Marian University Students on Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron”
Marian University proudly partners with community businesses and organizations to support their respective missions, as well as enhance student engagement. One class has been working with us at the Vonnegut Library for the last few years. Students in Stacy Wriston’s English 239 class often volunteer at the library, helping with tours or projects or assisting with off-site events and fundraisers. This past term, Wriston’s students read the Kurt Vonnegut short story, Harrison Bergeron, for the first time. They shared their reactions and how they felt Vonnegut’s writing is still relevant today. We thought it would be fun to share these narratives to further support the important role of this Indy-born author and the Vonnegut Library in our community.
Mary A. Ziska
First Impression of Kurt Vonnegut Was Nothing Short of Total Amazement
I was introduced to the writings of Kurt Vonnegut when I read Harrison Bergeron. Having no prior knowledge of Vonnegut’s writing style, I didn’t hold expectations of any sort and was hoping to, at a minimum, find the short story interesting. Much to my surprise and delight, I found myself completely absorbed into the story, even laughing out loud at times. What is remarkable, is the theme and story line of Harrison Bergeron isn’t in any way a light-hearted comedy. Rather, its theme is a sobering one of government control taken to an extreme to impose equality for all citizens.
In 1961, Kurt Vonnegut wrote his satirical, science-fiction short story with a dystopian view of equality. Harrison Bergeron’s setting is in the living room of George and Hazel Bergeron in the year 2081. Hazel has an average level of intelligence and beauty. She does not have any handicaps placed upon her, nor does she have to wear a mask to hide any above-average beauty. George, her husband, does have capabilities above the average person and must always wear his government-assigned handicaps; for every citizen in America is to be equal both physically and mentally. In order to keep George, a man with a high level of intelligence, from thinking for too long on any subject, he must wear an earpiece that emits sharp noises that are transmitted by the government every twenty seconds. Because of Vonnegut’s witty and satirical writing style, I found myself laughing at the absurd comments made by Hazel to George when he receives a transmitted noise. For example:
“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. George winced. Hazel
asks George what the sound had been. After hearing George’s answer, Hazel
states with some envy “I’d think it would be real interesting, hearing all the
different sounds (Vonnegut, 1961).”
How in the world Hazel could be envious of George hearing the sounds when her husband just winced from them, is comical. Another example of Hazel’s hilariously absurd comments:
““Boy!” said Hazel, “that was a doozy,
wasn’t it?” It was such a doozy that George was white and trembling, and tears
stood on the rims of his red eyes (Vonnegut, 1961).”
By using these silly comments made by Hazel, Vonnegut was able to write this short story in a way that doesn’t make the reader feel depressed. In a sober view, it is very sad to think of George and of the frustration he must feel, knowing that any important thought he might like to think upon will disappear almost as quickly as the thought first appeared. I also found it sad that George accepted the handicap the government assigned to him without any real anger. However, in order to live in a society of government-controlled equality, a person would need to be resigned to dealing with the restrictions or face punishment. Hazel and George’s 14-year-old son Harrison Bergeron resisted. I will leave you with this cliff-hanger, so that you will want to read this short story and discover what happened.
I am in awe of Vonnegut’s ability to write a satirical
story providing humor for his audience, while sending an important message at
the same time. Kurt Vonnegut may have written this story in 1961, however, the
message he was communicating is very relevant in 2019. In today’s politics,
there is an ever-increasing amount of talk regarding equality. Our government
was set up so that all its citizens are to be treated in an equal way, with
equal rights. It was not set up with the intention that everyone should be equal.
No one should be forced to remain at a lower level than what he or she can
achieve, nor should anyone be forced to give away, with or without
compensation, something that he or she has worked hard to attain.
My first impression…
This is my first time reading stories by Kurt Vonnegut, and the first thing I noticed about his writing is how much passion is put into his stories. You could feel his emotions while reading the stories. I felt as if I were in the story and playing a role as the character. He also knows how to keep you wanting more. Whenever the stories seemed to slowly lose my interest, he knew exactly what to say to pull me back in to read more.
Emotions are what keep me
reading Harrison Bergeron, I could
truly feel the heart-felt passion and sadness that the story creates. This
story is all about equality and how everyone has different things that have
happened to them to make them no better than anyone else. George had noise
going off in his ears whenever something was going to happen that would have an
impact on him. With the way that Vonnegut wrote, I could feel the pain George
was feeling whenever he would explain the loud boom in his ears. I could feel
how lonely and confused Hazel was every time she thought she would remember
something, but she never could. She knew she was sad, but she could not
remember she was sad about her son. The way the author explained her emotions
made you know exactly how she was feeling.
Equality in today’s world…
I believe that in the story, Harrison Bergeron, Vonnegut was trying
to say equality is never something that is going to work in the world. As much
as everyone wants there to be less violence and more love, equality is not the
answer. In today’s world, there are too many people with their own unique ways,
and making everyone equal would take that out, and the world would be a sad,
lonely place, just like it was in the story. They may think it would make the
world a better place, but everyone would be lonely and quiet. No one would be
able to express their true feelings. Everyone being different is what makes the
world go ‘round.
