Harrison Bergeron is a short narrative composed by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to represent different themes, including the media power, government control, and equality. Amongst the themes, the most prominent theme throughout the story is equality within a dystopian society. A dystopian society is an imagined social setting where oppressive societal control is sustained through totalitarian, technological, bureaucratic, moral, or corporate regimes (Latiff and Feisal 27). Equality entails treating every person in a similar fair manner; equal opportunity in accessing political, economic, and social resources. However, the world cannot achieve equality regardless of its techniques to bring humanity into a similar piece. “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut portrays how the concept of trying to get equality can go wrong in society. This essay intends to describe the theme of equality, as depicted in the short story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut.
In “Harrison Bergeron,” Vonnegut Jr. examines the social structural concept in which the author satirizes a social setting where equality regulations are imposed through total government control. In particular, the individuals in this society who are considered exceptional or above average, including people with strength, intelligence, and beauty, are forced to wear handicaps by the government to resemble the unexceptional individuals living in the dystopian society. According to Latiff and Feisal, Vonnegut classifies this population into three categories of symbolic handicap devices: facial handicaps, bags of birdshot, and earpiece handicaps (33).
Bags of Birdshot
One of the literary handicapping devices used by Vonnegut in his Harrison Bergeron short tale to explore the theme of equality in a dystopian society includes the bags of birdshot. In particular, “She was referring to the forty-seven pounds of birdshot in a canvas bag, which was padlocked around George’s neck” (Vonnegut 2). The bag is filled with lead balls to prevent people whose strength is above average from their grace, power, and movement. Moreover, removing the lead balls from the bags would result in their imprisonment and a fine of “two thousand dollars” for each lead ball drawn from the bags of birdshot (Vonnegut 2).
Vonnegut’s use of Handicapping Devices to Signify Social Equality
The other handicapping device involves facial handicaps. According to the author, “she must have been extraordinarily beautiful because the mask she wore was hideous.” In a typical dystopian society, the women regarded as being more attractive than others were made to face handicaps in the form of deformity masks to mask their beauty. The masks were curved in a way that they they looked like “spectacles with thickwavy lenses” while their teeth were “covered with black caps” (Vonnegut 3). The final handicapping device employed by the author to express the theme of equality from the perspective of a dystopian society includes an earpiece handicap. At the beginning of the short narrative, the character George begins to reflect on his son, who is abnormal and is held in jail. However, these thoughts are immediately prevented from taking place through “a twenty-one-gun salute in his head” (Vonnegut 1).in particular. This device produces the 21-gun salute, which is tuned to the dystopian government’s transmitter and forces intellectually above-average individuals to limit theirs through violent and loud sounds. These sounds are meant to prohibit persons “from taking unfair advantage of their brains” (Vonnegut 1).
Vonnegut’s usage of handicapping devices serves as a symbolic approach to demonstrating the authoritarian influence of a typical dystopian society at the time. The government has no fear of reprisal; hence it can murder anyone who does not abide by the new rules, such as Harrison (Vonnegut p.6). Indeed, Vonnegut portrays Harrison as beautiful beyond words, immeasurably intelligent, and astonishingly strong. Expressly, his speech, which should have been highly eloquent at one point, is limited to “uh” or “huh,” because of the loud ear handicaps that are meant to reduce or restrict live thoughts and feelings (Vonnegut 1).
Moreover, aside from elaborating on the government’s-imposed power, Vonnegut utilizes the handicapping devices to demonstrate social equality by expunging the dystopian society’s members’ unique attributes that distinguish such people from others. These characteristics range from the grace of the dancers, and the above-average intellect of characters like George, to the crisp and smooth voices held by newscasters. In this context, Vonnegut’s point of view is that the dystopian society’s playing field has been leveled out. Moreover, Vonnegut suggests that the radio announcers of an equal social setting are just attempting “to do the best with what God gave” them (Vonnegut 2). In this context, the citizens of this society are made to believe that they reside in an equal social setting by being fed the narrative that any limited roles they possessed previously are attributes they were offered by God (Joodaki and Mahdiany 70).
Vonnegut elaborates on the concept of equality in a dystopian society, the government’s authoritative power that enforces equal social practices on people with the use of different deformity handicapping devices, including facial handicaps, bags of birdshot, and ear handicaps. These devices limit their particular attributes and level them up with other citizens. Vonnegut uses characters like George and Harris to indicate how the government imposes social equality in a dystopian social setting through such actions as the 21-gun salute and forcing women and others considered to be more beautiful than others to wear masks that hide their beauty and strength as a way of leveling them up with other citizens.
Joodaki, Abdol Hossein, and Hamideh Mahdiany. “Equality versus Freedom in ‘‘Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut: A Study of Dystopian Setting.” International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature 2.4 (2013): 70-73.
Latiff M. Abdul,, and Hannah S. Feisal. “Equality versus Freedom in ‘‘Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut: A Study of Dystopian Setting.” Selangor Science &Technology Review, vol. 4, no. 13, 6 May 2013, pp. 27-34, Education, Social Science & Management. Accessed 1 Nov. 2022.
Vonnegut Jr. K,. Harrison Bergeron, (1961) Retrieved from http://wordfight.org/bnw/bnw-unit_packet.pdf