If I could say one thing about Harrison Bergeron, it would be this: Vonnegut doesn’t mess around.
After 27 of 30 short stories, I will happily concede that Harrison Bergeron has been one of my favorites, too. Full story (a quick read) at the link; synopsis, thoughts, and vocab below.
“Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut
On the television screen were ballerinas.
A buzzer sounded in George’s head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.
“That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did,” said Hazel.
“Huh?” said George.
“That dance—it was nice,” said Hazel.
“Yup,” said George. He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. They weren’t really very good—no better than anybody else would have been, anyway. They were burdened with sash weights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. But he didn’t get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts
George winced. So did two out of the eight ballerinas.
In 2081 everyone has been made equal: no one is better-looking, more intelligent, or talented than anybody else. This has been accomplished with the efforts of a new government industry: the United States Handicapper General.
A husband and wife, George and Hazel Bergeron, are watching television. Hazel’s intelligence is average (“normal”) so she bears no handicaps, but George, an intelligent man, is required by law to wear a government radio piece in his ear. This device emits various bloodcurdling sounds and screeches approximately every twenty seconds, thus disrupting one’s thoughts and preventing people with above-average mental facilities from gaining unfair advantage.
The more beautiful, strong, intelligent or talented someone is, the uglier, heavier, larger and more crippling the handicap to match. George, being also a man and of sturdy frame, must also wear weights and bags of birdshot.
The ballerinas they watch on TV are burdened with such weights to handicap their muscled strength and grace, and also must wear repulsive masks to hide their beauty. When a sharp screech pieces George’s thoughts and two of the ballerinas on stage fumble and hold their ears it is evident that they also wear radio handicaps.
Hazel and George, watching the show, make mindless conversation. Every twenty seconds or so George loses track of the conversation due to the terrible sounds in his ear, and Hazel likewise can not sustain any train of thought for more than a very brief span of time. Her memory—what is considered normal—is comparable to that of a goldfish.
At one point Hazel says George looks tired, and suggests he take off his birdshot bag, or even just removes a few pieces from it. But George, remembering that the penalty for such treasonous behavior is two years’ jail time and two thousand dollars per grain, declines.
Suddenly the televised performance is interrupted by an emergency newsflash. The announcer, who has a severe (normal) speech impediment, must give the sheet to one of the two intelligent ballerinas to read. The ballerina reads (after screwing up her voice so that it does not sound beautiful):
“Harrison Bergeron, age fourteen, has just escaped from jail, where he was held on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. He is a genius and an athlete, is under-handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous.”
Harrison is Hazel and George’s son. He was taken from them in April that year, and it had long been evident that he was a force to be reckoned with. Where Harrison Bergeron was concerned, The Handicapper General could not think up inhibitors fast enough: he wore not a tiny ear radio but huge earphones, incredible, heaping scraps of metal (he is seven feet tall, and commensurately strong), a clown nose, black ink between his teeth to ruin his charming smile, and spectacles designed give him headaches and make him half blind.
But before the ballerina can finish the announcement, there is a terrible disturbance on the set: a door is torn from its hinges and the entire studio shakes.
George recognizes this as Harrison’s approach.
Indeed, huge and intimidating, Harrison thunders clamorously onto the set in all his scrap-metal, clown-nose etc. regalia. Musicians, ballerinas and technicians alike cower in his presence.
“I am the Emperor!” Harrison proclaims. “Everyone must do what I say at once.”
Harrison makes a dramatic show of tearing through all his handicaps and casting them to the floor like some hulking monster out of a cotton shirt. He smashes his headphones and glasses against the wall and flings away the rubber nose and teeth-gaps.
“I shall now select my Empress!” he decrees, looking upon the cowering figures before him. The throne shall be given to the first woman who dares to rises, he says.
A moment passes and a ballerina rises. Harrison approaches her, removes her mental and physical handicaps, and lastly her mask. She is incredibly beautiful.
Harrison strips the musicians of their handicaps and demands that they strike up their best—if they play their best, he says, he will make them all barons and dukes and earls—and declares that he and his Empress will now show the world the meaning of the word dance.
After setting the music to his liking, Harrison and the ballerina do just that: dance. They dance, uninhibited by their handicaps, more gracefully and wonderfully than anyone has seen. (See: “They leaped like deer on the moon.”) They rise higher and higher, spinning more and more beautifully, and at length, suspended in the air, kiss one another.
Then, at the height of their performance, Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General herself, bustles into the studio and aims a gun. She fires twice, and both Harrison and the ballerina drop dead to the floor.
Then the reception goes.
Hazel turns to George make some remark about it, but finds him absent. He returns after a moment, however—he had gone into the kitchen to get a beer—and sees a tear on his wife’s cheek.
“You been crying?” he asks.
“Yup,” she replies.
He asks what about. Hazel can’t remember. Something sad on TV. George suggests that she forget sad things, and Hazel chipperly replies that she always does.
Then George’s ear device emits a sound like gunfire.
“Gee,” says Hazel. “I could tell that one was a doozy.”
He replies in the affirmative: “You can say that again.”
What stands out most to me in this story is exactly what I wish to do better in my own writing: it communicates much in a very short space, and quickly. The sentences are neat and simple; the prose is unburdened by description or wandering; intro, culture, action, BAM, story’s over, and you’re left staring and going: whoa.
I’ll admit though, at first when Harrison came barging into the studio and said, with no introduction, “I am the Emperor!” I had a “Mangler” moment (see: Stephen King’s laundry machine of doom) where I failed to take what was happening seriously. But afterwards, I thought about it: in the context of this story, where characters can only hold on to a single, coherent thought for twenty seconds at a time, it makes sense: Harrison, or anyone else who wanted to grab the nation’s attention, would have had to get straight to it. No dawdling.
And that, my friends, is the sort of writing I hope to imitate.
A whole new woooord…sorry. Couldn’t resist. I had been planning to write, “A whole new word: don’t spend it all in one place, now,” and then the fourth word came out like Aladdin.
Here ye go, now:
consternation: anxiety or dismay, typically at something unexpected
Four days more in the month. A story for each to come.