Harrison Bergeron: Theme & Literary Analysis

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  • 0:01 Background of Harrison…
  • 0:38 Story Summary
  • 3:04 Themes
  • 4:34 Genre
  • 5:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kimberly Yates

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

'Harrison Bergeron' is a short story about what happens when an attempt to create equality for all citizens goes horribly wrong. This lesson will look at the themes of equality and government control in the story and will also focus on the concept of dystopian fiction.

Background of 'Harrison Bergeron'

Have you ever tried to picture a world where everyone is completely equal? A world where the government makes sure that everyone has equal wealth, equal intelligence, and equal levels of attractiveness? On the surface, this might seem like a perfect place to live - until you start to wonder how the government would actually accomplish this monumental task.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote about just such a world in his 1961 short story 'Harrison Bergeron.' This story is an example of dystopian fiction, or a type of fiction in which a society's attempt to create a perfect world goes very wrong.

Story Summary

'Harrison Bergeron' is set in America in 2081, during a time when the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments had been added to the Constitution in order to make sure that everyone is equal in every way. This equality is accomplished due to the diligent efforts of Diana Moon Glampers, the United States Handicapper General. As her title suggests, she is the government official who creates handicaps that will bring the stronger or smarter members of society down to the same level as the slower members.

In the opening scene, George and Hazel Bergeron are in their living room, trying to watch ballerinas on television. However, they are both having trouble concentrating. Hazel is so mentally slow that she can't remember anything for more than a few minutes. George is very intelligent, but in order to maintain equal status with the rest of society, he has to wear a little radio that plays sounds in his ear at random intervals. And not just any sounds, but loud, ear-splitting sounds. Imagine trying to concentrate on anything while a 21-gun salute or a siren blares in your ears! The sounds are so debilitating that George is reduced to Hazel's level; he is unable to think of anything for more than a few minutes at a time.

The ballerinas are also wearing government-issued handicaps: sash weights and bags of birdshot that keep them as awkward as other members of society. Their dance is interrupted when Harrison Bergeron, Hazel and George's 14-year-old son, bursts into the studio. Harrison is everything the society is trying to control. He is so strong that the Handicapper General forced him to wear 300 pounds of scrap metal; he's so attractive that he has had his eyebrows shaved off and wears a big rubber nose; and he's so intelligent that he has to wear huge earphones and special glasses that give him constant headaches. In spite of this, the government still considers him under-handicapped.

After breaking into the studio, Harrison rips off his handicaps and begins screaming that he is the new ruler, the emperor. He chooses one of the ballerinas to be his empress and rips off her handicaps, as well. They dance, gracefully and beautifully, around the studio until they are practically floating in the air. At this point, Diana Moon Glampers bursts in, shooting and killing both Harrison and the ballerina. It is only then that equality is restored.

Themes

The theme of a story is the main idea or point that the author is trying to get readers to understand. In 'Harrison Bergeron,' the two themes are centered around equality and government control.

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