There are two main characters that you witness the lives of throughout the short story. They are the couple George and Hazel. The only other character that is named and more focused on is Harrison Bergeron, the son of the main characters, who is identified as their son in the introduction.
The events that happen within the story escalate very quickly. It opens with an introduction to the year 2081, with a brief summary of the state of society, explaining that everyone is equal, but not only “before God and the law. They were equal every which way.” This meant that no one was more intelligent than any other, no one was stronger or in any way more skilled. It is quickly recognised, even by the narrator, that the circumstances were oppressing and wrong- “It was tragic, all right.”
The rest of the story follows a conversation between the couple while they’re watching television. The dialogue often diverts or is interrupted with George’s ‘mental handicap’ which restricts his ability to think intellectually and too out of the ordinary. In terms of Hazel, she can only think in short bursts with memory loss of these moments, this creates inconsistency and jumbled speech. The rest of the events then occur through the television.
Ballerinas are dancing on the television. Who too have handicaps such as weights around their shoulders, hideous masks to hide their beauty and mental handicaps. It then cuts to one of the ballerinas announcing the breaking news that Harrison Bergeron had escaped prison.
Suddenly, Harrison breaks into the studio of the programme. He attempts to liberate those around him, he removes his handicaps which are much more extreme than those previously introduced in the story. Wearing “a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses.” “Nobody had ever born heavier handicaps.”
Harrison’s presence on screen causes George to have a moment of realisation that it was his son, until his mental handicap sounds louder than the average signal to stop him from remembering Harrison.
Harrison then removes the handicaps of the ballerinas and musicians and dances with the ballerina. The general abruptly enters and shoots Harrison and the chosen Ballerina. The focus then returns to George and Hazel. Hazel is crying, although she does not remember why, and George is returning from the kitchen. The conversation then returns to a similar script to the beginning and that is where it ends.
What type of dystopia is it?
Harrison Bergeron’ is an Orwellian Dystopia as it qualifies the criteria of:
Being a society ruled by some kind of party or elite government that limits the basic rights of its people. In this case, mental and physical abilities are controlled and restricted through artificial handicaps. The behaviours and actions of people are controlled and manipulated by setting standards and creating the idea that to be intelligent, beautiful or strong is a negative attribute and should be shamed, to create ‘equality.’ Pain is a method used to control equality and obedience (mental handicaps, creating painful sounds directly into ear, thick lensed glasses to cause intense headaches, weights around shoulders to cause fatigue.)
Rebellion is punished by death, creating a deterrent and warning for this type of behaviour. e.g) in ‘Harrison Bergeron’ the General shoots both Harrison and the Ballerina with a shotgun. This violent and controlling feature is very typical of the Orwellian approach to dystopia.
The extract opens in a seemingly positive way. It announces that America has achieved complete equality, at surface level this sounds positive, Utopian even. However, this facade soon crumbles as the story unravels, exposing oppression, low quality of life, totalitarian control and violence. This ‘apparent utopia’ is a typical dystopian convention that is used in this text.
The manipulations and control of memory and knowledge is a dystopian feature and is used effectively in ‘Harrison Bergeron’ as mental handicaps are used to obliterate thoughts that breach the convention that the government aim to enforce. In terms of Hazel, she could have been naturally disabled or has been surgically altered to have memory loss and short attention span, but the cause is unknown
Ideology and meaning behind the text
EQUALITY Usually deemed as an ideal state to be in and is often associated with a Utopian setting, however like most dystopia this ideology has a downfall and the population end up living oppressing and low quality lives. This is apparent in the display of pain and discomfort caused by the handicaps.
The restrictions put into place to cause this equality dehumanises society as they do not have the freedom of autonomy over their body or minds. In the case of ‘Harrison Bergeron’, neither George or Hazel are able to grieve or love their son as their handicaps do not allow them to, so the nature of familial love and acts are removed, this idea is demonstrated in George’s reaction to Harrison on the television screen –“My God-” – “That must be Harrison!” –“The realisation was blasted from his mind”.
They also have no individuality as their acts and behaviours are shaped by what the government allow, if George’s thought wanders to something slightly in opposition to the ideology of the United States Handicapper General, his thoughts are scattered through his mental handicap. This form of control by a seemingly peaceful government who strive for equality, shows a cruelness and totalitarian influence instead of an act for the well-being of the population.
The feeling of love is also altered in this reality as total equality causes difficulty when trying to commit selfless acts of love or putting someone else’s needs in front of your own to cause them to be happy, which are typical acts of an emotive human. This is displayed through Hazel- “I don’t care if you’re not equal to me for a while.” This attempt to be loving is rejected as the consequence of George removing any of his handicaps is a large fine and imprisonment.
Everyone having a handicap or disability causes inefficiency in certain sectors. For example, in the text the announcer has a speech impediment and is unable to read out the breaking news, which is a very vital piece of urgent information. This is not to say that the disabled cannot fulfil this role, instead it is to say that they have better and more effective roles that they fulfil. This idea of making everyone be able to do everything is illogical and unrealistic, as even without a handicap or disability, people are not naturally good at every role in society.