Socialism, Communism, & Harrison Bergeron

Through understatement comes clarity.”

Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was first published in 1961 and is a typical example of the author’s ability to blend satire and science fiction. Although real-world politics is almost never explicitly discussed in his fiction, much of Vonnegut’s work has been seen by critics as “oblique jabs at various governments and systems of thought” (SparkNote on Harrison Bergeron, 2007). It is probably the best cautionary tale of regulation with the goal of absolute equality ever written.

In the first half of this essay, I will be highlighting the themes and allusions present in the short story, keeping in mind what they are meant to suggest. In its second half, this essay will attempt to discuss two responses to the short story. One is the more common response, viewing Harrison Bergeron as a negative portrayal of socialism and communism, taking the equality principle of these doctrines to the extreme in order to reveal their absurdity. The second is the view that, keeping in line with Vonnegut’s leftist political affiliations and other works of literature, Harrison Bergeron is a satire of the popular misunderstanding of what leveling and equality entail, not of equality in itself. The latter will be discussed with reference to the article:  The Politics of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’ by Darryl Hattenhauer.

Popular themes in the story are Vonnegut’s satire of both forced equality and the power of the Handicapper General, & the brainwashing effect television has on the American people. Vonnegut has been thought to have been influenced by a 1961 speech made by Newton Minow, the then Federal Communications Commission Chairman, titled “The Vast Wasteland,” a reference to the supposed want of quality in television programming. Also, at the very end, the sound of a riveting gun in George’s ear-radio leads Hazel and George into a verbal exchange, echoing comic lines popularized by comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen, from the closing dialogue of their television show, a weekly situation comedy and variety show popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The agents of the Handicapper General are called H-G men, an allusion to the practice in these times of referring to Federal Bureau of Investigation and Secret Service officers as G-men, the letter ‘G’ standing for ‘government’.

The allusion of Diana Moon, the Handicapper General’s first and middle names, refers to the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana, who is associated with the moon. Diana was known for her vengeance, which could explain the ruthless killing of Harrison Bergeron in the story. Thor, identified in the story as the god of thunder, was, in Norse mythology, the oldest and most powerful son of Odin, king of the gods. He possessed great strength and skill in fighting. This allusion serves to underscore Harrison’s strength without his handicaps. There is an indirect reference to cartoonist Rube Goldberg, which highlights the absurdity of the handicapping technology, especially for such a futuristic story. Rube Goldberg’s cartoons generally depicted elaborate schemes to accomplish the simplest tasks. Thus, the various handicaps described in the story seem much like Rube Goldberg cartoons, and seem humorous to readers who recognize the allusion.

Vonnegut has said that he learned most of what he believes about social and political idealism from junior civics class, as well as from the democratic institution of the public school itself. A futuristic story dealing with universal themes of equality, freedom, power and its abuses, and media influence, Harrison Bergeron continues to evoke thoughtful responses about equality and individual freedom in the United States (Cengage, 2002).

As a theme, freedom remains in the background of the story, emerging when Harrison escapes from jail. In the story’s futuristic society, freedom is no longer a bedrock American value; enforcing the law that makes those who are “above normal” equal to those who are “normal” has become the major social value. Forced equality by handicapping the above-normal individuals evolved as a response to the demonized concept of competition (which existed in ‘‘the dark ages’’) in all its possible forms. Vonnegut suggests that freedom can be taken away relatively easily, especially since the forced equality in the story has been authorized by Amendments to the Constitution.

Civil rights have become extinct in Harrison Bergeron. The culture values mediocrity to the point that the people accept oppressive measures in the name of equality. Ironically, no one really benefits from these misguided attempts to enforce equality, except perhaps the incompetent, such as the television announcer who, “like all announcers, had a serious speech impediment.’’ In Hazel’s words, the announcer’s incompetence should be forgiven because his attempt is “the big thing. He tried to do the best he could with what God gave him. He should get a nice raise for trying so hard.’’ Should anyone in that society dare to become above average, he or she is immediately punished, as is Harrison, who is executed for shunning mediocrity and attempting to excel. By creating a society where the goal of equality has resulted in a grotesque caricature of humanity, Vonnegut implies that individual civil rights should never be sacrificed, not even for the alleged common good.

