Thursday, 15 December 2016

Deal Me in Challenge: Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut

Card Drawn:

Image result for 3 of hearts

Shall we show
the people the meaning of the word dance? 

I've said it before and I'll say it again, Kurt Vonnegut is one of the great literary satirists of the 20th century. He walks a fine line between ironic humor and downright condemnation . Indeed, there is something almost Swiftian in his juvenalian satire, offering a scathing critique of government and egalitarianism. Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron is set in a chilling dystopian world that seems all too plausible. Can social equality really exist? Marx thought so, but in this story, Vonnegut contradicts such idealism: social inequality is necessary for society to function since the alternative route will inevitably lead to government oppression or communism. The opening paragraph is quite explicit in Vonnegut's satire on the fallacies of social stratification:

"THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General."

Ironically, the only way to promote social equality is for the government to impose it on society and these "Amendments" made to the constitution are not meant to increase individual freedoms but rather to limit them. People are given "handicaps" (for example, radio transmitters that deliver white noise to reduce brain activity along with heavy canvas bags that literally and figuratively represent enslavement) in order to ensure equality, preventing individual free-will. Here, the U.S. constitution that famously states, "All Men are Created Equal" is revised and taken literally. However, if everyone is created "equal before God and the law" then society ceases to be productive, falling into stagnation. The government no longer operates to protect the interests of society but becomes an oppressive regime. Is this society truly free if the "Handicapper General" rules with an iron fist? We later discover that Diana Moon Glampers (such a cool name) holds this high-ranking position and maintains order through shocking violence ("unceasing vigilance"). Vonnegut is so skilled at conflating humor and deadly serious social commentary through his satire. 

I won't dive too much into the plot since it would ruin the fun of discovering this wonderful story on your own, but one particular aspect of this story that struck me was Vonnegut's use of grotesque imagery. He paints a sinister world that is comically distorted, and I personally found his dystopian vision to be simultaneously ludicrous and disturbing.

I read this story as a Hobbesian allegory taken to the extreme. Since human beings are inherently corrupt and driven towards competition with one another over finite goods, the "the state of nature" is inevitably war. We suspect that others cannot be trusted and even if people are not fighting, the mere possibility of war is always there. Sure, we can all band together but will inevitably end up at war within the group since we suffer from self-interest. Thus, in order to maintain order, a "Leviathan" figure is needed who exists outside the realm of society to adjudicate conflict (in this case, Diana Moon Glampers represents the absolute monarch). According to Hobbes, it is not individual freedom that men desire but security and we authorize or intend to give up those freedoms in order to live better. There is an inextricable link between equality and fear and the Leviathan is the only one who has absolute power--behavior is kept in check by fear. We tacitly consent to the rules, giving up our rights for safety. This "social contract" to the Body Politic is supposed to structure society and prevent chaos. Of course, the freedom to flourish within these constraints is limited or nearly impossible. Ironically, Vonnegut blatantly repudiates Hobbes, showing society's downfall if we relinquish our freedoms to achieve equality.


  1. Great post. Harrison Bergeron was on my Deal Me In list this year too. I'm a regular visitor to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library & Museum here in Indianapolis. :-)

  2. And to think that I was a big Vonnegut fan...

    I read you reviews and we both touched on some similar themes. Kurt Vonnegut is quickly becoming one of my favorite short-story writers and I can't wait to read more of his work! What would you consider to be another great story by him?

    Thanks again for stopping by, Jay Carr.

    1. His collection "Welcome to the Monkeyhouse" has many great stories in it. I found "Deer in the Works" to be one of my favorites, as it kind of lampoons the 'corporate mentality' which I have languished in for many years.

    2. Added to my 2017 DMI. Thanks again for the recommendation, Jay!