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TEXT OVERVIEW: “Harrison Bergeron” The quick scoop: Genre: Science fiction Author: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Background: (from Spark Notes) “Harrison Bergeron” is a satirical, dystopian, science fiction short story that was first published in 1961. It offers vigorous political and social criticisms of both America in general and the America of the 1960s. The political system depicted in Vonnegut’s story is distinctly American and founded on the principles of egalitarianism, which holds that people should be equal in every way. Equality is a beloved principle enshrined in America’s constitution in the phrase “All men are created equal,” but Vonnegut suggests that the ideals of egalitarianism can be dangerous if they are interpreted too literally. If the goal of equality is taken to its logical conclusion, we may decide that people must be forced to be equal to one another in their appearance, behavior, and achievements. Summary: “Harrison Bergeron” takes place in the year 2081 where, in this futuristic society, laws were made to ensure that everyone was equal. To achieve this, the government handicaps the more intelligent, beautiful, or athletic members of society. For example, strength is handicapped by the requirement to carry weight on one’s body. Harrison Bergeron, the story’s protagonist, has exceptional intelligence, strength, and beauty, and thus has to bear enormous handicaps. Despite this, he breaks free from his handicaps and declares himself Emperor in an attempt to overthrow the government. However, he is shot and killed by the Handicapper General (the government official who enforces the handicaps to preserve social equality). His parents, George and Hazel, watch the entire event unfold on television, but are unable to understand or appreciate what happened due to George’s handicapped intelligence and Hazel’s average intelligence. THE FRAMEWORK: What do I need to know about this text to reach the student outcomes? What is the author trying to convey? The ideas of egalitarianism and total equality can be dangerous if interpreted to literally; total equality at all costs could potentially limit individual freedoms and achievements. How does the author create meaning? What must a reader do to get meaning? “Harrison Bergeron” is a satire, or a literary criticism of Students should visualize the descriptions of the people and society through ridicule. The author uses characters and their handicaps to understand the humor and exaggeration and develops the text’s humor and absurdity of the society in which the story themes through the use of characterization and takes place. For example, descriptions of dancers symbolism. burdened with weights, bags of birdshot, and masked faces help a reader picture the absurd actions the Hazel and George are both directly and indirectly society takes to ensure equality at all costs. developed. George is an intelligent and strong man who is complicit with the government’s mandate of total equality through absurd handicaps. Readers see that George’s handicaps have left him unable to question the government and emotionally barren (as seen through his distracted indifference while watching his son being killed on television.) Hazel, on the other hand, is characterized as a well-intentioned “average” citizen, who has no handicaps; through her characterization, readers discover that “average” is a low bar in this society. Harrison Bergeron stands alone as a character of great strength, intelligence and beauty; contrary to other characters, he lacks cowardice and seeks power. The main conflict of the text occurs when he breaks free of his handicaps and challenges the government and Handicapper General, which results in his murder. Harrison is an archetypal symbol, who represents defiance and individuality; the Handicapper General is also an archetypal symbol, representing those in control. STUDENT OUTCOMES: What should students know, understand, and be able to do through this text? Culminating Question: Sample Student Response: Claim: What critique does Kurt Vonnegut level against the Vonnegut’s short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” is a clear quest for total equality in society in “Harrison warning to readers that the quest for total equality – at Bergeron,” and how does he convey this theme all costs – can have a negative impact on our through characterization and/or symbolism? individuality and society as a whole. In your answer, make sure you: Possible Details: Explain how Vonnegut conveys this theme Vonnegut’s characterization of George, Hazel, through either the characters and/or and Harrison demonstrate this idea of equality symbolism in the text. taken to an absurd extreme. George is unable to complete a thought or mourn his son’s murder due to distracting “handicaps” that limit his ability to think (for fear that he will be more intelligent than others). This demonstrates Vonnegut’s concern about what could happen if ideas are taken to the extreme and individual achievements and strengths are limited. Harrison Bergeron and his actions symbolize defiance against society’s handicapping laws; while he stands out as different against the rest of society, his murder serves as a warning to readers about how individuality can be killed or limited in a society that takes equality to the extreme and tries to make other equal in every regard. Correlating Objectives: Day 1: SWBAT describe how the characters George and Hazel are directly and indirectly developed in “Harrison Bergeron” and explain what this reveals about the society in which they live. Day 2: SWBAT