Nothing is perfect, not even the modern society. Most of the people who live on Earth desire to live a much happier and connected world where everyone unites as one, like a place known as Utopia. This is a place, state, and/or idea that seems perfect in a sense that respects policies, laws, conditions, and such. If people lived in a Utopian society, all issues that society has brought forth will be lifted and everyone will be happy. However, not all Utopias are as magical and wonderful as they seem. In fact, some are the quite opposite, which are also known as a Dystopian society. In “Harrison Bergeron”, written by Kurt Vonnegut, the main characters wear some kind of mask and sit in front of the television to see what is going on around the world, but everything is operated by the government and the government takes control of people’s true feelings and emotions. Vonnegut argues the idea that extreme equality can be very dangerous and may not be the right path for a Utopian society.
To begin with, “Harrison Bergeron”, written by Kurt Vonnegut, has plenty of literary elements embedded into the story. One element Vonnegut uses throughout his story multiple times is symbolism. For instance, one example of symbolism Vonnegut uses throughout his story are the handicaps. In the year of 2081 (the year that this short story takes place), people are required to wear these handicaps issued by the government. This is “a little mental handicap radio” that is attached to the people’s ears (Vonnegut, no page). These handicaps were “tuned to a government transmitter”, which then sends a “sharp noise” every 20 seconds (Vonnegut, no page). These handicaps have been issued to the public to “go above the threshold of ‘normal’” (Littlehale, no page). This was a disadvantage because these people are “forced into wearing handicaps” (Joodaki, Page 70), and if people are forced into wearing something the government officials have issued out for the people, it is essentially stating that the government wants to take over the people’s bodies and minds to have extreme equality. Later, in the short story, “Harrison rips off his handicaps” (Vonnegut, no page) because the main character wants to break free from the extreme equality the government is trying to implement. Harrison knows exactly what the government is trying to do, but he refuses to comply because he wants to be unique and think differently than others. He does not wish to have the same mindset as others.
Another example of symbolism that Vonnegut uses are the ballerinas. In this short story, there are eight ballerinas that are shown on live television, and they are all wearing their handicaps. But as Harrison watches these ballerinas, Harrison realizes how limited these dancers are with their freedom. Harrison believes that “dancers shouldn’t be handicapped” (Vonnegut, no page). It is as if the dancers are very limited to their dancing and movement because the mask/handicaps are restricting them and weighing them down on their talents. Also, these masks are “altering their beauty” (Joodaki, Page 73). All the ballerinas that are on television have a lot of talent and they are unique in their own ways, but the government is making sure that every person has the same mentality and move as one. With that being said, the handicaps are limiting everyone to their own thoughts and talents, which is why extreme equality will not work out for the society they are currently living.
The final symbolism that Vonnegut includes in his short story is the television system that each person watches. Many people know that the television is the best source to distribute information, such as the news and weather. Some channels may be owned by the government, others may be owned by local stations. But no matter what channel someone watches, they all share a common similarity; television is the fastest way to spread information. Most of what people watch on television nowadays is a lot of fake news and propaganda, which is why the government in this short story favors this power device so much. “TV is the propaganda machine of the government” (Littlehale, no page). The televisions have control over a person’s mind and thinking. When Hazel, Harrison’s mother, witnessed a shooting on live television, her mood suddenly changed to sadness and disappointment. But shortly after, the handicap sent a current, so Hazel forgot what she has seen on television and cannot tell whether it was real or fake. Hazel had “witnessed the murder of her own son” on live television, and Hazel “cries but she can’t remember why” (Joodaki, Page 71). This shows that the government can change a person’s perception and mentality, whether it is for the better or the worse. Vonnegut’s use of symbolism is used throughout his whole short story in an effective way to demonstrate how extreme equality can do more harm than good to the future generations. Extreme equality operated by the government is a deadly weapon because the government could manipulate one’s thinking, and if it is an extreme equality society, then everyone will have the same mindset and will all share the same feelings in real time. The government can change one’s feelings, emotions, and thoughts with just one device like the handicaps and/or television.
