Harrison Bergeron, Is The Quest For Equality Always Fair?
A living breathing Harrison filled the screen
Harrison Bergeron is a short but thought provoking story.
Author, Kurt Vonnegut, who's greatest literary masterpieces include Bluebeard, Slaughterhouse Five, God Bless You Mrs. Rosewater, Cat's Cradle, and Galapagos, is also well known for a very unusual, and thought provoking short story he wrote back in 1961, titled Harrison Bergeron. I remember reading Harrison Bergeron when I was fifteen, back in high school, and being totally blown away by this short, yet very profound and cautionary tale of a possible future.
I’m not the only person who felt drawn to this unique work of fiction. Since this story has been even been the subject of a movie back in 1995 by the same title. I guess since I was an underdog, and a loner back in high school there were times when I may have welcomed a handicapper general. After reading this cautionary tale I realized that what I sometimes wished for was nothing short of a horror story.
Equality although it has been the cherished dream of many, and necessary for maintaining social justice, should never mean having to abandon human potential to obtain its objectives. In Harrison Bergeron equality demanded a world void of beauty, intelligence, and creativity; even a beautiful voice was not permitted. If that is what it takes to make a fair world, then why be endowed by ones creator with any gifts at all? Life is diverse by design and that means that there will be degrees of beauty, degrees of intelligence, and degrees of strength. Diversity is what makes life interesting, and for diversity to exist growth must be supported. However, that doesn’t mean that we have the right to exploit weaker individuals, or allow for a world that preys on them.
There have been political views in the past that have reflected extremes in how equality is viewed. For example the Nazis practiced what was known as “racial hygiene” this was the systematic practice where the government took it upon themselves to eliminate anyone who was either sickly, mentally impaired, the wrong race, or simply did not fit in with their definition of a human being. They felt that it was wrong for society to waste precious resources on those they deemed inferior. Of course, the measuring rod used was based on what the Nazis deemed acceptable, according to their own consensus. This made their criteria for judging people subjective, rather than objective. Then there is the other extreme that is practiced by the Marxist Socialist, who insist that everyone must live as comrades. Marxist Communists insist that people do not have the right to profit if they work harder than their neighbors, having more makes them imperialist pigs. Therefore, in order to achieve equality everyone must submit to forced poverty, and rationing of goods. The government seizes everything, and there is no right to private property, or freedom of expression. This leads to less productivity. Most people living under these conditions feel very repressed, and often go through great need, due to shortages brought on by these regimes.
Harrison Bergeron was written at the height of the cold war, so this may have been an attempt on the part of Kurt Vonnegut to ridicule a repressive form of government. On the other hand, the author himself claims that in some ways he identifies more with the handicapper general than with Harrison. Kurt Vonnegut when asked about Harrison Bergeron stated the following “I can't be sure, but there is a possibility that my story "Harrison Bergeron" is about the envy and self-pity I felt in an over-achievers' high school in Indianapolis quite a while ago now. Some people never tame those emotions. John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald and Mark David Chapman come to mind. "Handicapper Generals," if you like.” Even Kurt Vonnegut admits that sometimes one would like to have a more leveled playing field. Yet, his story portrays the downside of such a leveling. It all comes down to how we define “fair.”
In the story we see that Harrison is not just some villain that came out of nowhere. He has parents, who although brain washed, still love their son. He had the potential that he was endowed with denied to him for the sake of some ideology. Harrison is repressed because of this denial of his rights. As a result of this repression, he acts out his frustrations, and decides to no longer cooperate with what he deems an unfair, and inferior world. Harrison embodies the collective frustration suffered by many, who live in a repressive situation. Whether this situation is brought on by government, family or some other source, there will be repercussions. When Harrison finally realizes his potential, he does not only want his freedom, but he also wants to take over. He expresses this desire in the following statement: "I am the emperor!" cried Harrison. "Do you hear? I am the emperor! Everyone must do what I say at once!" This may explain why many people when repressed, and finally are freed do not always return the favor with great benevolence. We are not designed to live a life of denial, especially, if that means sacrificing those rights we are endowed with.
The handicaps used for the purpose of keeping everyone "average", only served to make that person's superior attributes even more evident. These devices may have hindered ability, and may have kept the individual's natural beauty from shining through, but it could never hide the fact that these endowments existed. There is a part in the story where Hazel, who could also be called Ms. Average says, when commenting on George's mental handicap radio he wore in his ear "I'd think it would be real interesting, hearing all the different sounds," said Hazel a little envious. "All the things they think up." The story ends on a realistic note. Harrison is killed, while George and Hazel remain brain washed, and society continues to be ruled by those with constraining agendas, and little minds.
This literary marvel, written almost fifty years ago, will always be remembered as one of Kurt Vonnegut’s best, and must curious short stories. If you are interested in reading this fantastic short story you can access it on the web at the following link. http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/harrison.html. If you would like to read some other short story masterpieces written by Kurt Vonnegut, get Welcome to the Monkey House, which is a wonderful collection of short stories, featuring stories on sex, machines, pills, men, women, outer space, and society all through the perception of this amazing author.