Harrison Bergeron is a short story written by Kurt Vonnegut and tells of Harrison Bergeron, a tall, handsome and strong young man. In spite of the government’s attempt to suppress him, Harrison is not contented with this state of things: he knows himself, he is aware of his strength and smartness and flaunts it. So he escapes from prison to realize his goals, but the government murders him (SparkNotes). Of course, the typical vibrancy of his age helps his rebellious psychology against the status quo. But it can also be said that his age, marked with the unreserved youthful belief in possibilities, is what becomes his undoing.
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Vonnegut, in this story, is also making a political and a social point. Many critics have interpreted the story’s futuristic utopia as representing egalitarianism, the critique, it’s argued, is on the dangers of egalitarianism (all-round equality of people) as enshrined in the American constitution. Thus, it is said, “his satire seems to argue that the efforts meant to attain equality are absurd” (Hattenhauer).
But Vonnegut is not arguing against equality per se, rather he seems to be laughing off the simplicity of that dreamt-of equality and the misunderstanding of what chasing it entails. He argues that egalitarianism calls for the suppression of the bright and hardworking in order for them to be equal with the rest; that it assigns much importance to peaceful living at the expense of intelligence and artistry (SparkNotes). In a too vigorous attempt to enforce equality, Vonnegut seems to say there’s a risk of society penalizing excellence, including physical grace, good looks, and imagination. Regarding this, Stanley Schatt writes, “in the process of acquiring equality, what is sacrificed, by Vonnegut’s argument, is grace, beauty and wisdom” (133).
“More specifically, this work is seen as Vonnegut’s literary attack against the misunderstanding of the US in its fight against socialism and communism” (Hattenhaur). The ultimate objective of the story is to show how society would be absurd if egalitarianism, as popularly perceived by America’s popular and dominant culture, was to be achieved (Hattenhauer). By Vonnegut’s stand, therefore, the efforts to uplift minority groups, he seems to suggest, is such a move that kills intelligence and artistry (SparkNotes).
While this argument has been reflected in the effort to uplift women, for instance, where the modern strife for gender balance has at times superseded merit, Vonnegut’s stand seems to insist that only certain people (the majority, for instance) are capable of intelligence and artistry, and refuses to acknowledge that the minority can also have these virtues and only need an objective platform for them to also prevail.
Vonnegut’s stand also assumes that egalitarianism suppresses one’s strife and the ability for individual success. On the contrary, egalitarianism calls for giving everyone an equal chance for optimum self-realization. Vonnegut’s argument takes a rather utopic approach to egalitarianism, reflected in the futuristic utopic setting of his story. In his effort to objectify America’s popular distrust for the so-called intellectuality, he ends up exaggerating it.
To an extent, Vonnegut’s reflection on identity and individualism can also be seen in Steinbeck’s ‘Chrysanthemum’; one, because both stories seem to argue that individual success and excellence involves taking risks. For as long as Harrison Bergeron, for instance abides by the governments treatment of him, the efforts meant to put him down, there is no possibility he will come to realize his full potential. In order to excel, he must go against the government, a risk that costs him his life.
But he may as well be dead if he cannot achieve his full potential; similarly, Steinbeck’s Elisa must also fight against the suffocating male chauvinism if she is to be free. By doing this, she risks being considered as an outcast or even being left by her husband, but she does manage to take that risk. In doing so she remains in her emotional, sexual and physical isolation since there is simply no way that she will excel.
In line with this, both stories also seem to argue that individualism is not independent of society; that in the struggle for self realization, one is bound to encounter conflict which may at times be detrimental. The society that defines boundaries for human behavior and the scope of individual will then presents the obstacles.
For Harrison Bergeron, it costs him his life. For Elisa in ‘Chrysathemum’, not only does it promise war with the prevailing male chauvinism psychology, but it also starts a conflict in her between the new ‘character’ who has been nurtured by the tinker and the one that her society ‘knows’. In the end, she loses the fight as “fog does not go with rain” (Steinbeck 1). This does not end her conflict as reflected in her continued ‘slipping between masculine and feminine characters” (Budnichuk).
Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction.” Poetry, and Drama, (1999): 219-27. Print.
Budnichuk, Monica. “The Chrysanthemums:” Exposing Sexual Tension through Setting and Character.” Universal Journal. 2009. Web.