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Equality

Reading: “Harrison Bergeron” By Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Introduction

How To Use This Discussion Guide

Materials Included | Begin by reading Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s “Harrison Bergeron” or in your copy of What So Proudly We Hail.

Materials for this guide include background information about the author and discussion questions to enhance your understanding and stimulate conversation about the story. In addition, the guide includes a series of short video discussions about the story, conducted by James W. Ceaser (University of Virginia) with the editors of the anthology. These seminars help capture the experience of high-level discourse as participants interact and elicit meaning from a classic American text. These videos are meant to raise additional questions and augment discussion, not replace it.

Learning Objectives | Students will be able to:

  • Examine the difference between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity through reading Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s “Harrison Bergeron” in relation to the idea of equality presented in the Declaration of Independence;
  • Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it;
  • Cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text;
  • Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development
  • Summarize the key supporting details and ideas;
  • Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text; 
  • Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning and the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence; and
  • Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Common Core State Standards Addressed | Literacy in History/Social Studies

  • RH.9-10.2, RH.9-10.3, RH.9-10.8, RH.11-12.2, RH.11-12.8, RH.11-12.9

English Language Arts: 

  • RL.9-10.1, RL.9-10.2, RL.9-10.3, RL.11-12.1, RL.11-12.3, RL.11-12

Writing Prompts | Based on Common Core Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies:

  • What is equality? After reading “Harrison Bergeron” and the Declaration of Independence, write an essay that defines the American principle of equality and explains how the story and the founding document views the term. Support your discussion with evidence from the texts. (Informational or Explanatory/Definition; Task 12
  • What do we owe those of our fellow citizens who are worse off through no fault of their own? After reading the story, write an op-ed that addresses the question and support your position with evidence from the text. (Argumentation/Analysis; Task 2
  • Would you object if society sought equality not by handicapping the gifted but by lifting up the not-gifted, say through genetic engineering or biotechnological enhancement? After reading “Harrison Bergeron,” write an essay that discusses this question and evaluates the pros and cons of “lifting up.” Be sure to support your position with evidence from the text. (Argumentation/Evaluation; Task 6)

About the Author

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922–2007) was born and raised in Indianapolis and later left college to enlist in the US Army during World War II. He spent time as a German prisoner of war and won a Purple Heart, a distinction he later mocked. After the war, he worked as a newspaper reporter and in public relations before selling his first story to Collier’s magazine in 1950. Shortly thereafter, he quit his regular job and embarked on a literary career, taking part-time jobs to pay the bills. Only with the publication, 18 years later, of his second collection of stories, Welcome to the Monkey House—which included “Harrison Bergeron,” first published in 1961—did he gain some positive critical attention. A year later his autobiographical novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, made him a literary celebrity, a status he held for the rest of his life. Vonnegut was politically active in many liberal-left political causes, giving numerous speeches on political issues of the day: He was, among other things, an ardent defender of free speech, an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, and an advocate of socialism. His political views sometimes made it into his stories, which often combined science fiction, satire, and dark humor. His much-loved “Harrison Bergeron” is no exception, though there is considerable disagreement regarding the political message—if any—that Vonnegut was attempting to convey. Whatever the author’s intention, the story demands both careful reading and thoughtful reflection regarding the issues it raises.

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

Thinking about the Text

Summary

“Harrison Bergeron” is a satire, set in the United States of the future (2081), when, thanks to our own legislative process—the passage of Constitutional Amendments 211, 212, and 213—and to the leveling interventions and vigilance of the Handicapper General and her agents, everyone is finally equal, not just before the law or before God but “every which way.” No one is smarter, stronger, or more beautiful than anyone else. The beautiful ones are made to wear ugly masks, nose balls, false teeth, and the like; the strong and speedy are made to wear sash-weights and bags of birdshot; the naturally smart are made to wear radios in their ears, which, tuned to a government transmitter, emit “sharp noises” to disrupt their thoughts every twenty seconds or so.

