“Harrison Bergeron” is a satirical and dystopian science-fiction short story written by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and first published in October 1961. Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the story was republished in the author’s Welcome to the Monkey House collection in 1968. The satire raises a serious question concerning the desirability of social equality and the extent to which society is prepared to go to achieve it.
It is the year 2081. Because of Amendments to the Constitution, every American is fully equal, meaning that no one is smarter, better-looking, stronger, or faster than anyone else. The Handicapper General and a team of agents ensure that the laws of equality are enforced. The government forces citizens to wear “handicaps” (a mask if they are too handsome or beautiful, earphones with deafening radio signals to make intelligent people unable to concentrate and form thoughts, and heavy weights to slow down those who are too strong or fast).
One April, 14 year old Harrison Bergeron, an extremely handsome teenage genius, is taken away from his parents, George and Hazel, by the government. George and Hazel are not fully aware of the tragedy. Hazel’s lack of awareness is due to “average” intelligence, which in 2081, is the politically correct way of referring to someone of well-below-average intelligence. George does not comprehend the tragedy since the law requires him to wear the radio ear piece for twenty-four hours a day because he is of above-average intelligence.
Hazel and George are watching a ballet on TV. Hazel has been crying, though she cannot remember why. She remarks on the beauty of the dance. For a few moments, George reflects on the dancers, who are weighed down to counteract their gracefulness and masked to cover up their good looks. They have been handicapped so that TV viewers will not feel bad about their own appearance and hence will feel equally as talented and good-looking. Because of their handicaps, the dancers are not very good. A noise interrupts George’s thoughts: two of the dancers onscreen hear the noise, too; apparently, they must wear radios as well.
Hazel thinks George looks exhausted and urges him to lie down and rest his “handicap bag”, 47 pounds (21 kg) of weight placed in a bag and locked around George’s neck. He says he hardly notices the weight any more. Hazel suggests taking a few of the weights out of the bag, but he says if everyone broke the law, society would return to its old competitive ways. Hazel says she would hate that. A noise interrupts the conversation, and George cannot remember what they were talking about.
On TV, a news reporter with a speech impediment attempts to read a bulletin. After 30 seconds, unable to even say “Ladies and Gentlemen”, he hands the bulletin to a ballerina to read. Hazel commends him for working with his God-given abilities and says he should get a raise for trying so hard. The ballerina, wearing the most grotesque mask of all, and with weights meant for a 200-pound (90 kg) male, begins reading in her natural, beautiful voice, then apologizes and switches to a growly voice so that she will not sound nicer than anyone else. The bulletin says that Harrison has escaped from prison.
A photo of Harrison appears on the screen. He is wearing the handicaps meant to counteract his strength, intelligence, and good looks. The photo shows that he is 7 feet (2.1 m) tall and covered in 300 pounds (140 kg) of metal. He is wearing huge earphones, rather than a small radio, and big glasses meant to blind him and give him headaches. He is also wearing a red rubber nose and black caps over his teeth. His eyebrows are shaved off.
After a rumbling noise, the photo on the Bergerons’ TV screen is replaced with an image of Harrison himself, who has stormed the studio. In an attempt to overthrow the government and its handicapping systems, he says that he is the emperor, the greatest ruler in history, and that everyone must obey him. Then he rips off all of his handicaps. He says that the first woman brave enough to stand up will be his empress. A ballerina, presumably the one who reads the report, rises to her feet. Harrison removes her handicaps and mask, revealing a blindingly beautiful woman.
He orders the musicians to play, saying he will make them royalty if they do their best. Unhappy with their initial attempt, Harrison conducts, waving a couple of musicians in the air like batons, and sings. They try again and do better. After listening to the music, Harrison and his empress dance. Defying gravity, they move through the air, flying 30 feet (9 m) upward to the ceiling, then, still in the air, they kiss each other.
Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, comes into the studio and kills Harrison and the empress with a shotgun. Turning the gun on the musicians, she orders them to put their handicaps on in ten seconds, or the same fate will happen to them. The Bergerons’ screen goes dark. George, who has left the room to get a beer, returns and asks Hazel why she has been crying. She says that something sad happened on TV, but she cannot remember exactly what. He urges her not to remember sad things. A noise sounds in George’s head, and Hazel says it sounded like a doozy. He says she can say that again, and she repeats that it sounded like a doozy.
Harrison Bergeron is the fourteen-year-old son, who is 7 feet (2.1 m) tall, a genius, and an extraordinarily handsome, athletic, strong and brave person. He wants to live as an unimpeded human being and does not want to obey the laws of the government, which has taken on the responsibility of creating equality for the whole American society. He has been jailed by the Handicapper General’s office for planning to overthrow the government. To eliminate any “unfair advantages”, the Handicapper General forces him to wear the most extreme handicaps: huge earphones and spectacles intended to make him half blind and give him tremendous headaches. Harrison, being so large, has to have metal attached to him, making him look more like a junk yard than a man. He also has to wear a red rubber nose and have blackened teeth to make him less handsome. When he escapes from jail, the government describes him as “a genius and an athlete” and tells people that he should be regarded as extremely dangerous. When Harrison enters the television studio, he is convinced that he can overthrow the government. In addition to this talent and egotism, he also possesses artistic and romantic characteristics. He sings and dances with his empress, seemingly able to defy gravity. Tragically, despite Harrison’s superior physical prowess and genius, he is stopped when the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, shoots him down with a shotgun.