compare Harrison Bergeron and the Handicapper General to other characters in the text and discuss what each symbolizes. Day 3: SWBAT explain how the text’s characters and the symbols of Harrison Bergeron and the Handicapper General reveal the text’s theme. SWBAT define satire and justify why “Harrison Bergeron” can be classified as a satire. DAY 1: SWBAT describe how the characters George and Hazel are directly and indirectly developed in “Harrison Bergeron” and explain what this reveals about the society in which they live. “Harrison Bergeron” DAY 1 by Kurt Vonnegut Students will need to comprehend the setting of the text, even though it is not (1) The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God directly related to the objective. From the and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody opening paragraphs, they should know: was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the This story takes place in the US in unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General. 2081 (2) Some things about living still weren't quite right, though. April for instance, still drove American society has taken equality to people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took the extreme. George and Hazel Bergeron's fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away. (3) It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn't think about it very hard. Hazel had a DAY 1 perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn't think about anything except in short Students should use the details provided bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap about Hazel and George to understand radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government their characters; specifically, in paragraph transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep 3, the characters are directly developed, people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains. with the author directly telling us what they (4) George and Hazel were watching television. There were tears on Hazel's cheeks, but are like: she'd forgotten for the moment what they were about. Hazel is of average intelligence, (5) On the television screen were ballerinas. though readers should understand (6) A buzzer sounded in George's head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar that this does not render her very alarm. smart. (7) "That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did," said Hazel. (8) "Huh" said George. George is very smart – and as (9) "That dance-it was nice," said Hazel. such, he is given a handicap that makes him less smart. (10) "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 sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free DAY 1 and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. George was Students should use the details provided toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn't be handicapped. But he didn't get very about the “handicaps” on the ballerinas to far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts. understand the absurdity of the (11) George winced. So did two out of the eight ballerinas. government’s approach to ensuring (12) Hazel saw him wince. Having no mental handicap herself, she had to ask George what equality at all costs. Prompt student to the latest sound had been. visualize these details to help them identify (13) "Sounded like somebody hitting a milk bottle with a ball peen hammer," said George. the humor/absurdity of these handicaps. (14) "I'd think it would be real interesting, hearing all the different sounds," said Hazel a little envious. "All the things they think up." (15) "Um," said George. (16) "Only, if I was Handicapper General, you know what I would do?" said Hazel. Hazel, as a matter of fact, bore a strong resemblance to the Handicapper General, a woman named Diana DAY 1 Moon Glampers. "If I was Diana Moon Glampers," said Hazel, "I'd have chimes on Sunday-just Although students do not need to chimes. Kind of in honor of religion." understand the Handicapper General’s (17) "I could think, if it was just chimes," said George. character to reach the day’s objective, (18) "Well-maybe make 'em real loud," said Hazel. "I think I'd make a good Handicapper students should understand this character General." and her role, since it will be important for (19) "Good as anybody else," said George. reaching Day 2’s objective. (20) "Who knows better then I do what normal is?" said Hazel. (21) "Right," said George. He began to think glimmeringly about his abnormal son who was now in jail, about Harrison, but a twenty-one-gun salute in his head stopped that. (22) "Boy!" said Hazel, "that was a doozy, wasn't it?" (23) It was such a doozy that George was white and trembling, and tears stood on the rims of his red eyes. Two of the eight ballerinas had collapsed to the studio floor, were holding their temples. (24) "All of a sudden you look so tired," said Hazel. "Why don't you stretch out on the sofa, so's you can rest your handicap bag on the pillows, honeybunch." She was referring to the forty- seven pounds of birdshot in a canvas bag, which was padlocked around George's neck. "Go on and rest the bag for a little while," she said. "I don't care if you're not equal to me for a while." (25) George weighed the bag with his hands. "I don't mind it," he said. "I don't notice it any more. It's just a part of me." (26) "You been so tired lately-kind of wore out," said Hazel. "If there was just some way we could make a little hole in the bottom of the bag, and just take out a few of them lead balls. Just a few." (27) "Two years in prison and two thousand dollars fine for every ball I took