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Literature / Harrison Bergeron

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"Harrison Bergeron" is a dystopian sci-fi short story by Kurt Vonnegut, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in October 1961 and subsequently included in the author's 1968 collection Welcome to the Monkey House. 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, Diana Moon Glampers, 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 story 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 later recruitment by Administrator John Klaxon into the National Administration Center, a secret cabal of geniuses within the government who ensure that the handicapped America functions, and the consequences of his love affair with Phillipa, 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:

  • Adaptational Heroism: In the original short story, Harrison was a Parody Sue and the story was ambiguous as to whether he was in the right. However, the movie and 2081 are unquestionably on Harrison’s side, with him being much nicer (also normal, rather than a huge, god-like being).
  • Adaptation Expansion: One scene from an earlier novel into a short story, then the short story into a TV movie by the same name and then the short film 2081.
  • All Crimes Are Equal: In the film, it's shown very early on that people are shot by firing squad for nonviolent, minor crimes (all broadcast on live TV. Later it gets worse...
    TV announcer: This is the first execution to be held under the new law passed by the board of legislators that extends capital punishment to traffic offences. Francis Narrows (?) is about to pay the ultimate price for making an illegal left turn. Beside me is Lorraine Newbound, head of the Miami chapter of the League Against Non-Capital Punishment. Now, Ms. Newbound, you are of course in favor of this new law.
    Ms. Newbound: Absolutely. I just wish they would go one step further and include non-moving violations.
    TV announcer: Parking offences?
    Ms. Newbound: Well, a crime is a crime. Why should we pay good money for jails just to keep criminals alive? Death to all crooks! (smiles in joy)
    • Administrator John Klaxon later claims to Harrison however that these are mostly reruns, and serve to deter crime (this how they're justified). One of the lower administrators finds them appalling.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Diana ultimately kills Harrison and makes sure that nothing changes.
  • Big Bad:
    • Diana Moon Glampers is the Handicapper General who controls America’s new society of forced equality, wherein anyone who is better than anyone else in any way is handicapped by her soldiers.
    • In the movie, Diana is Adapted Out, at best a Greater-Scope Villain who never appears, and Administrator John Klaxon is this instead. As the head of the National Administration Center, he works to enforce the Handicaps on the citizens of America.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The film version lightens the story's ending a bit. Harrison kills himself in despair after having been forced to recant his broadcast, claiming it's a hoax. However, videos of the old days which he'd broadcast are copied and distributed (by his son included), opening up the possibility things will change.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Diana despises extraordinary people and orders them all to have their abilities removed. She herself has to be extraordinary in order to run her society, and the simple fact that she is effectively the supreme leader gives her unchecked power, making her unequal to everyone else.
  • Bureaucratically Arranged Marriage: In the film version, the government chooses spouses for people in order to increase the odds for breeding average children.
  • Character Title
  • Crapsaccharine World: A world where everyone is equal, at the cost of freedom and quality of art. And that’s if you’re average: if you are not - and neither Harrison nor Philippa were - it’s a straight up Crapsack World.
  • Deconstruction: This is a United States where everyone is forced to be equal in every way — strength, mental ability, appearance, you name it. For example, Hazel Bergeron is easily forgetful, slow, and all around pretty weak, while her husband George has to wear a 47-pound bag of birdshot around his neck and an earpiece radio that constantly plays loud noises to disrupt his thoughts. And although the society is supposedly run by the people, in practice Handicapper General Diana Moon Glampers (and in the film an entire secret organization of extraordinary people) run everything, because unintelligent people can’t be expected to cope with all the intricacies of government and society.
  • Do Not Adjust Your Set: When Harrison takes control of the broadcasting stations to wake up the people.
  • Downer Ending: Harrison dies, his parents forget about him almost instantly, and nothing about their world changes. But the movie, at least, implies that this may not last.
  • The Dragon: Klaxon is presumably this to Diana in the movie. She never actually appears in that version, but he runs the organization of extraordinary people in her stead.
  • Driven to Suicide: In the film, Harrison (after being forced to claim his broadcast was just a hoax) pulls out a gun, shooting himself on live TV (claiming beforehand this is also fake).
  • Dumb Blonde: Hazel has perfectly average intelligence and doesn't need any mental handicaps, which translates to this.
  • Dystopian Edict: Everyone must be equal. This is enforced by handicapping them through having the strong carry weights, the smart having thought-interrupting devices and death where they rebel against this.