George Bergeron is Harrison’s father and Hazel’s husband. A very smart and sensitive character, he is handicapped artificially by the government. Like his son, he has to wear mental handicap radios in his ears to keep him from thinking intensely and analytically. Because he is stronger than average, he has to wear weights around his neck. When his wife Hazel suggests that he could take these weights off for a while to relax, he rejects the idea. He wants to obey the laws and is unwilling to risk punishment for a little comfort. He believes that the situation in 2081 is better than it had been back in the days when there was still competition in society. He has much respect for the rules and represents the common passive citizen who does not critique a government that manipulates individuals. Obeying the rules, he is even incapable of recognizing the tragic situation when his son has been shot to death – a harsh critique of passiveness towards authority.
Hazel Bergeron is Harrison’s mother and George’s wife. Hazel has perfectly average intelligence, which means that she cannot think deeply about anything. However, she is a well intentioned character, a loving wife and mother, who tries to comfort her husband by suggesting he removes his handicap weights. She cries when she sees what happens to her son but her brain does not allow her to recall what she was crying about. In the end all her kindness counts for nothing as her stupidity outruns her good intentions. Hazel has much in common with the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers. This seems to symbolize that America is ruled by persons of average intelligence, a comment on the competence of those running government.
Diana Moon Glampers
Despite appearing in person for only four sentences, Handicapper General Diana Moon Glampers represents the oppressive government. It is mentioned early on that Hazel resembles Diana, and Hazel mentions improvements she would make to Diana’s handicap regulations. She appears ruthless when she kills Harrison and his Empress without warning, and threatens the musicians with a similar fate before the broadcast is interrupted, leaving their future ambiguous. Diana’s first and middle names are possibly a reference to Diana, the Roman huntress, virgin goddess of the moon. Glampers also appears in Vonnegut’s book God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
A beautiful dancer who was burdened with an especially ugly mask and excessive weights (“as big as those worn by two hundred pound men”), as she is the fairest, most beautiful and most graceful of the dancers. She reads an announcement card after the stammering announcer is unable to. It is likely, but not stated, that she is the same dancer who Harrison Bergeron takes as his Empress, who is later shot by Diana Moon Glampers for not wearing her handicaps.
Here, Vonnegut is influenced by his early work as a journalist. His sentences are short and easily understood so as to be largely accessible. A dystopian setting enhances his social and political critique by imagining a future world founded on absolute equality through handicaps assigned to various above-average people as punishment for being a little better than the boy next door.
Yet Vonnegut also punctuates his dystopia with humor. Even the most horrifying scenes are underlined by jokes or absurdity. When the news announcer is supposed to read a news bulletin he has to hand it to a nearby ballerina because of his speech impediment, and the ballerina then alters her voice to a “grackle squawk” because it would be “unfair” to use her natural voice, described as a “warm, luminous, timeless melody”. This absurdity highlights the madness of the world of “Harrison Bergeron”.
Parallels with The Sirens of Titan
A similar dystopian society to that of “Harrison Bergeron” appears in Vonnegut’s 1959 novel The Sirens of Titan. When the Space Wanderer returns to earth he finds a society in which handicaps are used to make all people equal, eradicating the supposedly ruinous effects of blind luck on human society. The narrator claims that now “the weakest and the meekest were bound to admit, at last, that the race of life was fair”.
The strong are burdened with “handicaps” (consisting of “bags of lead shot” hung from various parts of the body) and the beautiful hide their advantageous appearance through “frumpish clothes, bad posture, chewing gum and a ghoulish use of cosmetics”.
However, unlike in “Harrison Bergeron”, the citizens in The Sirens of Titan choose to wear these handicaps voluntarily as an act of faith towards the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, although it is suggested that to not do so would result in heavy social condemnation. A further important difference between the two societies is that there are no handicaps for above-average intelligence mentioned in The Sirens of Titan. Thus in many ways it would seem that “Harrison Bergeron” is a later version of the society seen in The Sirens of Titan, but Sirens was set later, in the 22nd century.
The story has been adapted for the screen at least four times.
PBS adapted several stories, including “Harrison Bergeron”, in Between Time and Timbuktu (1972), with Avind Haerum in the title role.
In 1995 Showtime produced a full-length made-for-television adaptation entitled Harrison Bergeron, starring Sean Astin as the title character. The adaptation diverged from the plot considerably, featuring Harrison being recruited by the National Administration Center, a secret cabal of geniuses within the government who ensure that the handicapped America functions. Working for the television division, Harrison becomes dissatisfied with the status quo and attempts to start another American revolution by taking over the nation’s television broadcasting. He broadcasts old unhandicapped movies and music, while encouraging people to remove their brain handicapping “bands” on their heads.
In 2006, a short film also entitled Harrison Bergeron was released. It received direct praise from Vonnegut himself, who said, “I am glad to see the appropriate measures taken with my story.”
In 2009, another short film called 2081 was based on the original story and starred Armie Hammer as the title character. Joe Crowe, managing editor of the online magazine Revolution Science Fiction, described the movie as “stirring and dramatic” and said it “gets right to the point, and nails the adaptation in about 25 minutes.”
In the real world
- In 2005 the story was quoted by attorneys in a brief before the Kansas Supreme Court. Vonnegut was quoted as saying that while he did not mind the story being used in the suit, he disagreed with the lawyers’ interpretation of it.
- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia quoted the story in PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin.
- Klinkowitz, Jerome (1998): Vonnegut in Fact. The public spokesman of personal fiction. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press
- Leeds, Marc (1995): The Vonnegut Encyclopedia. An Authorized Compendium. Westport, London: Greenwood Press
- Leeds, Marc; Reed, Peter J. (1996): The Vonnegut Chronicles. Interviews and Essays. Westport, London: Greenwood Press
- Petterson, Bo (1994): The World according to Kurt Vonnegut. Moral Paradox and Narrative Form. Åbo: Åbo University.