George and Hazel Bergeron sit and watch the television, neither particularly knowing what it is they just watched. George is an intelligent man and strong man, who, in order to be leveled with the others, is required to wear an ear pierce that consistently makes noise to break his train of thought. As they watch the television, Hazel, an average person, talks about how she wishes she were the Handicapper General while George studies the handicaps on the ballerinas. It isn’t long before a noise breaks George’s train of thought, though this one is particularly more painful. Hazel offers to help by lowering the weight on his handicaps, though he refuses in fear of punishment. They continue to watch the television, only to find out that their abnormally large and strong son, Harrison, has escaped prison. Harrison bursts into the television station making the announcement and begins to free everyone of their handicaps. They all begin to dance, jumping higher and higher, until the Handicapper General comes in and shoots them. The broadcast cuts, and Hazel is crying, though neither she and George can remember why.
What makes the story interesting?
The story of Harrison Bergeron attracts interest by showing a reality that many desire in a way that is less than desirable, yet the way Kurt Vonnegut shows it does is not necessarily saying that we can’t have that kind of society. The concept of total equality is one that we’ve seen before, such as in Fahrenheit 451 by the late Ray Bradbury, but I have not seen one to this drastic of a scale. Vonnegut’s exaggeration seems to criticize the opponents of a totally equal society rather than the society itself. Through the over exaggeration of the distances we will go to ensure everyone is equal, Vonnegut creates a world that is more ridiculous than it is ominous. These over exaggerated details create a plot that is interesting to read.
What can we gain from this story?
Chekhov’s Gun – Near the beginning of the story, Vonnegut introduces a detail that will recur over the course of the story: noise. The noise that constantly goes off in George’s head serves a purpose throughout the story, and not just plot-wise. Yes, the noise makes George forget what he was thinking about and lose track of what’s happening, but it also helps add to the tone. As the tensions begin to rise more and more, the noises that the HG plays also get more and more intense. It begins small, with just a buzz, though it eventually grows to a twenty-one gun salute. The salute is a long and drags on for some time, repeating the loud gunshots over and over. The louder the noise, the easier the concentration is broken, so viewers cannot fully process what is happening in the news station. Setting up details to follow through with can be extremely important to a story when they do more than just describe the scene.
Rhetorical Red Herring – In this story, the most obvious argument is about how a totally equal society is detrimental to us in the sense of the quality. However, when further analyzed, the story begins to show a more flippant tone. The over exaggeration of how that society levels people seems to show Vonnegut making fun of the fear others have of an equal society. That seems to be the true intention of the story, and the obvious argument seems to be just a ruse. This can be helpful to writers’ in their craft by getting practice in shaping their argument and main idea.
Questions for the class
- Do you agree with what Kurt Vonnegut was trying to say in this story?
- In what other ways could mockery be used to prove a point?
- Should writers hide the true intentions/meaning in a story behind false meanings?