Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut
In Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut we have the theme of equality, control, independence, conflict, change and fear. Taken from his Welcome to the Monkey House collection the reader realises from the beginning of the story that Vonnegut may be exploring the theme of equality. The Handicap General ensures that everybody is equal. However rather than this being a euphoric moment in mankind it is clear to the reader that the Handicap General and her agents are suppressing people’s abilities in an attempt to normalize them to a set criteria. A criteria which the Handicap General is able to control and ensure that others do not feel as though they have the ability to be independent in thought. If anything society is completely under the control of the Handicap General and anybody who may be above average or near genius like in their abilities is deliberately handicapped. George being an example of how punitive the measures taken can be for an individual. He is cleverer than Hazel and as such faces regular transmissions of sound which distort his reality and ensure that he remains under the control of the Handicap General.
Similarly the ballerinas that are dancing are all wearing masks. Their beauty is hidden from others. This is a deliberate act by the Handicap General so as that those who may be prettier to the eye are not seen. In reality the Handicap General is seeking to impose a plain and simple logic to society and does so by controlling everybody. That is everybody except the Handicap General herself and her agents. They are not handicapped or controlled in any way. It is as though the result of the Handicap General’s actions is to instil fear into society. By controlling an individual’s mind or appearance the Handicap General believes that she (or the Government) will be able to ensure that society is run smoothly without the natural abilities of others taking the reins and enhancing society as those of a good mind have often done. If anything life under the Handicap General is a life of paralysis. There is no going forward as no one is allowed to develop any of the thoughts that they might have without being inflicted with a punishment by the Handicap General.
There is also a farcical element to the story. An example being that the ballerinas are tied down by the weight of the metal balls. If anything a ballerina’s efforts should be effortless and fluid. Something that is not possible with a bag of metal tied around their necks. Harrison’s break at freedom is also interesting as he shows others what can be done should one harness the abilities that they have and that they may have been born with. Harrison is also a genius and as such is heavily handicapped. He stands out from others. Something that is symbolically noticeable by the fact that he is seven feet tall. It is also interesting that the musicians play better when they remove their own handicaps. Society is not diluted in any way when an individual removes their handicap and there is a noticeable difference in an individual’s ability to perform to the best of their abilities. Harrison also represents the conflict that may exist between an individual and society. Harrison will not let himself be controlled. Preferring instead to take the risk of removing his handicap to show others that they too can achieve something other than what society (or the Handicap General) has to offer.
The end of the story is also interesting as despite witnessing the death of her son. Hazel has forgotten what she was crying about. This may be important as Hazel is not handicapped in any way and the reader is left to assume that she is shallow. She may be kind and supportive when the announcer on TV tries to overcome his speech impediment but nonetheless she is carefree when it comes to Harrison’s death. The fact that the announcer has a speech impediment is also absurd as one would expect an announcer to have a free flowing ability to speak. Not only does the announcer’s speech impediment impede him but it also hinders or makes the announcement he is making near impossible to understand. How important Harrison is to the story is also noticeable by the fact he is killed. He is seen as a threat to society by the Handicap General and as such she kills him. Harrison had the capability through his own actions of changing other people’s lives. Something which would be contrary to what the Handicap General wants. At all stages in the story the Handicap General and her agents impose their version of what life should be on others. No one is allowed to be independent.