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Harrison Bergeron

Harrison Bergeron Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was born in Indianapolis, studied chemistry and engineering at Cornell and other universities, and entered the Second World War as a private in the US Army. In the Battle of the Bulge he was taken prisoner by the Germans, and his experiences in Dresden during and after the firebombing of that city form some of the factual basis for Slaughterhouse-Five. After the war, he studied anthropology at the University of Chicago, worked as a reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau, and later moved to New York State to write for General Electric as a public relations man. Vonnegut had seven children (three biological, four adopted) and was married several times. He taught at various institutions, including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His work is celebrated for its dark humor and the anti-war sentiments in his writing remain relevant today. Over the course of his career, Vonnegut published popular work across several genres, including novels, short stories, plays, and nonfiction works. His two most popular novels, Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, brought Vonnegut national recognition and a wide readership, which continue up to and after his death in 2007.
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Historical Context of Harrison Bergeron

Given the time of Vonnegut’s writing, the dystopian tone of Harrison Bergeron reflects the growing fears of totalitarianism amongst Americans in the aftermath of WWII. As the story’s ending frames the triumph of state violence over individual dissent as a moment of loss and tragedy, Harrison Bergeron can also be read as a comment on the suppression of dissent during the “Red Scare” in America circa the Cold War. Finally, the problematic nature of absolute equality in Vonnegut’s futuristic America relates to the fundamental ambiguity of the notion of “equality” in the American constitution.

Other Books Related to Harrison Bergeron

Harrison Bergeron can be read alongside a series of other dystopian novels written in the same post-WWII time period, including George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. These works explore the horrors of unchecked authoritarianism through literary satire and absurdity. At the same time, these stories can be read as political allegories about the relationship between citizens and the state under totalitarian regimes and the proliferation of nationalist propaganda. Vonnegut’s Sirens of the Titan (1959) is a dystopian novel about a Space Wanderer who explores a futuristic version of Earth where all people are rendered equal due to the proliferation of physical handicap devices. In Sirens of the Titan, people wear handicaps not by law, but as a gesture of commitment both to the Church and to society as a whole.
Key Facts about Harrison Bergeron
  • Full Title: Harrison Bergeron
  • When Written: 1961
  • Where Written: United States
  • When Published: 1961
  • Literary Period: Postmodern, Contemporary
  • Genre: satire, science fiction
  • Setting: America in the year 2081
  • Climax: Harrison Bergeron is shot and killed by the Handicapper General
  • Antagonist: Dianna Moon Glampers
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for Harrison Bergeron

Real World Applications. In a 2005 Kansas Supreme Court case on public school financing, attorneys arguing against equal funding for all public schools quoted “Harrison Bergeron” to claim that a statewide requirement for equal school funding would result in an unconstitutional deprivation of resources from students in wealthier districts. Vonnegut responded on the record, stating that he believed the attorneys misinterpreted his story, which is more concerned with talent and ability than it is with wealth.

Pop Culture. Harrison Bergeron has been the source of several TV and film adaptations, including adaptations for PBS and Showtime.