Originally published in 1961 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, “Harrison Bergeron” is Kurt Vonnegut’s most well-known story. In The Short Fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, Peter J. Reed describes the story as “vintage Vonnegut …extremely funny while at the same time touching on several serious social issues.” While often read as a satire on forced equality, the story is complex enough to merit interpretations across the political spectrum. Anyone who has not yet read the story can find it in Vonnegut’s collection, Welcome to the Monkey House. It is also available online.
A staple of high school and college anthologies, “Harrison Bergeron” is for many students their “first” Vonnegut. In his 2015 essay “Technologies of Amnesia: Teaching ‘Harrison Bergeron’ to the Millennial Generation” (published in Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice), Benjamin Reed, a writer and lecturer at Texas State University, examines the different interpretations of the story and his experiences teaching it to undergraduates.
Reed shared his thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.
Q: In your essay you write that “Harrison Bergeron” always resonates with students. Why is that?
A: I think partly it’s their age. Most of my students are underclassmen, between 18 and 20. They’ve just made this tremendous, terrifying leap from a small, knowable world into a cosmos of uncertainty. Even if they don’t know it, they have been developing a personalized and reliable moral and philosophical framework from which they get a kind of pleasure by testing it against challenging stories. It’s one of the many reasons literature—especially fiction—needs to be taught heavily in high school and college. Also, because my young students still carry a residue of their teenage years, they’re very keen to notice unfairness, and the failings of well-intended authority figures, because they still bear fresh marks from the trauma of surviving late childhood in the households of their terribly human parents.
There is also the disquieting terror of seeing a lost child erased from his parents’ memory, which has to click, if only on a preconscious level, with young people who have recently left home for the first time.
For the complete interview, follow the link below:
Teaching “Harrison Bergeron” – An Interview with Benjamin Reed