Literature: Harrison Bergeron

"Harrison Bergeron" is a dystopian sci-fi short story by Kurt Vonnegut, first published in October 1961. It is usually seen as a darkly satirical critique of forced egalitarianism, but it can also be interpreted as a Stealth Parody of the above, since both the forced egalitarianism and the Übermensch who fights against it are depicted as completely over-the-top.

"The year was 2081, and everyone was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else." The U.S. Constitution has been amended to allow the Handicapper General to physically handicap anyone with an advantage. The story centers on George and Hazel Bergeron and their fourteen-year-old son Harrison, who has been imprisoned because he constantly outgrows his handicaps. It begins with George and Hazel watching television when breaking news announces that Harrison has escaped from prison, followed by Harrison bursting into the TV studio. He is revealed as being not just above-average, but outright superhuman. Among other things, he can fly.

In many ways the book is an expansion of scenes from Vonnegut's earlier work The Sirens of Titan, where the theme of enforced equality was introduced; however, Harrison Bergeron takes a far more dystopian view of the concept.

There is also a 1995 made-for-TV movie based on the story, starring Sean Astin as Harrison. The movie follows his childhood and the consequences of a love affair with an illegally handicap-free woman.

A 25-minute long film based on the story, 2081, premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival in May 2009. The film was released on DVD on January 25, 2010.

This story displays the following tropes:

  • Adaptation Expansion: One scene from an earlier novel into a short story, then the short story into a movie.
  • Boomerang Bigot: The handicapper general, against badasses
  • Bureaucratically Arranged Marriage: In the film version, the government chooses spouses for people in order to increase the odds for breeding average children.
  • Crapsaccharine World: if you are average.
  • Crapsack World: if you are not - and neither Harrison nor Philippa were.
  • Deconstruction: This is a United States where everyone is equal. A little too equal.
  • Downer Ending: He dies and nothing changes. But the movie, at least, implies that this may not last.
  • Dumb Blonde: Hazel has perfectly average intelligence and doesn't need any mental handicaps, which translates to this.
  • Dystopian Edict: Everyone must be equal.
  • Genius Bruiser: Harrison, supposedly.
  • Individuality Is Illegal
  • Informed Ability: Harrison is supposed to be a genius. But what he actually does isn't smart at all: he breaks into a TV studio, declares himself to be Emperor, picks a dancer to be his empress and dances with her until the Handicapper General arrives and shoots them both.
  • Karma Houdini: The Handicapper General kills Harrison and makes sure Status Quo Is God.
  • Parody Sue: Harrison, who "tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper, tore straps guaranteed to support five thousand pounds."
  • Political Correctness Gone Mad: The driving force of the work.
  • Revealing Cover Up: The handicaps used are both visible and proportional to a person's abilities, which ironically makes exceptional people more obvious.
    She must have been extraordinarily beautiful, because the mask she wore was hideous. And it was easy to see that she was the strongest and most graceful of all the dancers, for her handicap bags were as big as those worn by two-hundred pound men.
  • Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: The Handicapper General isn't subject to handicaps like the rest of the population, as she shoots Harrison with perfect aim.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog It turns out, Harrison isn't bulletproof. And the government inadvertently wipes his death from his parent's memories.
    • And everybody else's memories. However inadvertent, it's still a favorable outcome which the government would no doubt support.
  • The Social Darwinist: Inverted. The government arranges marriages in order to make it more likely for people to have average children.
  • Stealth Parody: In certain circles, the book has been interpreted as a grossly over-the-top satire of Anthem and similar collectivist dystopias (and the individualist heroes that transcend them), or of Cold War-era American conceptions of egalitarian social goals. Used to support this is the argument that the society depicted in the story is a Straw Dystopia based on flagrant misunderstandings of the goals of socialism. Vonnegut himself is not known to have publicly taken this position; as both a socialist and a noted anti-authoritarian, however, his politics could support either interpretation.
  • Stepford Smiler: Most of the civils.
  • Tall Poppy Syndrome: Deconstructed.
  • Technology Levels: The movie version.
  • Thoughtcrime: Thinking is outlawed in these parts.
  • "World of Cardboard" Speech: Harrison, before he finally takes off his handicaps.