The 20-th century introduced the industrial spirit to almost every country around the world. The change in the mode of production and a switch to an unfamiliar social system was quite difficult for most nations to put up with. High capital requirements, inherent to the industrial era, forced the majority of countries to create the governmental pool for resources concentration, thus shifting their social and political systems towards an authoritarian type. The amount of power and authority, acquired by administrative structures, was enormous, which made social transformation available. Following this, so-called socialism, with its principles of equal consumption and social equality, was employed in some twisted forms. As a result, the citizens of those countries turned into hostages of their government, or, at least, that is what was observed from the outside.
This significant change was reflected in the literature of that period. A new type of society – capitalistic one – was discussed there, yet, the principal amount of works were dedicated to the author’s vision of probable future, which seemed utterly unpredictable. Such works, like Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (2017) and “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut (1961), made a considerable contribution to this subject by developing their own perspective of the future. It usually included adverse circumstances and negative outcomes of a government’s poor decisions. Despite the time gone by, no one has a clear image of what might happen; that is why the topic is still actual. This paper will analyze one of the books mentioned, namely “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, and provide a reasonable opinion on its content.
Summary of the Novel
The story takes place in 2081, 120 years after the date of the book’s release when the new amendments to the Constitution have been introduced. According to those standards, there can be no outstanding features in any citizen. All of them should be equal in the sense that some inherent characteristics ought to be hidden by masks when it comes to beauty or heavy weights if someone is healthy or well-built. The laws are enforced by various government agents, watching the citizens all the time and punishing those who would not obey.
Then the author illustrates a family, which is, by definition, is standard and, as usual, watches a ballet on television. The only difference is that unlike the other families, this one has just lost one of its members – the son, named Harrison, taken against his will by the government. He is a clear representation of everything forbidden in this society: intelligent, attractive, and incredibly brave; the usual mechanism can not suppress the boy. Consequently, the only way to eliminate such a threat is to isolate him.
Despite that loss, the family does not seem to grieve – the couple feels a bit sad, yet, the reason remains unknown. The memories about their son and his arrest were taken away by standard methods – loud radio devices controlled intelligence. All of a sudden, the TV translation breaks, and Harrison’s escape from prison is announced. Following that, the boy shows up on the stage, tears his and ballerina’s handicaps apart, and makes the orchestra play better. He dances to the music with the ballerina, his “Empress,” as the boy proclaims her. Soon after that, Diana Moon Glampers, the General of the Handicapper, breaks in and kills both. The translation stops, and George, Harrison’s father, comes back from the kitchen, unaware of those events, to find his wife crying. The only thing she could remember is that something sad had happened on the TV.
The story itself is rather short, yet, the main characters are indeed important, as each of them represents a particular social group with its common features. However, the protagonist, on the contrary, is not that primitive; in fact, he is the most outstanding individual anyone can think of. Harrison is an attractive, smart, and courageous young man capable of destructing the whole system if not eliminated for good. As a result, in an attempt to take over the leadership in the country, he is being taken to jail, yet, he does not give up on the idea and escapes soon after that.
The role of Harrison Bergeron in this story cannot be underestimated. Not only he is the key character, but he is probably a hero of the time depicted. Some researchers note that “In a future America where being average is the professed ideal – although Vonnegut comically demonstrates that the de facto standard of “average” in the story is far inferior to simple mediocrity – Harrison is superhuman. He is not just a revolutionary, but a Nietzschean Übermensch, cut from the same cloth as Ayn Rand’s John Galt.” (Reed, 2015, p. 56). In the context of the time when no one is eager to struggle with blatant violation of a right to be someone, not a philosophical zombie, the protagonist is an expression of freedom of choice.
The next character, which is rather important, is the protagonist’s mother, Hazel. In contrast to her son, she represents the average citizen of America, meeting all the primitive requirements. According to Reed (2015), “Let us pause to consider Hazel. Because she has no handicaps, we already know a great deal about her: she is not strong, lovely, or intelligent. She’s so average, and even her name is the eye color between brown and blue. Her natural mental state is equivalent to George’s handicapped mind. She is the ideal citizen in Vonnegut’s dumbed-down future America” (p. 57). In spite of Hazel’s simplicity, she feels upset about the loss of her son, though she does not recall why, which is probably an illustration of illusive public sorrow.
The last but not least main character is George Bergeron, who is, according to his description, in a position between the two previous characters. He is not as primitive as his wife, yet, not as great as his son. Considering his intelligence, the government forced him to wear a handicap in order to suppress his mind. His immanent abilities contradict the belief in the social order, which results in complete neglect and acceptance of his son’s death (Hild, 2017).
Some critics might appreciate this book for a satiric demonstration of possible future outcomes, yet, there is another opinion on the subject. According to Reed (2015), “Vonnegut’s nightmarish system … is a parody of what Americans feared might be wrought by losing … conflicts with Sino-Soviet socialists, a … fear that inflicted far more damage … than communism itself” (p. 50). Therefore, one may consider this story as a threatening, yet, a rather childish illustration of Americans’ worst nightmares. Quite an interesting thought to be considered is that the author is much more excited about the idea of equality itself, neglecting its underlying basis. In fact, the egalitarian society described is only a consequence of the system, which is rather unstable in a country like the US, where the entrepreneur spirit is a common phenomenon. However, there is no doubt that the author and the story itself should be valued for a considerable amount of thoughtful analysis in a field where everything is yet to be discovered, namely, the future.
The novel is worthy of respect due to several reasons, including the most important issue that it discusses, namely, the future prospects of humanity. However, the book’s significance is emphasized by a sociological analysis, which is translated by diverse characters that clearly represent different behavioral patterns. While some may consider the book to be a reflection of fear of socialism, the others appreciate it for what it is – a thoughtful and meaningful assumption of humanity’s prospects.
Hoff, H. (2017). Fostering the “intercultural reader”? An empirical study of socio-cultural approaches to EFL literature. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 63(3), 443-464.
Orwell, G. (2017). 1984. Natrona Heights, PA: General Press.
Reed, B. (2015). Technologies of instant amnesia: Teaching Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” to the millennial generation. Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice, 8(1), 45-69.
Vonnegut, K. (1961). Harrison Bergeron. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 21(4), 5-10.