So It Goes
By Christopher D. Ochs
My first two encounters with the work of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. occurred within one week of each other.
Harrison Bergeron was one of our assigned readings in my ninth-grade English class. I was intrigued by the protagonist surrounded by characters crippled by a society where the concept of equality was enforced to counterproductive, and ultimately senseless, extremes.
A few days later, the local PBS station broadcast an indie film, Between Time and Timbuktu, featuring the works of Vonnegut. It follows the misadventures of a hapless pilgrim, Stony Stevenson, rocketing through a time warp that deposits him into a string of vignettes from Vonnegut’s short fiction and novels. Pathos, satire, social commentary, stirred vigorously with the theater of the absurd, all crammed into 90 minutes of video—everything a growing mind needs!
I was hopelessly hooked, and had to read everything the man had written.
These days, I periodically return to my dog-eared copy of Vonnegut’s collection of short fiction, Welcome to the Monkey House, and have reread Harrison Bergeron.
The story opens with Harrison’s parents, George and Hazel, watching television. George is strong enough to warrant bags of lead weights padlocked around his neck. His IQ is high enough to warrant headphones that randomly blast deafening sounds in order to prevent him having any deep thoughts. Hazel is “average,” and therefore is blissfully unencumbered by any handicapping devices. Throughout the story, we encounter other ridiculous lampoons of imposed egalitarianism: ballerinas loaded down with springs and weights to prevent them from dancing too well; handsome men and beautiful women are required to wear masks or disfiguring makeup; musicians must wear physical restraints so that they cannot display their talents. The near-Herculean Harrison bursts onto the scene, so laden with restraints that he resembles a walking junkyard. Tearing off his shackles, he proceeds to call the populace to revolt on live television. Lastly, we come face-to-face with the terrible Diana Moon Glampers, who is more than willing to take matters into her own murderous hands, as she carries out her duties of the United States Handicapper General.
There are two reasons I often return to this tale of depressing totalitarianism. Not because I’m a hopeless optimist who needs to have my Pollyannaish balloon punctured on a regular basis. Rather, because 1) it is a shining example of the short story form that rivals O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi, and 2) even after seventy-plus years since its publication, it remains an eerily prescient warning bell about the dystopia lurking behind the stage curtain in contemporary society.
Harrison Bergeron showcases Vonnegut’s craft at its finest. Every sentence details to the reader the characters, environment, or action. There is no fat in the narrative or dialogue. Take a single word away, and something essential is missing. Even when Hazel repeats “Boy, that was a doozy,” it serves a function—specifically, to display to the depths of banality that the average person could devolve in such a society.
And who among us could not conjure up an entire smorgasbord of potential dystopian scenarios that might arise from ill-conceived laws, overzealous officials, unqualified members of the judiciary, or fiat by demagogue leaders? Or indeed already have occurred?