“Harrison Bergeron” is a political satire set in the year 2081. Kurt Vonnegut imagines everyone is not only equal under the law but handicapped to be made equal in all ways. Stronger people are weighed down, talented people are made less talented, and intelligent people have to wear earplugs that make various kinds of noises to distract them from thinking deeply. In this rather short story, George and Hazel Bergeron are watching a ballet on television. They have forgotten their 14-year-old son Harrison has been arrested for being too handsome, too smart, and too strong. During the course of the TV show, their son appears on the ballet stage having escaped to start a rebellion. (You can read it here, or read a detailed synopsis on Wikipedia.)

“Harrison Bergeron” is not a subtle satire, instead it goes for the absurd. It’s a very likable story. Vonnegut tells it in simple language with vivid details. You immediately agree with him that this dystopian world is wrong. This short story has become quite famous, having been adapted to the screen four times. National Review, the conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley even reprinted the story. The National Review keeps using “Harrison Bergeron” – here’s it being used again in 2015 against economic inequality in “Inching Towards ‘Harrison Bergeron.’

Usually, satire attacks something, and I have to wonder what Vonnegut was attacking. While reading it I thought maybe he was protesting laws designed to create equal opportunity. Then when I read about National Review and that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia quoted the story in PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin then I began to wonder even more. And it’s referenced in academic papers, including a 2013 one about transgender athletes. I thought Vonnegut was liberal. Wikipedia did say he wasn’t against his story being used in a Kansas court situation, he didn’t agree with their interpretation.

So why have conservatives embraced “Harrison Bergeron” so thoroughly? Are they using its satire the way Vonnegut intended? A site called What So Proudly We Hail promotes the story with a very pointed introduction:

Central to the American creed is the principle of equality, beginning with the notion that all human beings possess certain fundamental rights and equal standing before the law. Our concern for equality has expanded over the past half century to focus also on inequalities in opportunities, wealth, achievement, and social condition. What good is an equal right to pursue happiness if one lacks the native gifts or the social means to exercise it successfully? In this satirical story (1961), set in a future time in which “everybody was finally equal . . . every which way,” Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922–2007) challenges our devotion to equality and invites us to consider the costs of pursuing it too zealously. Although the story is not explicitly about racial, ethnic, or gender equality, the questions it provokes about the kind of equality we should want, and the costs of pursuing it, are relevant also to campaigns to eliminate inequalities among racial and ethnic groups or between the sexes. Does the society portrayed here represent a fulfillment of the ideal of equality in the Declaration of Independence, or rather a perversion of the principle? Does opposing invidious distinctions, envy, and feelings of inferiority require reducing all to the lowest common denominator, and is this the true path to “social justice”? Would homogeneity attained by artificially raising up the low, producing a nation of Harrisons rather than a nation of Hazels—a prospect offered by biotechnological “enhancement”—be any more attractive?

The story does resonate with conservative thinking and even more so today. Are there other ways to read it? On the surface, the bad guys in the story are the government and laws that try to make everyone equal in every way. However, was that what Vonnegut was protesting. Was he all fired up and wrote this story the way the conservatives have used it?

I have no idea, but I do wonder about something. Vonnegut’s story is silly, absurd, and far from real. Vonnegut was often silly and absurd. I wonder if he just didn’t get the idea of a government taking the idea that everyone should be equal, and imagining how they could go about making it happen. It was published in a science fiction magazine. If Vonnegut was serious about his satire, why didn’t he publish it in a serious magazine? And back then, bizarre speculation on social change was common in SF stories.

The story came out in 1961, well before the liberal sixties. Eisenhower was probably president when he wrote it. A similar idea about making everyone equal had been used in the 1959 novel, The Sirens of Titan. In the 1950s the main political push to make people equal was providing equal education to African Americans. And that effort was to make people better educated, not dumber. My guess is “Harrison Bergeron” is based on a silly idea that came to Vonnegut and he wrote a story to illustrate it. Conservatives have just run with it.

What’s also interesting is Hazel, the wife, has no handicapping applied to her. She’s average. Was Vonnegut saying something about women? 1961 was also before the Second Wave of feminism in the 1960s. Was he being liberal to make the Handicapper General of the United States, a woman? She had the funny name Diana Moon Glampers? Was this a dig at women?

