Kurt Vonnegut, And Harrison B Essay, Research Paper
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was depicting the life and the struggles of African-Americans in the United States in the 1960’s and not a futuristic, someday society in his short story Harrison Bergeron. Harrison Bergeron is really an account of a black who showed
extra-ordinary talent and yet was shunned and suppressed by society because he was different and therefore regarded as dangerous. Vonnegut, Jr., who was named one of 100 AUTHORS WHO SHAPED WORLDHISTORY (Perkins 84), often used his short story forum to share his views on political issues. In order to understand Kurt Vonnegut, “a self-acknowledged pessimist” (Literature 784), we must review the climate of America during the late fifties and early sixties. During this period, America was in turmoil.
After the Korean War, Americans were faced with the threat of being labeled anti-American and Communist. McCarthyism, “accusations of communist loyalties” (Compton’s Interactive), left many authors, actors and public officials fearful about publicly speaking out about American Policy. Any criticism during this time may have been exploited and the author blacklisted. Authors tried to find imaginative ways of criticizing without jeopardizing themselves. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. , like many active authors during the late 1950’s and 60’s used a supposed fictitious stage to express his disdain.
Vonnegut, Jr., in order to express his ideas, chose a future time
setting. The reader can assume that this short story takes place in America since there is
reference to Constitutional Amendments. The theme of this short story is that the government while passing more laws toward equality is neglecting the fact that the original laws already cover these items. Also, the government has handicapped it’s most intelligent and strongest people who would possibly be able to be our country’s greatest leaders. The author’s tone is astonishment at the irony and lunacy of the situation.
America was a segregated country until the late fifties. In 1955,
Rosa Parks, a middle aged African-American woman refused to relinquish her seat on an Alabama bus to a white man. This spurred the cry for equality for African-Americans. Ruby Bridges, a young African-American girl, was the first black to attend a newly desegregated school. Resistance to change and equality was high. Ruby Bridges had to be accompanied to school every day by federal officers. Black Americans, such as Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges were threatened with bodily harm just for trying to secure the same freedom that Caucasians have. The civil war had been fought and won, so the resistance to giving blacks their equality shouldn’t have even been questioned.
Civil Disobedience came to fruition during this time. Instead of using violence, Martin Luther King, Jr. was preaching peaceful resistance to obtain goals of
It was during this turbulent era that Kurt Vonnegut wrote Harrison
Bergeron. With this background information, we can begin to understand the context of this important, thought provoking piece as an account of the inequalities that existed in the U.S. and not as a wildly unbelievable fictitious future. The author intended for his audience to read this piece and understand the world as it was at the time it was written, see the instability in our society, and take measures to correct it.
From the very beginning, Harrison Bergeron has hidden
messages. “They were equal every which way. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General” (Vonnegut) is encoded.
Examining 211, 212, and 213, we can add each series of three
numbers together and find the author’s true intent of these numbers. Two plus one plus one equals four; two plus one plus two equals five; two plus one plus three equals six. So, we now have 4, 5, and 6 respectfully. These numbers refer to the 4th, 5th and 6th Amendments to the Constitution. The 4th Amendment covers the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, etc.” (qtd. Compton’s Interactive); the 5th Amendment states “no person shall be held to answer for a capital or otherwise infamous crime unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury” (qtd. Compton’s Interactive); the 6th Amendment insures a “public speedy trial by an impartial jury” (qtd. Compton’s Interactive). The author is clearly demonstrating that the steps that the government took to insure everyone’s equality violated Constitution that was and is already in effect. The author is questioning whether new Amendments to the Constitution are needed when the Amendments already in place cover all people of this country.
Vonnegut’s description of a “United States Handicapper General”(Literature 784) refers to the United States attorney general at the time, Robert F. Kennedy (Globalserve; Academic 44). Robert F. Kennedy “stressed civil rights enforcement” (44) and in a
bizarre twisted, out of control way, so did Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers. Both Robert F. Kennedy and Diana Moon Glampers were doing their elected duties in trying to protect it’s citizens with the law as it was written.
