Kurt Vonnegut's Short Stories

Harrison Bergeron

what is vonnegut saying about improving society by making everyone average? support your opinion with evidence from the story

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Vonnegut seems to be criticizing the interference of an overly large government into the lives and potentials of individuals. These handicaps are mandated by a government that wants to 'equalize' everyone. The impulse might be laudable in the abstract, but is tragic in the way it hampers an individual's natural abilities. Anyone of above-average intelligence and/or physical ability must be handicapped at the risk of jail time or even death, as Harrison Bergeron's situation demonstrates. (The dystopian society of "Harrison Bergeron" is reminiscent of that of Vonnegut's 1959 novel The Sirens of Titan, in which a space wanderer returns to Earth to find all people made equal through the use of "handicaps.")

What this government interference stands in contrast to is the power of the individual, even to the point of absurdity. The dancers cannot use their natural grace, even though it is their job to be ballerinas. George Bergeron cannot use his intelligent mind to reason or think of creative ideas. Parents are not allowed to recognize the tragedy of their child's assassination and mourn him. And Harrison Bergeron must be jailed (and eventually killed) for rebelling against the restraints of his individuality and talent. All this is for the purpose of protecting the self-esteem of less talented, less intelligent people so that the will not be threatened or hurt by those who exceed them.

Vonnegut is not necessarily suggesting that a world of unfettered individuality would be a utopia. In fact, the story does not posit a utopia at all, but rather subtly warns against taking good intentions too far. The idea of equalizing everyone would certainly have called socialism to mind at the time Vonnegut wrote the story in 1961, and the use of a totalitarian government to brutally enforce that equality evokes nations like the USSR or China. The only thing Vonnegut attacks is the idea that human singularity can ever be squashed. Notably, though Harrision is killed, it does not seem that Diana Moon Glampers is handicapped; she is easily able to manage the situation without the interference of any physical or mental hindrance. In other words, someone will always flaunt his or her superior personality; any attempt to craft a utopia to the contrary will end in either absurdity or brutality.