All men are created equal.” This famous phrase found in the Declaration of Independence is often thought to be an immortal declaration of the American Revolution with great continuing importance. This concept denotes the idea of equal opportunity for all American citizens, but what would happen if a government, or some other power, took this notion literally? Is it actually possible to make everyone perfectly equal in every aspect of life? Does leveling the playing field mean that everyone wins, or that no one does? There are many negative feelings and harsh criticisms expressed toward the idea of a socialist government. However, the consequences of this exact situation were actually forecast back in 1961 by Kurt Vonnegut in his short story Harrison Bergeron, which imagines a futuristic world based on literal equality.
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Through his use of satire in the short story, Harrison Bergeron, Vonnegut mocks common fears of creating a socialist government in order to convince readers that socialism is not as dangerous as one might think.
Vonnegut argues how ridiculous some of these fears, such as enforced equality and the power of government officials, are through the continual use of apathetic tone. This is expressed through a lack of seriousness, calmly inadequate reactions, and frivolous sarcasm expressed through the shallow remarks of characters. This tone becomes especially prominent through the dialogue of George and Hazel Bergeron as they speak concerning their son, Harrison: There were tears on Hazel’s cheeks, but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about. The use of a careless, flippant tone expressed through Hazel’s response allows Vonnegut to make his point that socialism would never influence someone so greatly that it would control the individual thoughts and feelings that make us human. Even though George and Hazel witness the tragic death of their own son on live television, they respond in a completely passive and indifferent manner as if it meant nothing to them. Vonnegut uses this example to emphasize the distance placed between the character’s emotions and the reality of the event in order to show that the fear of socialism dehumanizing us is irrational. It is unfathomable in the minds of readers that someone could be desensitized to tragedy to such a great extent that he or she would forget the death of a child so easily and quickly. This concept supports Vonnegut’s claim by implying that a socialistic society could never have so much power over us that it would define who we are as people and limit the love and compassion we have for others.
Through his use of an apathetic tone, Vonnegut is able to subtly undermine the misconception that socialism would alienate individuals from basic human nature. Vonnegut successfully adds depth to this apathetic tone by incorporating humor to create a sense of sarcasm and dampen the seriousness of the issue being addressed. Vonnegut accomplishes this by describing some of the handicaps that were implemented in order to achieve equality: [The ballerinas] were burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. This line is humorous because ballerinas typically symbolize grace and beauty. But, in order to eliminate competition and unfair advantages, the ballerinas were disabled to such an extent that their purpose was essentially defeated. The imagery in these sentences allows the reader to visualize the absurdity of the situation in a light, comical manner. The use of humor also allows Vonnegut to address a more pressing matter at hand without directly stating his position. The use of irony is also a prevalent literary device throughout the length of the short story that helps reveal Vonnegut’s purpose and stance on socialism. America is often thought to be a representation of freedom. The American Dream, for example, revolves around the idea that anyone, regardless of background, can achieve success and prosperity through hard work and determination. The main irony of Harrison Bergeron is the handicap system enforced by the government to ensure that all citizens within the society are equal. The first paragraph of the story states: The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. This opening sentence portrays verbal irony because the author implies that there is equality. However, Vonnegut uses this sarcasm in an attempt to express the underlying message that coerced equality is not equality at all. Vonnegut takes this stand to not only relate to the majority of his audience through shared beliefs and values but also to communicate that opposing views of society may not be as different as they appear. By placing this ironic statement in the first sentence in the story, the reader feels an instant connection with the author and has a reason to trust his opinion later in the story. Vonnegut again uses irony within the first paragraph to further support his claim: This equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution. The additional amendments are ironic because equality usually gives everyone the same advantages and opportunities, not the same disadvantages.
Instead of providing everyone with the same advantages necessary for individuals to reach his or her full potential, the constitutional amendments in this futuristic society prohibit progress by making the weakest link a standard model and disadvantage its members in order to ensure that no one is better than anyone else. The reference to the Constitution is also made in order to stress the loss of freedom–the basis on which the American country was built–through excessive rules that had been implemented. It is ironic because the purpose of the Constitution today is to protect certain unalienable rights and freedoms for all American citizens. This revised, futuristic version that Vonnegut fabricates only deprives the country of all that it once stood for. Vonnegut purposely uses this ironic, unlikely situation in order to emphasize his point that equality will not eliminate the fundamental freedoms that we enjoy today as many people fear.
Finally, the use of absurdity employed throughout Harrison Bergeron further provides Vonnegut opportunity to expose the dysfunctional idea that people can truly be made equal. He expresses this absurdity through the description of one ballerina in particular: She must have been extraordinarily beautiful because the mask she wore was hideous. And it was easy to see that she was the strongest and most graceful of all the dancers, for her handicap bags were as big as those worn by two-hundred-pound men. This line contains absurdity because the ability to observe the ballerina’s repulsive mask and recognize it as an indication of her extraordinary beauty proves Vonnegut’s point that true equality is unattainable. He proves repeatedly through examples such as this that people remain fundamentally the same despite ongoing changes and circumstances that may surround them. Based on her description, the reader knows that she is more beautiful and strong than anyone else in the room–even though it is hidden by an attractive mask and some heavy weights. Vonnegut’s use of absurdity in this unrealistic hypothetical world supports his claim that true equality can never be obtained, and ultimately, cannot succeed. Equality is something our country strives to achieve, but at what lengths? Vonnegut’s exploration of a truly equal society through the use of satire in his short story, Harrison Bergeron, allows his audience gain a new perspective regarding the effects of socialism on a country. Vonnegut masterfully captures the common irrational fears of socialism and exposes them through the use of an apathetic tone, irony, and absurdity.
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