Vonnegut, Jr. writes, “Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though”
(Literature 784). Although the government tried using handicapping measures to make people equal, the differences still shone through. In 1954, ” Brown v. Board of
Education decision , was not only a legal blow against tax supported school segregation; it also added historical momentum and political legitimacy to black struggles against racism. Yet, there quickly surfaced an often violent white reaction to this momentum and legitimacy” (”Sixties” 44). The author shows that although steps were taken towards equality, even major changes didn’t completely fix the problems that existed.
Desegregation in schools spurred violent attacks against blacks.
Vonnegut writes, “the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron’s fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away” (Literature 784). Harrison is depicted as being fourteen when taken away as a reference to Emmett L. Till, a fourteen year-old who was murdered during the backlash from the Brown v. Board of Education decision (”Sixties” 45). “It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard” (Literature 784). This statement demonstrates the author’s resentment at the country for not taking the violent reactions more seriously and for not mourning as a nation about the loss of life
resulting from our brothers and sisters trying to exercise their constitutional rights. Hazel “bore a strong resemblance to the Handicapper General” (Literature 784). Since
the Handicapper General is Robert Kennedy and Hazel looks like the Handicapper General, it is obvious that Hazel represents President John F. Kennedy. “There were tears on Hazel’s cheeks, but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about” (784) shows that the civil rights issue deeply affected the President . The forgotten tears also refer to our country as a whole forgetting the struggles of our forefathers in securing “these blessings of our liberty, for ourselves and our prosperity” (US Constitution). “I’d think it would be real interesting, hearing all the different sounds”(Literature 785), leads us to believe that the President is interested in everyone’s opinions
and that different sounds are the make-up of our country. Hazel also
makes a reference to religion; John F. Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic President. During the campaign of Kennedy, the public questioned whether such a religious person could separate church and state in order to be President, so religion played a vital role in the office of the President.
Ballerinas were spoken about as they appeared on television. The
ballerinas wore heavy weights and masks to hide beauty. The ballerinas in this context
represent the politicians of the time. The politicians, like the ballerinas, dance on a stage despite heavy issues. Politicians also disguise their true intentions so that no-one will feel badly that problems aren’t being solved. The ballerinas are just entertainment just as politicians are entertainment.
George and Hazel’s son Harrison Bergeron is so intelligent that he
needs to be Handicapped in order to fit in with society so that he wont have any
unfair advantage. Harrison represents Martin Luther King, Jr. King was an intelligent leader. It’s ironic to portray him as needing to be handicapped because many would say that being a black American at that time in history was the same as being handicapped in that blacks didn’t have the same civil rights as white Americans. The handicaps given to Harrison are extra-ordinary. The handicaps that Martin Luther King, Jr. had to face were also extra-ordinary. King fought for rights at a time when a black man couldn’t testify in open court against a white man.(http://bigdog.)
George represents the public. He has been given a handicapping
condition so that he cannot think for long periods of time. George has a transmitter implanted in his head which sends unbearable loud sounds several times a minute. The public has been handicapped by news propaganda shouting in their ears every time they sink their teeth into an issue. The media is a strong force in swaying popular public opinion. George has also been given physical handicaps so that he is no stronger than anyone else. In reality, the public has the handicaps which it imposes on itself such as not taking advantage of their right to vote and solving problems by a majority.
Basically, the interaction between Hazel and George is Hazel encouraging George to remove some of his handicaps. It mimics John F. Kennedy encouraging the
public with his speeches and striving for equality between the races. Kennedy was a
strong proponent of civil rights and wanted the public to remove their prejudice. George speaks of fines for removing his handicaps which in essence are risks that must be taken in order to move to a different dimension. The risks are the reasons that good, intelligent people usually shy away from controversial decisions. Also, in general, people are reluctant to change until a situation becomes intolerable. While George and Hazel are watching television, an important announcement interrupts the program. “The announcer, like all announcers, had a serious speech impediment”( Literature 786) signifies the press being held back from reporting the full truth about civil rights protest backlash.
