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.
So begins “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, English 3’s latest piece of short fiction. In fact, it is probably best described as a short, sharp shock of fiction. To see what I mean, I invite you to take an extra ten minutes and view the story for yourself at http://www.tnellen.com/westside/harrison.pdf. We wouldn’t want to be unequal in our understanding of the subject, now would we?
Several elements of “Harrison” intrigue me. First, it is an example of true satire, which should accomplish three things:
- Criticize an idea or behavior, not degrade an individual or group of persons
- Expose this human folly as a means of spurring change in the reader
- Provoke thought by causing the reader to question his previous assumptions
True satire is clever. True satire is deliberate. Too many news shows and social commentaries bill themselves as satirical, when they simply hide behind the term to justify poking fun at someone they don’t particularly like. Several years ago, I was so disappointed in one conservative commentator after he showed a photo of Helen Thomas, the oldest member of the White House Press Corps, and called her the “Wicked Witch of the West”. After receiving a slew of disparaging email from Republicans and Democrats alike, rightly criticizing him for mocking an old woman’s physical appearance, he replied, “Hey, it’s political satire… Can’t you all take a joke?”
Indeed, he has the freedom to act like a jerk on national television if he so chooses. Just don’t call it satire.
This story is also a teachable example of dark humor. This term has myriad definitions and morbid degrees of application, especially in what now passes for secular comedy. However, in the literary sense, students should not only recognize what it is but also recognize the heart behind those who revel in it. To be blunt, dark humor is funny only because the situation is not happening to you. While readers may readily snicker at a masked ballerina weighed down with sacks of bird shot, I am fairly sure that the beautiful, talented girl underneath all that hardware is not sharing in the joke.
Finally, one three-tiered theme in “Harrison Bergeron” is literally inescapable:
- Enforcing equality is hypocritical. Ask yourself, “Is everyone handicapped?” Those H-G men must think for more than twenty seconds at a time to come up with all those brilliant ideas for the handicaps. Exactly how many shots did it take for the Handicapper General to bring down her prey? So why doesn’t she wear glasses to correct her obviously excellent aim? Clearly, someone has to be unequal in order to keep the “equal” in line.
- Enforcing equality is absurd. To what lengths will a society go to prevent those less talented, less wealthy, and less attractive from feeling like “something the cat dragged in?” How far will the standards in education, performance, and intelligence have to fall to achieve this coveted equality? Would we want to live in a society like that? Would we even have a choice?
- Enforcing equality is treacherous. Dare I say it, evil. How much does one have to hate or fear his fellow man to devise such an intricate system, solely to keep him from reaching his God-given potential? Couch this concept in whatever terms you wish, but it still remains the sweet mask of slavery.
So much more we can discuss, beloved students. Please feel free to chime in with your thoughts.
Get it, chimes? Those who read the story appreciate that little pun.