“Harrison beautiful to wear masks, force the

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“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, force the intelligent to wear
earpieces that disrupt their thoughts, and force 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 and most of the commentary on “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.

            Additionally, the background information we know about
Kurt Vonnegut and further text analysis of “Harrison Bergeron” support the
thesis that Vonnegut’s use of symbols represent the absurdity of which
Americans during the Cold War era misconceived to be Socialism/Communism, which
was a result from America’s dominant culture of anti-intellectualism. Being the
good author that Vonnegut is, he created a story that, on the surface, appealed
to the anti-left hive mind of Cold War America, but perfectly shrouded the true
symbolism of the story that actually satirized this anti-intellectual
ignorance. This is supported by Hattenhauer when he states, “Vonnegut could not have sold a story
overtly sympathetic to leveling… As a struggling writer, Vonnegut had to put a surface on
this story that would appeal to his audience. And… it did so because it appeared to
rehearse central tenets of the dominant culture’s ideology.” (Hattenhauer 387)
Similarly, Vonnegut’s depiction of equality in the story doesn’t symbolize the
future, (the year 2081) but rather it symbolizes America’s growing trend of
anti-intellectual culture of the past and present. Hattenhauer supports this by

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“The characters are not displaying
the mindlessness of 2081; they are displaying the mindlessness of 1961, the
year this story appeared… the
intellectual leveling of the past and present implies that ignorance is
knowledge. Hazel asks, ‘Who knows better’n I do what normal is?’ Just because
she typifies the normal does not mean she understands it. For Hazel, then, she
has more expertise than any social scientist with a mountain of data.”
(Hattenhauer 387)

This quote supports the idea that Hazel and David are the
symbols for the common Cold War era American and their ignorance to the truth
that is knowledge symbolizes America’s hive mind anti-left ideology. The most
important reasons why the story is a satirical symbol of Cold War America’s
ignorant misunderstanding of what left-wing politics is that the narrator is
unreliable, and there is an intentional flaw in the plot development. As
Hattenhauer states, “After that impossible event, the preposterousness of the
preceding events emerges more clearly. For example, 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) In this quote, Hattenhauer
explains that after the plot resolution where Harrison Bergeron does the
physically impossible by tearing off his restraints and defying gravity, the flaws
of the plot are revealed. Essentially, this means that the absurd world that Vonnegut
created cannot be a symbol for the supposedly evil left-wing politics as such a
world wouldn’t be able to physically exist given the conditions that Vonnegut intentionally
created. Given the strong evidence above for the thesis, there are, however,
many points made by critics that argue the contrary.

            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
(the character) and the story’s levelling of individuals as examples in their
arguments. However, those two arguments have severe flaws that can be disproven
through analysis of the text. A particular case where critics 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 and his magnificence in the fields 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 equivalent of slaves. This
evidence from the text disproves arguments that state Harrison Bergeron is the
symbol for freedom his intention is to dominantly rule over the people as the
king. 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.” The issue with this argument is that in the story Vonnegut
never states that there is also an income equality; Vonnegut only states that
everyone is equal in beauty, intelligence, and athleticism. Moreover, evidence
from the text suggests that there is 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 in the story, then Hazel wouldn’t
mention an increase in income for the television announcer at all 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 everyone is also equal in
income. (Hattenhauer 387) Furthermore, the fact that Vonnegut doesn’t make
everyone in the story have equal income further proves the point that
Vonnegut’s story isn’t an allegory for Socialism/Communism as income equality
is one of the basic principles of those political systems.


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