For the brief moments when Harrison proclaims himself Emperor, destroys his state-issued handicaps, and dances beautifully on state TV, the government’s power is lost. Although the moment is short-lived (a government agent shoots Harrison dead while he’s dancing), his dissent nonetheless shows that individuals might still have power under totalitarianism. Harrison’s exceptional existence proves that equality isn’t absolute (or else he wouldn’t have been able to achieve such an extraordinary feat), and therefore that the state’s power is not omnipotent. However, even though Harrison Bergeron is an extraordinary individual whose very existence poses a serious threat to the totalitarian government of Vonnegut’s story, his execution by the government and his parents’ subsequent inability to recall witnessing his murder ultimately suggests that, once the government has consolidated enough power, individual dissent has little effect.
Vonnegut writes that, as Harrison danced, “Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well.” The language and imagery of weightlessness (the destruction of physical handicaps; the physical “neutraling [of] gravity with love and pure will” as Harrison and the ballerina float to the ceiling) surrounding Harrison’s performance suggests that dissent can bring freedom for those who are subjected to state authority. Indeed, just as Harrison’s dancing suggests broader liberation, he physically liberates others during his brief dissent: he removes the handicaps of the ballet orchestra members and of the ballerina who becomes his Empress.
Governmental authorities regard Harrison Bergeron as an “extremely dangerous” person, and they respond swiftly and aggressively to his escape from jail. Given the state’s violent reaction to Harrison’s sedition, Vonnegut asserts that acts of dissent pose a fundamental threat to totalitarian regimes. By declaring himself “a greater ruler than any man who ever lived,” Harrison’s status as Emperor at the ballet exists in opposition to the power of the state. Although Harrison’s reign as Emperor is short-lived, the power takeover is fundamentally troublesome to a regime that claims utmost authority. Consequently, the climactic event of Harrison’s death at the hands of the Handicapper General attests to the irreconcilability of totalitarianism and dissent.
However, the value of Harrison sacrificing his life to protest totalitarianism is uncertain. Harrison’s own parents cannot even remember that Harrison has died after the television burns out, and they certainly haven’t been galvanized to question or act against the government, even though they’re the two people in the world who are most likely to care about Harrison’s performance and death. This suggests that other citizens are also unlikely to be affected by Harrison’s dissent. Vonnegut, then, is cynical about the power of dissent once a government has consolidated power to the degree it has in the story.
Though the totalitarian government’s insistence on suppressing dissent and artistic talent strongly suggests that individualism and dissent are threats to the state and therefore powerful, the actual impact of individual dissent in the story is shown to be limited—the government, in other words, seems to have won. Therefore, Vonnegut’s story—itself a work of art and an expression of individualism and talent—is a cautionary tale. Vonnegut hopes that his story will lead readers to understand the value of dissent in a democracy before the government consolidates power to the extent that dissent becomes meaningless.
Dissent vs. Authority ThemeTracker
Dissent vs. Authority Quotes in Harrison Bergeron
George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn't be handicapped. But he didn't get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts.
“The minute people start cheating on laws, what do you think happens to society?” If Hazel hadn't been able to come up with an answer to this question, George couldn't have supplied one. A siren was going off in his head. “Reckon it'd fall all apart,” said Hazel.
The music began again and was much improved. Harrison and his Empress merely listened to the music for a while-listened gravely, as though synchronizing their heartbeats with it. They shifted their weights to their toes. Harrison placed his big hands on the girl’s tiny waist, letting her sense the weightlessness that would soon be hers. And then, in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang! Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well.
Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor.