The Politics of Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron"

Article excerpt

According to all commentary on Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," the theme of this satire is that attempts to achieve equality are absurd. For example, Peter Reed says it "satirizes an obsession with equalizing ..." (29). The critics have taken this text's absurd future utopia as representative of egalitarianism. For example, Stanley Schatt claims that "in any leveling process, what really is lost, according to Vonnegut, is beauty, grace, and wisdom" (133). 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. To argue that thesis, this article begins outside of the text by situating it in Vonnegut's oeuvre: his fiction, nonfiction, speeches, and interviews. Then this contextualization will attend to Vonnegut's audience. Finally, the analysis will turn to the internal evidence.

If "Harrison Bergeron" is a satire against the Left, then it is inconsistent with the rest of Vonnegut's fiction. For a view of his fiction's politics in general, one need only recall Jailbird's satire on conservatism and its sympathy with striking laborers, or the endorsement of income redistribution in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. A specific illustration of his politics occurs in the dedication of Hocus Pocus to socialist Eugene Debs, which quotes him: "While there is a lower class I am in it" (8).

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). For example, "In a Manner that Must Shame God Himself," which he wrote in response to the 1972 Republican National Convention, claims that Democrats are only a little less Darwinist than Republicans. He satirizes not only the Republicans but also the Democrats as "bossed by Winners" at the expense of "Losers." He concludes, "THE WINNERS ARE AT WAR WITH THE LOSERS, AND THE FIX IS ON" (206). In "Yes, We Have No Nirvanas," he derides notions about "the fairness of the marketplace" (38). In Fates Worse than Death, he refers to the British class system as "robbery" (132). And in his preface to Wampeters, Foma and Granfaloons, he enjoins his readers to "share wealth and work" (xxiv).

His spoken word is consistent with his fiction and nonfiction. In an interview, he said of George Orwell, "I like his socialism" (Clancy 53). He said in a commencement speech at Bennington College, "I suggest that you work for a socialist form of government ... It isn't moonbeams to talk of modest plenty for all. They have it in Sweden"(168). In an address at Wheaton College, he even quoted Karl Marx approvingly: "From each according to his abilities. To each according to his needs" (217). When asked in an interview how he would have campaigned against Nixon, he responded, "I would have set the poor against the rich" ("Playboy" 273).

In a letter to me, Vonnegut indicated that the foregoing sympathy with "Losers" influenced "Harrison Bergeron." If the misreadings of this text were valid, then the implied author's sympathy would be for Harrison Bergeron and his antipathy would be for Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General striving to prevent privilege. But Vonnegut suggests that the character he identifies with is not Bergeron but Glampers. He begins his letter by first situating himself as not only an author with both conscious and unconscious intent, but also a reader. He writes about not only what he consciously and unconsciously intended, but also what the resulting text actually is.

   I can't be sure, but there is a possibility that my story "Harrison
   Bergeron" is about the envy and self-pity I felt in an over-achievers' high
   school in Indianapolis quite a while ago now. … 

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