Normal” in the story can best be described as subnormal, incompetent, and ignorant. Hazel is a case in point; as a normal person, she wears no handicaps, and she has a good heart, yet she knows very little about anything and cannot remember what she just saw or heard a moment ago. At the end of the story, she takes literally George’s intensifying statement, ‘‘you can say that again,’’ by repeating what she just said. Vonnegut suggests that an authoritarian government thrives on the ignorance of the people and on the suppression of intelligence and knowledge.

In addition to the critique of authoritarian government in the form of the Handicapper General agents (H-G men), Vonnegut discusses the ways in which the Handicapper General uses the fear of competition to make obeying the laws an ethical decision. Hazel feels sorry for George, who has to wear forty-seven pounds of birdshot around his neck, so she invites him to lighten his load. He rejects the idea of cheating (breaking the law) with a recital of the punishment: “two years in prison and two thousand dollars for every [lead birdshot] ball” taken out. He continues by describing the bandwagon effect: other people would try to break the law if George could do so. He asserts that backsliding would result in a return ‘‘to the dark ages, with everybody competing against everybody else.’’ Cheating on laws, George claims, would reduce society to chaos. Here, Vonnegut satirizes the fear of change and of uncertainty: victims of the oppressive law want to enforce it rather than take their chances without it.

One of the implied reasons Harrison may want to overthrow the government has to do with strength and weakness. He recognizes the inequality of forcing strong people (those mentally, intellectually, and physically strong) to give up their strength for an orderly society of equal, law-abiding citizens.

The idea of the superhuman materializes in the character of Harrison. He exceeds the physical and intellectual abilities of anyone else in the story. Likewise, his physical appearance, judged by the kinds of handicaps he must wear, suggests an Adonis-like figure. His natural abilities do not make him immortal, however. Truly befitting the superman concept, he declares himself emperor, “a greater ruler than any man who ever lived’’ (even with his handicaps). He does not recognize, however, his human flaw: replacing one authoritarian government with another. Like so many other revolutions, Harrison’s short-lived attempt to overthrow the ruthless totalitarianism that has become the American government becomes totalitarian itself. Vonnegut suggests that power, whether invested in the government or in the individual figure, corrupts. (Cengage, 2002)

A twisted version of the American Dream is shown in Harrison Bergeron. Upward mobility has been made impossible due to the ‘mediocrity’ of each individual. (SAO)

Vonnegut suggests the powerful influence of broadcast media in the story. Radio is the medium of the mental handicap noises used to prevent anyone with the ability to think from doing so. But television accomplishes the same thing for normal people like Hazel, who ‘‘had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts.’’ This lack of concentration has come to be known as short attention span, or attention deficit disorder. Many critics credit television for the decreasing attention span of the population. They also suggest television programming desensitizes people to real life, in part because it requires nothing of the viewer.  Vonnegut suggests the importance of television as a means of controlling information by having Harrison Bergeron take over the television studio and proclaim himself emperor. Vonnegut also shows the numbing influence of television by having Hazel forget what she has seen—her son’s killing—even though she reacts by recognizing that something sad has happened.

It is easy to ascertain that Harrison Bergeron offers vigorous political and social criticisms. But what is Vonnegut criticizing exactly? A common view of Vonnegut’s satire in Harrison Bergeron suggests that this satire is aimed at the Soviet Union. This view draws from historical context (Harrison Bergeron was published in the midst of the Cold War, when anti-communist propaganda was rampant in the United States).

In the 1960s, America was engaged with Russia in the Cold War and had recently struggled through the McCarthy era, when suspected communists were accused and blacklisted from artistic, literary, and political communities. The futuristic American society of Harrison Bergeron operates on communist principles, supporting the idea that wealth and power should be distributed equally and class hierarchies should not exist. Like the accused communists of the McCarthy era, anyone not conforming to society’s accepted standards—in a reversal of sorts, anyone not adhering to the communist structure—is sought out and punished. In his story, Vonnegut argues that such principles are foolish. It is unnatural to distribute wealth and power equally, he suggests, and it is only by literally handicapping the best and brightest citizens that the misguided goal of equal distribution can be attained. Similarly, it is unnatural to seek out and punish those who reject social norms.

