An Analysis of Harrison Bergeron and Welcome to the Monkey House
Perhaps the two most famous works of short fiction by the acclaimed science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut, Harrison Bergeron and Welcome to the Monkey House also share a number of thematic concerns. In addition, both stories have been widely misinterpreted in a way that is inconsistent with the intentions of their author and with Vonnegut’s work as a whole. Such misinterpretations mirror those simplistic readings of other dystopian works such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
Harrison Bergeron portrays a future where “everyone is equal” in a way that is strikingly literal. Athletic people are forced to have their bodies weighed down, beautiful people are forced to cover up and smart people have their thoughts interrupted periodically with large blasts of noise. The title character is a “superman” who is so exceptional that he cannot be properly handicapped by the government. He is jailed, but escapes and attempts to interrupt a government television broadcast before being shot dead in a comical fashion. The entire narrative of the story unfolds around Harrison’s parents, who watch the story unfold via their television set.
Welcome to the Monkey House portrays a future where over population is a major problem. In order to keep the population under control the government makes citizens take pills that make them completely numb from the waist down. In addition, the government encourages older citizens to end their lives through “ethical suicide”. The story follows Nancy, an ethical suicide parlor hostess who has been targeted by Billy the Poet, a protestor against the government who kidnaps hostesses, such as Nancy, and rapes them.
This article will analyze both stories, contrasting how both deal with dystopian scenarios and the common themes and style of these stories. Both of these stories have widely been interpreted as supporting a “libertarian” viewpoint. Such interpretations are understandable in the sense that both stories deal with totalitarian governments, an opposition to that government, and satirically portray an absurd consequence of government control. However, this interpretation seems to be both simplistic and wrong when examining the texts closer, with a more nuanced eye for detail, and by reading more deeply into the works of their author Kurt Vonnegut.
The ideas that are detailed in Harrison Bergeron first appear in Vonnegut’s novel The Sirens of Titan. This novel satirizes the ideas of capitalism, and portrays a character who is hugely successful at the stock market by picking stocks based on a code he deciphers from The Bible. Vonnegut’s point with this is that he sees economic success as merely blind luck, based on a person’s station at birth, the abilities they are blessed with, and whether the society they are born into values those abilities. Later in the novel the main character returns from space to find that earth has adopted an egalitarian view similar to the one in Harrison Bergeron. While Vonnegut has spent much of the novel attacking the economic inequality of capitalism and advocating for socialism, the handicapped society is portrayed as being absurd, showing that Vonnegut sees these two kinds of egalitarianism being completely different and totally at odds with each other.
The text of Harrison Bergeron shows this as well. At one point Harrison’s mother Hazel declares that the newscaster deserves a raise. This suggests that although this society handicaps people based on their abilities, it does not redistribute wealth., emphasizing the fact that Vonnegut sees these two forms of equality to be completely different from each other and not analogous as some right wing interpreters of the story seem to take it. In addition, the character Diana Moon Glampers, the handicapper general, later appears in Vonnegut’s novel God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, a novel where the main character Eliot Rosewater is dedicated to helping the poor and to economic equality, but is thought crazy by American society because of it. The fact that the character reappears in the later novel, although there is a one hundred year gap between timelines, suggest both the “unreality” of the future Vonnegut portrays and the emphasis on the difference between socialism and totalitarianism.
Welcome to the Monkey House was published seven years later in 1968 in Playboy Magazine. While Harrison Bergeron reflected the cold war era it was published in, with a cleverly disguised parody of a right wing straw man of socialist ideas posing as an anti-communist cautionary tale, the political climate had shifted drastically by the time Vonnegut published the latter story. While he was still concerned with an overreach of government control, this one came from the Catholic church's refusal to allow the use of contraceptives and the more open view of sexuality that American society was ready to embrace. The story portrays a society where people are robbed of the pleasures of sexuality through a compromise between “the people who know science and the people who know morals,” deciding that sterilization was unethical but allowing people to enjoy sex through contraception was also unacceptable.
