Skip to main content

Analysis of "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Theme and analysis of Kurt Vonnegut's short story

Theme and analysis of Kurt Vonnegut's short story

"Harrison Bergeron" Analysis

"Harrison Bergeron" is a dystopian satire often read by students for its take on equality and freedom.

The story is set in the United States in the year 2081. It's told by a third-person limited narrator—the reader is given some access to George Bergeron's thoughts.

"Harrison Bergeron" Summary

It is the year 2081 and everyone is equal in every way—physically and mentally. The United States Handicapper General and her agents ensure compliance.

In April, Harrison Bergeron, the fourteen-year-old son of George and Hazel, is taken away by government agents. Neither of them thinks deeply about it. Hazel is average and incapable of deep thought, while George's mental handicap ear transmitter interrupts his thoughts with a variety of noises.

They are watching ballerinas on television. The ballerinas wear weights so they won't dance better than anyone else, and masks so they won't be beautiful.

Hazel is curious about the noises George hears; she doesn't need anything to limit her thoughts.

Hazel believes she'd make a good Handicapper General because she's so normal. She would change the noises on Sunday to loud bells, in honor of religion.

George has a fleeting thought of Harrison being in jail before a blast in his ear stops it.

George also wears a forty-seven-pound weight around his neck to limit him physically. Hazel suggests that it would be nice if he could lighten his load a bit. That would mean prison and a fine, and he doesn't want to risk it, even in private. They soon reach the conclusion that society would fall apart if everyone wanted to remove their handicaps.

Their television program is interrupted by a news bulletin which has to be read by a ballerina when the announcer's speech impediment makes it impossible. She modifies her voice so she doesn't sound good. Harrison, who is described as athletic, a genius, and under-handicapped, has escaped from jail and is considered dangerous.

A police photo shows Harrison as seven feet tall. He wears handicaps more extreme than anyone else—300 pounds of scrap metal, huge earphones and thick glasses. His good looks are concealed with a red-ball nose, shaved eyebrows and black-capped teeth.

During the report, Harrison bursts into the television studio and proclaims himself the Emperor. Everyone is afraid of him.

He removes his remaining handicaps and calls for an Empress. A ballerina steps forward. He removes her earpiece and mask, revealing her tremendous beauty.

He calls for music so they can show the world what real dancing is. He removes the musicians' handicaps and tells them to play their best. They dance with joy and grace, eventually leaping thirty feet in the air. In their triumph, they kiss the ceiling and each other.

The Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, enters the studio with a shotgun. She shoots the Emperor and Empress dead. She orders the musicians to get their handicaps back on.

Back at home, the Bergeron's television set burns out. George gets a beer. Hazel finishes crying about something sad she saw on television. The memory is already mixed up and faded.

George tells her to forget sad things. She replies that she always does.

The blast of a riveting gun sounds in George's head.

Theme: Equality

The beginning establishes clearly that equality is a main theme. Being a satire, the equality described isn't what people usually think of when they say they want equality.

Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.

— "Harrison Bergeron"

The strong or graceful are burdened with extra weight, the intelligent have their thoughts interrupted with jolting sounds, musicians wear an unstated handicap to limit their abilities and the beautiful wear hideous masks.

People are selected for jobs based on their inability to do them well, as the example of the newscaster illustrates. He has a severe speech impediment and has great trouble starting his report. He gives up, passing it off to a ballerina. She knows enough to make her pleasant voice sound like a squawking bird, so no one will feel bad.

It's also noteworthy that the equality in "Harrison Bergeron" isn't what we would normally think of as average. We can see this in the character of Harriet Bergeron who isn't subjected to blaring sounds because she is "a perfectly average intelligence." But average in this world isn't the average of our world.

When we're introduced to Harriet, she can't remember what she was crying about, even though she still has tears on her face. Making matters worse, she might have been moved that deeply by the ballerina's lackluster performance.

She also shows no understanding of the discomfort her husband is in from his radio transmitter. She envies it a little because "it would be real interesting, hearing all the different sounds."

After seeing her son shot dead on television, Hazel cries. About a minute later, she can't remember why, only that it was over "Something real sad on television."

