Study Guide

Harrison Bergeron Competition

By Kurt Vonnegut

Competition

Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. (1)

And everybody was really, really boring.

[The ballerinas] weren't really very good—no better than anybody else would have been, anyway. (10)

We're not sure why they're even showing ballet on TV. Why would anyone want to be a ballerina if you're just going to have giant weights dangling off you anyway? The whole ballet scene is so absurd, it just might be Vonnegut's criticism of those who believe that socialism would take all the fun out of life. Vonnegut's saying, "Do you really think this would happen?"

"I don't care if you're not equal to me for a while." (24)

Aww, honey, that's the sweetest thing you've ever said. Except that we're not sure if Hazel is the supportive wife, or an unconscious enabler of George's laziness.

"You don't compete with anybody around here. You just set around." (28)

That Hazel, always offering an encouraging word. Hey, if there were a "setting around" competition, George would take home first prize. (Hm, does that mean he wouldn't be equal anymore?) But George is clearly not intended to be a role model of any kind, unless you're vying for the Couch Potato of the Year award.

"If I tried to get away with it" said George, "then other people'd get away with it—and pretty soon we'd be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else" (29)

We're pretty sure there were competitions after the dark ages. Less deadly ones, too—in the dark ages, there were no runners-up in the Boiling Hot Tar Drop competition. Maybe the fact that George is so adamantly against competition shows his insecurity. Someone who is afraid of losing will never be a winner.

"He tried to do the best he could with what God gave him" (39)

Hazel, talking about the stuttering TV reporter, sounds like the type of mom who thinks that everyone deserves a trophy. Is "A for Effort" an award you should be proud of? And if you stutter, maybe you should become a writer. (We're just saying. We're on this side of the computer screen for a reason, here, and it isn't our stunning good looks.)

"He should get a nice raise for trying so hard" (39)

Here, Hazel illustrates a seemingly innocuous way to reward competition: a raise. This must mean that raises still exist in this society… which means that some sort of capitalism does as well, and different people make different wages. Perhaps in the workplace people still aren't that equal after all.

[The ballerina] had to apologize at once for her voice, which was a very unfair voice for a woman to use. (41)

We would love to see what American Idol would be like in 2081. It might have us actually longing for the days of J. Lo and Steven Tyler. (Although it'd probably be confined to the worst auditions.)

"Even as I stand here [...] crippled, hobbled, sickened—I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!" (55)

Normally this would be a great success story, like double-amputee Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius. But in this world, it's frightening.

"Play your best" [Harrison] told [the musicians], "and I'll make you barons and dukes and earls" (65)

Ah, it seems like Harrison is the type to reward an exceptional performance, not stifle it. That's what competition is about, right? With Harrison and his sheer awesomeness being depicted as so scary, maybe Vonnegut is criticizing America's slow decline into mediocrity. (Although, we have to say, this sounds like one of those "kids these days" complaints. Everything looks better in hindsight.)

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