Effects of Equality in “Harrison Bergeron”

Kyle Chandler Professor T. Payne English 1102 4 February 2013 Effects of equality in “Harrison Bergeron” “Harrison Bergeron,” written by Kurt Vonnegut focuses on the idea of physical and mental equality, which is controlled by the government in the year 2081; the strong are forced to wear handicaps which hinder their abilities, the intellectual are forced to be unintelligent due to a radio transmitter that won’t allow the individual to think. Vonnegut uses satirical tone and places this story in the future, to show how total equality would not work.
Not only does total equality sound absurd it removes the ability for individuals to be different. Individuality means having a quality that separates one individual from another. This means that by having total equality, there is a loss of individuality. In Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron”, Vonnegut’s satirical, dystopian society in which everyone is average, presents the idea that handicaps that constitute equality also eliminates individuality, along with self-worth. Throughout “Harrison Bergeron” every member of society is equal. With the use of handicaps no person can be above average intellect, strength or even appeal.
Vonnegut uses word choice that promotes this society is a satire creation early in the story. “The Year Was 2081, and everybody was finally equal” (Vonnegut 7). By throwing in the adjective ‘finally’, Vonnegut claims that it should have happened sooner, yet as the story goes on it becomes obvious that nothing is attractive about total equality. He opens the second paragraph by introducing the two main characters, George and Hazel. Vonnegut also promotes his satire when the main characters keep losing train of thought due to the fact that George has a handicap that keeps him from thinking too much and Hazel is of average intelligence. There were tears on Hazel’s cheeks, but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about” (Vonnegut 7). Having the ability to cry and then no longer remembering the reasoning for it is not only below average intelligence, but also inhumane. By showing that the Hazel does not even have the intelligence to remember something that brings enough emotion to produce tears, Vonnegut presents how these handicaps could not possibly be an improvement to the future because to be truly equal you have to be the same as the least intelligent, least strong, and least attractive.

He also uses a mocking tone when referring to George’s son Harrison. In the story George starts to think “about his abnormal son who [is] in jail” but cannot think about it long due to the mental handicap (9). The author uses the word ‘abnormal’ satirically because Harrison “is a genius and an athlete” and way above average in every manner(10). The use of satire in Vonnegut’s story promotes that handicaps eliminate individuality by making each character the same. By creating total equality in this society, it abolishes the self-worth of the individuals.
People gain self-worth by having a quality about them that makes them superior to others, whether it is their intelligence, a hobby they are good at, or a skill they have acquired. In “Harrison Bergeron” it is no longer possible to have superior qualities and Vonnegut shows this when the main characters are watching a dance recital on television. Hazel states that the dance was “nice” yet in reality “they weren’t really very good – no better than anyone else would have been, anyway” (8). This shows that even if the dancers were talented they could not be proud of their talents or display it due to the handicaps.
With no reason for individuals to be proud of themselves there is no longer a need for humans to grow. This normality not only ruins dancing as an art but also ruins all other forms of art too. When the musicians play in “Harrison Bergeron” it is average until the protagonist Harrison, comes in and “strip[s] them of their handicaps” for a short amount of time (12). The ability to be expressive and different is one of the sole reasons behind art when it comes to musicians and dancers. Artists lose all self-worth that comes with their talent when they can no longer express it.
What is the point in developing a skill, if the handicap on it is just going to be increased? Similarly the individual’s absence of self-worth is mainly due to the vacancy of individuality. Handicaps controlling peoples mental and physical ability removes individuality for every human being. With individuality being a character quality that distinguishes them from others, people no longer have the any qualities that separate them from others. Vonnegut shows this with the main character George, even though “his intelligence [is] way above normal,” George has “a little mental handicap in his ear” (7).
Instead of having his intelligence which sets him apart from the normal members of society, the oppressive society that yearns for equality has diminished his individuality. Throughout the whole story there is only one hopeful scene in which individuality is achieved. Harrison Bergeron, the outcast who breaks the law by not using handicaps when he is incredibly intelligent, strong, and good looking, breaks out of jail and gives the audience a small glimpse of hope. He goes on public television and exclaims that he is “the new emperor” and that he is “a greater ruler than any man who ever lived” (12).
Even though Harrison is a bad guy towards other characters, he stands for good in the story because he is the only character with individuality and the ability to remove equality. This glimpse of hope does not last long though because the Handicapper General, the head of the police force, comes in and kills George. The satirical tone in Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron” demonstrates that handicaps throughout the story are not actually an improvement, because they remove the individual’s ability to distinguish themselves from others.
The restrictions that are placed on people hinder their intellect, strength, and appeal, keeping everyone equal but at the same time, displaying a lack of freedom, self-worth, and individuality. Vonnegut’s satire tone also exaggerates the idea of equality being a good thing, showing that total equality violates human rights. By setting “Harrison Bergeron” in the future, Vonnegut shows how total equality would be undesirable to the audience. Works Cited Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. “Harrison Bergeron” 1961. Welcome to the Monkey House. New York: Dial Trade Paper Backs, 2010. 7-14. Print.