Harrison Bergeron Literary Analysis

953 words | 4 page(s)

Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’ is a seminal story that clearly employs satire and social commentary. The exact nature of this social commentary is always clear, however. One thing that is clear is the story depicts how individuals are affected by the media around them and that that media can be seen to a negative effect on their capacity to think and to be in the world. However, I would argue that there is a deeper meaning to the story that can be seen if one focuses on the character of Harrison himself. In the story, Vonnegut presents a situation in which a traditionally heroic figure is shown to be weighed down by the world in which he exists. Nonetheless, he is still able to achieve momentarily great feats. This paper will explore how this happens in the story and how it can be seen to fit in with Vonnegut’s wider criticism of the dulling effects of media and television on people.

Hume writes that Vonnegut is a writer who is concerned with both a pessimistic view of the contemporary world, but also with the potential for people to still achieve great things. This effect is expressed in his writing by the use of traditional ideas such as the myth of the great hero (1990, 203). I would argue that ‘Harrison Bergeron’ is a clear example of how Kurt Vonnegut deliberately draws upon a historical tradition of great heroes but also how he changes it in order to make the story into a particular social critique. The story takes place in a dystopian society in which equality has been achieved by making sure that everything which makes individuals excel, be it physical beauty, intellectual capacity or athletic prowess, is actively suppressed by the addition of physical and mental ‘handicaps.’ Harrison Bergeron’s parents are watching the television when they are informed that their son, a genius and an athlete has escaped from the prison in which he was being held.

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They see brief pictures of how exceptionally beautiful he is and before he emerges in the television studio and beings to dance with a ballerina whom he frees from her physical handicaps. The story ends with what is assumed to be the murder or recapture of Harrison and with his mother crying for reasons that she cannot exactly remember. During this process, Harrison’s parents are described in a way that clearly draws attention to the way in which the media can have a serious effect on people’s intelligence. As they watch the greatness, and also the re-capture of their son, they are almost unable to register any kind of clear thought or emotion. Vonnegut writes that Harrison’s mother has been crying at what she has seen on the television, but that she cannot remember why. When her husband asks her about it, she responds with the word; “I forgot…Something real sad on television” (2011, 246).

The reader understands that the reason that she has been crying is because she has just seen the greatness, and also the capture and death of her only son. However, because she has seen this through the television then she is unable to understand the way in which what she has seen may exist in reality and that it actually refers to her. In this, Vonnegut shows that people still have the ability to feel emotion, but that this ability is stunted and betrayed by the media around them. The critique of the story therefore has two aspects to it. This is the strange and most important aspect of its critique of the media. This critique only works because Vonnegut keeps a hope for something better.

This story is a very clear example of a heroic myth that has been re-arranged in order to provide a criticism of the current world order. Vonnegut clearly still believes in the potential for the exceptional beauty and potential of individuals, something which Hume argues has lain at the heart of western literature since Homer. By providing a futuristic, dystopian setting for his story and by showing the ultimate failure of the hero to achieve anything other than a brief moment of beauty with another person, Vonnegut shows both this potential and its inevitable failure in the world as it is. This dual view is both beautiful and absurd. It condenses into one line in which futuristic and traditional literature combine in the image of Harrison and his partner leaping in their dance ‘like a deer on the moon’ (245). This image is both beautiful and ridiculous and presents a pastoral scene alongside the pessimist absurdity of the story’s futuristic setting. Here hope for the potential qualities of literature, and therefore of humanity, co-exists alongside the realities of a bleak world.

In conclusion, Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’ provides an excellent example how Vonnegut uses traditional ideas of greatness for a satirical effect and for criticism. While it is the case that the film focuses critically on the effect that television and the media has on people in contemporary society, it is also the case that is shows effectively how these people may still possess the potential for greatness. This potential is present in Harrison, and the fact that it cannot be realised is the criticism that the story makes of society as it is. As such, the character of Harrison cannot be separated from the wider social critique of the story, but this critique would be meaningless without him. The story is both deeply hopeful and pessimistic at the same time.

  • Hume, Kathryn. “Kurt Vonnegut and the Myths and Symbols of Meaning”. Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut. Ed. Robert Merrill. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co, 1990. 201-215.
  • Vonnegut Kurt. Novels and Stories. 1963 – 1973. New York: Library of America. 2011.

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