In the “clammy” month of April, Harrison Bergeron, a 14-year-old, seven-foot-tall boy of superior brain, beauty, and brawn, is in jail, accused of trying to overthrow the government. His parents, George and Hazel Bergeron, are at home watching handicapped ballet on television and talking about the mind-numbing sounds that George, who is natively highly intelligent, endures from his radio transmitter. Hazel, average and unhandicapped, suggests that George bend the rules for the sake of comfort, but George defends the society and its laws: He does not want to go back to the “dark ages” of competition.

Suddenly, a news bulletin interrupts the dance program to announce Harrison’s escape from jail. Immediately thereafter, he bursts into the television studio, declaring his intention of becoming emperor. Harrison sheds his prodigious handicaps, appearing like a god. He selects his empress from among the ballerinas, instructs the musicians to play their best, and with his counterpart, leaps and dances gracefully and beautifully up to the ceiling, their love defying even the laws of gravity and motion. The Handicapper General arrives to shoot down Harrison and his partner. Hazel, witnessing her son’s death, is briefly sad. As the sound of a gun goes off in his head, George advises her to forget sad things. And so they do.


Section Overview

Kurt Vonnegut’s story paints a picture of a society that few of us would gladly embrace, even those of us who care deeply about social equality. It thus invites us to think about the society presented; its rebellious genius, Harrison Bergeron; as well as Vonnegut’s purpose.


A. The Society
  1. Looking at the first few paragraphs of the story, describe Vonnegut’s America—its government, society, and people. How has it changed from the present day?
  2. Why do you think it adopted its practices of making everyone equal in brains, beauty, and brawn?
  3. Is it a good thing for people to believe that no one is better than anyone else? Would it be a good thing if, in fact, no person were better than any other person? Why or why not?
  4. Are there positive aspects of this society?
  5. What is lacking?
  6. Why exactly do you like or dislike it?
Video Excerpt 1
WATCH: Describe Vonnegut’s America.

B. Harrison Bergeron, the character
  1. Describe Harrison Bergeron. Is he an example of human excellence? Does he represent the American dream to “be all you can be”?
  2. Do you cheer for his success (5–8), and if so, why? What do you admire about Harrison? Are there aspects of his behavior that concern you?
  3. Do we have any idea of what sort of ruler he might have been (6–7)? What kind of government, pursuing what goals, might he have established? (See, in particular, his instructions to the musicians and his selection of his empress.) Would he (and his goals) be better or worse than (those of) the Handicapper General and her agents?
  4. Harrison Bergeron declares himself emperor (6). Is his desire—and his capacity—to rule an example of the problem that made the push for total equality necessary?
Video Excerpt 2
WATCH: What do you make of Harrison Bergeron himself?

C. “Harrison Bergeron,” the Story
  1. With whom do you think Vonnegut sympathizes in the story? Does he present Harrison as a hero, or is the story heroless? Why?
  2. What is being satirized in this story? Why do you think Vonnegut wrote it?
  3. Is Vonnegut’s story finally a cautionary tale about the importance of freedom? Of individuality? Of excellence? Or is he aiming at something else?
  4. What is the relation between the sort of equality attained in the story and the sort of equality that you regard as most important? How are they similar or different?
Video Excerpt 3
WATCH: What do you think is being satirized in this story?

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

Thinking With The Text

Section Overview

Vonnegut’s satire invites us to think, first and foremost, about the implications of the pursuit of equality in relation to the American creed. But the way of life he depicts also invites us to think anew about the meaning and importance of the “American Dream,” and about whether technology helps or hinders the American character and our prospects for happiness.


A. Equality and the American Creed

For these questions, consider the story in conjunction with the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address.

