Harrison represents the part of the American people that still longs to try hard, flaunt their attributes, and outpace their peers. At age fourteen, Harrison is a physical specimen: seven feet tall, immensely strong, and extremely handsome. The government does everything in its power to squelch Harrison, forcing him to wear huge earphones to distort his thinking, glasses to damage his sight and give him headaches, three hundred pounds of metal to weigh him down, a ridiculous nose, and black caps for his teeth. But none of the government’s hindrances, including jail, can stop Harrison. His will to live as a full human being is too strong. The government calls Harrison a genius, but he is remarkable less for his brains than for his bravery and self-confidence. When he escapes from jail, he is utterly convinced that he will succeed in overthrowing the government.
In addition to his remarkable strength of body and will, Harrison has an artistic, romantic soul. He removes his empress’s handicaps with the careful touch of a sculptor. He instructs the musicians in their craft, showing them exactly how he wants them to play by singing to them. He dances so beautifully that he manages to defy gravity, springing thirty feet to the ceiling with his empress, where he kisses her. Vonnegut hints that Harrison is something of a sexual superman, and it is clear that if he succeeds in his plan to overthrow the government, he will father a line of superior children. But the murder of Harrison and his empress shows that in the America of 2081, those who are brave enough to show off their gifts will not be allowed to live, much less procreate.
George is an everyman, a character most readers will understand and relate to. Smart and sensitive, George has been crippled by the government’s handicapping program. He makes intelligent remarks and thinks analytically about society, but his mind is stunted. Every twenty seconds, noises broadcast by the government interrupt his thoughts, preventing sustained concentration. In addition to being smart, George is also stronger than the average man and must wear forty-seven pounds around his neck to weigh himself down. Although George is mentally and physically gifted, he is spiritually unremarkable. When Hazel suggests that he remove a few of the lead balls from the bag that weighs him down, George refuses to entertain the idea, unwilling to risk jail. A law-abiding man, he believes that America in 2081 is a much better place than it was in the old days, when competition existed. George, a slightly above-average person with a healthy respect for the rules, stands in for the reader, who may be all too willing to go along with government regulations that thwart individual freedoms and uniqueness. By showing us the unhappiness of George’s existence, Vonnegut asks us to question our own passivity and perhaps even our support for the laws of the land.
Hazel is a one-woman cautionary tale, an average American in an age when “average” has come to mean “stupid.” She does not need a radio permanently affixed to her ear, as George does, because she was never capable of sustained thought. Hazel applauds those who are as incapable as she is, cheering on the unimpressive ballerinas and praising the pathetic performance of the announcer who cannot overcome his speech impediment. Hazel is a dim bulb, but she is also kind. She worries about George and suggests that he remove a few of his weights while he is at home, and she weeps over her son, although she cannot keep him in mind for more than a few seconds at a time. But Hazel is a cautionary tale precisely because her kindness makes no difference. Her stupidity overwhelms her good nature, preventing her from recognizing the absurdity of her society, let alone doing anything to change it.