“Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
This Launchpad, adapted from http://www.WhatSoProudlyWeHail.org, provides background materials and discussion questions to enhance your reading and understanding of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron.” After reading the story, you can click on the videos to hear editors Amy A. Kass, Leon R. Kass, and Diana Schaub converse with guest host James W. Ceaser (University of Virginia) about the story. These videos are meant to raise additional questions and enhance discussion, not replace it.
Thinking about the Text
Kurt Vonnegut’s story paints a picture of a society that few of us would gladly embrace, even those of us who care deeply about social equality. It thus invites us to think about the society presented; its rebellious genius, Harrison Bergeron; as well as Vonnegut’s purpose.
Describe Vonnegut’s America. Are there positive aspects of this society? What is lacking?
- Why do you think it adopted its practices of making everyone equal in brains, beauty, and brawn?
- Is it a good thing for people to believe that no one is better than anyone else? Would it be a good thing if, in fact, no person were better than any other person?
The above video includes a panel discussion of Vonnegut's America and the question: "Are there positive aspects of this society?"
Harrison Bergeron, the Character
- What do you make of Harrison Bergeron himself? Does he represent the American dream to “be all you can be”?
- What do you admire about Harrison? Are there aspects of his behavior that concern you?
- Do we have any idea of what sort of ruler he might have been and toward what end he would have ruled? Would he be better or worse than the Handicapper General and her agents?
The video of the panel discussion continues with examination of the question "What do you make of Harrison Bergeron himself?"
“Harrison Bergeron,” the Story
- With whom do you think Vonnegut sympathizes in the story? Does he present Harrison as a hero, or is the story heroless? Why?
- What is being satirized in this story? Why do you think Vonnegut wrote it?
- Is Vonnegut’s story finally a cautionary tale about the importance of freedom? Of individuality? Of human excellence? Or is he aiming at something else?
The third part of the Vonnegut panel discussion explores the question "What do you think is being satirized in this story?
Thinking with the Text
Vonnegut’s satire invites us to think, first and foremost, about the implications of the pursuit of equality in relation to the American creed. But the way of life he depicts also invites us to think anew about the meaning and importance of the “American Dream,” and about whether technology helps or hinders the American character and our prospects for happiness.
Equality and the American Creed
What is the American ideal of equality as conceived in both the Declaration of Independence, Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, and the Gettysburg Address? Do the two documents differ in how they describe equality? What does it mean when we say that “all men are created equal” or that they are all “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”?
- Is the society described in the story a fulfillment of the American principle or ideal of equality or a perversion of that principle or ideal?
- Is the possession of a right to pursue happiness hollow if we lack the ability to exercise it?
- Why do Americans love equality? Should we? Can the desire for it ever be satisfied?
- What do we owe those of our fellow citizens who are worse off through no fault of their own?
- Is it true that a society riven by inequality—based especially on the inequality of talents—cannot retain the attachment of all of its citizens?
Base your responses to the next two questions on the segment of the video that examines the question: Is the society described a fulfillment of the American ideal of equality or a perversion of it?
- If the two ideals—human excellence and equality—are in conflict, which one should we hold more dear? Must one be pursued at the expense of the other? Are there some areas in life in which we wish for equality more than human excellence and others we don’t?
- In what way(s) or under what circumstances might the love of equality be compatible with competition? With the pursuit of excellence?
The above video clip explores the question: Is the love of equality compatible with competition or the pursuit of human excellence?
The American Dream
- The tagline for the 1995 movie version of Harrison Bergeron was: “All men are not created equal. It is the purpose of Government to make them so.” Under such a view, what happens to the “American Dream”—that anyone can rise and prosper as a result of hard work and the application of his or her God-given talents?
- What happens to the American Dream if it should turn out that God-given talents are profoundly unequal in their allotment?
- Is the American Dream fair or just?
- Which should society reward and respect most: personal effort or actual accomplishment?
Technology and the American Character
The next question explored by the panel is "Would you object if society sought equality not by handicapping the gifted but by lifting up the not-gifted?"
- Would you object if society sought equality not by handicapping the gifted as in the story, but by lifting up the not-gifted, say through genetic engineering or biotechnological enhancement?
- In May 1961, about five months prior to the appearance of Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” Newton Minow, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, gave a memorable speech titled “Television and the Public Interest,” which challenged his audience as follows:
"I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder . . . and cartoons. And endlessly commercials—many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it."
- Since 1961, TV has grown in leaps and bounds, making Americans even more addicted to it than George and Hazel and their society were. But has it remained the “vast wasteland” that Vonnegut parodied and of which Minow spoke?
- Do technologies such as the smart phone, social media, or artificial intelligence improve the American character or our prospects for happiness?