Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Danger of Total Equality
In “Harrison Bergeron,” Vonnegut suggests that total equality is not an ideal worth striving for, as many people believe, but a mistaken goal that is dangerous in both execution and outcome. To achieve physical and mental equality among all Americans, the government in Vonnegut’s story tortures its citizens. The beautiful must wear hideous masks or disfigure themselves, the intelligent must listen to earsplitting noises that impede their ability to think, and the graceful and strong must wear weights around their necks at all hours of the day. The insistence on total equality seeps into the citizens, who begin to dumb themselves down or hide their special attributes. Some behave this way because they have internalized the government’s goals, and others because they fear that the government will punish them severely if they display any remarkable abilities. The outcome of this quest for equality is disastrous. America becomes a land of cowed, stupid, slow people. Government officials murder the extremely gifted with no fear of reprisal. Equality is more or less achieved, but at the cost of freedom and individual achievement.
The Power of Television
Television is an immensely powerful force that sedates, rules, and terrorizes the characters in “Harrison Bergeron.” To emphasize television’s overwhelming importance in society, Vonnegut makes it a constant presence in his story: the entire narrative takes place as George and Hazel sit in front of the TV. Television functions primarily as a sedative for the masses. Hazel’s cheeks are wet with tears, but because she is distracted by the ballerinas on the screen, she doesn’t remember why she is crying. The government also uses television as a way of enforcing its laws. When dangerously talented people like Harrison are on the loose, for example, the government broadcasts warnings about them. They show a photograph of Harrison with his good looks mutilated and his strength dissipated. The photo is a way of identifying the supposedly dangerous escapee, but it is also a way of intimidating television viewers. It gives them a visual example of the handicaps imposed on those who do not suppress their own abilities. Television further turns into a means of terrorizing the citizens when Diana Moon Glampers shoots Harrison. The live execution is an effective way of showing viewers what will happen to those who dare to disobey the law.
The noises broadcast by the government increase in intensity and violence during the course of the story, paralleling the escalating tragedy of George’s and Hazel’s lives. When the story begins, a buzzer sounds in George’s head as he watches the ballerinas on TV. As he tries to think about the dancers, who are weighed down and masked to counteract their lightness and beauty, the sound of a bottle being smashed with a hammer rings in his ears. When he thinks about his son, he is interrupted by the sound of twenty-one guns firing, an excessively violent noise that foreshadows Harrison’s murder. Thoughts about the laws of equality and the competition that existed in the old days are shattered by the sound of a siren, a noise that suggests the extent to which the government has literally become the thought police. As Harrison barges into the television studio, George hears a car crash, a noise that connotes the injury of multiple people. The noise that interrupts George roughly at the same time that his son is being executed on live TV is described only as “a handicap signal,” an ominously vague phrase. Vonnegut suggests that the noise is so awful that it can’t be mentioned, just as the murder of Harrison is so awful that George and Hazel can’t fully comprehend it. The final noise George hears is that of a riveting gun, an appropriate echo of the way Diana Moon Glampers killed Harrison.
Harrison represents the spark of defiance and individuality that still exists in some Americans. He has none of the cowardice and passivity that characterize nearly everyone else in the story. Rather, he is an exaggerated alpha male, a towering, brave, breathtakingly strong man who hungers for power. When he storms into the TV studio and announces that he is the emperor, the greatest ruler who has ever lived, he sounds power-mad and perhaps insane. At the same time, however, his boastfulness is exhilarating. It is an exaggerated expression of the defiant urge to excel that some Americans still feel. When Harrison rips off his steel restraints and handicaps, the physical strength and beauty he reveals reminds some viewers that underneath their own restraints and handicaps, they too are still talented or lovely. But in the end, Harrison, symbol of defiance, is killed in cold blood by Diana Moon Glampers, the administrator of government power. The quick, efficient murder suggests that if a defiant spirit still exists in America in 2081, its days are numbered.