United States, 2081 AD. Amendments to the US Constitution have brought about widespread equality, to the exclusion of no one. That venerated phrase of the 1776 Declaration of Independence declaring that “all men are created equal” has been enacted literally, enforced by the tyrannical Handicapper General and her agents. The society that emerges is an absurdist dystopia whose denizens are hobbled via inconvenient and unwieldy contraptions. Radio earpieces emit shrieking tones to restrict extraneous thought, athletes and dancers stagger beneath sash weights and bags of birdshot, and masks and prosthetics render attractive people hideous, so that no single person might take advantage of their innate intelligence, strength, agility, or beauty.
Meanwhile, George and Hazel Bergeron are at home watching TV, when the broadcast is interrupted by a news bulletin revealing that Harrison, their fourteen-year-old son, has escaped from gaol, where he had been held on suspicion of plotting against the government. “He is a genius and an athlete, is under-handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous”, the announcer warns. Just then, Harrison himself bursts into the studio and hijacks the broadcast, attempting to stage a coup. Unquestionably, it’s high-farce satire, dripping with irony. Rather more contestable is what it is, exactly, that Vonnegut is satirising.
Most predominantly, ‘Harrison Bergeron’ has been read as ridiculing an excessive desire for equality, describing a project of egalitarianism taken to certain extremities. Strangely, this has led to the story, by an ostensibly socialist writer, becoming widely celebrated amongst conservatives. It was, for instance, a favourite of William F. Buckley, who re-published it in National Review—allegedly mistaking the writer for a fellow conservative,i he declared Vonnegut “one of the handful of genuinely great writers of science fiction”.ii
Through a centre-right lens, by parodying egalitarianism, Vonnegut’s story likewise parodies, by extension, modern liberal and leftist politics,iii out of which egalitarianism has emerged a central tenet.iv In the society of ‘Harrison Bergeron’, the pursuit of equality has arguably been taken to its logical conclusion, with the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, serving as a despotic figurehead for leftist overreach, backed by state power and her own propensity for violent force. ‘Harrison Bergeron’ would therefore seem to be a prophetic warning of where societal trends are taking us, and it’s been widely cited as such (by journalists, lawyers, and even a Supreme Court justice).v
A second reading, in direct opposition to the first, posits Vonnegut as in fact parodying that very same equality-gone-too-far worldview outlined above, constructing an absurd strawman of egalitarianism in order to mock conservative paranoia. Accordingly, the wider interpretation of ‘Harrison Bergeron’ has made it into an example of Poe’s law, which holds that extreme parody, when not overtly identified as such by its author, will inevitably be misconstrued as genuine belief.vi Darryl Hattenhauer, a scholar arguing for such a reading, claims that the 1961 short story satirises Cold War-era hysteria surrounding communism and socialism. In support, Hattenhauer points to Vonnegut’s personal politics, as espoused in speeches, interviews, and throughout his written work. “If ‘Harrison Bergeron’ is a satire against the Left”, says Hattenhauer, “then it is inconsistent with the rest of Vonnegut’s […] oeuvre.”vi
But the best evidence for this interpretation comes from the text itself. If Diana Moon Glampers is the story’s villain, what are we to make of its titular hero—Nietzschean Übermenschviii and embodiment of the resistance—whose grand entrance elevates the story, literally, to new heights of absurdity? Fourteen years old and seven feet tall, Harrison Bergeron rends the TV-studio door off its hinges and tears apart his shackles with the ease of Godzilla. “I am the Emperor!”, he declares, “a greater ruler than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!”ix Selecting himself a ballerina for an empress, the couple dance, soaring sylphlike into the air where they find themselves suspended in space, having transcended Newtonian laws entirely. At which point, Glampers bursts in with a shotgun and blasts them dead.
The scene’s so overdone, in other words, that it’s difficult to take anything about it at face value. And so grandiose a figure is Harrison—one hardly less dictatorial than Glampers herselfx—that it’s hard not to read the suddenness with which he’s dispensed as a violent rejection of his being any genuine Randian saviour.xi “Critics have missed the object of this text’s satire because they miss the irony of the narration”, says Hattenhauer. “They do not recognise the narration as unreliable. (Given what we know about the author [and his politics], the narrator cannot be the authorial delegate.) […] Perhaps such critics […] are interpellated into the very ideology that the text satirizes.”xii
It’s useful at this point to distinguish between different notions pertaining to equality. Generally speaking, the ideal espoused within liberalism is ‘equality of opportunity’,xiii which isn’t opposed to social hierarchy as such, so long as individuals are free to compete for their place within its ranks and can do so on equal terms with others (as opposed to—in the case of a caste system—being assigned a place at birth).xiv But many critics of egalitarianism fear that what’s actually being proposed—or what inevitably occurs in practice—are forms of ‘equality of outcome’, which equalise “where people end up rather than where or how they begin”.xv (The story’s mode of egalitarianism is ‘equality of outcome’ taken to extremesxvi—a kind of compulsory equality arrived at “by delimiting positive qualities rather than ameliorating shortcomings”.xvii) And to be fair to said critics, equality of outcome is a metric sometimes used to assess the extent to which equality of opportunity might exist—a crude metric at that, since it relies on inference (a lack of diversity among staff at a particular workplace might strongly suggest, but doesn’t necessarily prove, biases within the hiring process).xviii And when there’s talk of targets and quotas in order to redress some of these disparities, warning bells start ringing, and it can all start to feel a bit like ‘Harrison Bergeron’, to some.
