The year is 2081, and all people living in the United States are absolutely equal “in every which way”—they are equally smart, equally attractive, and so on. This is due to a series of amendments to the Constitution, and to the vigilance of the United States Handicapper General.
In the opening of the story, Vonnegut presents an idealistic reality in which all citizens are equal. This might seem fantastic, but there’s a hint that something sinister is afoot: the mention of handicapping, coupled with the word “vigilance” and the focus on government interference makes this world seem, perhaps, authoritarian.
Despite the nation’s sweeping equality, all is not wholly perfect—“H-G men” have taken away George and Hazel Bergeron’s teenaged son, Harrison. Though this is tragic, the Bergerons “couldn’t think about it very hard,” since Hazel can’t think about anything very hard and George, who has above-average strength and intelligence, must wear mental and physical handicaps at all times. While George and Hazel watch television, George’s thoughts are frequently interrupted by his mental handicap device—a radio transmitter that airs a series of loud, invasive noises, intended to disturb one’s train of thought.
Harrison’s imprisonment, alongside George’s diligent use of state-issued handicaps, attest to the authoritarian nature of the government. Meanwhile, the compromised state of George’s strength and cognition reveals the price of equality in Vonnegut’s dystopia. It’s worth noting, too, that George and Hazel are introduced in the context of media distracting them from the loss of their son. They watch TV together, and George’s thoughts are interrupted by a radio. Media, then, is shown to be a major way of placating them.
The TV is broadcasting a dance performance and, though Hazel says the dance is “nice,” George begins to wonder whether it would be better if the ballerinas weren’t burdened by weights and masks designed to make sure that those watching won’t feel like “something the cat drug in” by comparison. However, an interruption coming from his mental handicap prevents his pursuit of this thought. As George reacts to the invasive noises, two of the ballerinas onstage simultaneously wince. Hazel, unaffected by the mental handicaps, makes shallow remarks on the nature of the noises her husband is subjected to, wondering aloud about “all the different sounds” her husband listens to, and commenting “Boy! That was a doozy!” whenever she notices George’s reactions to his handicap.
George’s disappointment with the ballet again reveals the ways in which absolute equality exists at the cost of creativity and individual talent, and his inability to sustain critical thoughts highlights the extent to which state authority quells dissent. The role of George’s mental handicap radio in disrupting his critical thoughts attests to the potent presence of national media in controlling the thoughts of its citizens. It seems as though the mental handicap is literally a syndicated radio broadcast, as the dancers onscreen are wincing in tandem with George.
Noticing that her husband looks tired, Hazel suggests that he rest his physical handicap (a canvas bag filled with heavy lead balls, padlocked to his neck) on the sofa, going so far as to suggest that he remove a few of the lead balls while they’re at home. George refuses, reminding his wife of the punishment he would receive if he were caught disobeying the Handicapper General: “Two years in prison and two thousand dollars fine for every ball I took out.” He asks Hazel, rhetorically, what she thinks would happen if people disobeyed the laws set by the HG, and she answers, “Reckon it’d fall apart.” This line of conversation ends when George loses his train of thought and the pair continues to watch television.
George’s resistance to Hazel’s suggestion that he rest his handicaps attests to the authoritarian power of the government, since even George buys into the importance of maintaining his own handicaps. This seems to be partly out of fear (he talks about the punishment) and partly out of a sense of duty to society (he prompts Hazel to concede that society would “fall apart” if people weren’t handicapped, which shows that they both buy into the ideology behind handicapping). In other words, George and Hazel seem to have been brainwashed.
A news bulletin interrupts the ballet performance, but the actual news is delayed as the announcer’s voice is hampered by a speech impediment, so a ballerina reads the bulletin instead. She informs viewers that Harrison Bergeron has recently escaped from jail after being “held on suspicion of overthrowing the government.” He is described as an extremely dangerous and under-handicapped genius and athlete. Harrison’s photo appears on-screen. He is seven feet tall, and his body is covered with grotesque handicap devices made to hamper his extraordinary strength, intelligence, and natural beauty. Among these handicaps, Harrison wears large earphones and blinding glasses as mental handicaps, costume makeup and a red rubber nose to offset his handsome looks, and over 300 pounds worth of physical handicap devices. The ballerina instructs viewers not to reason with Harrison if they see him.
Harrison, a seditious individual with extraordinary strength and smarts, is framed as a dangerous threat to the government. This establishes the relationship between Harrison and the state as a dichotomy between authority and dissent. The degree to which the Handicapper General’s current regulations attempt to hamper Harrison’s natural capabilities (his handicaps are excessive and onerous) again reveals the price of absolute equality. Finally, the perpetuation of Harrison’s image as a criminal exemplifies the role of news media in shaping national ideology.
A loud noise interrupts the bulletin, the source of which is Harrison Bergeron tearing down the door to the television studio on-screen. Harrison declares himself Emperor and proceeds to destroy all of his mental and physical handicaps “like wet tissue paper” in front of the television cameras. He then calls for an Empress, stating, “the first woman who dares rise to her feet [will] claim her mate and her throne!” A ballerina rises to join him, and Harrison destroys all of her handicaps as well, revealing her natural state as “blindingly beautiful.” Harrison then removes the handicap devices from the musicians in the studio and instructs them to play music as he dances with his Empress.
When Harrison declares himself “Emperor,” it becomes clear that the broadcaster was right—his ambition is to overthrow the government, since he’s placing himself in a position of authority and defying the dictates of the totalitarian state by un-handicapping himself and others. His rebellion against the government isn’t a traditional coup, though—it seems that he believes that simply dancing beautifully on television will be enough to disrupt the status quo, hinting at the extraordinary power Harrison sees in the arts.
The pair sways to the music, and eventually, “in an explosion of joy and grace” Harrison and the ballerina spring in the air and float up to the ceiling. They kiss the ceiling and then each other, all while floating in thin air. The performance “neutrali[zed] gravity with love and pure will,” and Harrison and the ballerina remain “suspended in thin air” while they continue kissing.
The fantastical suspension of gravity highlights the potential for the arts to disrupt governmental authority and this moment is also an ode to human creativity and individual potential. Once people in society are allowed to embrace their talents and be themselves, they literally transcend the laws of physics.
All of a sudden, Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, barges onto the scene with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She shoots Harrison and the ballerina, who die before they hit the ground. She then instructs the musicians to put their handicaps back on or face a similar fate. The scene is cut short when the Bergerons’ television burns out.
The H-G’s gun symbolizes the totalitarian power of the state, and her use of the gun to kill Harrison and the ballerina quells dissent while reinstating her authority. Harrison’s death symbolizes the loss of individualism as the price of absolute equality. Simultaneously, the H-G’s presence on-scene reveals the grave stakes in Harrison’s dissent—if the top authority was summoned to kill him, Harrison must have been quite a danger to the status quo.
George, who had left the living room to get a beer, returns to find Hazel in tears, but Hazel cannot remember why she is crying. George urges Hazel to “forget sad things,” and Hazel replies, “I always do.” The exchange is interrupted by George’s mental handicap device, which transmits the sound of a “riveting gun.” The story ends with Hazel’s comment on the latest soundwave, stating “Gee—I could tell that one was a doozy.”
George and Hazel, as Harrison’s parents, are the two people most likely to be affected by Harrison’s performance, but here they are not only unmotivated to rebel against the government—they are also so brainwashed that they cannot even remember that their son has died. This is a pessimistic ending to a dystopian story, since if George and Hazel are unmoved, the rest of society likely will be unmoved, too, and Harrison will have died for nothing. Vonnegut seems to believe that this society has gone too far down the rabbit hole of totalitarianism to be saved.