Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s terrifying short story, “Harrison Bergeron”, offers a disturbing take on excessive government control and making everyone “equal” by making everyone the same. In a style that is intended to scare readers, Vonnegut through his narrator and his characters George, Hazel, Harrison, presents a disturbing scenario of everyone is made equal by the government through weights being put on people’s legs and mental handicap radios being put in people’s ears to stop people from thinking for a long time. The issue of how much the government should intervene in people’s lives is a common topic that shows up throughout this story. People in this story cannot have opinions on the issues of equality and government control as the government keeps track of their people and prevents them from having long rational thoughts. Through the eyes of the narrator and the characters of the story, Vonnegut presents an important message to the audience, which is a warning against excessive government control as it can to the invasion of the privacy of people’s lives.
The story commences with a description of how the United States now has 213 amendments with Amendments 211, 212, 213 making everyone “equal” in a way where no one is smarter, better looking, stronger, or quicker than anyone else. This is shown as the narrator states that “All of this equality is due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of the agents under the United States Handicapper General” (Vonnegut 38). Through this example, it is now shown that the government has now become a totalitarian society where the government, including the Handicapper General, has absolute control over people’s lives. Due to these amendments, people in the United States now have to wear mental and physical handicaps that prevent them from being faster, stronger, or smarter than anyone else, which prevent people from even being able to think for a long time. This type of government control is shown when George is trying to think about how ballerinas shouldn’t be handicapped and the radio in his head made lose his trace of thought as the narrator states, “George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. But he didn’t get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts.” (40). With these amendments making everyone “equal” with mental handicap radios and other mental and physical, readers recognize Vonnegut’s warning against the government gaining absolute control over people’s lives.
The story continues with Hazel trying to convince George to get rid of the few lead balls from his physical handicaps so he can rest. George responds to this by explaining that “If I tried to get away with it, then other people’d get away with it-and pretty soon we’d be back in the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everyone else” (41). This shows readers that with or without the mental handicap radios, this new American society uses propaganda to manipulate their citizens, including George and Hazel, into believing that going back to before everyone was made equal is bad and that the new “equal” society is trying to benefit everyone. George then continues to explain that “There you are, The minute people start cheating on laws, what do you think happens to society” (41). This continues his discussion on how society would fall apart if people started breaking the law, no matter how important or tyrannical the law is, showing more evidence that propaganda is now a major factor of how the government managed to gain control over their citizens. Even with propaganda, the government still uses the mental handicap radio to make George forget what he was saying anyway, as they fear of him being smarter than anyone else in the country. With this information, readers recognize the propaganda told in this story continues to warn people that even though excessive government control is bad already, it is even worse when people don’t realize that their government is bad due to excessive propaganda.
The story concludes with Harrison Bergeron escaping from jail and self-proclaiming himself the Emperor. As Harrison screams with passion, “I am the Emperor!” (43), he starts the attempt to overthrow the totalitarian government and abolish the need of physical and mental handicaps that the government forces them to wear. Furthermore, after selecting his empress and starts to dance with her, he begins establishing his new rules against the need for handicaps by telling the musicians playing the music to “Play your best, and I’ll make you barons and dukes and earls.” (43), representing that he will reward them for playing with their handicaps and showing their loyalty to Harrison’s new government. This continues as Harrison continues to dance when Vonnegut states “Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well.” (44). This represents that Harrison’s performance suggests that defiance of authoritarian law can bring freedom from not only its laws but even physics itself. In the end, Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, shoots both Harrison and his empress to death and Harrison’s parents forget that he was killed, representing that propaganda could be too strong to have people start questioning or rebelling against the government. Through the actions of Harrison, readers recognize that rebellion is possible, even in a society with absolute power where propaganda keeps its citizens from questioning the government.
“Harrison Bergeron” therefore offers a powerful message against excessive government control that can lead to the invasion of privacy in people’s lives and corrupted propaganda that hypnotizes its citizens into believing a false reality. This short story by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. speaks clearly to the consequences of the government having absolute rule over its citizens. Individuals must be cautious in how much control they let their government have. They must give the government enough control and strength so that it is not too weak, but cannot have too much control or else an authoritarian system just like the society in this story could happen. As one can recognize, without the knowledge of what too much power in the government could do, excessive government control can lead to terrifying consequences such as oppression, war, and death that is beyond our control.