Wed
Apr 13 2011 2:04pm

2081: The World of Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron

Harrison Bergeron

Most people know Kurt Vonnegut Jr. for his novels, but I know him through one particular work of his short fiction: “Harrison Bergeron,” a look at a future when everyone is “finally equal.” I had adopted the text into my intro English courses upon consulting a list of student favorites: along with Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” and John Updike’s “A & P” was “Harrison Bergeron.” I recognized Vonnegut’s name and the much-contested association that name has with science fiction. Is Vonnegut a literary writer, or SF? I like to think he’s both, despite some ivory towers refusing SF to the literary fold. Clearly, Dana Gioia and X.J. Kennedy, editors of Pearson Longman’s Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing are in my camp, as in addition to “Bergeron,” they’ve anthologized Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” another great work of dystopic short fiction.

Like “Omelas,” Vonnegut’s vision of a perfectly equal society doesn’t seem a dystopia at first. Many great dystopias seem like a good idea at first: as an adolescent, the high-sex low-clothing, youthful world of Logan’s Run was brilliant. As a forty year-old who’d already be dead ten years, it’s lost its glow. Vonnegut’s genius is that he not only provides a future premise we think will be fantastic, he writes in a persona that agrees with that premise. The narrative voice in “Harrison Bergeron” has bought in to the idea that being “equal every which way” is desirable. The only indication we have that Vonnegut isn’t serious about this in the opening lines is the disclaimer, “some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April, for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime.” The joke may be lost on those closer to the equator, but to denizens of the Albertan prairies, this is a fine bit of ironic humour.

Vonnegut is surreptitiously winking at his reader, saying, “yes, I’m serious about what I’m saying. I’m just not saying it seriously.” His next wink will be his focalizing couple, George and Hazel Bergeron, a clever homage to George Burns and Gracie Allen: George Bergeron is very intelligent, while Hazel (the name of one of Gracie’s three sisters) evokes Gracie’s Dumb Dora act, clearest in the final lines of the short story:

“Gee—I could tell that one was a doozy,” said Hazel.

“You can say that again,” said George.

“Gee—” said Hazel, “I could tell that one was a doozy.”

Both Bergerons are seated in their living room, watching television: George with a “little mental handicap radio in his ear” to keep him from utilizing his exceptional intelligence, and Hazel without any handicap whatsoever, since she has “a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts.” They are watching a ballet featuring dancers “burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot,” their faces masked to hide their beauty. This is the price of a perfectly equal society, says Vonnegut with a satirical smile. Strong? We’ll give you burdens. Smart? We’ll give you headaches. Pretty? We’ll hide your face. Stupid? You’re perfect.

Harrison Bergeron

Vonnegut mixes this biting satire with hyperbolized action and elements of setting to underscore how ridiculous the whole idea is. When Harrison finally stomps into the story, his appearance is “Halloween and hardware”: a seven-foot teen encumbered by numerous handicaps:

The rest of Harrison’s appearance was Halloween and hardware. Nobody had ever born heavier handicaps ... Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.

Scrap metal was hung all over him. Ordinarily, there was a certain symmetry, a military neatness to the handicaps issued to strong people, but Harrison looked like a walking junkyard. In the race of life, Harrison carried three hundred pounds.

And to offset his good looks, the H-G men required that he wear at all times a red rubber ball for a nose, keep his eyebrows shaved off, and cover his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle-tooth random.

He takes over the television studio, proclaims himself the “Emperor,” orders the musicians to play well, and proceeds to dance with a “blindingly beautiful” ballerina, and while literally dancing on air, is shot dead by Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, in a manner worthy of Looney Tunes’ Elmer Fudd. Websites such as Suite 101, mistakenly overemphasize Harrison’s defiant action, painting him a revolutionary hero. This error stems from missing Vonnegut’s winks, his ironic tone, and ignoring the excessive exaggeration of the handicaps: “Vonnegut’s short story demonstrates the dangers of governmental control and ignorance through showing what a true equality could lead to.” But is Vonnegut actually issuing a warning of a potential future, or drawing our attention to how ludicrous the goal of true equality is? Other study guides list freedom and civil rights as major themes, and cast Vonnegut’s speculations in “Harrison Bergeron” as prognostication: we are closer now to the “reality” of “Harrison Bergeron” than ever before. We need to act like Harrison and rise up to cast off the handicaps that bring us down to the level of mediocrity…etc., etc.

But Vonnegut isn’t prognosticating: he’s satirizing. He isn’t saying, “This is how we might become if we aren’t careful.” He’s saying, “True equality isn’t possible. It’s a ridiculous aspiration. Here, let me show you just how ridiculous it is.” While “Harrison Bergeron” is certainly concerned with freedom, the idea of government control achieving the equal society Vonnegut imagines is absurd. Vonnegut knew as much, and reveals it in the line describing a ballerina:

She must have been extraordinarily beautiful, because the mask she wore was hideous. And it was easy to see that she was the strongest and most graceful of all the dancers, for her handicap bags were as big as those worn by two-hundred pound men.

