In Harrison Bergeron, individuals with above-average characteristics are forced to wear devices that counter those 'advantages'. For example, several characters that are exceptionally bright have earphones that play loud noises to interrupt their thought processes and bring them back in line with average thinking ability.

I noticed while reading the story that while some of the devices seem to genuinely counter advantages, such as the weighted bags that counter grace or strength, other devices seem to be more retaliatory in nature. Making Harrison wear a clown nose and black teeth doesn't make him look average, it makes him look below average, which defeats the societally stated purpose of the devices (to enforce equality) by going too far in the other direction.

Am I reading too deeply into this, or is there a retaliatory aspect to some of these devices?


You could view this two different ways - one way, the context of the story itself, suggests that Harrison really was so exceptionally handsome that a clown nose and black teeth only brought him down to average appearance, whereas anyone else you and I know would be rendered ugly. In other physical ways, Harrison is in fact superhuman - so graceful he can levitate in a dance, for instance - so he could be superhumanly beautiful as well.

Viewing this story through the lens of the satire intended by Vonnegut, as a reaction against the perceived 'dumbing down' of society, it is quite likely that a punitive level of handicap would be enacted against anyone who not only was above average, but happy to be so, as Harrison Bergeron is implied to be. I consider this likely as the foil to Harrison's character, his father George Bergeron, is presented to the reader as a citizen with above-average attributes who nevertheless believes in the society's right to handicap him; he refuses to lighten his handicap weights in the face of his wife's pitying suggestion that he do so. In light of this 'good citizen' behavior, his handicaps are painful, but not ridiculous, unlike Harrison's.

  • Thanks. I've upvoted your answer, but would like to hold out for other opinions before handing out the checkmark.
    – S--
    Sep 18 '13 at 2:30

There definitely is in Harrison's case. It is mentioned that the spectacles he is forced to wear are designed "not only to make him half blind but to give him whanging headaches besides." He is clearly being punished for being above average, not merely equalised.

It is unclear whether this is universal, or whether Harrison was merely unlucky, in that his handicaps were chosen by a former schoolyard bully.

  • interesting point. I imagine if this story wa swritten today, it would be orthodox for the handicaps to be chosen by a poll on the Internet. Oct 17 '20 at 9:52
  • Either that or they make them more standardised and more electronic. Perhaps an electric collar that gives eye-watering shocks at random intervals - and a paralysing one f any attempt is made to interfere with it. Depending on the progress of miniaturisation, there might be smaller versions on the arm and leg, for the "benefit" of those with superior at sports or athletics. in a classroom context the teacher might have a remote. the same lesson. allowing him/her to give such a shock to any kid who put his hand up twice . The possibilities are endless.
    – Mike Stone
    Oct 17 '20 at 15:39

Yes, the devices (I'm pretty sure all of them) are retaliatory in nature but the people enforcing such measures didn't see it that way.

If I recall correctly, (as I read this story quite some time ago), the government decided that people born with exceptional or even above average abilities was deemed "unfair" to everyone else. So, to "even" things up, exceptional people were handicapped with numerous devices.

I think all of the devices are retaliatory because:

  1. they harm people,
  2. they deny people of their individuality and abilities
  3. they deprive people of their right to free will, self-expression and self-determination.

And the damage is even greater when you add in the loss to society. Such as, all the art, science, and engineering feats that won't get created because people aren't allowed to use their gifts.

And yes, Vonnegut was engaging in satire but the really scary thing here is that there really are people in the world who believe in this misguided form of fairness.


UPDATE: Sorry everyone but I think you've missed the point of the story. As I touched on before; Vonnegut was satirizing the failed equity experiment of the 20 century. And sadly the 21st century too.

In the story, to achieve physical and mental equality the government tortures its citizens. And some citizens went along with it because the government will kill or incarcerate anyone who disagrees. And you don't think that's retaliatory? Violating everyone is equality? Really?

For the record: If everyone is free; then we're equal.

Equality of outcomes is not only impossible but also deadly and dangerous to pursue. Social engineering is wrong and a massive human rights violation. Equality has many meanings and some are quite evil.

Everyone being equally miserable is not equality it's actually called collectivism

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