out," said George. DAY 1 "I don't call that a bargain." Students should use the dialogue between (28) "If you could just take a few out when you came home from work," said Hazel. "I mean- George and Hazel to better understand you don't compete with anybody around here. You just set around." their characters. Specifically, they should (29) "If I tried to get away with it," said George, "then other people'd get away with it-and understand that George, who is an pretty soon we'd be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against otherwise intelligent individual, is complicit everybody else. You wouldn't like that, would you?" with the handicaps he is forced to wear (30) "I'd hate it," said Hazel. since he believes they are a better (31) "There you are," said George. The minute people start cheating on laws, what do you alternative to a society where competition think happens to society?" and individual strengths are recognized. (32) If Hazel hadn't been able to come up with an answer to this question, George couldn't have supplied one. A siren was going off in his head. (33) "Reckon it'd fall all apart," said Hazel. (34) "What would?" said George blankly. (35) "Society," said Hazel uncertainly. "Wasn't that what you just said? (36) "Who knows?" said George. (37) The television program was suddenly interrupted for a news bulletin. It wasn't clear at first as to what the bulletin was about, since the announcer, like all announcers, had a serious speech impediment. For about half a minute, and in a state of high excitement, the announcer tried to say, "Ladies and Gentlemen." (38) He finally gave up, handed the bulletin to a ballerina to read. (39) "That's all right-" Hazel said of the announcer, "he tried. That's the big thing. He tried to do the best he could with what God gave him. He should get a nice raise for trying so hard." (40) "Ladies and Gentlemen," said the ballerina, reading the bulletin. She must have been extraordinarily beautiful, because the mask she wore was hideous. And it was easy to see that she was the strongest and most graceful of all the dancers, for her handicap bags were as big as those worn by two-hundred pound men. DAY 1 (41) And she had to apologize at once for her voice, which was a very unfair voice for a While students do not need to understand woman to use. Her voice was a warm, luminous, timeless melody. "Excuse me-" she said, and Harrison Bergeron’s character in Day 1, she began again, making her voice absolutely uncompetitive. they should comprehend that he is different (42) "Harrison Bergeron, age fourteen," she said in a grackle squawk, "has just escaped from from George and Hazel in that he is not jail, where he was held on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. He is a genius and complicit with the handicaps of society. an athlete, is under-handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous." This will help “prime the pump” for Day 2’s objective. STOPPING POINT DAY 1 DAY 2: SWBAT compare Harrison Bergeron and the Handicapper General to other characters in the text and discuss what each symbolizes. (43) A police photograph of Harrison Bergeron was flashed on the screen-upside down, then sideways, upside down again, then right side up. The picture showed the full length of Harrison DAY 2 against a background calibrated in feet and inches. He was exactly seven feet tall. Students should identify the details that (44) The rest of Harrison's appearance was Halloween and hardware. Nobody had ever born characterize Harrison Bergeron. heavier handicaps. He had outgrown hindrances faster than the H-G men could think them up. Specifically, they should note that he Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and contrasts with the rest of society and has spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, been forced to wear the most extreme but to give him whanging headaches besides. handicaps due to his extraordinary (45) Scrap metal was hung all over him. Ordinarily, there was a certain symmetry, a military intelligence and athleticism. However, neatness to the handicaps issued to strong people, but Harrison looked like a walking junkyard. In unlike society (and his father), Harrison the race of life, Harrison carried three hundred pounds. does not willingly accept these handicaps. (46) And to offset his good looks, the H-G men required that he wear at all times a red rubber ball for a nose, keep his eyebrows shaved off, and cover his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle-tooth random. (47)"If you see this boy," said the ballerina, "do not - I repeat, do not - try to reason with him." (48) There was the shriek of a door being torn from its hinges. (49) Screams and barking cries of consternation came from the television set. The photograph of Harrison Bergeron on the screen jumped again and again, as though dancing to the tune of an earthquake. (50) George Bergeron correctly identified the earthquake, and well he might have - for many DAY 2 was the time his own home had danced to the same crashing tune. "My God-" said George, "that Students should comprehend while George must be Harrison!" recognizes Harrison on the television, the (51) The realization was blasted from his mind instantly by the sound of an automobile thought is blasted from his mind due to his collision in his head. handicap. (52) When George could open his eyes again, the photograph of Harrison was gone. A living, breathing Harrison filled the screen. (53) Clanking, clownish, and huge, Harrison stood - in the center of the studio. The knob of the uprooted studio door was still in his hand. Ballerinas, technicians, musicians, and announcers