Independence, every person in the United States has certain rights that cannot be taken away from them. Equality today means fighting for those rights for every single person, no matter what skin tone or gender. However, America does not have a truly equal society in every aspect, like how society is depicted in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron.” People are equally smart and equally talented in Vonnegut’s story. By having equality intellectually, the society Vonnegut pictures stays at a standstill. In this story, Harrison Bergeron was the son of a couple, George and Hazel, who escapes from jail and rebels against the society, which eventually leads to his demise. “Harrison Bergeron,” originally published in October 1961, is allegorical by addressing controversial concepts at the time it was written. Vonnegut alludes to the loss of identity and uniformity in communism during the Cold War. Overall, Vonnegut clearly shows how true and full equality stifles change and therefore impedes progress.
The handicaps in “Harrison Bergeron” are the barriers that society places on the population which Vonnegut uses as motifs. Ear radios that stop thought, or weights around people’s necks or masks people would have to wear to disguise their beauty are among the variety of impediments that make people equal. The ear radios would blast disrupting sounds into the ears of anyone who was smarter than “average” (Vonnegut 1), or the least intelligent person. Ballerinas wore bags of birdshot, or lead, and sash weights so the ballerinas could not dance exceptionally, but simply as well as the normal person. Therefore, the entire general population had no more intellect than the least astute, no more grace than the least grateful, and no more beauty than the least beautiful. The handicaps also halt the future possibility of the government or society evolving. For example, when George and Hazel, Harrison Bergeron’s parents, were watching television, George started thinking that maybe the dancers on the television should not have any handicaps, “but he didn’t get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts” (Vonnegut 1). As soon as George conceived a malignant thought about how their society was run, the ear radio put an end to it. George could not elaborate on his idea why their society was corrupt, so George could not fight to end the corruption.
The effect of the handicaps as well as other factors cause stagnancy, which Vonnegut highlights be using repetition. When George and Hazel first start watching television with each other, “there were tears on Hazel’s cheeks, but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about” (Vonnegut 1). At the closing of the story, after witnessing the death of her son, Hazel once again has tears in her eyes but she does not remember why. Then George and Hazel sit down once again to watch the television. The beginning and end of Vonnegut’s story are almost identical, making the plot of the story seem close to irrelevant. The society that George and Hazel live in allows for no change, so no improvements can be made. The resolution of “Harrison Bergeron is also ironic, since George and Hazel do not grieve for their murdered son as expected, but instead are distracted and manipulated.
What Hazel watches on the television that she forgets, is Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, shooting Harrison Bergeron and the ballerina he was dancing with. Vonnegut incorporates symbolism into Diana’s character to further create his message. When Harrison breaks free from his handicaps, he literally and figuratively breaks free from his imprisonment. When Diana shoots the gun, not only does she end Harrison and the ballerina’s lives, but she also puts an end to Harrison’s liberty and the change he brought. Diana herself is also a symbol for the society. She does not act out of her own individual thoughts because she does not have the capability to think in such complication, but instead she acts for society. She kills Harrison because that is what needs to be done to maintain the way of life. There is also irony when Diana kills Harrison. Just before Diana steps in, Harrison was claiming to be “the Emperor” (Vonnegut 4) and ordered everyone to “do what I say at once” (Vonnegut 4). Shortly after, Harrison falls, showing how he was not really an emperor at all, just someone who revolted against the extreme egalitarian society.
Through motifs, repetition, irony and symbolism, Vonnegut shows how in a completely fair society, change and evolution can never happen. The society in “Harrison Bergeron” is reminiscent of the society in today’s world as well. Society’s pressures to be the ideal can be mental handicaps. Here is where Vonnegut’s message can be positive. If conformity stops change, then individualism can foster improvement. The strengths and weaknesses of every single person contribute to a greater world and a stronger society if people are allowed to be themselves.