The political system depicted in Vonnegut’s story is distinctly American and founded on the principles of egalitarianism, which holds that people should be equal in every way. Equality is a beloved principle enshrined in America’s constitution in the phrase “All men are created equal,” but Vonnegut suggests that the ideals of egalitarianism can be dangerous if they are interpreted too literally.

Following Khrushchev’s threat to “drown” the United States, the fear of Communism taking over the ‘free’ world was prevalent among Americans. If the goal of equality is taken to its logical conclusion, we may decide that people must be forced to be equal to one another in their appearance, behavior, and achievements. So with respect to this view, Harrison Bergeron is Vonnegut’s way of playing on that fear, showing how dangerous communism could really be in American society.

An alternate view, that which is presented in The Politics of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’ by Darryl Hattenhauer, states that the aforementioned view is an all too common misinterpretation of the author’s intentions while writing the story. Vonnegut, he claims, was not criticizing Communism and it’s notions of equality. Rather, he was mocking America’s perverted understanding of that very principle.

To verify this claim, Hattenhauer first makes reference to Vonnegut’s previous works, fiction & non-fiction, following this up with a discussion of whom Vonnegut wishes to address – who is his audience? Lastly, there is a discussion of internal evidence, using points from within the story to cement his case.

His first point is that Vonnegut was a leftist. All evidence points to this. Hattenhauer writes,

If “Harrison Bergeron” is a satire against the Left, then it is inconsistent with the rest of Vonnegut’s fiction… Like his fiction, Vonnegut’s non-fiction also satirizes the Right and endorses the Left. And the Left it endorses is not liberalism,”

giving examples from works such as God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and In a Manner that Must Shame God Himself. Speeches Vonnegut has given also show that he supported the socialist model of “plentiful living for all” and saw it as an achievable future for mankind.

So what has led to this misconception of Vonnegut’s intent, and why was the story not written with crystal-clear emphasis on it’s true intent? This is the question that Hattenhauer seeks to answer in the second half of his article, and he supplies the answer readily. Vonnegut was a struggling writer at the time, who needed popular support to make a name for himself. He said himself that he only wrote short stories to earn money so that he could focus on his novels, which were his main area of interest. Says Hattenhauer, “As a struggling writer, Vonnegut had to put a surface on this story that would appeal to his audience.”

Was he successful in this respect? Indeed he was. The ‘surface’ he chose to put over his critique of the US served not only to mask his true satire, but also to appeal to the central belief of the prevailing national culture – that communism would lead to the destruction of all things Americans held dear.

This view is further supported by an in-depth analysis of Vonnegut’s depiction of equality – how topics such as redistribution of income, and medical care for all are not addressed – and a discussion of why critics failed to unveil the true meaning behind his words – because they missed the irony. Vonnegut holds back the undeniability of the irony till the very end, so that you go on believing in the common viewpoint because you have no solid proof that he is indeed ridiculing American notions of egalitarianism until Harrison defies gravity and rips off straps meant to support 5000 pounds – the truly impossible.

In conclusion, I would like to say that whereas both points of view are applicable, the case made by Darryl Hattenhauer provides a unique and refreshing outlook on the story.

Works Cited

Cengage, G. (2002). enotes.com. Retrieved April 8, 2011, from enotes.com: http://www.pascack.k12.nj.us/703208109617317/lib/703208109617317/Harrison_Bergeron_eNotes.pdf

Hattenhauer, D. (1998). The Politics of Kurt Vonnegut. Studies in Short Fiction .

SAO. (n.d.). Cassiopaea. Retrieved April 8, 2011, from http://cassiopaea.org/forum/index.php?topic=5741.0;wap2

SparkNote on Harrison Bergeron. (2007). Retrieved February 24, 2011, from SparkNotes LLC: http://www.sparknotes.com/short-stories/harrison-bergeron/

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14 thoughts on “Socialism, Communism, & Harrison Bergeron

  1. Now I know this is a very important blog but I have to say this anyway…if you were the handicapper general what would you do with the un-equal power that you have and how would you hinder the talents of Michael Jordan, Pablo Picasso, etc…. why would you still remain in power when you are in charge of equality..?!

