When Society Is Too Equal Essay, Research Paper
When Society is too Equal
W. H. Auden’s poem entitled “The Unknown Citizen” and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s short story entitled “Harrison Bergeron” is a portrayal of a conflict between individualism and government control. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen” is a government’s view of the perfect modern man in an unrealistic society. Similarly, Vonnegut presents in “Harrison Bergeron” a scary and destructive view of the United States government in the future where all citizens are uniform. In both “The Unknown Citizen” and “Harrison Bergeron” the government has manipulated human intelligence to the point that the government ultimately has total control over everyone’s lives and minds. The motive behind the portrayal of an equal society is that it will eliminate hatred, envy and war. While this does prove true, the numerous side effects such as loss of identity, lack of originality, and loss of personal feelings begin to arise. The attempt to create an equal society to the extreme makes the United States government more like a dictatorship or communist system rather than a democracy. The satiric society depicted in “The Unknown Citizen” and “Harrison Bergeron” is the authors’ attempt to mock a political system that tends to depersonalize its citizens and constantly strives to create equality. Auden and Vonnegut prove that the government is too controlling and as a result our individuality is lost.
The people of the society portrayed in the stories take the notion of perfection and equality to the extreme. In “The Unknown Citizen”, the Auden uses sarcasm to express an obsessive and mindless state that only know its citizens by numbers and letters, and evaluates their
worth with statistics. The ideal citizen is suppose to be “One against whom there was no official complaint [and] in everything he did he served the community” (Auden 5). The idea that a perfect modern man is not supposed to have any complaints and to serve the community suggests that the state want its citizen to work for the benefit of the state, not the individual. The fact that nothing should be questioned or complain about the ideal citizen shows obedience to the state. Similarly, in “Harrison Bergeron” the “perfect” society is one where all citizens are equal not only under the law but also equal in all aspects of living as well. In an attempt to make people equal, handicaps are distributed among people. These handicaps range from little handicap radios in more intellectual people’s head to bags of leads to slow the faster down to masks for the beautiful people. Everyone is supposed to be average except for those who works for the Handicap General that regulates the lives of the citizens. During the time period that “The Unknown Citizen” was written, in the late 1930’s, Americans were issued Social Security cards, each with a personalized numbers. The government only knows its citizens by these numbers. From then on, the people begin to expect and accept a larger government role in their lives. It is easy to see that there is no possible way to make everyone equal in everyday life. When Auden and Vonnegut describe these impossible ways to create equality in a sarcastic manner, they are actually mocking the United States government that depersonalizes its citizens.
Of course it is easy to recognize that the average society that our democracy strives to get closer to is one that is closely linked to a dictatorship rather than our political system of a democracy. In “The Unknown Citizen” the state seems to dictate everything about the citizens’ lives. The “Bureau of Statistics” and the “Producers Research” are two institutions described in the poem that keeps tracks of all aspects of life. An ideal citizen as described is unknown about
any personal information. Rather, what are important are all the things he do that conforms to the standards set forth by the state. Even the perfect number of children to have is dictated by the
state. Although the citizen described in the poem is considered the perfect modern man by the state, with no freedom of personal expression and individuality, the state government that Auden describes is like that of communist system.
The society and government of the United States acting more like a dictatorship is also evident in “Harrison Bergeron”. All the citizens are forced to be average for the benefits of the whole society. They are made to believe that no one should be better than others. This way, there will be no hatred, envy and war. However, there is the Handicapper General that controls and regulates all the handicaps. The Handicapper General and the few people who work for her does not have to wear any handicaps. Rather, they take the role of regulating the people and deciding what is good for them. The controlling position to the excess of the Handicapper General can be closely compared to that of a dictator. The ironic situation of the society that calls for equality yet controlled is Vonnegut’s attempt to question the political system that currently exists. There exists no individuality in the society described by Vonnegut. These descriptions are to make us aware that democracy does not exists in a political system that calls for too much uniformity. Rather it is calling for a dictatorship.
