Aristotle, a famous Greek philosopher, once argued that the best story plots are made up of two components that revolve around scenes of reversal and recognition. The first is the reversal scene, which consists of sudden, unexpected changes for audiences, characters, or readers. Follow the recognition scene, where the main character or readers have the ultimate realization, or end up learning a lesson.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote the story of Harrison Bergeron in such a way that the audience would be able to recognize both the reversal and the recognition scenes from the outset. Aristotle concluded that when recognition and reversal take place at the same time, the character and, or, the audience will understand that things play out differently than predicted; this leads to pity and fear. In particular, he believed that after reading, individuals will then be able to purge unwanted emotions. In the plot, individuals were described as physically and mentally equal in 2081, all cheers to the passing of the Constitution’s ‘Amendments 221, 212 and 213’ (Vonnegut 226) and the unceasing vigilance of the United States Handicapper General’s agents. It was described as a utopian world; there were no longer human beings who were outstandingly beautiful, smart, or athletic.
In the year 2081, machines that prevent individuals from excelling in every aspect; creating equality and harmony that everyone wanted. The average American in the story is said to be the opposite of all the qualities that you want in another person. Although the whole story seems to be in reversal and recognition scenes overall, it is important to understand that unlike other short stories, the reversal and recognition scenes in Harrison Bergeron are aimed at the viewer rather than the characters in the novel.
It seemed that in the storyline, individuals can not have a thought that lasts longer than the 20-second cycle. It never occurred to the crowd that after the rebellion the son would be dead, much worse, that in just seconds he would also be forgotten. Despite their short-term memory spans as brief as Nemo’s Dory, we feel like there may be an upsurge after Harrison’s death or shifts. When all returned to ‘normal’ (p. 227) suddenly, with Hazel only being able to recall what she saw was ‘something really tragic on TV’ (p. 228). And her husband George telling her to “forget sad things” (p. 228), this led to recognition and reversal scenes, where the reader then faces an abrupt ending to the story.
As said by Aristotle, it is through events that ‘pity and fear affect their catharsis’. With an abrupt ending where the parents of Harrison have forgotten the murder of their own son, pity and fear are activated as Aristotle has described. From what Harrison seemed to have portrayed on television as a long show to what a limited intelligence mind can handle, this leads to a sudden change in pity for everybody in the scene. With each adult unable to use his or her own mind, and every counteracting and uprising action failed and forgotten, it presages the eternity of that ‘equality’ (p. 226).
The climax from the plot, with the readers expecting a change to happen, only to find out there was no progress. Instead, with all the events overlooked by everyone including his parents created fear and recognition among the audiences. The viewer knows that when someone like Harrison Bergeron can’t escape the system or change the system, then how can anyone? It is also through these very unpleasant sensations that we experience about the occurrence that causes us to purge the feeling, realizing that in fact we would never be doing this in our world. Aristotle argues that, as we go through stories similar to Harrison Bergeron, ‘we experience emotional pleasure’ (n.p.) With the audience feeling a sense of pity and fear for the characters through the whole plot, understanding that they’re at the same time safe and it is all a disillusion to keep people like us coming back for more.
From the beginning of Harrison Bergeron, readers are shocked by the usual projectivity of the plot. With Harrison, the person who had a strong gene of intellect, energy, and beauty that his own father, George, conceived of as an ‘abnormal son who is now in jail’ (Vonnegut 227). On the other hand, George regarded Hazel, his wife, Harrison’s mother, as just an individual who was characterized to be stupid and to be deemed ‘normal.’
“I think I’d make a good Handicapper General.”
“Good as anybody else,” said George.
“Who knows better’n I do what normal is?” said Hazel (p. 227)
Vonnegut applies Aristotle’s two concepts of reversal and appreciation to the readers rather than the characters in the story. Hazel is said to have similar intelligence compared to the head of government, as portrayed as a confused, incompetent individual who wants to ‘have sunday chimes’ (p. 227) to respect religion; it gives the impression that the government has been run by senseless and mindless individuals. Furthermore, it puts anxiety in the audience, thinking about physically handicapped individuals being unaware of what is going on or probably fear of living in a world like that. The story seems to have another secret reference that mocks the American government. Illustrating Americans as handicapped and confused by their own society, as well as what is occurring in current events. Instead of having intelligent folks that are problem solvers, we opt to choose the one who is considered normal and relatable to make us feel better about ourselves.
In essence, while the story appears to portray itself as sci-fi fiction, it depicts the United States metaphorically in modern times, and how the government system works. Metaphorically, Vonnegut mocks U.S. citizens as having invisible handicaps, failing to recognize their difficulties, and pursuing equality without dreaming of an acceptable solution, which would represent the eventual secret scene of reversal and recognition We see our governmental organization as smart and efficient when it is in reality flawed and we’re just pawns to a much bigger chess game.