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Vonnegut, Harrison Bergeron and the New Heavens and Earth

June 15, 2007

Last night we had a hearty meal of bacon wrapped chicken, green peas, and Newcastle, accompanied by a tasty cranberry almond salad. It was hearty because of the fellowship. My two brothers and their wives joined our table for a delectable time of story-swapping, after returning from their recent travels in Scotland and Turkey.

Ben passionately recounted the true history of William Wallace, while Luke and Miranda kept us in stitches from some of their stories about their not-so-proficient-in-English, Turkish travel guide . Before transitioning from the dinner table to the comfort of the living room, we listened to the short story of “Harrison Bergeron” (1961) by Kurt Vonnegut.

Harrison Bergeron is the imprisoned son of George Bergeron, an exceptionally smart and capable man who is weighed down by state-issued handicaps–a 47 lb bag of birdshot around his neck and a radio transmitter ear piece that broadcasts mentally disruptive sounds every 20 seconds. It is an age of equality, due to the 211, 212, 213 amendments to the constitution. Everyone is forced to be of average intelligence, appearance, and capability.

While watching T.V. Harrison and his wife witness the prison escape of their son, whose handicapps are much greater than George’s. Like ripping through wet toilet paper, Harrison tears off the strips of steel attached to his shoulders to weigh him down. He breaks free of his mind and vision handicapping devices on live television and dubs himself Emperor of the world.

Then, he takes a ballerina for an empress and begins to dance to orchestral music. They soar in mid-air, upwards of 30 feet, just shy of the studio ceiling, where they eventually suspend in mid-air in a long-lasting kiss of love. This moment of serenity, inequality and peace is then radically disrupted by the shot of a double-barrel gun. The handicapper general killed them in mid-air and restored equality.

With tears in their eyes, George and his wife watch the T.V. burn out. They have forgotten what happened due to their mental handicaps. “What was it?” George asks his wife. “It’s all kind of mixed up in my mind,” said Hazel. “Forget sad things,” said George. “I always do,” said Hazel.

What do you think of this vision of equality? How does enforced equality square with the “equality of the new heavens and earth?” These are some of the questions we discussed around the dinner table. What are your thoughts?

Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) has been named one of the best American novelists of the 20th century. Vonnegut’s writing style is distinct blending satire, black comedy, science fiction.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 15, 2007 9:36 am

    Vonnegut is one of my favorite writers. Keen wit and insight into the ways we bite and devour each other in our world always make entertaining books when mixed with the science fiction oddities and twists.

    about equality in the kingdom of God. It always stands out to me that in God’s redemptive kingdom that we see mixed with this equality a welcoming and appreciation for diversity. differnt parts of the one body variety of gifts for the building up, etc. We even see this diversity in our creation in the image as male and female. There is a interconnectedness and relationship that is necessary in the kingdom. a reflection of the trinitarian nature of God I am sure.

    Second thing is the idea of in Christ God is making us all that we are created and intended to be. We aren’t weighed down to handicap but are redeemed and restored to fulfill our calling of loving God’s creation as he would

    Finally a third thing in the kingdom you have an emphasis on loving one another and thinking more about the other than yourself.

  2. June 15, 2007 9:40 am

    Good points, Jason. What do you think of Vonnegut’s egalitarian vision? Will we all be “equal” in the new creation? After all, there are numerous texts that describe differing rewards for different people based on our good works.

  3. June 15, 2007 10:52 am

    Maybe equality isn’t the best word or concept to describe relationship in the kingdom. I think relationship in the kingdom stresses the three things that I said before love, fulfillment of created calling, and diversity istead of equality.

    Vonnegut’s view of equality sees it as very limiting, oppressive and restrictive.

  4. Chris permalink
    June 18, 2007 3:53 am

    I am a huge Vonnegut fan. I first read this story many years ago before I accepted Christ as my lord and savior. Then (to me), it was a clever, albeit twisted vision of a future mankind but now I see the “handicapper general” as Satan and the “handicaps” as sin. I see it as a commentary on the dangers of our current world.

    I know all too well the “handicapping” and oppressive nature of sin. And like most of the characters in this story, I was unware that I was shackled by it. I simply accepted it. But through Christ and God’s amazing grace, I now feel like Harrison and Satan cannot burden me as before. The past handicaps just can’t keep me down.

    I don’t know if this intepretation was Vonnegut’s intention, but in a secular sense I think this story comments on how mankind MUST be careful in what steps he takes to make a level playing field. It is a slippery slope without God and Jesus Christ to hold onto to.

  5. June 19, 2007 5:04 am

    i’m pretty certain Vonnegut meant this to be a satire on socialism, less power to the people, more power to the elite. however, there are some interesting parallels with Christianity, as Chris has so vividly pointed out.

    To discuss the Christian spin you put on it, will heaven offer a “level playing field”?

    I thought it was interesting that art, dance, love, beauty were the things that were highlighted as Harrison’s first acts…

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