Are We Really Free? – A PRT to ‘Harrison Bergeron’
The short story, ‘Harrison Bergeron’ by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is about the human need for freedom and individuality. In real life, such as in literary works like Orwell’s 1984’ and ‘Harrison Bergeron’, people will always fight for their freedom and individuality. Vonnegut’s take on this fight for freedom shows a long-lost son showing all that humans can overcome any oppression eventually. George Orwell’s 1984 foretells a grim, dystopian society that may be closer to reality than we think. Something I experienced in my lifetime was a significant resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement during this past summer in 2020. Whether it’s through trying to overthrow a totalitarian state in social science fiction literature, or taking to the streets in the summer of 2020, human beings, by nature will fight to have freedom and individuality in one way or another. All this regardless, however, so long as there is some force to rule over us, can humans really be free?
The short story itself gives us a glimpse of what Vonnegut, to some extent, knows to be a possible future of society. The dystopian work describes a world where “everybody was finally equal,”(paragraph 1) through the use of handicaps on people who displayed too much of a certain trait. The story develops this dystopian universe, and eventually brings to the forefront, long-lost Harrison Bergeron himself. Serving as a round character in the story, Harrison ultimately represents mankind’s deep-seated desire to fight passionately for freedom and individuality. The theme and climax of the story both are significantly composed of Harrison’s development as a character. The said climax of the story kicks in with Harrison taking the public stage and ripping “off his handicaps like wet tissue paper,”(58) becoming a righteous symbol of mankind’s inevitable victory over oppression. However, Harrison’s reign did not hold for long after when abruptly “Diana Moon Clampers, the Handicapper General came into the studio,”(79) and ended his show of freedom. Yes, Harrison does symbolize humankind’s need for freedom, but his abrupt death begs the question, what does Vonnegut think about our fight for freedom in comparison to what ruling powers really want for us?
In a similar work of social science fiction, George Orwell paints a picture through a slightly different lens about humankind’s need for freedom. The basis of Orwell’s 1984 is that the fabric of society as we know it has been altered to the point where every thought and notion of all citizens is known by the state; allowing a totalitarian government to exist without opposition in a world of mass surveillance, thus silencing any possibility of free thought or expression. The protagonist in the story, Winston Smith, is secretly in opposition to this fascism and owns a diary that he writes in at different points in the story. When Winston chooses one day to write messages in the diary that would have him killed for thoughtcrime, as it is referred to, it becomes apparent that “whether he wrote DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER, or whether he refrained from writing it”(Orwell 21) he would be discovered and killed regardless by the Thought Police. Winston Smith and Harrison Bergeron represent similar themes found commonly in life as in literature; that no matter how much oppression and suppression a society endures, there will always be figures that rise above to fight for freedom and individuality. In 1984, to spoil the story, however, Winston Smith still ends up at the mercy of the system he so desired to tear down, and that the very creation of the sacred brotherhood he fought alongside was a fabrication of the fascist system. All this, again, begs the question, does the author truly believe that the system can, no matter how oppressive, ever be completely overtaken?
Black Lives Matter.
In the real world, humankind’s need, desire, and nature to fight for freedom and individuality is even more prevalent than in literary works. A critical example of this prevalence was with the series of immensely popular Black Lives Matter protests, and the movement in general this past summer, that I witnessed on the news almost every day. The movement arose from resparked outrage of people in the United States and around the world over the murder of George Floyd on May 25, an African American man. Through my very own eyes, I watched on the news as thousands of people in the streets came together in the midst of a pandemic to cry out one message in the face of oppression; Black Lives Matter. Tuning into the news almost every night on end last summer and seeing all the people around the world reverberating this message and fighting for their true freedom from prejudice was inspiring to me. From my point of view in the universe, this movement needed to happen considering the circumstances, but we shouldn’t live in a world where millions of people need to take to the street to say that people with dark skin have lives that matter. We shouldn’t live in a world like that of Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’ or Orwells ‘1984’; where freedom and individuality have to be fought, bled, and died for. So long as evil reigns free through the minds of man, is it ever possible to live in a society free of such prejudice?
Through studying these literary and real-life examples, we come up with a series of questions we can ask ourselves about our lives and society. In Vonnegut’s works, we come up with the question of, what message is it that Vonnegut really wants to portray about our fight for freedom versus government control of our lives? Similarly, in Orwell’s universe, we come up with the question of, can an all-controlling state ever be overthrown by its citizens fighting for freedom and individuality? Lastly, the real-world example of the Black Lives Matter movement begs the question of, do we truly live in a society where millions need to take to the streets just to get the message across that black lives do indeed matter? Reflecting on our own life and reality from these three questions brings up one summary question, are we really free?