by Kurt Vonnegut
Poor Hazel Bergeron. Her son has been arrested by the government. Her husband is crippled by a government-implanted ear radio. And she has to watch some really bad ballet on television. We'd feel bad for her if she had an ounce of introspection and noticed just how tragic her life is.
Everybody Wants to Rule the World
Hazel Bergeron doesn't have anything going for her—she's of "perfectly average intelligence" (7), doesn't have to wear any weights to offset her strength, and must not be much of a looker, because she's not forced to wear a mask.
But she doesn't let any of this stop her from fantasizing about what rule changes she'd make if she were in charge. Like, maybe George could listen to wind chimes on Sunday instead of the sound of car accidents. Or maybe he could take a few lead weights out of his bag when he got home.
Notice she never fantasizes about eliminating the rules, just changing them. It's kind of like saying, "We're going to put you in detention, but we'll let you do your homework!" or "We're going to keep serving steamed broccoli at lunch, but we'll let you put salt on it." Sure, changing the way society works starts with small steps, but these are teeny tiny little tiptoe steps that won't accomplish much of anything.
Despite her below-average intelligence and lack of motivation, Hazel gets to say one of the most profound lines in the story. When George wants to know what would happen if people started breaking the rules, Hazel has an answer: "Reckon it'd fall all apart" (33).
Questionable grammar aside, she has a point, even if it's one you may or may not agree with. Does society need rules? If so, how many are too many? And when do you start standing up against them?
Well, what we do know is that "standing up" involves getting off the couch, something Hazel Bergeron would never do. Maybe she's the typical armchair general, critiquing the government without actually doing anything about it. Or perhaps she's representative of an American public of brainless sheeple, so manipulated by their government that they can't even stand up for themselves.
We Shed a Little Tear For You
Remember what we said above about Hazel's tragic little life? Well, maybe she's not totally oblivious. The very first time we see her, "there [are] tears on Hazel's cheeks, but she'd forgotten for the moment what they were about" (4). Could it be, oh we don't know, that your son was just taken away by the government? That might prompt you to squeeze out a teardrop or two. She cries at the end too, after seeing her son shot dead on television. She describes it as "something real sad on television" (86)… and then promptly forgets the whole thing.
That's quite a defense mechanism she's built up. As George says, their family coping mechanism is "forget sad things" (89). Sure, it might sound good. A world without sadness would be incredible. But at what cost? And would it ever really be happy? And what's the benefit to society of never being sad, at least not for more than a few seconds?
We also have to wonder, with their short-term memory being what it is, how many times have they seen Harrison shot dead on TV? Could it be something the government runs on a loop to show people they mean business?
Looking at the story's beginning from a different angle, when Hazel's watching television with tears on her cheeks, that's pretty much exactly what she's doing at the end of the story, after seeing Harrison shot to death. Reading the beginning this way is like having deja vu, but in reverse. Veja du?Hazel Bergeron's Timeline