It is the year 2081, and all people have been made 'equal' through the use of physical and mental handicaps. The United States Constitution mandates this equality in the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments, and the law is enforced by Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General.
George Bergeron and Hazel Bergeron are watching ballerinas on television, all of whom are weighted down with sash-weights and bags of birdshot so that their dancing is not too beautiful. Since George is naturally quite intelligent, he must wear a mental handicap radio in his ear; it torments him with a variety of sharp noises every twenty seconds or so, so that he is never able to think too hard.
When it occurs to him that the ballerinas should not be handicapped, his idea is immediately interrupted by the mental handicap radio in his ear. Two of the eight ballerinas on the television are also apparently mentally handicapped, since they wince in pain at the same time that he experiences a painful noise.
Hazel, who does not need to use a mental or a physical handicap since she is perfectly average, suggests that George relieve himself for a moment from the 47 pound canvas bag of birdshot he must wear around his neck. She encourages him to remove a few of the lead balls when he gets home from work every day, insisting that she would not feel threatened by his superiority. He refuses, arguing that others might follow suit and society would hence become as competitive as it once was.
The television program is interrupted by an announcement, but the announcer struggles to read it because of his serious speech impediment. Finally, one of the ballerinas reads it for him: Harrison Bergeron, George and Hazel's fourteen-year-old son, has just escaped from jail. The ballerina reads that since Harrison is "a genius and an athlete" and is currently "under-handicapped," he "should be regarded as extremely dangerous" (10). This particular ballerina is wearing a hideous mask and heavier handicap bags than any of the other dancers.
Suddenly, Harrison himself enters the television studio, causing an earthquake with his movements. He wears heavier handicap bags than anyone else ever has, and he must carry three hundred pounds of scrap metal at all times. He also wears a rubber ball for a nose, caps for his teeth, and must shave his eyebrows to handicap his handsome face. Nevertheless, he remains immensely powerful.
He announces that he is the Emperor, and that everyone must obey him. He tears off his handicaps and announces that the first woman to volunteer herself will become his Empress. One of the ballerinas stands up and joins him.
Harrison removes the handicaps from the musicians in the studio, and commands them to play their best so that he and his Empress can dance. They dance intensely and beautifully, leaping so high that they kiss the ceiling.
Suddenly, Diana Moon Glampers appears in the studio and shoots Harrison and the Empress dead with a shotgun. She then warns the musicians to re-handicap themselves before she kills them, too.
George Bergeron has missed these events on the television, because he has been in the kitchen getting a beer. When he returns, their television has burned out, and Hazel has been crying. However, she does not remember why, since the events do not make any sense to her mind. George suggests that she "forget sad things," and she answers, "I always do" (14).
"Harrison Bergeron" is one of Vonnegut's best-known short stories not only for its interesting concept, but also because it contains a microcosm of what Vonnegut does as a writer. It contains sci-fi elements, and presents a rather horrifying situation through humor and an ironically detached narrator.
The short, simple sentences Vonnegut uses in "Harrison Bergeron" have been traced to his early work as a journalist. The tone of the omniscient narrator is often ironic, drawing attention to the absurdity of the future Vonnegut paints here. For instance, when the ballerina reads the announcement on television, "she had to apologize at once for her voice, which was a very unfair voice for a woman to use. Her voice was a warm, luminous, timeless melody. 'Excuse me-' she said, and she began again, making her voice absolutely uncompetitive" (10). By seemingly taking for granted that the ballerina's natural voice is "unfair," and by seeming to prefer the "uncompetitive" voice, the narrator implies that the reader should question this situation. In other words, Vonnegut leaves it to us to question the world, since his acceptance of it is so absurd.
One of the themes prevalent here is the advancement of science and technology. While the story does not attack technology in the broad sense, it does suggest the absurdity of allowing technology to progress too far without human oversight.
Consider the absurdity of the handicapping devices. The method of mental handicapping to which George Bergeron must submit, a "little mental handicap radio in his ear," is an example of a futuristic gadget (7). Likewise, his son Harrison must wear huge earphones and special spectacles to handicap his vision and give him headaches. In contrast to the advanced gadgetry used to mentally handicap George and Harrison, the government's mandated physical handicaps are quite simple: canvas bags of lead balls to handicap physical ability and masks to offset attractiveness.
What Vonnegut does seem to criticize is 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 quashed. 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.
"Harrison Bergeron" places particular emphasis on the arts and creativity: Harrison chooses a ballerina for his Empress, and they express their superiority on television by dancing through the air. The musicians at the studio have been handicapped and instructed not to play their best, but rather to play "normal" music: "cheap, silly, false" (12). When the musicians heed Harrison's command and play to the best of their ability, without handicaps, the music is beautiful enough to inspire Harrison and the ballerina to break all laws of physics: "they reeled, whirled, swiveled, flounced, capered, gamboled, and spun," leaping thirty feet to kiss the ceiling of the studio (13).
What makes Harrison heroic is that he is willing to flaunt his singularity, even at the risk of death. This courage stands in stark contrast to George, who not only suffers his handicap, but argues for it. His wife, despite her average qualities, sees the injustice and wants to alleviate George's suffering, but George refuses to do so, instead repeating the government's policy. He is too scared to transgress, and as a result allows the injustice to continue. What Vonnegut suggests is that nothing can change unless individuals force it, but that individuals too often lack the courage to enforce that chance.