The following post is a report I did for a college course, a critical reading report. I like it, so figured why not post it? Let me know what you think. If you haven’t read this story, you should!
1961 was a big year in American history in pop culture and the political sphere. This was the year JFK was inaugurated, we sent a man to space, the Berlin Wall began construction and Lenny Bruce became the first man to say “cocksucker” on stage. But 1961 was also a time where America was at war, the Cold War. The Red Scare was rampant and communism at the time was what radical Islam is today. In this same year, Kurt Vonnegut wrote the short story “Harrison Bergeron.” “Harrison Bergeron” is a tale of a distant future, set right here in our United States, where the United States we know of today is no longer relevant. Instead, there is an authoritarian government in place that has made each and every individual equal to one other by way of handicapping the more fortunate. The 211th, 212th and 213th amendments to the constitution have resulted in the intelligent having their thoughts suppressed, the strong and athletic are weakened, and the beautiful are masked. Then along comes Harrison Bergeron, an immense man who is very intelligent, good looking, and is attempting to “awake the masses.” At first read Vonnegut’s story seems to be no more than a social critique on the dangers of egalitarianism through communism, however, it seems to be more than that. “Harrison Bergeron” is a testament to the greatness and importance of democracy in America, shown throughout the text with the characters, setting and theme.Many characters appear in the story and each one holds a vast amount of importance to the story. Vonnegut first introduces us to Hazel and George Bergeron who shed some light on what living as an average citizen in Vonnegut’s vision of 2081 America is like. George is very important due to the fact he is very harshly handicapped by force of the government; George is depicted as having heavy braces and weights on his body to undermine his strength and wearing earpieces that suppress his thoughts. Establishing these characters right off the bat shows just how oppressive the government is in its quest for equality. Other important characters are the ones depicted on TV. Day in and day out the citizens are watching the same ballet show, where the ballerinas are a perfect representation of the government’s oppression. Bounded by physical and mental handicaps, masks to cover their otherwise beautiful faces and the forcing of them to consistently perform the same routine is an allusion to the twisted control of the government. Combine the everyday citizen and these ballet shows, and the final product is the docile population an authoritarian government prays for. Finally, we are introduced to Harrison Bergeron on the TV after escaping prison. A quintessential example of everything this government hates. He arrives on to the scene as a criminal who defies the government and proposes the idea of a Monarchy to those watching the show. In the story he is quoted saying, “I am the Emperor! Do you hear? I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once! Even as I stand here, crippled, hobbled, and sickened – I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!” The two vastly different forms of government we are shown in this story show how Vonnegut is critiquing both the Left wing and the Right wing in America. The communist government in power represents the left while Harrison Bergeron’s proposed Monarchy represents the right. By doing this, Vonnegut is telling the reader that a fair democracy is the best form of government.
When looking at the setting of the story, we see very obvious references to communist governments. The year is 2081 and set in the United States, just not the same one Americans are familiar with today. Probably the most distinctive characteristic of an authoritative government in the setting would be the news and ballerina program. It was made clear that the ballet show they were watching was an exclusive program that was all the citizens were able to watch. This is clear evidence of hindering the thought processes of the citizens to make them more docile. There is no greater way to control the ideas, beliefs and opinions of a society than to have control of the media/press. To understand the real critique of Vonnegut, the real world political setting of the time; in the 1950’s we see the book The Authoritarian Personality by Thedor Adorno. Adorno believed in Critical Theory and his book brought to light the idea that the presence in a society of Christianity, capitalism, and the patriarchal-authoritarian family created a character prone to racial and religious prejudice and German fascism. Today we call this Political Correctness, which labels nearly anything said that is slightly controversial as racist, sexist, homophobic or islamophobia. This is a classic tactic used today by the left and a warning made by Vonnegut to highlight the dangers of political correctness. Taking this into consideration, we can again see how the setting of both the book and the references to its time period are evidence of his support for democracy and protection of free press.
At first glance the theme of this story may be a warning of the dangers of authoritarian governments. Some may argue that it is social/political satire on the quest for social equality. The social satire argument is good argument when looking at the story at face value, solely for the fact of how ridiculous the idea of red noses to make you uglier sounds. And while many can find a Lenny Bruce/George Carlin-esque sense of humor in this story, there is also a very serious tone in “Harrison Bergeron.” This serious comes into play when showing the reader the dangers of an authoritarian government. Evidence of this is slightly more present and most that was touched on earlier in this analysis. But I will acknowledge the fact that this is a critique both not on one side of the political spectrum, it is a critique of the dangers of radical takeovers by either the left or the right and the undermining of democracy.
Kurt Vonnegut is a great political satirist and you need look no farther than “Harrison Bergeron” to make that clear. By presenting the dangers of communism, he was able to critique the left. By showing the dangers of monarchies through Harrison Bergeron’s force he was able to critique the right. By doing so, Vonnegut was able to show just how absurd the dominance of two ideologies is and just how dangerous it is. Having only two battling ideologies like we do in the U.S. inevitably leads to far-right and far-left parties. One of those parties takes power, and we get authoritarian governments. This was never more relevant in U.S. history than the 2016 race when it was not Trump vs. Clinton, but actually was fascism vs. socialism. Vonnegut’s text “Harrison Bergeron” was a testament to the greatness and importance of democracy through the story’s setting, characters and theme.