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Critical Analysis of Symbolism in ‘Harrison Bergeron’

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An impartial society: Utopia or Hell? What would happen to the world if people were literally equal in every aspect of their lives? In the futuristic short story, Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., the world is finally living up to America's first amendment of everyone being created equal. In this society, the gifted, strong, and beautiful are required to wear handicaps of earphones, heavy weights, and hideous masks, respectively. Thus, these constraints leave the world equal from brains to brawn to beauty. With the world constantly pushing for equality among people, Vonnegut reveals a world that society is diligently working toward. Through this foreshadowing of the future, Vonnegut attempts to use Diana Moon Glampers and Harrison Bergeron as mechanisms to reveal and warn of the dangers of the two extremes--too equal or too unjust.

Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, symbolically portrays the idea of fairness in society. She is the one in charge of lowering the capacity of a bright and intelligent person to the level of a normal and unaware being. At the beginning of the story, the reader is given a picture of the world that Diana Moon Glampers watches upon:

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the Amendments to the Constitution, the and vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General. (Vonnegut 234)

Diana Moon Glampers is the one who maintains the idea of 'checks and balances' among the society of 2081. In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Glampers is portrayed as a 'sixty-year-old virgin who, by almost anybody's standards, was too dumb to live. No one had ever loved her. There was no reason why anybody should. She was ugly, stupid, and boring' (Vit). Diana Moon Glampers is the epitome of every possible low in the world, and this allows her to hold such a high position in this futuristic society. Since everyone is created equal, her ugliness, stupidity, and boringness all play a major role in earning her such a high position as Handicapper General. She makes sure that no one is better than her, thus making everyone equal in 'every which way' possible. Glampers represents the fairness that society is continually striving to obtain. In this world, everyone stays at the same level-- no one is different, no one is jealous or fearful of anyone, and no one is trying to impress or overtake the next. In this sense, it is actually quite a positive point to be exactly equal in every way, or is it?

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Equality is a great idea that the world should extend and embrace; however, absolute equality is another issue in which too much of a good thing may cause matters to go wrong. In a world of absolute equality, each human being would never be looked upon as anything more or less than the person beside him or her. Unfortunately, this advantage may only go so far. For example, how can an intelligent being be given as much credit as the simple-minded human beside him? This is the case with Harrison Bergeron's parents. Harrison's mother, Hazel, is described as having 'perfectly average intelligence, And [while] George['s] intelligence was way above normal' (Vonnegut 234). In order to stabilize their intelligence to the same level, Harrison's father has to wear a little mental handicap radio in his ear' (Vonnegut 234). This society's method in maximizing complete equality is to have intelligent people wear earphones (which give off horrible sounds) to distract their trail of thought, which in turn, may unfairly give them the better advantage over the simple-minded--such as Glampers and Hazel. Diana Moon Glampers symbolizes this world by not only being the one to support these customs but by also shooting down and killing the one who is considered the symbol of freedom and difference--Harrison Bergeron. Through Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General and the murderer of freedom and individuality, Vonnegut is warning society to not lean completely towards being 'equal in every which way' or else society loses its chances to excel past what it has become. He satirically suggests that in order for everyone to be equal, the ones who exceed the mark must be brought down to the standard. As a result, there is a loss of exceptional talent and beauty. Moreover, just as Diana Moon Glampers represents the fairness of society, Harrison Bergeron symbolizes individuality in the world.

In a society of excessive equality, Harrison Bergeron is the one who represents uniqueness through his physical and mental characteristics. Harrison is no ordinary being in society. In fact, he is described as a genius, and an athlete, and should be regarded as dangerous. Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. Scrap metal [is] hung all over him. he wears [s] at all times a red rubber ball for a nose, keep[s] his eyebrows shaved off, and cover[s] his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle-tooth random' (Vonnegut 236). His physical appearance alone would definitely offset him from the rest of the crowd. Just by walking down the street, one could sense his greatness through his excessive handicaps. Furthermore, his mental capacity is great enough to override the annoying sounds that the H-G men create. The reader can obviously see that Harrison has something more to offer, yet his society is binding him down and taking away his individuality: 'Harrison's only crime was taking control of the television studio, but his motives outweighed the crime. He was shot for exposing the world to beauty' (Marton). In this sense, Harrison represents the uniqueness of an individual. He is the one willing to exploit his society and have variation as being a celebration of oneself not a crime, or is this possibly his only motive?

Although Harrison symbolizes the individual, he--just like Diana Moon Glampers--reveals that too much of a good thing may cause matters to go wrong. Harrison reaches freedom and takes it to the extreme. When he takes over the Television studio, he exclaims, 'I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!' (Vonnegut 237). Harrison completely takes away equality. He creates this caste system with him and his queen at the top, which is then to be followed by his loyal subjects. His mentality only brings him to a downfall where he literally tries to bring back anarchy. Moreover, Vonnegut tries to warn today's society of too much inequality. Although differences in brains, beauty, and brawn are a matter that should not be tied down, there needs to be a limit. Vonnegut shows that individuality can be a downfall because humans do tend to become envious and power-hungry. He makes this point in the beginning when Hazel and George were discussing 'the dark ages�with, everybody, competing against everybody else' (Vonnegut 235). People need some type of equality so that one will be able to be an individual and remain just as equal as the next.

Vonnegut presents both extremes of equality and inequality and implores society to choose the median. If this median is not met, the world may become Hell. In one corner, there is the equality that Diana Moon Glampers represents--equal in every way possible; in the opposing corner, there is the inequality Harrison Bergeron symbolizes--one king and his many subjects. Both extremes have extremely destructive consequences; one takes away individuality, and the other takes away equality. As the future draws nearer, the only true Utopia that society should strive for is the type of equality that allows and commemorates individuality.

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Critical Analysis of Symbolism in ‘Harrison Bergeron’. (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from
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