  1. What is the American ideal of equality as conceived in both the Declaration and the Gettysburg Address? Where does it come from, and what does it look like? Do the two documents differ? What does it mean when we say that “all men are created equal” or that they are all “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” (Declaration of Independence)?
  2. Is the society described in Vonnegut’s story a fulfillment of the American principle or ideal of equality or a perversion of that principle or ideal?
  3. What is the relation between the kind of equality pursued in Vonnegut’s fictional society and the political idea of equality described in the Declaration of Independence or the democratic social and cultural ideal of equality discussed, for example, by Tocqueville in Democracy in America (see, in particular, Volume II, Book II, Chapter 1, “Why Democratic Nations Show a More Ardent and Enduring Love of Equality Than of Liberty”)?
  4. Is the possession of a right to pursue happiness empty if we lack the ability or opportunity to exercise it? Do the sharp divisions between haves and have-nots—whether of wealth, opportunity, or natural talents—mean that equality is not achievable, without government intervention?
  5. Why do Americans love equality? Should we? Can the desire for it ever be satisfied?
  6. What do we owe those of our fellow citizens who are worse off through no fault of their own? What do we owe those of our fellow citizens who were dealt a poor hand of natural talents?
  7. Is it true that a society torn apart by inequality—based especially on the inequality of talents—cannot cultivate the virtues required for citizenship and cannot retain the attachment of all of its citizens?
  8. Does the love of equality (or the push for “social justice”), if pursued single-mindedly, implicitly accept the flattening of human possibility as an acceptable price to be paid for eliminating invidious distinctions, envy, resentments, and feelings of inferiority? If the two ideals—human excellence and equality—are in conflict, which one should we hold more dear? Must one be pursued at the expense of the other? Are there some areas in life in which we wish for equality more than human excellence, and others we don’t?
  9. In what way(s) or under what circumstances might the love of equality be compatible with competition? With the pursuit of excellence?
  10. Can the private pursuit of happiness, in the absence of standards of excellence and of social judgments ranking better and worse paths to happiness, lead to a society in which all are equally degraded?
Video Excerpt 1
WATCH: Is the society described a fulfillment of the American ideal or principle of equality or a perversion of it?
Video Excerpt 2
WATCH: Is the love of equality compatible with competition? With the pursuit of human excellence?

B. The American Dream

  1. The tagline for the 1995 movie of “Harrison Bergeron” was: “All men are not created equal. It is the purpose of Government to make them so.” Under such a view, what happens to the “American Dream”—that anyone can rise and prosper as a result of hard work and the application of his or her natural talents?
  2. What happens to the American Dream if it should turn out that natural talents are profoundly unequal in their allotment?
  3. Is the love of material comfort and prosperity—and the possibility of socioeconomic mobility—in tension with a commitment to equality?
  4. Is the American Dream fair or just?
  5. Which should society reward and respect most: personal effort or actual accomplishment?

C. Technology and the American Character
  1. Would you object if society sought equality not by handicapping the gifted but by lifting up the not-gifted, say through genetic engineering or biotechnological enhancement?
  2. In May 1961, about five months prior to the appearance of Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” Newton Minow, then Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, gave a memorable speech, entitled “Television and the Public Interest,” which challenged his audience as follows:

    I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder . . . and cartoons. And endlessly commercials—many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.

    Since 1961, TV has grown in leaps and bounds, making Americans even more addicted to it than George and Hazel and their society were. But has it remained the “vast wasteland” that Vonnegut parodied and of which Minow spoke?
  3. Do other technologies like the Internet, Twitter, or Facebook improve the American character? Our prospects for happiness? If so, how? If not, why?
Video Excerpt 3
WATCH: Would you object if society sought equality not by handicapping the gifted but by lifting up the not-gifted?

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

ONLINE DISCUSSION

One Discussions Posted

Post a Comment

  1. William Schmidley on May 15, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Reply

    Brings to mind a theoretical difficulty socialism faces. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that socialists were able to equalize property and opportunity, would they be be content to rest on their laurels, or would their deep human need for recognition and significance, previously satiated by their effort to reshape society, lead them to try to make everybody equal “every which way”? Perhaps that is what Vonnegut had in mind.

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