cowered on their knees before him, expecting to die. (54) "I am the Emperor!" cried Harrison. "Do you hear? I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!" He stamped his foot and the studio shook. (55) "Even as I stand here" he bellowed, "crippled, hobbled, sickened - I am a greater ruler DAY 2 than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!" Students should identify Harrison’s words (56) Harrison tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper, tore straps and actions and use them to comprehend guaranteed to support five thousand pounds. that he is defiant, unlike the others in (57) Harrison's scrap-iron handicaps crashed to the floor. society. He removes his handicaps, and (58) Harrison thrust his thumbs under the bar of the padlock that secured his head harness. asserts himself in a government takeover. The bar snapped like celery. Harrison smashed his headphones and spectacles against the wall. (60) He flung away his rubber-ball nose, revealed a man that would have awed Thor, the god of thunder. (61) "I shall now select my Empress!" he said, looking down on the cowering people. "Let the first woman who dares rise to her feet claim her mate and her throne!" (62) A moment passed, and then a ballerina arose, swaying like a willow. (63) Harrison plucked the mental handicap from her ear, snapped off her physical handicaps with marvelous delicacy. Last of all he removed her mask. (64) She was blindingly beautiful. (65) "Now-" said Harrison, taking her hand, "shall we show the people the meaning of the word dance? Music!" he commanded. (66) The musicians scrambled back into their chairs, and Harrison stripped them of their DAY 2 handicaps, too. "Play your best," he told them, "and I'll make you barons and dukes and earls." Students should recognize that Harrison’s (67) The music began. It was normal at first-cheap, silly, false. But Harrison snatched two words, actions, and description set him musicians from their chairs, waved them like batons as he sang the music as he wanted it played. apart from others. His dialogue here He slammed them back into their chairs. demonstrates his open defiance of the (68) The music began again and was much improved. government and society, which is important (69) Harrison and his Empress merely listened to the music for a while-listened gravely, as to understand what he symbolizes. though synchronizing their heartbeats with it. (70) They shifted their weights to their toes. (71) Harrison placed his big hands on the girl’s tiny waist, letting her sense the weightlessness that would soon be hers. (72) And then, in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang! (73) Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well. (74) They reeled, whirled, swiveled, flounced, capered, gamboled, and spun. (75) They leaped like deer on the moon. (76) The studio ceiling was thirty feet high, but each leap brought the dancers nearer to it. (77) It became their obvious intention to kiss the ceiling. They kissed it. DAY 2 (78) And then, neutraling gravity with love and pure will, they remained suspended in air Students should identify the actions that inches below the ceiling, and they kissed each other for a long, long time. the HG takes to stifle Harrison’s defiance (79) It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio (by killing him). Since she is a major with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress governmental power, students should were dead before they hit the floor. examine her as a symbol for those in (80) Diana Moon Glampers loaded the gun again. She aimed it at the musicians and told control, while Harrison symbolizes them they had ten seconds to get their handicaps back on. individuality and defiance. (81) It was then that the Bergerons' television tube burned out. (82) Hazel turned to comment about the blackout to George. But George had gone out into the kitchen for a can of beer. (83) George came back in with the beer, paused while a handicap signal shook him up. And then he sat down again. "You been crying" he said to Hazel. (84) "Yup," she said. (85) "What about?" he said. (86) "I forget," she said. "Something real sad on television." (87) "What was it?" he said. (88) "It's all kind of mixed up in my mind," said Hazel. (89) "Forget sad things," said George. (90) "I always do," said Hazel. (91) "That's my girl," said George. He winced. There was the sound of a riveting gun in his head. (92) "Gee - I could tell that one was a doozy," said Hazel. (93) "You can say that again," said George. (94) "Gee-" said Hazel, "I could tell that one was a doozy." STOPPING POINT, DAY 2 Day 3: SWBAT explain how the text’s characters and the symbols of Harrison Bergeron and the Handicapper General reveal the text’s theme. SWBAT define satire and justify why “Harrison Bergeron” can be classified as a satire. Note: In pre-reading, you’ll want to return students’ attention to the opening paragraphs; help them understand that their task is to uncover Vonnegut’s attitude toward the society depicted in this text – a society in which inequality is outlawed. Students will then re-read the excerpts below in the during-reading portion of the lesson to help them determine how characters and archetypal symbols are used to convey the text’s theme. The first excerpt will help students analyze various characters to determine Vonnegut’s perspective that preventing people from making use of their natural talent makes the world and overall inferior place. The second excerpt will help students focus in on additional repercussions of a society that “dumbs down” its citizens and makes them unable to understand the world around them. Once