Equality's Dark Side in In Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron
The goal of countless societies throughout human history has been to establish both complete freedom and absolute equality. However, this goal is, by its very nature, unachievable. These two ideal states cannot coexist in their most perfect forms. Also, the perfect forms of either freedom or equality represent total chaos or total oppression, respectively. In Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” we see the consequences of sacrificing freedom for perfect equality. Vonnegut uses the story of this utopia gone wrong to demonstrate that a society in which total equality exists is not only oppressive, but also static and inefficient. He makes this point using his futuristic setting, the simplicity of the society, and the actions of his characters.
Societies that try to create total equality have almost always proven to be oppressive. We’ve seen this in recent times in the form of communist states such as China. The Nazis, whom Vonnegut fought against in World War II, also sought to create a society of equals through genocide which could have prompted the author’s thoughts on this type of utopian society. However, China during the Cultural Revolution more closely resembles the world of “Harrison Bergeron.” In the story, “Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains” (243). In China, intellectuals were highly oppressed as the government sought to create a workers society. In “Harrison Bergeron,” other handicaps, such as sashweights and masks placed on the heads of the beautiful, represent this oppression taken to an even further extreme. Also, in both of these perfectly or near-perfectly equal societies there are individuals who are above the laws of the land. In the case of “Harrison Bergeron,” this is represented by Diana Moon Glampers. She is never portrayed as having any handicaps and must be assumed to have a level of intelligence above that of Hazel, who represents what this society calls normal, to carry out her job.
Societal changes do not happen over night. If people’s freedom were taken away in one fell swoop they would fight it. Instead, oppression is a series of small losses of freedom. It’s like the old analogy of a frog and boiling water. If you drop a frog in boiling water, he jumps out, on the contrary, if you put a frog in cool water and slowly raise it to boiling, he boils to death. This process is shown in the story by the fact that “All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution” (243). Given that this story was written in 1961, is set in 2081, and is the author’s prediction for the future of his society, we can assume that this process of making everyone equal through oppression took place over a 120 year period. Some would argue that, although we’re not to this level of oppression yet, we’re well on...