Thursday, May 26, 2016

Harrison Bergeron

Harrison Bergeron, a short story written by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., describes a socially enforced equality utopia. The society has “handicaps” for anyone above the average intelligence so as to not promote competition among the people. The handicaps promote intellectual and physical equality. People above average intelligence are required by law to wear a radio headset tuned to a government transmitter which emits sounds every twenty seconds to scatter people’s thoughts. More athletic people wear weights to slow them down to be equal to “normal” people. People who are considered beautiful are forced to wear hideous masks. These handicaps are enforced by the Handicapper General.
            The story follows a family who had their fourteen-year-old son taken away due to his above averageness. However, they cannot focus too much on this because the mother, Hazel, is of average intelligence and therefore could not focus her thoughts on any certain thing. Not to mention she seems to be glued to the TV which only distracts her thoughts even more. The father, George, is above average intelligence but wears a radio headset handicap to scatter his thoughts no matter how hard he tries to focus on one certain thing. As horrifying as this sounds, Vonnegut writes this story in a satirical way, poking fun of society’s standardization of equality. On TV, the couple watch ballerinas dance. Hazel thinks the dance was really good but George thinks it was no better than anyone else dancing which seems to be the more likely opinion given that the dancers are required to wear weighted bags and hideous masks to make them less graceful and less beautiful than everyone else. After the dance, there is a news cast but the reporter has a speech impediment so a ballerina has to read the report. Vonnegut writes this scene with a sort of humor to showcase how ridiculous such a society could get. The ballerina has a very beautiful voice when she first starts the report and has to apologize for her voice and then speaks in a “grackle squawk” to continue the report. This shows that the society is not only physically enforcing this equality but mentally enforcing it as well. This woman realizes that her voice is more beautiful than average and alters it to fit the societal norm.
The news report is about how Harrison Bergeron, Hazel and George’s son, has escaped jail. He is described as seven feet tall and beautiful but with all kinds of handicaps on him. At this point he arrives at the studio and impressively rips off all of his handicaps and announces himself as the emperor. He asks if any one of the ballerinas will be his empress and one stands up to join him. He rips off her handicaps and tells the musicians to pay some music. The musicians play a “normal, cheap, silly, false” melody until Harrison shows them the kind of music he wants them to play which is more improved. This scene reminds me of a scene from a Russian animated short called Бременские музыканты, translated, The Bremen Town Musicians. In the scene from the cartoon, the protagonist, a free spirit, seduces his way into the King’s castle and dances with the princess. At first, the King’s musicians play a very boring, conservative tune, until the hero shows them how to play something more upbeat and festive to party to, breaking their norm.

The similarities between the cartoon and the story are interesting since they are depicted in totally different ways. The story is horrific, satirical, and completely ridiculous all at the same time but the cartoon is funny, bright, and happy. However, they both kind of talk about the same thing. The Bremen Town Musicians is about choosing a life free of oligarchy given the temptation of all the luxuries of one if they choose to abide by their rules. Harrison Bergeron is about standardizing equality to a ridiculous level and in the end it is a perfect utopia because the people cannot choose a life free of their oligarchy because they have been conditioned into submission by their government.

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