“Harrison and text analysis of “Harrison Bergeron” provide strong

“Harrison Bergeron,” written by Kurt
Vonnegut at the time of the Cold War, is a short story that takes place in a
future world of the year 2081 where the Handicapper General and the law force
the beautiful to wear masks, the intelligent to wear earpieces that disrupt
their thoughts, and the athletic to wear heavy physical restraints, so that
everyone may be equal in the categories of beauty, intelligence, and
athleticism; a world where the people “are equal in every which way.”
(Vonnegut 1) What the many readers of “Harrison Bergeron” seem to misinterpret
is that the entire story is an allegory to the political systems of
Socialism/Communism and that Vonnegut utilizes symbols in the story that either
expose the glaring flaws of left-wing politics or advance the supposedly
far-superior ideology of American capitalism. In actuality, Vonnegut’s use of
symbols in “Harrison Bergeron,” and the entire story itself is a satire of the
common American’s ignorant misunderstandings of left-wing politics at the time
of the Cold War. Vonnegut once said at a college commencement speech, “I
suggest that you work for a socialist form of government … It isn’t moonbeams
to talk of modest plenty for all. They have it in Sweden.” (Hattenhauer 387)
Given this and many more instances where Vonnegut’s spoken word was documented
in support of left-wing politics, this interpretation of Vonnegut’s intent
behind the story is much more convincing.

            Political
context analysis of the story’s publication and text analysis of “Harrison
Bergeron” provide strong evidence that Vonnegut’s use of symbols represent the
ignorance of Americans during the Cold War, which led to misinterpretations of
Socialism/Communism. At the time of the Cold War, Americans had an anti-left
hive mind mentality, and Vonnegut was a struggling writer that was given a good
opportunity to publicize his name. Given the political landscape of America at
the time, Vonnegut had to create a story that appealed to Americans, but
perfectly shrouded the true symbolism of the story that actually satirized
their ignorant misunderstandings of those political systems. This is supported
by Hattenhauer when he says, “Vonnegut could not have sold a story overtly
sympathetic to leveling…Vonnegut…put a surface on this story that…appeared to
rehearse central tenets of the dominant culture’s ideology.” (Hattenhauer 387) Tying
in with America’s mindless anti-left movement, Hazel and David are symbols for the
common Cold War American and their ignorance. Hazel is quoted as saying, “Who
knows better than I do what normal is?” (Vonnegut 2) This quote from Hazel
implies that her ignorance is knowledge of the truth, but her being an
archetype of the normal is not equivalent to understanding it. Thus Hattenhauer
states, “For Hazel, then, she has more expertise than any social scientist with
a mountain of data.” (Hattenhauer 387) In like manner, David also displays
ignorance when he tells Hazel to “forget sad things” because even if ignoring
the truth can lead to fear/hate, ignorance is bliss. (Vonnegut 6) Moreover, “Harrison
Bergeron” is often misinterpreted because readers miss Vonnegut’s intentional
flaw in the plot development and the fact that the narrator is unreliable. When
Harrison Bergeron does the physically impossible by tearing off his restraints
and defying gravity, the flaws of the plot are revealed. Hattenhauer exposes
the preposterousness of the plot when he states, “In a society in which no one
is more intelligent than anyone else, everyone would be as stupid as the most
mentally deficient person in the populace, and, therefore, all would be unable
even to feed themselves.” (Hattenhauer 387) This basically means that in this
world that Vonnegut created, nothing really happens or can happen. Such a world
would not be able to physically exist given the conditions that Vonnegut
intentionally created as everyone would be too stupid to carry out the basic
human functions required for survival. Nevertheless, there are arguments that
contend the contrary of the thesis.

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            Perhaps
the most common points that argue that the story and symbols within the story
represent the jarring flaws of Communism/Socialism utilize Harrison Bergeron and
the story’s levelling of individuals as examples in their arguments. However,
those arguments can be disproven through analysis of the text. A particular
example where many readers misinterpret Harrison Bergeron as the symbol for
freedom and all things good is shown in this quote by Moore and Ferrara when
they state, “As Vonnegut’s story shows, putting social limits on the success
people are allowed to achieve with their own talents and abilities makes
everyone worse off, because it deprives society of the benefits of their brilliance
and beauty and skill and talent.” (Moore & Ferrara 28) This quote is a
direct reference to the physical restraints forced upon Harrison Bergeron to
hide his magnificence in the areas of beauty, intelligence, and athleticism.
Moore and Ferrara seem to “overlook the fact that Harrison Bergeron is
actually a would-be dictator.” (Hattenhauer 387) In the story, Harrison
declares, “I am the Emperor! … Everybody must do what I say at once! … I’ll
make you barons and dukes and earls.” (Vonnegut 4) If this is any reference to
medieval monarchy, then Harrison Bergeron will also make many people into
serfs, which are basically the functional equivalent of slaves. This evidence
from the text disproves arguments that state Harrison Bergeron is the symbol for
freedom as his intention is to dominantly rule over the people as the king. In
like manner, Moore and Ferrara also contend that the ideology behind the
story’s levelling of all individuals is economically detrimental when they say,
“Finally, this vision of equality as a social goal, with equal incomes and
wealth for all, is severely counterproductive economically, and so makes for a poor
society as well.” (Moore and Ferrara 28) The glaring flaw with this argument is
that in the story Vonnegut never states that there is also an income equality; in
Vonnegut’s own words, “Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better
looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.”
(Vonnegut 1) Moreover, evidence from the text suggests that there is rather an
income inequality when Hazel states that the television announcer “should get a
nice raise for trying so hard.” (Vonnegut 3) If income equality was a given
condition in the story, then Hazel wouldn’t mention an income increase for the
television announcer as it wouldn’t be a possibility. This means that when
Vonnegut states that everyone is “equal in every which way,” he doesn’t mean that
this condition also applies to income. (Vonnegut 1) Furthermore, the fact that
Vonnegut doesn’t make everyone in the story have equal income further proves
the point that Vonnegut’s story cannot be an allegory for Socialism/Communism
as income equality is one of the basic principles of those political systems.
Consequently, with the invalidation of the arguments above, a stronger case is
made that the whole story symbolically functions as a satire of what Americans
misconstrued Socialism/Communism to be.

            In
summary, at the time of the Cold War, Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” satirized
the mistaken notions of equality that Americans had. Fast forwarding to America’s
current political landscape, Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” still remains
relevant to this day. Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” does not only satirize the
“mistaken notions of equality” that present-day Americans have, but it also
stands as satirical symbol for the American myth; the myth that “only in a
class society can everyone have an equal chance for achieving the greatest
economic inequality.” (Hattenhauer 387)