In the futuristic world of “Harrison Bergeron,” the government applies physical and mental handicaps to individuals with above-average strength and intelligence in order to guarantee that all people in society are equal. While equality is often regarded as a positive condition of democratic society, Vonnegut’s dystopian portrayal of an absolutely equal society reveals how equality must be balanced with freedom and individualism in order for society to thrive.
Although in the story all people are “finally equal” in “every which way,” Vonnegut suggests that forbidding individualism causes society to suffer. For instance, the distribution of mental handicaps prevents citizens from thinking critically or creatively. In the case of George, who has “way above normal intelligence,” citizenship in an equal society comes at the price of his ability to critically question the world around him. George clearly has the impulse to question the invasive nature of government regulations on equality, particularly with regards to the handicaps’ negative effects on the arts (he watches shackled dancers on TV who are forbidden from displaying any above-average talent), yet the presence of his own mental handicaps prevents him from pursuing this line of thought: “George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn't be handicapped,” Vonnegut writes. “But he didn't get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts.
Harrison Bergeron is the only character in the story who defies the government’s handicap regulations, and the degree to which the government and news media villainize him shows that individualism, in addition to making society more vibrant, has the power to challenge the totalitarian government. Harrison proves capable of disrupting state power through demonstrations of his individuality—both in strength (his escape from jail and destruction of “scrap-iron handicaps”) and intelligence (his ability to think for himself and rebel against the government). The state recognizes that Harrison’s individuality will threaten the status quo of society, and the administration justifies his imprisonment and eventual murder on the grounds that he is “extremely dangerous” and is “plotting to overthrow the government.” From this, readers can assume that Harrison’s displays of individualism are deeply threatening to the efficacy of a government that seeks to maintain equality.
The interplay between individualism and equality is clear in the juxtaposition between Harrison and his father George. Harrison’s embrace of his extraordinary strength and genius mark him as an outlaw, while his father’s acquiescence to the law of the Handicapper General (despite his above-average strength and intelligence) renders him ordinary. While Harrison is considered dangerous for his difference, he is also capable of extraordinary feats, such as his escape from jail and his ability to think for himself. Conversely, although George is able to fit into society, he loses his ability to think or act for himself. By the end of the story, Harrison’s death, coupled with his parents’ inability to mourn or question the nature of his death, suggests that individualism has been lost to absolute equality.
By exploring the suppression of individualism in favor of equality under a totalitarian government, Vonnegut reveals that governments that do not balance their pursuit of social equality with a commitment to personal freedom and individualism can impede the well-being of a state and its citizens. Given the time of Vonnegut’s writing (post-WWII and during the Cold War), his story can be seen, in part, as a comment on the danger of totalitarian regimes that suppress expressions of individualism and dissent on the ideological grounds that invasive governmental policies are for the “common good” of the country.
Equality vs. Individualism ThemeTracker
Equality vs. Individualism 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.