Editors Gioia and Kennedy follow up the short story by asking how the following comment by two sympathetic critics of Vonnegut’s work, Karen and Charles Wood, applies to the story: “Vonnegut proves repeatedly … that men and women remain fundamentally the same, no matter what technology surrounds them.” Remember that the voice of the narrator is not against this equal society. The narrator never passes judgment on what is happening—it is impassive and remote. To observe the ballerina’s repulsive mask is an indicator of her extraordinary beauty is to admit the attempt at true equality has failed, and ultimately, cannot succeed. Think of how we adjust our concepts of beauty, if only in the waistline of women’s designer jeans: in the ‘80s, they were actually around the waist. Over the past quarter century, they’ve receded, heading farther and farther south until they’ve stopped only centimeters from scandal. One year, beauty is Twiggy, a decade later it’s Anna Nicole Smith. If ugly masks became the standard of beauty, we might actually get around to being turned on by them. Just consider current fetishes for comparison.

What many studies of “Harrison Bergeron” miss in their goal to make the story into Braveheart by Vonnegut, with a clown-nosed Harrison shouting “Freedom!” at the top of his lungs, is the simultaneous satire of television. Harrison’s actions all take place in a television studio. His parents, George and Hazel, see everything that happens: his entrance, his mini-revolution, and his death-by-double-barreled-shotgun. And yet, due to Hazel’s lack of intelligence, she can recall seeing “something real sad on television,” but cannot say what it was. George is so addled, he’s wandered out of the room in the middle of the studio takeover to get a beer. Many readers miss the mirror of Hazel’s earlier tears: “she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about.” Like Battlestar Galactica, Vonnegut seems to invoking the concept of eternal recurrence: “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.” This is a far more chilling concept than the society of true equality, that a mother could watch her son die on television, and summarily forget about it.

Harrison Bergeron

Director Chandler Tuttle grabs this theme and runs with it in 2081, an excellent short film adaptation of “Harrison Bergeron,” which, unlike the laughably bad television version starring Sean Astin, sticks close to Vonnegut’s story. The casting is brilliant, with the suitably taciturn and gravel-voiced James Cosmo as George, Julie Haggerty, the typecast bubblehead of the Airplane! series, as Hazel, and up-and-comer Armie Hammer as Harrison. It’s nearly note-for-note faithful, aside from leaving George to watch his son die while Hazel washes the dishes, and Hammer’s Harrison being anything but “clanking” and “clownish” (although at 6”5, he nearly pulls off the “huge”). One can forgive a director for choosing to leave Hammer’s eyebrows on, and eschew the inclusion of a clown nose for costume. Not everyone can pull off ridiculous like Tim Burton.

2081 mainly digresses from Vonnegut in the inclusion of a bomb threat made by Harrison. When I show the film in class, students are often non-plussed by the inclusion of the bomb, until we explore the reasons. I use the film as an exercise in how tone can change everything. Vonnegut is being satirical: no matter how dark his content may be, his tone is lightheartedly ironic. There is nothing wrong here, despite how those two people who were just dancing in the air are now dead on the floor. Tuttle is less subtle, but effective in his own right: his dystopia is dark, perhaps in response to film audiences raised on Blade Runner and Children of Men. Gone are the bags of birdshot to encumber the strong, replaced with high-tech sensor-driven weights that are constantly flickering levels, perhaps to compensate for fluctuations in strength. It doesn’t matter really, because all the handicaps are just backdrop: they’re setting. They are signifiers of oppression. The themes of freedom and civil rights are part of this backdrop. The world of 2081 is a totalitarian one, built on the aesthetic foundations laid by years of dystopias in SF film and television.

But it’s all still backdrop for Tuttle’s focus, that chilling law of eternal recurrence where we forget the atrocity on the six o’clock news in time to catch the latest reality show: “Yes, it’s awful what’s happening in Japan right now, but did you see the latest episode of Jersey Shore?” Harrison’s bomb is not incendiary: it’s informative. Like the videos and images that showed the world what was happening in Tibet in 2008, Harrison hacks the Matrix, uploads his pirate signal, and shows the world the truth about Diana Moon Glampers. In 2081, he becomes the revolutionary that students mistake him for in Vonnegut. Here, Harrison is a sort of Christ-figure who gives up his life willingly, knowing there is an small army of heavily armed police ready to shoot him dead. At one point, he whispers to the ballerina who agrees to join his dance, and I wonder if Tuttle’s direction was: “Tell her how this is going to end. Tell her, ‘We’re going to dance, and show the world what freedom looks like. And when we’re done, we’ll likely die.’” The ballerina’s knowing look following Harrison’s whisper conveys a conspiratorial understanding.

Harrison Bergeron

Despite presenting Harrison as revolutionary hero, Tuttle follows Vonnegut to the very bitter end. As in the short story, George cannot remember why tears stream down his face. He cannot tell Hazel their son was just shot on television. He can only stand to walk to the fridge for another beer. Despite a few narrative differences, Vonnegut and Tuttle deliver an indictment of our propensity to “forget sad things,” as Hazel and George respectively are encouraged to on the page, and onscreen, respectively. While the issue of true equality is a major theme of “Harrison Bergeron,” it is a ridiculous satire of an unattainable goal: Vonnegut highlights this through his use of ridiculous handicaps, and Tuttle reinforces the absurdity by their absence. It’s impossible to make a realistic-looking film with that sort of equality. But the criticism of our propensity in the current global village to witness atrocity on the television and forget about it during the commercial break is very real. We’ve all done it. We’ll likely do it again. “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.” After all, it’s only television. It’s only the internet. You’ll have forgotten all about this by the time the next commercial comes on, or ... hey, I gotta go. Something’s trending on Twitter.


Mike Perschon is a hypercreative scholar, musician, writer, and artist, a doctoral student at the University of Alberta, and on the English faculty at Grant MacEwan University.

13 comments
C Oppenheimer
1. C Oppenheimer
Thank you! I read "Harrison Bergeron" over 30 years ago and have tried to remember who wrote it and the title for years.
C Oppenheimer
2. Charles J. Shields
Excellent!

I'm writing a blog you might be interested in: www.writingkurtvonnegut.com. It's about my experiences as his biographer.

Best,

Charles J. Shields
And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life
(Henry Holt & Co., November 2011)
lanyo lanyo
3. lanyo
This was one of my favorite stories since I read it as a little kid. I'm not sure I :got: it, but I always liked how at least Harrison didn't want to be less than he could be. Maybe that means I saw him as the "Revolutionary", but I was so sad his parents couldn't even Be sad he was gone. I wondered if they ever noticed he never came home again...
C Oppenheimer
4. DavidPhillipOster
In a world where everyone is handicapped to the level of incompetence, then those handicaps will be manufactured and applied by incompetents, and the handicaps will fail.

Harrison didn't cast off his weights because he was a superman, he cast them off because they were attached with shoddy straps.
C Oppenheimer
5. bellastreet
Harrison Bergeron was my first taste of Vonnegut. I LOVED this story. Another favorite of mine is Welcome To The Monkey House. These stories were my first foray into how dystopian/literary fiction interacts with the culture at large, and they have resonated with me ever since.
C Oppenheimer
6. honey
Hi Mike, You say we are closer to the world of HB than ever before. I think that we are there right now.
Noneo Yourbusiness
7. Longtimefan
The brilliant thing about Harrison Bergeron is that it shows how equality is not logical or possible. It does frustrate me when people think it is about revolution against an oppressive government.

It is a great story about how the lowest common denomenator is much lower than most people want to think it is and that it is not good for all of society to be quite that low.
Shaun Duke
8. Arconna
I reviewed 2081 on my blog. It's an amazing film and I would recommend everyone watch it. It's expensive to buy on DVD, but it's worth it.
C Oppenheimer
11. SteveJordan
Can some cite this article in MLA format (7th edition)? Thanks!
C Oppenheimer
12. Array528
Thought this film was HORRIBLE and the short story it is based off of is equally trashy. Vonnegut seems like a right-wing ideolgue with this non-sense. Beautiful people have so much unfair advantage they SHOULD be taken down a few pegs. As for intelligent people, they always are accepting of those with lesser abilities so no society would ever try to dumb them down or saddle them with liberty restraints. Smart people are usually the ones who find means of technology and innovation to better the lives of the less fortunate/mentally-retarded/handicapped/etc. so to think any society would try to restrain the intelligent when they help better ALL our lives is simply laughable. This story would have made sense if Harrison was a "plain" or "ugly but intelligent boy. BUT NO, he HAD to be attractive. this is the biggest piece of evidence to display Vonnegut's bias. As if only pretty people can be intelligent. Anyone who likes this story is a fool. A foolish fool...

C Oppenheimer
13. Rhose
You just contradicted yourself. You pointed out how 'Beautiful people have so much unfair advantage they SHOULD be taken down a few pegs', yet you then added that it is completely ridiculous that intelligent people are handicapped because they help the world progress and 'better the lives of less fortunate'. So what side are you on? Are you in agreement with that world, or against it? What are you even saying?
Also, Vonnegut making Harrison handsome isn't a demonstration of his bias, it's making a statement. You just read about how Harrison Bergeron isn't a revolutionary hero, and not everything he did was intended to be revered. This story was intended to show the lack of logic in this type of radical 'equality', and your support of societal accepably attractive people's inequity is a prejudiced folly. Also, did Vonnegut say George Bergeron was exceptionally attractive? No. But it WAS mentioned that he is very intelligent.
Despite your statement (i.e., Kurt Vonnegut 'is such a tool and a terrible writer'), the claim behind 'Harrison Bergeron' is that an overly hyperbolized society which focuses so deeply on equality could never work out, and I hardly think it's Kurt Vonnegut's fault that you are unable to fully comprehend satire or even irony.
C Oppenheimer
14. Manuel Morris
Harrison Bergeron’ is the most captivating story I’ve read in years.
C Oppenheimer
15. Natasha Liu
Old Chinese idiom - There are those who believe in equality, then there are those who believe in reality.

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