“Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut – selection 36 of Deal Me “IN” 2016


The Card: ♣4♣ Four of Clubs

The Suit: For this year’s Deal Me IN, clubs is my suit for “Stories by Legendary Hoosier Authors”

The Selection: “Harrison Bergeron” originally published in 1961 in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, I own it as part of the author’s excellent short story collection “Welcome to the Monkey House.”

The Author: Kurt Vonnegut. If you haven’t heard of him, you may be a newcomer to this blog, since I’ve featured him often. A native of Indianapolis, the city is also home to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library and museum. The library has a book club that I’ve been attending pretty regularly for over five years now. Vonnegut is most famous for his anti-war novel Slaughterhouse Five, loosely based on his own experiences in World War II, where he was captured during the Battle of the Bulge before being shipped off to the city of Dresden as a P.O.W.

img_6202What is Deal Me “IN” 2016? I’m glad you asked! Before the start of each year, I come up with a list of 52 stories to read and assign each of them to a playing card in a standard deck. Each week, I draw a card, and that is the story I read. By the end of the year (52 weeks), I’m done, and ready to start a fresh deck. (For a more detailed explanation of the Deal Me In challenge, see the sign up post. For a look at my deck of cards/storylegacy project seal of approval 2roster click here.) Since 2016 is my home state’s bicentennial, in this year’s edition of my annual Deal Me In challenge, I’m reading only stories that have an Indiana “connection” of some kind. Deal Me “IN” is also now officially endorsed as a “Legacy Project” by The Indiana Bicentennial Commission.

Harrison Bergeron

“The year was 2081, and everybody 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 quicker or stronger than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th amendments to the Constitution and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.”

Harrison Bergeron is fourteen years old and “a genius and athlete, and under-handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous.” He is the son of George and Hazel Bergeron, and they all live in a future where everyone is made to be equal. How this is accomplished is that gifted people are forced to wear specific “handicaps” based on their gifts in order to drag them back down to the norm. George, for instance, is above average intelligence so he has a radio transmitter attached to his ear that intermittently gives off distracting blasts of random sounds (automobile collisions, ball-peen hammers striking milk bottles, and so on) in order to disrupt George’s “unfair ability” to concentrate better than others. He also has to wear a bag containing “forty-seven pounds of birdshot” around his neck in order to counteract his superior strength. Ballerinas in this future world are similarly handicapped by heavy “saddlebags” around their waists. If your vision is above the normal, you are forced to wear thick, wavy-lenses glasses. Well, I’m sure you’re beginning to get the picture.

The head of the U.S. Office of the Handicapper General, one “Diana Moon Clampers” – one of my all-time favorite names in fiction – has legions of “H-G men” who continually think up new and improved handicaps to attach to those who are “unfairly gifted,” but they can hardly keep up with the exceptional Harrison Bergeron, who now stands seven feet tall and is outgrowing handicaps faster than they can come up with them. As this story commences, he has broken free from the authorities trying to “keep him normal,” and George and Hazel learn of his escape via news bulletins that interrupt their tv watching.
In the climax of the story, Harrison briefly takes over the television station, declaring himself “emperor,” ripping off his multitude of handicaps and those of one of the ballerinas. They dance as none must have danced since the onset of the Office of Handicapper General, enjoying some brief moments of existence as normal – THEIR normal anyway. Such a display cannot continue in this future dystopia, of course, and Diana Moon Clampers herself arrives on the scene to once again “equalize” things.

♫Personal Notes: Thankfully I haven’t experienced much close to this dystopia Vonnegut describes, but occasionally I am reminded of this story by events in our current culture, many of which are new developments that weren’t around in my youth, like “participation trophies” and the like (if everyone gets a trophy, isn’t that about the same as no one getting a trophy?). Recently at work, I got a “first place” ribbon for our Fitbit challenge. In our online group, I think I was actually 16th place or something. I guess management wasn’t comfortable singling out real winners. That could’ve hurt somebody’s feelings… I’ve noticed in education too how things are different now compared to when I went to school. I hear “horror stories” (to me anyway) of students being allowed to take a test multiple times, or with an open book, etc. Maybe not everyone’s strictly “equal,” but everyone passes. Eventually anyway. Hats off to Vonnegut for “seeing this coming” and appropriately lampooning it in this story.


Handicapper general seal from goodreads.com


(One artist’s illustration of Harrison and his ballerina; found at http://prosencons.tumblr.com/post/47152229853/harrison-bergeron)

7 Comments

  1. Megan McKeever said,

    September 7, 2016 at 8:27 am

    This was one of my favorite short stories that I read in school. I remember feeling brokenhearted at the way his parents reacted to it all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jay said,

      September 7, 2016 at 1:05 pm

      Yes, I’ve often felt this story could be described as heartbreaking also. What a dismal world it will be when everyone is “equal.”

      Like

  2. Diana said,

    September 8, 2016 at 3:20 pm

    I taught this story to 9th graders in the 70’s ……… and never forgot it …….. I’ve told it to friends for years ……….. what a visionary!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jay said,

      September 8, 2016 at 3:38 pm

      Did the students find it amusing that you share your first name with the Secretary of the Handicapper General’s office? 🙂

      Like

  3. Dale said,

    September 8, 2016 at 8:40 pm

    One of my favorites!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. October 2, 2016 at 10:52 pm

    The horror stories you have heard are based on fact, even if they are not exactly true. I’ve ever known anyone in America to be embarrassed by ability other than intellectual ability. For some reason if you’re a faster runner than all the other kids, that’s great, but if you’re smarter than they are, that’s a problem.

    I’ve loved this story for decades now. It’s one piece of science fiction that really gets at the heart of something very human.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      October 3, 2016 at 9:35 am

      Hi James,
      I was thinking this morning that it’s often similar at work. If you have aptitude, your “reward” is just more work. Everyone works 8 hours (more or less) and is, pretty much anyway, paid the same amount, but the actual amount of work each does varies wildly. A recent example is we were told that our whole department will have a mandatory work day coming up on Columbus Day (normally a holiday for us) since we’ll be “busy” preparing our quarterly regulatory filing. In reality, some people can’t adjust to the extra work required (by perhaps being a little more focused and efficient or cutting out excess social monkey business that is ‘normal’) so we ALL have to work an extra day. *sigh* At least I’m used to it.🙂
      -Jay

      Like


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