Study Guide

Harrison Bergeron

By Kurt Vonnegut

Harrison Bergeron Introduction

Dystopian societies are no fun. The clothes are drab. The TV shows are all reruns. And that whole having-no-rights thing is a real pain in the neck.

Utopias are where it's at. So, how about a place where everyone is equal? A place where no one is better than everyone else, and everyone has the same opportunities for fun, happiness, and success? Our bags are packed, and we want to go to there. We'll send you a postcard.

Well, not so fast. In "Harrison Bergeron" Kurt Vonnegut wonders if equality is all it's cracked up to be. The basic idea is this: It's the year 2081 and everyone is equal. Great! But what happens when one person tries to rise above the rest? Let's just say, it's not pretty.

"Harrison Bergeron" was first published in Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine in 1961, with Civil Rights in full swing and the radical '60s just beginning. Issues of equality and fairness were on a lot of people's minds, and this story struck a nerve. It's been hailed as both "a prime example of where the ills of socialism could lead"—but also, weirdly, "not a satire on leftist policies, but, more accurately, a satire on the irrational fears of socialism" (source).

In other words, it's either an attack on socialism, or a satire of attacks on socialism. So, which is it?

Socialism is a system of government in which the government controls a nation's means of production in order to create a society without huge inequalities. Some people love it. Plenty of people hate it. You've probably heard it tossed around in various election cycles—and not always accurately.

Want a real-world example? In the U.S. 2008 and 2012 election cycles, people were all agitated about the role of the government in health insurance. Many believed that the government had a crucial role to play in ensuring that everyone was on a level playing field when it came to fair and affordable access to health insurance and health care. Many others thought that the Affordable Care Act was a slippery step towards socialism, in which individuals' health care decisions would be made by large governmental organizations.

What would Vonnegut think? Well, we can't say for sure. However you slice it, this is complicated stuff when both sides of the political fence claim that "Harrison Bergeron" supports their side of the issue. You'll have to read it and decide for yourself.

Having trouble tracking down a sci-fi mag from the '60s? Don't worry. "Harrison Bergeron" is widely available in Vonnegut's short-story collection Welcome To the Monkey House. It's worth the investment, as we're sure you'll be craving even more Vonnegut after reading "Harrison." In fact, it's barely eight pages long. Why aren't you reading it right now? You'll be talking about it for much, much longer than the time it takes to read.

What is Harrison Bergeron About and Why Should I Care?

It's time to face a cold, hard fact: somewhere in the world there is somebody who is better than you. In fact, there's probably someone in your school better than you. Okay, maybe not in everything, but definitely in something you really care about: football, video games, calculus, fashion, scrapbooking.

Totally frustrating, right? You try your best, but someone is still better. If only they weren't so awesome—then you'd be number one!

We've all had these kinds of selfish thoughts. If Perfect McSuperface wasn't around, we could be football captain, head of the debate team, or leader of the decoupage squad. The only real solution we can offer is work harder and stop measuring yourself against other people.

But what if the law was to make everyone else worse? To bring everyone down to the same level? We'd all be on an equal playing field. Dancers would all be clumsy; singers would all be tone deaf; math whizzes would all be... well, not math whizzes. That's the kind of world "Harrison Bergeron" imagines, and it's not a pretty one.

On second thought, we're happy being understudy in the school play.

Harrison Bergeron Resources

Websites

Money to Burn?
Are you hankering for ridiculously expensive Kurt Vonnegut merch? His website can serve your every need.

If You Only Like Looking at Pictures
Kurt Vonnegut wasn't just a fantastic author; he often included illustrations in his works, like a kids' book for adults.

Movies and TV

Two-Hundred-Thirteen Amendments to Rule Them All
The first feature-length "Harrison Bergeron" adaptation was a made-for-TV movie with an all-star cast: Howie Mandel. Eugene Levy. Sam the Hobbit. Hey, we didn't say they were the brightest stars in the celebrity galaxy.

2081 Came Earlier Than We Expected
2081 came out in 2009, and it's viewable online. Like the other film, it has a low-wattage cast, including Julie Hagerty, the stewardess from Airplane!

Still Longer Than the Short Story
In 2006, a 30-minute "Harrison Bergeron" was made. This one has a no-star cast, but received praise from Kurt Vonnegut himself.

Timbuktu and Bergeron, Too!
PBS produced a Vonnegut potpourri (mmm, flowery!) in 1972 with Between Time and Timbuktu, which included a "Harrison Bergeron" segment, among others.

Articles and Interviews

"Hooray for Our Team"
So is "Harrison Bergeron" a harsh criticism of the ills of socialism, or a satire of its most extreme critics? Vonnegut himself supported socialism. Read it yourself in this transcript of a speech Vonnegut gave, printed in Socialist Worker magazine.

It's Cold in Here
Some have suggested that "Harrison Bergeron" depicts an America mimicking the communist Soviet Union, whom America was engaged in the Cold War with. Or maybe it's simply anti-totalitarian. You can never have too many opinions, so check out this essay.

Welcome to Kurt's House
In 1973, Library Journal interviewed Vonnegut. Here's something totally unsurprising: Kurt Vonnegut likes libraries.

RIP, Kurt
The New York Times obituary for Kurt Vonnegut praises his "dark comic talent" and "urgent moral vision." Yep, we'd say that sums up "Harrison Bergeron" pretty well.

Video

Let's Have a Movie Fest
This six-minute student film of "Harrison Bergeron" takes about as long to watch as it does to read the story. It's worth the time, but you should definitely read the story too.

H to tha -izzle Bizzle
Ever wanted to see "Harrison Bergeron" re-imagined with a gangsta flair and rockin' tunes? Now you can!

Audio

An Effective Audio Book
This student project adds his own sound effects to "Harrison Bergeron" creating a brand new experience. Does the story sound this way in your head?

"We Don't Wanna Live Inside These Minds"
Here's a fan-made theme song to "Harrison Bergeron" that's going to get stuck in your head. It's a thousand times better than having to listen to anything that comes out of George's handicap radio.

Images

Halloween and Hardware
This illustration shows what Harrison might look like with all his handicaps on. We're not sure whether to laugh or be scared, which is kind of like our reaction to the story itself.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Here's the creepy cover of Welcome to the Monkey House, a collection containing "Harrison Bergeron." Thanks for the invitation, but we think we'll stay outside.

Kurt Vonnegut's Fantastic Faces
Here's a classic Vonnegut self-portrait/autograph combo. Not quite as subtle as Matt Groening's initials being part of Homer Simpson's head, but still very elegant.

In the Flesh
How does Vonnegut in real life compare to Vonnegut the cartoon? See for yourself.