The Danger of Totalitarian Government

In “Harrison Bergeron,” Vonnegut portrays a dystopic totalitarian government that tortures and executes its citizens to achieve its goal of physical and mental equality among all Americans. 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 government-enforced 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.

Some have argued that Vonnegut’s goal with “Harrison Bergeron” (which was first published in 1961) was to assail the concept of political correctness—even though the practices of the government in the story represent an extreme caricature of ideas of what would come to be called “political correctness” long after the story was written. A more plausible explanation is that Vonnegut was portraying the dangers of the unchecked powers of an authoritarian government that inserts itself too directly into lives of its citizens, regardless of whether the ideological bent of that government is on the right or on the left side of the political spectrum.

Read more about the dangers of totalitarianism as a theme in George Orwell’s 1984.

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.

Read about the similar role technology plays in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.