Monday, January 30, 2012

Reader's Diary #799- Kurt Vonnegut: Harrison Bergeron

It's been years since I read any Vonnegut, so when Julie at Read Handed reviewed his "Harrison Bergeron" a few week's back, providing a link to the story online, I figured it was as good a time as any.

"Harrison Bergeron" is set in the U.S., 2081. It's a dystopian world where everyone is equal. Gone are the days when someone can excel above others due to physical or mental abilities. Such people are now forced to wear handicapping devices to keep them on par with the rest of society. Getting an enlightened thought? Suddenly a loud, thought-disrupting sound will blare through your head. Ballerinas who can jump higher than others must wear weights to keep them down.

As Julie remarked in her review, the other half of that equation is missing. If there's some Flowers For Algernon type surgeries that bring those already living with handicaps up to the average level, Vonnegut doesn't mention them. Which, I suppose, doesn't really matter since the premise falls apart with close scrutiny anyway. What about children-- are they equal to adults? Or old people with deteriorating health, supposing that happens in the future-- how can they be equal, in terms of physical ability, to a healthy 25 year old? He mentions that no one is even more attractive than another, yet we'd also have to assume that everyone is cloned to look identical, would we not? Or how does he avoid people having personal tastes?

But I think Vonnegut realized the implausibility and the questions that would arise. I suspect that's why he went the short story route instead of a novel. I also suspect that's why he stretched beyond satire into tall-tale territory. In one scene, the title character is said to be forced to wear a clown nose to "offset his good looks." Vonnegut is clearly making a point and clearly having a ball doing it. Unlike most dystopian lit that seems to use fear to warn us where we might be headed, here Vonnegut uses humor to make the message easier to digest.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below?)


Teddy Rose said...

I have Harrison Bergeron on tap to read as well. He would have had to write an entire book to answer all of our questions. He probably didn't have the inspiration or desire to do that.

Here's mine:

Perogyo said...

I marked this to read as well! Should have done so instead of the uninteresting satire I did read.

Unknown said...

Realism was not his goal in Harrison Bergeron. I wonder if it was ever his goal. I've always read this story as fable.

I think the message works for far too many people who try to bring those who are better skilled or more blessed than they are back "down to earth." As a teacher, I see this far too often among children.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

We studied this story in high school English, but I don't think anyone ever raised the points that you did. We were a passively accepting group.

Julie @ Read Handed said...

Glad you enjoyed this one. It gave me a lot to think about when I read it. I agree, though, that Vonnegut was trying to get a point across more than he was trying to create a realistic world.

I read an interesting story by Willa Cather today - "Paul's Case".