"Harrison Bergeron": A Study in Punishment
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"Harrison Bergeron": A Study in Punishment

An exploration into Kurt Vonnegut Jr's story and its warning of socialism

"Harrison Bergeron": A Study in Punishment
The Mission

In late 1961, author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. published a short story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction called "Harrison Bergeron". It's a quick read, only a few pages long. But, as the best short stories always do, it packs a powerful punch.

It opens with the following words: "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."

The reader merely observes two people sitting on their couch at home, a husband and wife. While the wife, Hazel, is described as perfectly normal, her husband, George, is described as above average intelligence and strength, for which the appropriate lifelong punishment is a ring of weights around his neck and an earpiece that emits a deafening sound at certain intervals, to prevent any unequal thought from developing into fruition. It is also mentioned that their son, Harrison, was taken away recently by the United States Handicapper General's agents, whose duty it was to also burden every citizen with the appropriate amounts of equality.

On the television screen, they are watching a ballet, each of the ballerinas' faces obscured by a mask that varies in ugliness depending on the concealed beauty of the wearer. Suddenly, Harrison bursts into the ballet studio on live broadcasting and triumphantly tears off his mental and physical handicaps, declaring the beginning of his revolution after his escape from prison. George and Hazel do not even recognize their son as the entire scene plays out. At last, the story is brought to a close with two shotgun blasts and Harrison's corpse lying on the studio floor with one of the ballerinas, thanks to an agent of the Handicapper General.

It is telling that Vonnegut set the story not in the USSR, but in the United States, the former of whom proved far more popular to criticize at the time (and not without reason). While the USSR's form of socialism was far more pronounced, Vonnegut's commentary was not on economics or foreign relations: he wanted to expose the growing sentiment of equality for how it may play out, if taken to an extreme.

And while any ideology becomes irrevocably dangerous when taken to an extreme, some create destruction far earlier than others. Socialism is undoubtedly one of them, and Vonnegut knew that.

"Harrison Bergeron" as a story seeks to expose not some hidden agenda, but the underlying nature of socialism. It is an ideology based on punishment: punishment of those who seek to excel, or even those born into the heinous crime of having special aptitudes and talents. Socialism's core tenet purports that if one man enjoys the fruits of his excellence, it is at the expense of one or more other men. That was the shell that killed Harrison: the belief that equality is supreme, and punishment for excellence is the highest form of justice.

So while the excuse that true socialism is pure and good may be tossed around in response to the decades of suffering that socialist countries endured, keep in mind the words of activist and Gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, "Human beings are born with different capacities. If they are free, they are not equal; and if they are equal, then they are not free."

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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