I don’t think I’ve read “Harrison Bergeron” before. Its basic idea is so memorable that I can’t believe I’d forget it. I could have since it’s been around since the October 1961 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It’s also been reprinted quite often and I could have read it and thought it so absurd as to be completely minor, and did forget it. “Harrison Bergeron” has 9 citations in The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories v. 2. I just read it because our short story club has just started reading The Treasury of World Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell. That anthology is a monster of over one thousand pages of classic science fiction where Hartwell also introduces science fiction from around the world.

Despite its fame, I still think “Harrison Bergeron” is a silly story. I’d only rate it ***+ in my system – three stars mean well-written, and a + means I liked it a lot. Four stars would mean it’s a story I’ll want to reread now and then, and I don’t feel that.

I’m going to try and review as many of the stories as possible from The Treasury of World Science Fiction. I haven’t given up on my Heinlein project, but after gorging on his work for months, I’ve been taking a break. I’ve wanted to get into a science fiction novel I never read but I’m still on a short story kick.

James Wallace Harris, 5/6/23

11 thoughts on ““Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut

  1. It seems like you’re projecting intents backwards into a time in which they didn’t exist. It’s a great story. What people do with it now doesn’t change that.

    In terms of it’s own social context one useful interpretation might be in the form of Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958) which was the new big idea then and in Bergeron Vonnegut is exploring the idea of a society maximizing ad absurdum the idea of positive liberty at the expense of negative liberty.

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    1. That might be true, but don’t we always project our perspectives on everything? I freely admit I’m only guessing. When you take in what someone else thinks, you’re sampling how other people sping things outside of your own interpretations. That gives us some other ideas to work with. That’s why I like reading comments, to see how people through differently than I did. See, you got an idea from Isaiah Berlin.

      I got to hear a lot of ideas on our Facebook group when we discussed the story. “Harrison Bergeron” really does inspire a variety of ideas. Still, my hunch was Vonnegut got lucky. He hit on a silly idea that’s turned into a wonderful Rorschach test.

      You see read our discussion here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/472875506624413/posts/1334276853817603/

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      1. Many thanks for posting this Facebook discussion, Jim! (I’ve enjoyed taking part in it.) I like your description of the story: “He [Vonnegut] hit on a silly idea that’s turned into a wonderful Rorschach test.”

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  2. I like this story, whatever its flaws, perhaps because it was one of the first stories I read by Vonnegut at the age of twelve or so. Vonnegut seems to be subtly satirizing elitism as well as forced egalitarianism or conformity or whatever, as demonstrated by Harrison Bergeron’s declaration, “I am the emperor! Everybody must do what I say!” I didn’t realize this until I re-read the story in recent years.

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  3. Well…I can’t speak in regards to Vonnegut’s possible specific political intentions for Harrison Bergeron. Only he can, and, alas, he is no longer with us. However, I agree with Mr. Rosenberg’s comment that Vonnegut’s tale is a satire of ideologically elitist thinking, be it liberal or conservative in nature, with its tendency to justify forced conformity to assure political, religious, economic or social “purity.” Fundamentalism, anyone?

    Writers often find that later interpretations of the intended point motivating their work are often colored by a reader’s ideology, which invariably misinterprets the original intent. That said, given the overall “political” flavor of Vonnegut’s short stories and novels, I could safely say he had little or most likely zero intention for Harrison Bergeron to become an iconic paragon for William F. Buckley or Ayn Rand “true believers” to tout as the dreadful outcome of Liberal leaning folly.

    IMHO, Vonnegut’s overall work clearly satirizes the folly of human nature in general, liberal or conservative, and the tragedy to which it so often leads. Throughout his writing career, the actions and thinking of “dyed in the wool” ideologues, blind to the consequences of their beliefs, were his intended targets.

    I loved “Cat’s Cradle” in particular and recently read, that somewhere, somehow, a group of scientist have managed to create a form of water that freezes at a temperature higher than 32 F degrees. Oh, my…Ice-Nine, anyway?

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    1. I don’t think Vonnegut was a nihilist at all, however dark his satire may often be. He believed strongly in ethical values such as community (the various extended families in his novels), kindness (Eliot Rosewater), etc.

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        1. You mean Eliot Rosewater changing at the end of the novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater? It was a twist ending, but it’s not exactly a change of character on the protagonist’s part.

          Or do you mean a change of some kind on Vonnegut’s part? I’m not sure which documentary you’re referring to.

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  4. P.S. My last question has been answered. I just re-read the discussion above, and I saw the link to the documentary you’re referring to.

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