  2. As a tremendous Vonnegut fan, and a teacher of English literature (in that order), I definitely find fruit-and-flaw in both arguments. Vonnegut was an envelope-pusher, and he frequently satirized the whole of cookie-cutter US mainstream culture (misogynistic, aristocratic, pro-war-and-privilege). Certainly, to think he would toss a watermelon-sized softball of communist satire at his very literate, left-leaning audience (I don’t know, Barry Bonds, perhaps, to keep the metaphor afloat) is, in my humble opinion, to undercut his brilliance. I mean, where’s the discussion of Surplus Value and distancing the producer from his/her goods, if we’re going to think this is a critique of communism. Vonnegut was certainly a line-rider, but never a line-crosser (if we would use someone like Chuck Pahlaniuk [sic] as an example of a line crosser); thus his satire of communism lacks substance if we are to look at the piece as solely a critique of communism. I’ve always taught that Vonnegut rides a very thin line with this piece: he offers a generalized, “thank you, Cpt. Obvious,” critique of the elementary principles of communism – the beliefs held by many scared White Americans had – but he also satirizes the rule-makers as he critiques the dire inequalities of the society of his time (1961, for this piece). Why else would his second sentence pertain directly to people being “equal before God and the law” if he wasn’t making a statement about the push for Civil Rights. I mean, people who were Civil Rights Activists were labeled “communists” by agents of the government to add illegitimacy to the plight for equality. ‘Twas the same year Seuss wrote “The Sneetches” – it goes without saying that society was incredibly unequal for the poor, women, minorities, anyone who didn’t fit the White “mythical norm,” and all these members of society were certainly “handicapped” by a glass ceiling of White, male supremacy, as their positive qualities were frequently noted as attributes of their Otherness, not as positive qualities in and of themselves. Publishers were definitely using writing as a form of activism, and the literary world was definitely a-buzz with the goings-on. And here the White “Norms” were worried about “equality” a basic, human-notion, that was severely bastardized by lumping it in with enemy Communist White culture (Russia) to instill fear in the White culture of power. I think Vonnegut offers a very intellectual critique of White US society as a whole in the story – not only for readers who assume his story to be a broad satire on (what’s represented as an unenlightened view of) the basic principles of Communism, but also to his readers who were tired of the anti-communist, pro-capitalist bulls**t propaganda that was circulating at the time. It’s almost as if he uses dualism as a little “joke’s on you” to his anti-communist reader.

    Just my two cents, however. I’ve read the story 100’s of times, and I’m probably looking too much into it.

  3. Interest ? That is a quantity that only someone of the present generation can have, on Vonnegut. Those who were lettered past mid-last-century, and took to Vonnegut, felt he was intrinsic to all basic human values ( that’s me included, I guess ).
    Besides, as the earlier observer remarked, about ” veiled message ” etc, Vonnegut tried to steer clear of any direct or indirect didactic element in all his writings. The choice was always with anyone who happened to read him.

  4. Lovely article. The general conclusions you draw from this one work of Vonnegut, would become substantiated by reading the other books too. Vonnegut probably would not have voted for any Leftist party if ever he voted at all. But his mind-set and emotions were always lay in that direction.

  5. I disagree w/ Professor Hattenhauer. By his thinking, Vonnegut was just posing to make a buck and making his true meaning really, really hidden so hardly anyone would get it and would instead be tricked–strange how hardly anyone walks away with Hattenhauer’s views after reading the story. That is not successful storytelling if Vonnegut was really sending a veiled message for a select view and today even book editors don’t see it or know about it. Where’s the author’s reaction to this huge misinterpretation since 1961?

    A story about freedom to use your own potential does not conflict with being on the left. That should fit with humanism. We know writers can be socialists and warn us of concepts taken too far–Orwell in 1984, etc. I don’t see the problem in Vonnegut showing extreme egalitarianism’s dark side. People are distracted by the word “equal” and think he couldn’t attack a twisted version and still be a socialist. What if he just felt creative that day?

    1. That’s an interesting way of looking at it. I personally don’t agree with the alternative viewpoint either, but I thought it was an interesting and new perspective on something I had never really wondered about before.

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