When a description of Harrison is read, he is portrayed as a genius but very dangerous. Because Harrison is so hazardous, he is given many handicaps. The
physical description of his handicaps such as scrap metal hanging from him, shaved eyebrows and thick glasses evokes the image of a futuristic Ghandi. Ghandi wore long hanging robes or pieces of cloth and Ghandi also wore glasses. Martin Luther King, Jr. was interested in accomplishing the same things in America that Ghandi accomplished in India (www. my hero). “If you see this boy, do not-I repeat, do not-try to reason with
him.” Perhaps this statement was made because King, Jr. could not be talked out of his cause. Some who didn’t believe in equality might refer to him as unreasonable.
“I am the Emperor!”(Literature 787). “Even as I stand here-crippled, hobbled, sickened- I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!”(787) The author is stating that given the opportunity, Martin
Luther King, Jr. could become the supreme ruler.
Harrison bids a ballerina to be strong and join him. Then
Harrison removed the handicaps from the ballerina and the musicians too. This supports the belief that King, Jr. would have removed barriers or handicaps from all who followed his dream. “Play your best”(787), really was a bid for everyone to be able to do their best despite the color of their skin. When Harrison asks the ballerina to join him, it is like Martin Luther King, Jr. asking politicians to join him. They will be “synchronizing their heartbeats”(788); their “weights will be shifted”(788), meaning that they will have more power fighting for the same causes. “Harrison placed his big hands on the girl’s tiny waist, letting her sense the weightlessness that would soon be hers”(784). Politicians and others who follow King will feel a weightlessness when oppression is lifted from their backs. The explanation of Harrison dancing with the ballerina as they
tried to “kiss the ceiling”(788) leads the reader to think that these goals of equality would
lift every one to the ceiling or some kind of higher plane.
It seems that Vonnegut is inferring by the ending of this short
story that Diana Moon Glampers, although supporting equality, is really intimidated by the power and the threat of Harrison becoming a supreme ruler. At the end, Diana sabotages Harrison’s attempts. “It’s all kind of mixed up in my mind, said Hazel”(788).
Obviously, Hazel was questioning how far to support Harrison’s attempts. “Forget sad things.”(788) The public wanted to forget the issues because they were too painful to confront. “I always do.”(788) The President and politicians in general,
will always “forget” about important issues and concerns if not constantly pushed to “remember.” “Gee-I could tell that one was a doozy,” said Hazel.(788)
The problems faced by President Kennedy and King such as
desegregation of schools, and protecting the rights of all citizens whatever their color, were doozies in that they weren’t easily dismissed and had to be handled with “kid gloves.”
In conclusion Kurt Vonnegut Jr.=s story reflected the feelings and issues of people during the early= 1960=s. Though this only zeroed in on one aspect of time it was a major breakthrough for our freedom and responsibility. This was a time when like many other periods in history, people fought for their freedom and it became their responsibility to make sure everyone had rights.
Martin Luther King and Ghandi were only two of the hundreds that spoke out and tried to change society for the better. Being very peaceloving these men did not want to harm anyone to get their point across. Vonnegut illustrates King=s views in his story with similar characteristics. Both Harrison and Martin Luther king were imprisoned for speaking out against authority. During this time the government took the American people for fools. They assumed the overall average person did not know anything about government and politics. This was completely wrong, the government started to take advantage of the people and they began to try and take over; more and more of the publics freedom and rights. Just as in AHarrison Bergeron@, the government wanted everyone to be equal and the same, obviously so they would be easier to control.
People, like King and Ghandi were hushed from speaking out and that made them more eager and revengeful. Heavy weights, masks and ear implants were all devices used in Vonnegut=s story to keep the people in line. Police raids are used to break up riots with activists who protest and want rights for Black Americans. Sometimes they were beaten in the scuffle of the riot, or they were imprisoned for speaking out.
It is almost as if Kurt Vonnegut saw the future when he wrote Harrison Bergeron, because in a sense he predicted the downfall of one of the greatest activists. Just like his story, when Harrison was shot and killed by the Handicapper General Diana Moon Glampers. It is said that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by the government. It just goes to show that people have to fight for what they want no matter the consequences. If King had not done what he did the chapter AFreedom and Responsibility@ would not have been the same.