Study Guide

Harrison Bergeron in Harrison Bergeron

By Kurt Vonnegut

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Harrison Bergeron

For someone bearing the same name as the title of the story, you'd think we'd see more of Harrison. As it is, we only see him for roughly a quarter of the story—and we're never even in the same room with him (so to speak). But that's okay with us, because what we do see is kind of scary.

Teenage Rebellion

Harrison Bergeron is so frightening that he is arrested "on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government" (42). A government news bulletin describes him as "a genius and an athlete, […] under-handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous" (42). We're told that "he had outgrown hindrances faster than the H-G men could think them up" (44), and that he's "exactly seven feet tall" (43). There's even a photo to prove it.

Lock your doors, right?

Well, maybe not. Scary Harrison is fourteen years old. Are there that many scary fourteen-year-olds? (No, that girl from The Ring doesn't count.)

Okay, fooled us, yay for you. This is a joke, right? Even without Photoshop, you could put a ruler behind your head and pretend to be twelve inches tall. That doesn't mean it's true.

But no one here is laughing. This government is bent on controlling each and every person. And in a culture where the government is the be-all end-all of society (at least it is to Harrison's parents), its word is taken as truth.

So, we're already a little suspicious of what's going on here—and for good reason. Does their control stops at constitutional amendments or does it extend to other things, like the media? Can we really trust their view of Harrison? Probably not.

What Big Handicaps You Have

This fourteen-year-old boy is such a terrible threat that he's been shackled with more handicaps than anyone else. Giant earphones instead of the small ear radio his dad has. Giant Coke-bottle glasses to obscure his vision and give him headaches. So many weights that he "looked like a walking junkyard" (45). On top of it all, he's so handsome that they gave him a clown nose, shaved off his eyebrows, and blacked out his teeth. (We're thinking Hobo the Clown.)

This is society's way of equalizing everyone: not by trying to get other people to beef up and smarten up to Harrison's level, but by punishing Harrison and bringing him down to everyone else's level. While we're still not sure what Harrison did to deserve this treatment, we can plainly see that they mean to humiliate him in front of everyone. Teenagers love public embarrassment.

Yeah, this is not going to end well.

The First Law of Motion is... You Do Not Talk About the Laws of Motion

Under all that "Halloween and hardware" (44), Harrison has to be pretty incredible, right? And he's totally going to break free of his chains and free everyone from their oppressive regime, right? Hooray!

Nope. In fact, he just declares himself Emperor, saying "Everybody must do what I say at once!" (54). Yikes. Harrison turns out to be just as scary as the government made him out to be. We have to wonder if Harrison was a crazy power-hungry jerk before being punished by his crazy power-hungry government, or if the punishment itself turned him into such a monster.

Is there a Harrison Bergeron deep down inside everyone (like you!), just waiting to be pushed far enough that you snap and break the bonds of the society? Some critics think that Vonnegut is suggesting that "behind every 'mom n' pop' store is the desire to become Wal-Mart" (source)—that, without government, individuals would become power-hungry warlords.

Or … is that just what fear-mongering government and media want us to think when railing against the dangers of capitalism, socialism, communism, and a whole host of other –isms?

Whatever you think about Vonnegut's intentions here, there's one thing that is clear: the whole weight thing totally backfired against the Handicapper General. Carrying around three hundred pounds of scrap metal on a daily basis isn't going to weaken you: it's eventually going to make you that much stronger.

Gee, that almost sounds like a metaphor: being weighed down by scrap metal is just like being oppressed. Suffer under repression for long enough, and you'll eventually be willing to do just about anything to be free.

Hold Me. Thrill Me. Kiss Me. Kill Me. 

Once he strips himself of his handicaps, Harrison forces the orchestra to play his favorite music and claims a ballerina as his Empress. (Well, she volunteers.) Then they dance and fly into the air.

That's right: fly into the air. Harrison is breaking the rules of his government, and he's breaking the rules of gravity: "Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well" (72)

This pretty much answers George's question from earlier: "The minute people start cheating on laws, what do you think happens to society?" (31). The minute Harrison cheats on the laws, the very fabric of reality starts to tear a little bit.

The idea that cheating could lead to the loss of gravity is what we call a slippery slope argument: one little thing could send us sliding right down into anarchy and debauchery. Want an example? Some people argue that a law guaranteeing marriage equality (i.e. gay marriage) could potentially be a slippery slope leading to bigamy, polygamy, and even marrying animals. (But where would Flipper wear his engagement ring?)

What we think is that this scene makes that whole "'Harrison Bergeron as a satire of conservatives' ridiculous fears of socialism" argument stronger. But then again, maybe Vonnegut is saying that we do need rules and laws to hold society together, or gravity will literally break loose. You'll have to decide.

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