Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Short Story Club: "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut

Welcome to Short Story Club. Come on in and pull up a chair. There’s a cheese board on the piano, and there should be a tray of Little Smokies circulating somewhere. Anyway, what did everyone think of “Harrison Bergeron?” It’s a little different than our usual fare, right?

I’m not a regular reader of absurdist, dystopian, science-fiction satire, but I am  an unapologetic sucker for the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I don’t know many writers who can mix humor and brutality as casually or effectively as he can. This story is unabashedly campy, especially the lame joke at the end, but as is always the case with Vonnegut, the reader is really made to think.

But what exactly are  we supposed to think about this one? The message of this story is not the one I would have expected from an avowed Lefty and lifelong member of the ACLU. He basically takes the fight for universal equality to extremes (some might even say its logical conclusion) and the result is a dystopian hell where you can see your own child gunned down on tv and forget about it a moment later (or miss it entirely because you were too busy making yourself a sandwich.) So it goes, I guess.

What did the rest of you think?


  1. Interesting story, but I have to say I didn’t really like the character of Harrison. His “I’m the Emperor, you all suck” revolt is not exactly endearing. I wanted him to win some hearts and minds. Very funny, though. I’ll have to check out some more Vonnegut.

    1. I agree with you on Harrison, Anonymous. Mostly, I think we’re meant to feel bad for the parents, who not only live in the warped world he describes, but have been conditioned to actually prefer it to the old way. It’s funny, but very sad. Above all it's absurdist, and Vonnegut is also very pessimistic. Both might be reasons he made the character of Harrison a caricature.

      As for his other stuff, I’ve only read Slaughterhouse-Five and Mother Night. But both were first rate. If you’re interested, here is how he rated his own books:

      Player Piano: B
      The Sirens of Titan: A
      Mother Night: A
      Cat's Cradle: A-plus
      God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: A
      Slaughterhouse-Five: A-plus
      Welcome to the Monkey House: B-minus
      Happy Birthday, Wanda June: D
      Breakfast of Champions: C
      Slapstick: D
      Jailbird: A
      Palm Sunday: C

  2. There are two plot components in literature that are big turnoffs to me: Dragons & Dystopian future societies. It's bizarre to me that seemingly all writers have a need to do the dystopian future plot, or some variation thereof. Ayn Rand, Orwell, Huxley, AND Vonnegut?! (I actually didn't know this little short story existed until yesterday).

    Having said that, I love how Vonnegut handles it. It's brief and to the point, and the prose is light. It hammers home its message without even trying.

    In short, I guess I'd say I'm indifferent to this little short story. Indifferent.

    1. Yeah, but I felt it was a little short on dragons. A few of those might have spiced things up a bit.

    2. Thought this was timely, Tucker. What with your airing of dystopian grievances:

    3. This is the future, but it doesn't feel like the future: a couple watching tv in their recliners, shotguns, headphones, birdshot for weights, masks to hide beauty. It all sounds pretty low-tech and retro to me.

      I do think it's a decent story, but it feels like he just dashed it off on a whim. It's pretty simple. Almost as if Kilgore Trout had written it.

    4. Ha! Yeah, it does read like he typed it up on his lunch hour, with a sandwich in one hand.

      I still like it, though.

  3. Liked the story, though not as much as some of Vonnegut's books. Sirens of Titan and SlaghterhouseFive are favorites. KV is the master of the absurd.

    My observation: Diana Moon Glampers is obviously not under the same equality rules that everyone else is (despite the 211th, 212th, and 213th amendments), which makes this story a critique of socialist/nationalist political philosophies much like Orwell's Animal Farm.

    And, as mentioned above, not only is the Harrison character not very likable, he's obviously not as smart as he thinks he is, or he would realize you don't get to be emperor until you have the guns.

    1. Right. Guns or ballerina? He wasn't thinking with the right part of his anatomy there.