2081: The World of Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron

Most people know Kurt Vonnegut Jr. for his novels, but I know him through one particular work of his short fiction: “Harrison Bergeron,” a look at a future when everyone is “finally equal.” I had adopted the text into my intro English courses upon consulting a list of student favorites: along with Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” and John Updike’s “A & P” was “Harrison Bergeron.” I recognized Vonnegut’s name and the much-contested association that name has with science fiction. Is Vonnegut a literary writer, or SF? I like to think he’s both, despite some ivory towers refusing SF to the literary fold. Clearly, Dana Gioia and X.J. Kennedy, editors of Pearson Longman’s Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing are in my camp, as in addition to “Bergeron,” they’ve anthologized Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” another great work of dystopic short fiction.
Like “Omelas,” Vonnegut’s vision of a perfectly equal society doesn’t seem a dystopia at first. Many great dystopias seem like a good idea at first: as an adolescent, the high-sex low-clothing, youthful world of Logan’s Run was brilliant. As a forty year-old who’d already be dead ten years, it’s lost its glow. Vonnegut’s genius is that he not only provides a future premise we think will be fantastic, he writes in a persona that agrees with that premise. The narrative voice in “Harrison Bergeron” has bought in to the idea that being “equal every which way” is desirable. The only indication we have that Vonnegut isn’t serious about this in the opening lines is the disclaimer, “some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April, for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime.” The joke may be lost on those closer to the equator, but to denizens of the Albertan prairies, this is a fine bit of ironic humour.
Vonnegut is surreptitiously winking at his reader, saying, “yes, I’m serious about what I’m saying. I’m just not saying it seriously.” His next wink will be his focalizing couple, George and Hazel Bergeron, a clever homage to George Burns and Gracie Allen: George Bergeron is very intelligent, while Hazel (the name of one of Gracie’s three sisters) evokes Gracie’s Dumb Dora act, clearest in the final lines of the short story:
“Gee—I could tell that one was a doozy,” said Hazel.
“You can say that again,” said George.
“Gee—” said Hazel, “I could tell that one was a doozy.”
Both Bergerons are seated in their living room, watching television: George with a “little mental handicap radio in his ear” to keep him from utilizing his exceptional intelligence, and Hazel without any handicap whatsoever, since she has “a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts.” They are watching a ballet featuring dancers “burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot,” their faces masked to hide their beauty. This is the price of a perfectly equal society, says Vonnegut with a satirical smile. Strong? We’ll give you burdens. Smart? We’ll give you headaches. Pretty? We’ll hide your face. Stupid? You’re perfect.

Read the whole article HERE at Tor.com!

Comments

  1. Great story, loved it. this is pretty good too ^-^

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