Along with Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” is one of his most taught, and thus most read, works. Both narratives also represent Vonnegut’s characteristic genre bending and blending—notably dark satire with science fiction.
In 2016, just days before the presidential election, how and why the story is misread and misinterpreted—forcing on it American faith in the rugged individual and refusing to acknowledge Vonnegut’s principles grounded in socialism and free thinking—is a powerful commentary on U.S. politics broadly and Donald Trump specifically.
Misreading, Misinterpreting “Harrison Bergeron”
Vonnegut’s fiction and nonfiction are anything except simple—even though he practices a style that can be called “simple” because of his accessible vocabulary, mostly brief and simple sentence structure, and staccato paragraphing (which he claimed mimics the structure of jokes).
Yet, many impose onto “Harrison Bergeron” a simplistic theme (anti-communism) and a simplistic reading of Harrison as hero.
“If ‘Harrison Bergeron’ is a satire against the Left,” however, as Darryl Hattenhauer details, “then it is inconsistent with the rest of Vonnegut’s fiction.”
The misinterpretation stems from expecting narratives to have heroes and from careless reading of what the story says about equality; Hattenhauer clarifies:
But the object of Vonnegut’s satire is not all leveling—“any leveling process” that might arise. Rather, the object of his satire is the popular misunderstanding of what leveling and equality entail. More specifically, this text satirizes America’s Cold War misunderstanding of not just communism but also socialism.
Vonnegut’s enduring real-life hero was Eugene V. Debs, possibly the most well-known and influential socialist in U.S. history. Vonnegut was a lifelong advocate for socialism, and “Vonnegut’s concern for the working class eventually blossomed into a full-scale political outlook that was inspired by a combination of Midwestern populism and home-grown American socialism,” explains Matthew Gannon and Wilson Taylor.
Yet, the short film 2081 adapts “Harrison Bergeron” painstakingly true to Vonnegut—except for almost entirely missing that the story itself satirizes both the totalitarian state (embodied by Handicapper General Diana Moon Glampers) with its militaristic police force and Harrison Bergeron as megalomaniac would-be “Emperor!”
Again, as Hattenhauer emphasizes: “Like his fiction, Vonnegut’s non-fiction also satirizes the Right and endorses the Left. And the Left it endorses is not liberalism (America is one of the few nations where liberalism is not centrist).”
Therefore, “Harrison Bergeron” defies both being simple and America’s cartoonish hatred of communism as forced equality (a cultural failure to distinguish between brute equality and social equity). The story, Hattenhauer examines, has an unreliable narration, which describes a dystopian totalitarian state in which “anti-intellectual leveling” is satirized—not “income redistribution,” which Vonnegut as socialist endorsed.
Vonnegut attacks, then, the exact American myths that many who misread the story claim it endorses, as detailed by Hattenhauer:
According to the proponents of the ideology of America’s dominant culture, equal income redistribution would contradict the fact that some are smarter than others (the corollary: the rich are smart and the poor are dumb), and also contradict the fact that some are better looking or more athletic than others (the corollary: attractive and athletic people deserve wealth).
Nonetheless, “Harrison Bergeron,” understood as Vonnegut intended, proves to be a powerful commentary on the 2016 presidential election and the rise of Donald Trump.
Harrison Bergeron 2016
Vonnegut’s writing never fits neatly into clear genre categories, but like Margaret Atwood, he constantly plays with and within genre conventions both in loving devotion to the forms and in ways that defy those conventions.
As well, Vonnegut’s fiction resists traditional portrayals of the hero and main characters. Billy Pilgrim and Harrison Bergeron, for example, are not heroes—but they are not anti-heroes or everyman main characters.
In many ways, Vonnegut keeps an even focus on many characters throughout his works, and tends to include a mixture of positive and negative qualities in even the most static characters—mostly because nearly everything and everyone in Vonnegut is open to satire.
As a result, Harrison Bergeron is presented through an unreliable narrator as larger than life; at 14 years old, Harrison is seven feet tall and “a genius.” But the reader soon learns, as a fugitive, “Harrison’s appearance was Halloween and hardware.”
In short, Vonnegut’s dystopia and Harrison as a character are cartoonish.
“Clanking, clownish, and huge” as well as “wear[ing] at all times a red rubber ball for a nose,” Harrison bursts into the story with “‘I am the Emperor!'”
Misread as rugged individual hero, Harrison is, in fact, a megalomaniac—his bombast a sour joke.
Yet, as a genius and a renegade, he remains a threat to the totalitarian state; thus:
It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor.
Vonnegut’s dark, dark cartoon of a story ends with a joke worthy of a drumroll, but the story cannot be read with a smile in 2016 because Harrison Bergeron has been manifest in reality as Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump.
Trump as faux-billionaire, bombastic failed business man, and reality TV star stands before the U.S. as a threat as well—although to the promise (albeit tarnished) of democracy.
Enough Americans misread Trump as a hero to suggest why so many misread “Harrison Bergeron” as some sort of anti-communist propaganda: our rose-colored rugged individualism lenses are powerful, like the “spectacles with thick wavy lenses” worn by Harrison “to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.”
The flaw in the American character that makes so many misread Trump is not simple either. Yes, there is racism and misogyny—but there is also a profound tension between a valid fear of totalitarianism and a simple-minded blurring of communism/socialism with totalitarianism.
When government actually is indistinguishable from the military (Diana Moon Glampers), a people have lost their precious freedom.
But Vonnegut’s cartoon dystopia omits entirely the utopian possibility of democratic socialism and free thinking that Vonnegut championed his entire life—and that many, if not most, in the U.S. remain unable to embrace.
“Harrison Bergeron” does speak to the center-right politics of the U.S., in which the so-called left is represented by a classic Republican (Hillary Clinton) and the so-called right has been reduced to a clown (Trump).
If this were a Vonnegut story or novel, it would be goddam funny.
As real life, the presidential campaign of 2016 is a metaphorical “double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun” aimed at our heads, and it is in our hands with our fingers on the trigger.