Another literature element Vonnegut uses throughout his story are figurative languages such as similes and metaphors. Throughout his story, Vonnegut uses a lot of simile to describe how the main character of the story behaves. “His thoughts fled in panic… a burglar alarm” (Vonnegut, no page). This simile is used to discuss how Bergeron lost his thoughts and how they escaped his mind like someone trying to steal a store but did not do so successfully. Bergeron’s thoughts left his mind because the handicap mask sent a current to his head, which deleted his previous thoughts. The government operates the handicap mask and sends currents every 20 seconds to change the people’s thoughts and feelings so everyone can be on the same exact level of thinking and feelings. “The bar snapped like celery” (Vonnegut, no page). This simile describes the strength that Bergeron has within himself. Bergeron has gained all this strength because of the developing hatred he has for the government trying to make everyone wear a mandatory mask that makes everyone alike. Bergeron’s frustration is taken out on the handicap, which snaps into two, breaking the mask. Bergeron is tired of living in an extreme equality society. Bergeron has finally realized that living under extreme equality is not beneficial to society because it hinders one’s freedom and thinking, but the government in this short story wants to control and take over people’s minds. The metaphor, “Harrison’s appearance was Halloween and hardware” (Vonnegut, no page), talks about how Bergeron has too much on him, including the handicaps, that make him stand out. These handicaps are key role to government control and oppression of free thinking. Everyone in the system must wear them because the government wants nobody to rebel against them and they want to live a utopian life, when in reality these handicap masks are giving them the quite opposite, a dystopian society. The propaganda the government puts out using systems such as televisions and the news usually is a sign of a dystopian society because the government wants to feed the people lies so they can start to believe what they see and what they hear. Also, being under a constant surveillance is another sign of a dystopian society, which is harmful for the people living in the society as well because they are limited to what they can do.
Vonnegut’s use of similes, metaphors, and symbolism throughout the short story helps portray what a dystopian society would look like under one rule, one government, one mindset. Vonnegut has written this short story using such effective literary devices to raise awareness of what may come soon if people are not careful enough with our system. The system could mess up any day now, and if it does, the future generations may be living a dystopian society, living under strict rules that the government has to offer the people. The short story depicts a scenario where Bergeron and Hazel live in their home all day, watching the television and seeing what is on for “entertainment”. But every twenty seconds, their moods and ideas disappear because of the signals the government sends to their body using the handicap mask. The idea of extreme equality is discussed throughout the whole essay and it brings up some points on why it is bad. “Vonnegut renders the greatest theme in the story” (Joodaki, Page 71). The theme of a dystopian society and living under extreme equality is strongly discussed throughout Vonnegut’s short story to raise awareness of the dangers that extreme equality could bring forth using symbolism like the ballerinas, the television as fake news, and the masks as ways to delete people’s true feelings and thoughts.
Thinking freely is encouraged so generations could live a better future and not repeat the same history that others had to face decades ago. There are many groups and organizations that encourage free thinking and going out your own way to develop your own thinking on certain topics. There is a non-profit organization called “Think Freely Media”, which helps others develop their own thinking. Their goal is to “build even more resources and media captivities” and “strengthen advocacy for free markets and individual liberty…” (Think Freely Media, no page). Vonnegut’s story about living under extreme equality goes great with this organization because both encourage to be unique and think freely. “… that believes that free enterprise and liberty unleash… essence of the human spirit” (Think Freely Media, no page).
To conclude, “Harrison Bergeron” discusses the issues of living under an extreme equality society. Vonnegut raises valid points on why living under extreme equality does more harm than good using such literary devices like symbolism, metaphors, and similes. Despite living under an extreme equality society, every person should be entitled to their own opinions, feelings, and emotions. No one should take your freedom and thoughts away, not even the government who wants to establish a society where everyone thinks and feels the same way.
- Littlehale, Kristy. “Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in Harrison Bergeron.” 28 Jan. 2020 www.storyboardthat.com/storyboards/kristy-littlehale/themes–symbols–and-motifs-in-harrison-bergeron. Accessed October 31, 2020.
- Joodaki, Abdol Hossein, and Hamideh Mahdiany. “Equality versus Freedom in ”Harrison Bergeron’ by Kurt Vonnegut: A Study of Dystopian Setting.” International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature, 7 Jan. 2013, www.journals.aiac.org.au/index.php/IJALEL/article/view/983. Accessed October 31, 2020.
- Tillman, John. Think Freely Media, 16 May 2009, thinkfreelymedia.org/. Accessed October 31, 2020.
- Vonnegut, Kurt. “HARRISON BERGERON.” Harrison Bergeron, www.tnellen.com/cybereng/harrison.html. Accessed October 31, 2020.