Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

4 Mar 2011

(Short Story) Harrison Bergeron by: Kurt Vonnegut

(Reaction) Cutting the Tall Poppies by: Michelle Rose Solano

It was in my reading and research of Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron that I encountered the term "tall poppy" for the first time. Using the literary powers called context clues, I had an inkling that a tall poppy refers to a person who is "a cut above the rest." I was right. But there is more.

The "tall poppy syndrome" is so called to refer to the social phenomenon when people of brilliance, exception or merit (the tall poppies) are brought down, criticized or cut down because, well, we humans can't accept someone being better than us and being elevated above us. This is experienced not just in Harrison's dystopian world but also in our own.

A lot of the story takes place in what is unsaid and can be read between the lines and subtle dialogues of the main characters. When Hazel Bergeron said, "I think I'd make a good Handicapper General ," her husband replied, "Good as anybody else." The reader will surmise that meant it quite literally because in the story everyone is equal, so the idea of being better than anyone else, of competition, was nonexistent.

How the world changed and why is not expounded in the story but can be guessed through lines like, "...pretty soon we'd be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else."

In the year 2081, the setting of Harrison Bergeron, all people are equal, so there is no more worry of anyone being better than anyone else. The dark ages of wars and competing for supremacy are remembered with disdain. If you are exceptionally beautiful, you have to wear a mask so that you don't make the plain people feel bad. If you are brilliant or intelligent, random noises would go off in your head, giving you a migraine to prevent you from focusing too much and thinking faster than the normal people around you. Naturally lithe athletes have to carry weights to prevent others from feeling clumsy and slow-moving.

Unfortunately, Harrison Bergeron, the tallest poppy in the story was born handsome, intelligent and athletic. And he believes he has a right to be all three even though the 211th, 212th and 213th amendments to the United States Constitution says it is illegal to be so. Escaping from jail, Harrison crashes a live broadcast, declaring himself the emperor: the only exceptional man in the unexceptional world. For a fleeting instant, like most who are caught in the limelight, he is glorified. Then, moments later he is shot down. And so ends Harrison Bergeron, whose death not even his parents can mourn because the alarm bells in their heads prevent them from thinking about what just happened.


If you are a hardcore lover of science fiction and satire, you will instantly love this story. Unfortunately, it isn't something you could recommend your 14-year-old students to read unless you're a lover of blank stares, heavy sighs and "I don't get it, Miss."

Kurt Vonnegut's prose is very witty and flippant. Like most works of satire, Vonnegut chooses to create a reality where the misdeeds of society have been exaggerated to paint the picture. Though written way back in 1961, the story remains timely today, and the warning it carries can still be applied to us now.

This story is a warning to society. I keep rereading it not only because of its amusingly clever writing but because, though set in a dystopian world unlike our own, it has a familiar ring to it. As our world becomes more and more politically correct and oversensitive, I sometimes wonder if we are turning ourselves into sissified versions of ourselves who will cry "Foul!" at every little thing. Crab mentality is still prevalent. The news is filled with more negative than positive, choosing to persecute and poke fun of those at the top (celebrities and politicians) rather than elevate or honor every day heroes (heck, there are lots of them). The all-powerful media chooses to dumb down to be able to compete with rivals rather than set a higher standard that can encourage viewers and consumers to follow. Until we stop cutting down the tall poppies, our future is still in danger of sharing the same fate as Harrison Bergeron.

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