From a feminist perspective the story is very problematic. The hero, Billy the Poet, literally forces women to have sex with him after he rids them of the pills that keep them from feeling from the waist down. Afterwards, all of the women fail to identify Billy, giving wildly different descriptions of his looks. This suggests that they are grateful to him for liberating them sexually. This is confirmed when Nancy is taken to Billy’s lair and held down by a group of suicide parlor hostesses. The metaphoric meaning of the text is at odds morally with the literal meaning of the text. We see a genuine act of rape, but that act is seen as having a purpose of the greater benefit of the individual. This makes Welcome to the Monkey House, a genuinely subversive and difficult work of science fiction.
What is important to note about both stories is that they portray a totalitarian government that proposes an absurd solution to a genuine problem. In the case of Harrison Bergeron, we see a future that has addressed the real problem of inequality in a cartoonish and truly dumb manner. In Welcome to the Monkey House, we see a future that addresses overpopulation in a manner that, while outlandish, much more plausible then the one in the former story. The future in the latter story seems genuinely frightening to Vonnegut, while the future of the former story is a fantasy of the right wing paranoia that could never in fact come true. We can see these differences in approach to the material by examining the differences in tone and the portrayal of the main character in both stories.
Both stories begin with a tone that is absurd and comedic. The obvious difference between the two stories is that Welcome to the Monkey House becomes more serious as it progresses, while Harrison Bergeron instead builds in terms of absurdity. Even though it ends “tragically” Vonnegut never wants us to genuinely weep for Harrison. His character is too cartoonish for that. Though we are assured that Harrison is a “superman”, seven feet tall, handsome, strong, a genius and a sexual dynamo, he behaves like a clown. When we see him he shows himself to be less than the genius we have been assured he is by bursting into a television studio and declaring, “I am your Emperor!.” The fact that the “hero” of the story immediately asserts himself as a dictator is lost on most right wing commentators of the story. Harrison then absurdly indulges in dancing with a ballerina, simply waiting for the government officials to burst in and shoot him dead, a truly absurd death.
By contrast, we are supposed to sympathize with Billy the Poet. His world was created by a theocratic government. The inventor of the pills that rob the populace of their sexuality did so after witnessing a monkey at the zoo masturbating, while taking his children to the zoo after church. In this case Vonnegut is railing at organized religion and its attempts to enforce its morality through the government. When Billy rapes Nancy he shows genuine remorse, but is convinced that what he is doing is the right thing. While the ending of Harrison Bergeron is absurd, the ending of Welcome to the Monkey House is bittersweet. Vonnegut is not simply responding to an absurd right wing straw man but something he sees as a genuine threat to humanity.
Both stories also use the theme of technology in accordance with its usual portrayal in Vonnegut’s work. While Vonnegut heaps plenty of scorn on religion in his work, he does not see science as the savior that many do. It is science, Vonnegut argues, that is slowly making us less human and giving us the means to destroy ourselves. In Harrison Bergeron, the entire story is watched on television by Harrison’s parents. This both hints at the fact that Vonnegut regards the world he has portrayed as “a fiction” but also shows how he regards television as a deceiver of the masses. When Harrison’s mother watches him die she sheds tears, but is immediately distracted by something else on television. This invites the reader to ask what in the story is even real and how is our society moving toward a state of not recognizing an authentic reality.
The scientists do not get off easy in Welcome to the Monkey House either. While the story takes shots at religion, the future that the characters exist in is a coldly utilitarian one. Just like in Harrison Bergeron the masses are distracted by television. Euthanasia of the elderly is another form of population control. Vonnegut fears the misuse of science by the politicians as much as he fears the influence of religion on them, and this is an important theme to remember in his work. To Vonnegut, though religion cannot offer much in the way of truths, he does think it has value in giving us some comfort and community. Science however, he warns, will be our ultimate undoing if we cannot use it wisely.