Individualism is like the backbone of our modern democracy. Where there exist no individual freedom; there cannot be a democracy. If there is no individual freedom then there will be no government. If everyone is average, then who is fit to govern? The society that Auden and Vonnegut portray is that of one with no individualism. Auden writes the first line of the poem as set of numbers, initials, and marks to show that there is no room for individualism in the ideal society of the future. Even someone as worthy as the citizen described in the poem is not known
by his personal name. The last two lines of the poem that states that asking if the citizen is happy or free is absurd, “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.” (Auden 29-30). These statements show clearly the non-existence of individualism. The citizen is only known by all the good things that he did to serve the state. Nothing about his personal feelings is known. This is not considered important enough to be known. In Vonnegut’s story it is the same idea. Competition is the greatest sin in such a society. Nobody should be better than anyone else. This can be linked to the modern society that Auden and Vonnegut mocks at. People in our modern society are always striving for equality of some kind. The society in “Harrison Bergeron” succeeded in eliminating prejudices yet the result is fatal to the democracy. The people lost their individuality and humanity. Powers falls in the hands of a few, which is much more like a communist system.
Both writers use irony to help readers see the absurdity of the dystopic images of society. The title of Auden’s poem is ironic. Audens talks about how everyone knows everything about this citizen and then names the poem “The Unknown Citizen”. If the citizen is so popular and worthy enough to have the state builds a monument to honor him, how could he remains unknown? The “unknown” part of the citizen is not only his name but also his inner self in a society that does not honor individuals being humble and honest. The “unknown” that Auden may want to address is the individualism that is unknown to this society of “the Modern Man”. The irony in “Harrison Bergeron” is the need for highly intelligent persons in such a perfectly equal society. Everyone is supposed to be average and equal yet there is control in everything they do. This shows that the ideal, equal and perfect society that Harrison Bergeron belongs to is not a democracy at all. Rather, the ideal and equal society that government constantly strives toward is not attainable if it wants to remain a democracy.
Both Auden and Vonnegut have demonstrated that uniformity leads to the loss of individuality, and a deformity of humanness. Without individuality, there would not be any free
thinkers and no dreams to accomplish anything special. The idea that in a place where government ultimately has total control over not only everyone’s lives, but their minds as well may not be such a good idea after all. The motive behind the government controlling society is the idea that an equal society will eliminate hatred, envy, and war. While this prove to be true in the society that Auden and Vonnegut satirize there prove to be deadly side effects as well. In such a society, individuality is non-existence, and there is always lack of originality. There will be no advancement, and no excitement. By satirizing a society that is too structured, Auden and Vonnegut are not only mocking our political systems, but is also warning us that this society is not where we want to be.
Describing the satiric society that the unknown citizen and Harrison Bergeron belong to, one with no passion, no spirit, and no individuality is a way for Auden and Vonnegut to make people aware of the government. People should not always expect nor accept every government decision. Dictatorships and communist systems worked and still worked. Some countries in Eastern Europe are still under such systems of government. People are discouraged from thinking by themselves, discouraged from their own opinions. People were easily manipulated, which is the goal of the communist party. The ways of life of these citizens is very much like the one described in “The Unknown Citizen” and “Harrison Bergeron”. This is probably what Auden and Vonnegut want to warn about by mocking the political system that existed now. The democracy system of the United States is sometimes depriving its citizens of individuality. If it continue to strive toward equality the society, much like that described in “The Unknown Citizen” and “Harrison Bergeron” will prevail and this could lead to the deformity of humanness.
Auden, W.H. “The Unknown Citizen.” Reading and Writing from Literature. 2nd ed. Ed.
John E. Schwiebert. Boston: Houghton, 2001. 627
Vonnegut, Jr. Kurt. “Harrison Bergeron.” Reading and Writing from Literature. 2nd ed. Ed.
John E. Schwiebert. Boston: Houghton, 2001. 575-78