”Harrison Bergeron”, the short story penned by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in 1961, imagines the world in 120 years, where the government has taken complete control over free thought and complete equality has finally been achieved – at a price, of course.
In the quest for true equality, people gave up their rights in favor of eliminating all competition, drive, and desire: the very things that inspire innovation and creativity. The people in charge are the only ones who are allowed to think, and that power has grave consequences for Harrison Bergeron, a 14-year-old boy who is already 7 feet tall and virtually uncontrollable. The story explores important themes, such as what total equality at the cost of individuality could look like, and the dangers of losing free thought to a tyrannical government. The dystopian world Vonnegut paints is frighteningly dull, and frighteningly realistic.
The word “utopia” was coined by Sir Thomas More for his book about an ideally organized society. It is from the Greek topos meaning “place”. The prefix is intentionally ambiguous; in Greek, the prefix ou- means “not”, while the prefix eu- means “good”. So a u-topia could either be a “good-place”, or a “not-place”, an imaginary place.
One of the oldest recorded and most widely-known utopias is the Garden of Eden. A utopia is a perfect society, where everything is ideally organized, and residents go about their lives happily.
A dystopia, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of a utopia, using the prefix dys-, from the Greek for “bad”. It is a flawed society, dys-functional and undesirable. In literature, these two terms often coincide. Many dystopias look idyllic to begin with, but over the course of the story reveal their true nature, which is typically sinister and flawed.
Check out our article on Dystopian Literature and the six common dystopian elements you and your students can track throughout the story!
An important distinction to note before beginning “Harrison Bergeron” is that the handicaps given to the characters are not the same as being handicapped. The word “handicapped” that students will be most familiar with is similar in a way, because each indicates an obstacle that alters the abilities of the person affected. The handicaps given to characters in the story are meant to hinder them in some way in order to make them equal to others. Some of the handicaps they are assigned include: