Harrison Bergeron: Summary, Setting & Symbolism

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Lesson Transcript
Kimberly Yates

Kimberly has taught college English and has a master's degree in education.

Expert Contributor
Jenna Clayton

Jenna received her BA in English from Iowa State University in 2015, and she has taught at the secondary level for three years.

'Harrison Bergeron' is a short story written by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in 1961. It is a cautionary tale that focuses on the idea that true equality is impossible to achieve. This lesson will look at how the setting and symbolism enhance the overall theme.

Background of 'Harrison Bergeron'

'Harrison Bergeron' by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is dystopian fiction, which means it is a piece of fiction based in a futuristic but degraded or broken society. This story is based on a society whose attempt to create a perfect world has gone horribly wrong. Vonnegut wrote the story in 1961 in the middle of the Cold War and at the beginning of the anti-establishment 1960s.

The story starts in 2081, a time when the government of the United States has finally established equality for all its citizens. This concept seems noble but has actually caused complete chaos. Instead of finding a way to improve the intelligence or strength of weaker members of society, the government handicaps the stronger members.

The story opens with Hazel and George Bergeron in their living room watching ballerinas on television. The ballerinas aren't very good because they are weighted down with heavy bags of birdshot to make them as gawky and awkward as other members of society. This doesn't matter since Hazel and George can't concentrate on the dancers for long anyway. Hazel, because she is mentally slow. George, because, although he's highly intelligent, he is handicapped by an ear radio that plays painfully loud, distracting sounds at random intervals.

In the middle of the dance, Hazel and George's son Harrison Bergeron bursts into the television studio where the ballerinas are performing. He has broken out of jail where he was being held for plotting to overthrow the government. He is seven feet tall, highly intelligent and according to the government, under-handicapped. Unfortunately, he is also insane. Instead of continuing his rebellion or attempting to physically fight the government, he rips off his handicaps and dances around the studio with one of the ballerinas. Eventually, he is shot by a government official known as the Handicapper General, and equality is restored.

Analysis - Settings and Symbols

The story is set in April of 2081, a gloomy, clammy month that Vonnegut describes as annoying for not being spring. What is most significant, though, is what is not described in the setting. Much of the story takes place in the Bergerons' house, but Vonnegut doesn't describe the home at all, except to say they have a television. Vonnegut offers no other details, no décor, no colors, no furniture. None of the personal touches that make a house a home. Similarly, the television station where the other part of the story takes place is equally nondescript. This starkness highlights the idea that society's obsessive focus on equality has stamped out any individuality or personality.

In literature, a symbol is an object or person that represents an important ideal. Authors use symbols to help readers understand the overall point or theme of the story. The main symbols in 'Harrison Bergeron' are the handicaps, the birdshot, and Harrison himself. Vonnegut uses these to show how the society's idea of equality is not only dangerous but also impossible to achieve.

The intelligent members of the society are handicapped by wearing radios that play loud sounds at random intervals. These sounds signify the intensity of the story's events. In the beginning, George hears a buzzer sounding in his head, a noise often associated with an alarm or the start of an event. As the plot intensifies and the conflict grows, the sounds change and grow more extreme. George is nearly incapacitated by the sounds of a shattering milk jug, an auto collision, and a siren. Finally, a gunshot rings in his head. This is a sound often associated with violent death, and it is symbolic of the violent death that George's son has just suffered.

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Additional Activities

Harrison Bergeron Activities

Journal Prompts

Students may choose one or more of the following questions to answer. Students must write in complete sentences, explain thoroughly, and provide text-specific examples.

  • What are the major symbols in "Harrison Bergeron?" Explain the significance of each symbol.
  • What is the setting of the short story, and why does Vonnegut refrain from adding details of the Bergeron home or the stage?
  • According to "Harrison Bergeron," how can equality be dangerous? In your opinion, is true equality possible in our society?

After students have had time to respond thoroughly, discuss these questions either in small groups, or use these questions in a whole-class discussion.

Narrative Writing

Allow the students to be creative and design their own dystopian fiction. To start, give students time to brainstorm ideas for their setting and plot. Where does their story take place? Who are the characters? How is their imagined society trying to be perfect? How does everything go wrong? You may want to give students a graphic organizer or worksheet to help them develop their ideas. A simple outline is also helpful in organizing a narrative. Once students have a plan, they can begin writing. Once students are done writing, it is a good idea to peer-edit or do some revising activities. This might also be a good time to review some narrative writing concepts, such as correct punctuation with dialogue. This is an opportunity for students to be creative, but it is also a way to review their understanding of dystopian fiction and the importance of setting in a story.

Plot Diagram

A plot diagram is a simple yet effective activity used to review a short story. This is an alternative to writing a basic summary. This can be done individually, in small groups, or as a large group. Filling out a plot diagram together as a large group is also an efficient way to review for an upcoming quiz or test on the short story.

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