  • Foreshadowing: At one point in the movie, Klaxon mentions that the broadcast station is protected by a nigh-impenetrable door. Good for Harrison, who hides behind it as he hijacks the station to start his own rebellion.
  • Full-Circle Revolution: During the Great Recession, the people rebelled out of dissatisfaction with the state of America. They succeeded, only to end up even less free than before, since now anyone deemed to be unequal (i.e. not handicapped in some way) is artificially crippled with technology to make them equal to everyone else.
  • Individuality Is Illegal: Because everyone has to be equal, to be yourself means to be unequal. Anyone not wearing their mandatory handicapping technology is considered an enemy of the state.
  • 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. Though the psychological damage of imprisonment could have had an impact, and Harrison is supposed to be a Parody Sue.
    • The movie averts this, as he's an A+ student who rattles off trivia effortlessly.
  • Job-Stealing Robot: In the film it's said the Great Recession didn't end the way other ones had due to automation, which meant increasing numbers of people never got work again. Due to this, a revolution occurred as the unrest grew, in a huge backlash against the elite which were blamed, with strict enforced equality afterward.
  • Karma Houdini: The Handicapper General Diana kills Harrison and continues to lead her dystopian society.
  • Lecture as Exposition: A surprise class quiz is used in the film to explain just how the US got to be the dystopian nightmare it's become, by the teacher asking questions of her students and them providing answers, with her confirming or correcting them to fill the viewer in.
  • Looking Busy: In the short film adaptation 2081, Hazel washes dishes while her son Harrison stages an on-screen revolution at a ballet. She's clearly doing this so she doesn't have to watch his inevitable demise.
  • The Needs of the Many: Administrator Klaxon in the film claims handicapping is best for all, arguing the world's destructive conflicts in the past were caused by envy and hate over differences. He admits it's hard and sad, but nonetheless claims he'd shoot Beethoven himself if it meant things such as World War One never occurred again.
  • Parody Sue: Harrison in the original story, who "tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper, tore straps guaranteed to support five thousand pounds." The film adaptations make him more of a normal-if-strong human being who happens to disagree with the society.
  • People's Republic of Tyranny: America becomes this under Handicapper General Diana's rule. Everyone is equal (except her), but no one outside the elite is free.
  • Platonic Prostitution: The film version plays with this in the "Head House". People don't go there for sex, but for extremely suspicious things like playing chess and having intellectual conversations.
  • Political Overcorrectness: The driving force of the work. Everyone is equal because everyone is forcibly made equal through technology that cripples anyone who is better than anyone else.
  • La Résistance: In the film Harrison becomes a one-man version of this, attempting to inform people through a television broadcast that equality should not be forced upon everyone. Less idealistically, the society came about after an uprising during the Great Recession.
  • 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.
  • Small Parent, Huge Child: It is mentioned that Harrison is seven feet tall at 14, clearly much taller than both of his parents.
  • The Social Darwinist: Inverted-the government arranges marriages in order to make it more likely for people to have average children, and praises the hell out of being average. Essentially, they maintain a society in which the weak rule over the strong.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: In the film, Phillipa turns out to be pregnant with her and Harrison's child after he's been killed by the government. We later see him illegally watching the videos which Harrison broadcasted with a friend.
  • 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 talk about how wonderful their world is, and the beauty of equality, but it is made clear that it is little more than regime propaganda.
  • Stupid Future People: Another deliberate dystopia example. Intellectuals are repressed for the simple reason that having some people smarter makes everyone else feel inferior.
  • Tall Poppy Syndrome: Deconstructed. The story is about an entire society that operates on the concept of tearing down exceptional people. The "average" is extremely low as shown by Harrison's mother, most likely to show how some people would be too hard to raise up and to make everyone "equal". It's easier to bring people down than it is to raise them.
  • Take That!: In the film Administrator Klaxon scoffs when Harrison suggests high politicians have to be very smart and go without handicaps to do the job, saying a person of average or below average is easily capable. We later see that the President is certainly not particularly smart, and such positions are just filled by lottery, with random citizens chosen instead of having elections (too much opportunity to envy others).
  • Thoughtcrime: Critical thinking is outlawed in the society, because it is seen as offensive to those who are not as intelligent.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Administrator Klaxon genuinely wants a society of equality-he also believes that the best way to accomplish this is to use technology to artificially handicap people until everyone is equally crippled.
  • You Can Say That Again: At the end, where Hazel says she could tell that one was a doozy, George replies with this. She then does just that.