Nonetheless, “the object of Vonnegut’s satire is not all leveling [processes]”, argues Hattenhauer. “Rather, the object of his satire is the popular misunderstanding of what leveling and equality entail.”xix Hattenhauer proceeds to cite a letter he received from Vonnegut in 2000, which he uses to establish that the character with whom the writer most identifies isn’t Harrison Bergeron, but Diana Moon Glampers.xx “I can’t be sure, but there is a possibility that my story ‘Harrison Bergeron’ is about the envy and self-pity I felt in an over-achievers’ high school in Indianapolis quite a while ago now”, reads the excerpt. “Some people never tame those emotions. John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald and Mark David Chapman come to mind. ‘Handicapper Generals,’1 if you like.”xxii
As Hattenhauer would have it, Vonnegut’s apparent identification with Glampers constitutes a form of sympathy for the character and, in turn, her ideological purpose.xxiii He asserts, moreover, that in order to get the story published in popular magazines of the day, Vonnegut had to disguise its politics. “Just as Twain could not have sold Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson if their sympathy with African-American characters had been obvious, so Vonnegut could not have sold a story overtly sympathetic to leveling.”xxiv Here, it all gets a bit tenuous. Yes, student-aged Kurt Vonnegut might’ve shared Glampers’ envy of overachievers, but it doesn’t follow that Vonnegut the adult writer remained sympathetic to his earlier tendencies, nor Glampers’ leveling agenda. I don’t know what else Vonnegut might’ve expressed within the full letter, but the excerpt suggests that if the story warns about anything, it’s about becoming like Glampers by letting antisocial and destructive feelings run amok (hence his invocation of Booth, Oswald, and Chapman). And to the extent that he admits a likeness between himself and Glampers, I think Vonnegut is being self-depreciating, making light of his youthful preoccupations.
Indeed, in an unpublished letter to the Lawrence Journal-World from 2005, Vonnegut appears to endorse the rather more traditional interpretation of his story, and to warn against individuals like Glampers. “My story mocks the idea of legally eliminating envy by outlawing excellence”, he writes. “May I say to those who know my story, which ends in the execution of an enviably gifted student by a Handicapper General: We have always had Handicapper Generals among us, empowered by envy….”xxv We shouldn’t take this statement as the final word on the matter—he was bothered, at the time he wrote it, with an article the newspaper had run and may have been simplifying the story’s themes to make a point—and it certainly doesn’t refute that there appears to be various layers of irony at play within the work. But it remains the most explicit statement I’ve encountered by Vonnegut regarding authorial intent.
However, Vonnegut’s equivocating in the earlier letter (to Hattenhauer) seems meaningful, too. That he “can’t be sure” what the story’s about, and can only entertain “a possibility”, suggests that his creative instincts are at least partly influenced by unconscious choices, as Hattenhauer acknowledges.xxvi
Aaron Rabinowitz, a philosopher-in-residence at Rutgers University, thinks there’s strong textual support to make the case that ‘Harrison Bergeron’ ultimately parodies rightwing attitudes, but believes the story to be multifaceted. “[It] is like one of those really good pieces of art where you can debate the meaning and the interpretation”, he says.
