Kurt Vonnegut

"Harrison Bergeron"

Study Questions

What are the implications of the opening sentence, "The year was 2081, and everyone was finally equal" (7)? What happened? Are capitalism and American democracy dead? Did Soviet-style totalitarianism finally prevail? What does the elimination of advantages, difference, and competition suggest concerning the nature of the changes that have taken place?

Are such changes impossible under American capitalism or are they likely results of just such a system? What human tendencies underlie the sort of world described by Vonnegut? Are these the end results of the progressive spread of middle class greed, envy, and pettiness (the character of, for example, the shoppers in Updike's "A&P")?. What does the experience of America in the late twentieth century suggest? What does the popularity of shows like Oprah's and Rosie O'Donnell's hint at? Why are such figures role models? What is given center stage in such shows? What about Barbie dolls redesigned to look more like "real" people? How about certain trends in elementary/secondary and even higher education (e.g. grade inflation)? What of practices in organized sports for youth such as giving equal playing time regardless of ability, of not keeping score (and acting as if one didn't know what the score was); of giving medals to players on teams regardless of how they finished in their league?

What are the functions of the agents of "the United States Handicapper General" (7)? What threats to society do such agents combat? What political processes could lead to such absurdities? How is radical mediocrity achieved and enforced?

What actual developments, policies, trends involving government-enforced equalizing, "handicapping," in America might Vonnegut be parodying in "Harrison Bergeron"?  What conceptions of equality motivate such policies and trends?  

How is the conception of equality related to basic forms of commercial life such as the commodity and money and the social roles of buyer, seller, and wage-laborer?   (Consider what Marx observes about equality and simple commodity circulation on p. 291.)  Do capitalist social forms inevitably produce tension around equality by spreading an anti-aristocratic ideology of equality, egalitarianism, that can provoke movements for social equality such as the civil rights movement or the feminist movement, while at the same time continually creating inequalities (at least of income and wealth)?  Might the reliance in the story on the government to enforce equality point to such an irresolvable tension?

Former U.S. Senator from Nebraska Roman Hruska was (in)famous for saying, during the hearing for a poorly regarded (and ultimately unsuccessful) nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court: "Well, mediocrity should be represented in the Court, too."  How does that sort of thinking relate to what Vonnegut's getting at with this story?

How are George and Hazel Bergeron described? What sort of life do they lead? What is Vonnegut parodying here? What does the story warn against? To what extent do television, radio, and the mass media generally function like George's mental handicap radio?  (Consider Neil Postman's observation in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death:  "this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world-a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again.  It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child's game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained.  But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining" (77).  "Infotainment" did you say?

Why is Harrison Bergeron such a threat to society? How old is he? How has he been "handicapped"?

What is the significance of the real Harrison suddenly appearing on the TV set where his escape from prison was being reported? Why does he repeatedly say, "I am the Emperor!" (11)? Is Vonnegut suggesting a return to feudalism and its aristocratic political institutions? Is this similar in some way to the case of Ellison's protagonist on the stage of the Bingo game?

What is Harrison trying to accomplish? Can his actions be compared to those of Sammy in Updike's "A&P"? (Harrison says "I shall now select my Empress!" while Sammy chooses his "Queenie"). What different sets of values clash in these cases? How are the young pitted against the old? How does the motif of the rescue of the 'damsel in distress' translate in socioeconomic terms? What is suggested concerning the ownership of the means of (re)production?

What is the significance of Harrison telling the musicians, "I'll make you barons and dukes and earls" (12)? What different values underlie such ennoblement? What role do beauty and aesthetics play in Harrison's rebellion?

What is the meaning of Harrison's and the ballerina's flight-like dance and kissing? What is meant by the statement, "not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well" (12)?

What is the meaning of Harrison and the ballerina being shot down by Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General? What are the suggestions of her name? What ethos is conjured by the mythological associations of the Greek goddess Diana and the moon (e.g. virginity, coldness, sterility). How is the figure of Ms. Glampers similar to that of the manager, Lengel, in A&P?

Why does Hazel Bergeron forget what she is crying about? How is this similar to, for example, the case of Mrs. Gradgrind in Dickens's Hard Times? What is the meaning of the last words of the Bergerons, "that one was a doozy" (13)?

What's striking about Vonnegut's story is its hyperbole: equality is enforced in every identifiable respect.  What are the appropriate limits to ensuring equality and why?

Perhaps the most famous foreign commentator on the USA is Alexis de Toqueville.  A French aristocrat himself, Toqueville paid special attention to the American love of equality.  Here are three passages from his Democracy in America, ed. J.P. Mayer, that seem especially appropriate for "Harrison Bergeron.": "There is indeed a manly and legitimate passion for equality which rouses in all men a desire to be strong and respected.  This passion tends to elevate the little man to the rank of the great.  But the human heart also nourishes a debased taste for equality, which leads the weak to want to drag the strong down to their level and which induces men to prefer equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.  It is not that peoples with a democratic social state naturally scorn freedom; on the contrary, they have an instinctive taste for it.  But freedom is not the chief and continual object of their desires; it is equality for which they feel an eternal love; they rush on freedom with quick and sudden impulses, but if they miss their mark they resign themselves to their disappointment; but nothing will satisfy them without equality, and they would rather die than lose it" (57).

"No matter how a people strives for it, all the conditions of life can never be perfectly equal.  Even if, by misfortune, such an absolute dead level were attained, there would still be inequalities of intelligence which, coming directly from God, will ever escape the laws of man" (537-538).

"When inequality is the general rule in society, the greatest inequalities attract no attention.  When everything is more or less level, the slightest variation is noticed.  Hence the more equal men are, the more insatiable will be their longing for equality" (538).

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