students have unlocked Vonnegut’s message, introduce the concept of satire to them, and invite them to re-examine the text to identify specific places that classify “Harrison Bergeron” as such. DAY 3 Prompt students to contrast the handicapped Harrison with the “natural” EXCERPT 1 Harrison. Students should note how strong (54) "I am the Emperor!" cried Harrison. "Do you hear? I am the Emperor! Everybody must do Harrison is – he tears off his handicaps what I say at once!" He stamped his foot and the studio shook. “like wet tissue paper” or snaps them “like (55) "Even as I stand here" he bellowed, "crippled, hobbled, sickened - I am a greater ruler celery” – and that he is almost god-like in than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!" his appearance with his handicaps (56) Harrison tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper, tore straps removed. guaranteed to support five thousand pounds. (57) Harrison's scrap-iron handicaps crashed to the floor. Prompt students to conclude that Vonnegut (58) Harrison thrust his thumbs under the bar of the padlock that secured his head harness. views this character – the lone person who The bar snapped like celery. Harrison smashed his headphones and spectacles against the wall. defies the laws set up by society - as very (60) He flung away his rubber-ball nose, revealed a man that would have awed Thor, the god much superior to the others. Students of thunder. should thus begin to conclude that (61) "I shall now select my Empress!" he said, looking down on the cowering people. "Let the Vonnegut perhaps does not agree with the first woman who dares rise to her feet claim her mate and her throne!" laws instituted by society. (62) A moment passed, and then a ballerina arose, swaying like a willow. (63) Harrison plucked the mental handicap from her ear, snapped off her physical handicaps with marvelous delicacy. Last of all he removed her mask. DAY 3 (64) She was blindingly beautiful. Students should also note that other (65) "Now-" said Harrison, taking her hand, "shall we show the people the meaning of the word characters within the text – the ballerina dance? Music!" he commanded. and the musicians – are much more (66) The musicians scrambled back into their chairs, and Harrison stripped them of their attractive and more skilled with their handicaps, too. "Play your best," he told them, "and I'll make you barons and dukes and earls." handicaps removed. Students should (67) The music began. It was normal at first-cheap, silly, false. But Harrison snatched two especially make note of Vonnegut’s musicians from their chairs, waved them like batons as he sang the music as he wanted it played. description of their music at first as He slammed them back into their chairs. “normal” and thus “cheap, silly, false” and (68) The music began again and was much improved. then as “much improved” when Harrison applies his natural talent to it and they are permitted to apply theirs, too. (69) Harrison and his Empress merely listened to the music for a while-listened gravely, as DAY 3 though synchronizing their heartbeats with it. In paragraphs 71-78, prompt students to (70) They shifted their weights to their toes. make note of the feats the characters are (71) Harrison placed his big hands on the girl’s tiny waist, letting her sense the weightlessness capable of when allowed to exercise their that would soon be hers. natural skills – Harrison and the ballerina, (72) And then, in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang! for instance, are able to dance to the (73) Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of ceiling. motion as well. (74) They reeled, whirled, swiveled, flounced, capered, gamboled, and spun. Help students see that Vonnegut thus (75) They leaped like deer on the moon. suggests that without handicaps to tie them (76) The studio ceiling was thirty feet high, but each leap brought the dancers nearer to it. down, people are capable of anything – the (77) It became their obvious intention to kiss the ceiling. They kissed it. laws of this society severely hinder human (78) And then, neutraling gravity with love and pure will, they remained suspended in air inches talent. below the ceiling, and they kissed each other for a long, long time. EXCERPT 2 (79) It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor. (80) Diana Moon Glampers loaded the gun again. She aimed it at the musicians and told them they had ten seconds to get their handicaps back on. (81) It was then that the Bergerons' television tube burned out. DAY 3 (82) Hazel turned to comment about the blackout to George. But George had gone out into the Students should use the conversation kitchen for a can of beer. between George and Hazel at the end of (83) George came back in with the beer, paused while a handicap signal shook him up. And the text to identify the impact of society’s then he sat down again. "You been crying" he said to Hazel. handicaps – George and Hazel are unable (84) "Yup," she said. to mourn the murder of their son and (85) "What about?" he said. simply continue to move through their lives (86) "I forget," she said. "Something real sad on television." in a mindless way. (87) "What was it?" he said. (88) "It's all kind of mixed up in my mind," said Hazel. (89) "Forget sad things," said George. (90) "I always do," said Hazel. (91) "That's my girl," said George. He winced. There was the sound of a riveting gun in his head. (92) "Gee - I could tell that one was a doozy," said Hazel. (93) "You can say that again," said George. (94) "Gee-" said Hazel, "I could tell that one was a doozy."
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