The reason that [Vonnegut is] so effective at the satire, I think, is partly because he’s sincere about his fear of government-enforced uniformity. He is a socialist but he is a wild-hippy socialist. And [in] a lot of his stories, I think he is critical of the idea that you would limit people’s freedom of expression in various ways.xxvii
Similarly, Benjamin Reed, a writer and English professor at Texas State University, draws from a biography of Vonnegut by Charles L. Shields in order to argue that Vonnegut—though he publically advocated socialism and tends to be claimed by leftists as a fellow radical—was in fact a more complicated and reactionary thinker than is widely acknowledged, which contradictions allowed Vonnegut to astutely reconstruct the ideological polarities existing within society at the time of the Cold War.xxviii Regarding the political purpose behind ‘Harrison Bergeron’, Reed warns, therefore, against “too heavily adducing Vonnegut’s personal beliefs to clarify his intentions”.xxix Instead, he draws our attention to the story’s structure, noting that ‘Harrison Bergeron’ is bookended by scenes of George and Hazel watching TV. “In one sense, that’s the whole story. Fade in: George and Hazel watch television. Blackout. There is no change of physicality, no jumping forward or backward in time. The drama of Harrison and the ballerinas and the Handicapper General exist within the Bergerons’ TV set, as a play within a play.”xxx Through this structure, according to Reed, Vonnegut critiques the “Randian allegory” that plays out on TV by situating it within an “anti-Randian morality tale” comprising the wider story.xxxi
Reed, who proceeds to sideline partisan politics altogether, hereby introduces another interpretation of the story—‘Harrison Bergeron’ as a satire about the consumption of mass media in the American home. The mid 1950s had seen television become a fixture of most North-American households,xxxii replacing books and magazines as the dominant mode of entertainment, effectively costing Vonnegut his job as a freelance short-story writer for popular magazines.xxxiii “Vonnegut, ever concerned with weapons of mass destruction, had found one in nearly every living room in America”.xxxiii
The handicapping of denizens is, for Reed, a sardonic metaphor for the cognitive decline wrought by televisual mass media, its effects observable “upon society at every level—the family, the nation, and human civilization”.xxxv In the current era of portable devices, perpetual connectivity, and endless streaming, the story, read in this way, is more pertinent than ever.xxxvi Beneath the high farce and hilarity runs a terrible undercurrent of sadness and loss. The final moments are a portrait of two parents, following the broadcast of their son’s execution, alone in their living room. George, returning from the kitchen with a beer, asks Hazel why she’s been crying. “I forget”, she says vaguely. “Something real sad on television.”xxxvii
That such a short, sparse story can yield a number of conflicting-yet-plausible interpretations suggests something of the talent behind its creation. Some time ago, I borrowed Vonnegut’s novel Mother Night (1961) from the library, but, even though I liked its themes, it somehow failed to resonate with me. I picked up another by him later—Cat’s Cradle (1963), I think—only to abandon it partway through. The very funny ‘Harrison Bergeron’, though, has renewed my faith in Vonnegut.
Read 19 September, 2018. Reread 1 February, 2019.
1 [sic]? I recently had the pleasure of meeting Aaron Rabinowitz, co-host of the podcast Philosophers in Space, an episode of which was the impetus behind my reading the Vonnegut story and subsequently writing this post.xxi I mentioned it to him, the post, which he was later generous enough to read. He wondered if perhaps the plural form of ‘Handicapper General’ ought to be rendered ‘Handicappers General’ (as in ‘attorneys general’ or ‘governors general’) rather than ‘Handicapper Generals’. Perhaps so. In any case, the phrasing is Vonnegut’s own, so I’ve retained left it as is. [Endnote added 3 September, 2019.]
i William F. Buckley, in John J. Miller, ‘The Many-Sided Sci-Fi Master’, National Review, 16 October, 2017.
iii Darryl Hattenhauer, ‘The Politics of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron”’, Studies in Short Fiction, volume 25, number 4, fall, 1998 / Kevin D. Williamson, ‘Inching toward “Harrison Bergeron”’, National Review, 7 May, 2015.
iv Gerald Gaus, Shane D. Courtland, and David Schmidtz, ‘Liberalism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, 22 January, 2018 / ‘Left’, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics and International Relations, fourth edition, edited by Garrett Brown, Iain McLean, and Alistair McMillan, United Kingdom—Oxford University Press, 2018 / Andrew Reeve, ‘Liberalism’, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics and International Relations.
v See, for instance, Peter Ferrera and Stephen Moore, ‘The Poverty of Equality’, The American Spectator, volume 45, number 3, April, 2012 / Scott Rothschild, ‘Vonnegut—Lawyers Could Use a Literary Lesson’, Lawrence Journal-World, 5 May, 2005, pages 26–30 / ‘PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin’, 532 US 661, Supreme Court of the United States, 29 May, 2001, page 706 / Williamson, ‘Inching toward “Harrison Bergeron”’.
viii Rabinowitz and Smith, ‘0G23—Harrison Bergeron and Equality of Outcome’ / Benjamin Reed, ‘Technologies of Instant Amnesia—Teaching Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” to the Millennial Generation’, Teaching American Literature—A Journal of Theory and Practice, volume 8, number 1, spring, 2015, pages 56–57.
xiii Terence Ball et al., ‘Liberalism’, Encyclopædia Britannica, 21 January, 2019.
xiv Richard Arneson, ‘Equality of Opportunity’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, 25 March, 2015.
xvii Reed, ‘Technologies of Instant Amnesia’, page 55.
xviii Rabinowitz and Smith, ‘0G23—Harrison Bergeron and Equality of Outcome’.
xx Ibid., page 388.
xxi Rabinowitz and Smith, ‘0G23—Harrison Bergeron and Equality of Outcome’.
xxv Kurt Vonnegut, unpublished letter to the editor of the Lawrence Journal-World, 12 May, 2005, in Tristan L. Duncan, ‘(Handi-)Capping Equality and Excellence—The Unconstitutionality of Spending Caps on Public Education’ The Urban Lawyer, volume 45, number 1, winter, 2013, page 183, note 2, and page 202, note 81.
xxix Reed, ‘Technologies of Instant Amnesia’, page 53.
xxxii Robert J. Thompson and Steve Allen, ‘Television in the United States’, Encyclopædia Britannica, 18 October, 2017.
xxxiv Reed, ‘Technologies of Instant Amnesia’, page 57.
xxxvi Reed, ‘Technologies of Instant Amnesia’, pages 63–65.