Reading Harrison Bergeron for the first time, I was immediately transported into the dystopian future that Kurt Vonnegut details. Through his words, Vonnegut illustrates a world where forced equality is normalized to the point of required physical and mental handicaps. It is a tale of what society could become if twisted by certain radical idealists. More than anything, I found this story to be a reflection of the American position of a fair and equal society or what the drawbacks of equality could be.
Kurt Vonnegut uses a writing style that assists the audience in visualizing a scene of the story. He sets the scene using exposition, giving basis to the setting. What really helped me to envision the story was Vonnegut’s use of dialogue. The main characters of Harrison Bergeron, George and Hazel Bergeron, converse throughout the story. I found it almost like reading a movie script. It was effective, as I envisioned the scene in my head.
My original reaction to Harrison Bergeron was one of intrigue. I tend to find stories of fictional alternate societies interesting, especially when they are in direct contrast to reality. One paragraph in, and I was hooked. I found that I felt sympathy for George, as I would go mad if I had a device that emitted jarring sounds every twenty seconds. The end of the story set me up for an emotional reaction. When Harrison makes his rebellious run, I was inspired. I felt a positive resolution coming. When Harrison was taken down, I felt crushed. To top it off, his parents were not able to remember that they saw it happen, if they could remember their son at all. That might be the saddest part of the story.
As I believe this story is a reflection on a fair and equal society, I think that it has modern-day relevance. Throughout American history, our country has always pushed for freedom and equality. Through the civil rights movement, women’s rights movement, and LGBT rights movement, it is even in recent history that we have pushed toward more equal legislation. What Vonnegut shows us in Harrison Bergeron is what if we become too equal? It begs the question, is there such a thing as too equal? Personally, I do not think we are anywhere near the dystopia of Harrison Bergeron. However, the story does make for interesting food for thought.
My First Exposure to the Work of Kurt Vonnegut
I am nearly 40 years old, and I am
ashamed to say that this past week was my first experience reading a piece by
Kurt Vonnegut. After reading the short story, Harrison Bergeron, I was intrigued with how Mr. Vonnegut used
simple dialogue and virtually no description of setting to describe how total
government control over equality would negatively affect the population. Even
though this story presents an implausible narrative, its theme of losing our
freedom as well as our ability to feel emotion or think for ourselves can be
related to the current ideals to make everyone more equal.
I found it interesting that very
little description is given to the setting. The reader is aware that the story
takes place in 2081, and the plot unfolds in George and Hazel’s home and a
filming studio. No detail is given upon the appearance of the rooms or how
technology has changed in the future, yet I had no problem envisioning this
tale. The lack of this detail does not take away from the theme of the story,
rather Mr. Vonnegut uses the cruelty inflicted by the government and the
accepting and obedient actions and simple words of his characters to relay his
message of the negative effect of total government control over equality.
To me, Vonnegut used the government’s abuse of power and the behavior of the characters to represent a society that lost their freedom, their individuality, the ability to think for themselves and feel emotions. The government used “handicaps” in order to make the population equal in intelligence, ability, and appearance in order to create a society that was “equal in every which way.” Some of these “handicaps” included a hideous mask for the ballerina to conceal her beauty, a radio transmitter for George to interrupt his thoughts so he would not take “unfair advantage of his brain,” and pieces of scrap metal that hung around the title character Harrison in order to impede his strength and athletic ability. These characters, who were considered above average, were subjected to greater cruelty and seemed to endure their fate out of fear of fines, imprisonment, or death. The most severely “handicapped” character, Harrison Bergeron, was unmercifully murdered due to his broadcasted rebellion of the government as he tore off his impediments and declared his freedom of choice. As George watches the death of his son, we see that he is crying, but when Hazel returns to the room and asks why, he says “I forget, something sad on the television.” The emotional response in the characters has been diluted. The dialogue of simplistic language and poor grammar of George and Hazel’s interaction reveals the stunted advancement of their intelligence. These characters are no longer able to form their own opinions but seem to accept the government’s assertion that total equality is best for society and strict regulations are needed.
In today’s push towards a more
socialistic approach to wage equality and government healthcare, there is
debate over how much control the government should be given. There are many who
agree there needs to be reform in income distribution and medical coverage, but
there is concern over trading some of our freedom of choice for the hope of
equality. We have watched as other nations that have implemented a socialist
government fall due to political corruption and vying for more control. I
believe Vonnegut’s depiction of a society that has lost its freedom and
personal expression and lives in fear of disobeying the ultimate authority in Harrison Bergeron, even in its extreme
nature, has a valid warning in giving the government too much power to instill
strict regulations and garner control in order to ensure equality.
My introduction to Kurt Vonnegut this week through Harrison Bergeron has me wanting to read more of his work. To me, his use of simplistic dialogue really contributed to showing the intellectual and emotional decline of the characters forced to obey the strict regulations of a totalitarian government. I found that his use of an exaggerated narrative draws the attention of the reader and places emphasis on the message of the dangers of authoritative control and sacrificing freedom and self-expression in the name of equality.