At this point, there's no doubt how hampered the average person is, but this detail is capped off with a darkly comic (under the circumstances) moment. Taking George literally when he says "You can say that again," Harriet repeats herself.

Likewise, George's handicaps bring his intelligence below normal. He thinks that removing some of his burdens, even just in private, would send society "right back to the dark ages again."

The only rational thoughts George has in the whole story are a "vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn't be handicapped," and a glimmer about his son being in jail. They last only seconds.

George also doesn't react to Harrison's murder. The story doesn't make it clear if he witnessed it or not, but it doesn't really matter. George watched Harrison doing some remarkable and illegal things. If he got up for his beer while that was happening, that would also tell us a lot about his thinking ability.

There's a point related to the people's below-average abilities in the next section, in the third paragraph.

Theme: Authoritarianism

In "Harrison Bergeron," citizens are completely controlled by the government. Amendments have been made to the Constitution to support the policy of equality. It's enforced by the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, and her agents, H-G men.

The punishment for removing handicaps is severe. George says that for every ball of bird shot removed from the bag around his neck, he would get "Two years in prison and two thousand dollars fine."

To maintain authority, the government must suppress people's physical and mental abilities. This is why the "average" in this world is actually well below average. Average people would realize that the system they're living under doesn't make sense. The subnormal citizens of "Harrison Bergeron" can't focus their thoughts long enough to realize this or plot against it.

A point that could be missed in all the oppression is that Harrison's rebellion replaces one type of tyranny with another. He doesn't start making plans for the good of everyone. He immediately proclaims, "I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!"

He then orders people around. He also uses physical force on two of the musicians, as he "waved them like batons" and "slammed them back into their chairs."

After that, he glories in a showy dance and kisses a blindingly beautiful ballerina. Harrison is focused exclusively on himself. His behavior suggests he would institute a monarchy, with no checks on himself.

The most prominent example of the government's oppression is how Harrison's rebellion is dealt with.

He's not taken back into custody for trial. He's shot down on the spot, along with his dance partner, by Glampers.

The musicians who had their handicaps removed by Harrison are threatened with death.

1. What Affect Does Power Have on People in the Story?

It corrupts them, turning them into tyrants. The government's oppression is maintained with extreme jail time, fines and death.

Harrison uses his first experience with power to claim authority over everyone and order them around, without much regard for their well-being.

2. What Effect Does the Media Have on People in the Story?

It keeps people distracted, and transmits government propaganda and handicaps, which keeps people passive and reinforces government orthodoxy.

The distracting effect is seen in Hazel. She's brought to tears over something on television, probably the ballerinas.

An example of government propaganda is the news report about Harrison's escape. The part about his escape is true, but they said he was initially arrested for "plotting to overthrow the government," which is likely their interpretation. More likely, he was arrested simply for being so exceptional.

Likewise, the warning that he should be "regarded as extremely dangerous" isn't for the good of the populace. He's "dangerous" in that he's showing people that life could be different. He's presenting the possibility that life without handicaps might be better.

The media is also used in the form of the radio transmitters worn by the above-average. The blaring sounds keep them from thinking beyond government-sanctioned thoughts.

3. Why Is the Shotgun Still in Use in 2081 Rather Than a More Advanced Weapon?

This anachronism might strike a reader as odd, but it makes sense within the story's world.

Despite the story taking place in the year 2081, 120 years after it was published, there's a notable absence of advanced technology. It only mentions television, radio and the shotgun, all things that readers in 1961 were familiar with.

Additionally, the handicapping methods are crude. There are no brain implants or alterations to reduce intelligence, and no artificial gravity fields to inhibit the strong. Instead, there are loud noises from an earpiece, and bags of birdshot and scrap metal.

The Bergeron's also imply that George could get away with removing some of his handicaps in private. This means there isn't any advanced surveillance on people at all times.

All this suggests that technology hasn't advanced. That's why Glampers uses a shotgun. Who would invent a ray gun in this world? There's no one with that kind of thinking power. Barring a secret government program, technology will be stagnant in this society.

4. What Is Being Satirized in the Story?

Among the things Vonnegut's story satirizes are:

  • The idea of forcing equality on people
  • The numbing effect bred by the media
  • Authoritarianism or totalitarianism
  • Rebellions against the government