It is the year 2081. Because of Amendments 211, 212, and 213 to the Constitution, every American is fully equal, meaning that no one is stupider, uglier, weaker, or slower than anyone else. The Handicapper General and a team of agents ensure that the laws of equality are enforced.
One April, fourteen-year-old Harrison Bergeron is taken away from his parents, George and Hazel, by the government. George and Hazel aren’t fully aware of the tragedy. Hazel’s lack of awareness is due to average intelligence. In 2081, those who possess average intelligence are unable to think for extended stretches of time. George can’t comprehend the tragedy because the law requires him to wear a radio twenty-four hours a day. The government broadcasts noise over these radios to interrupt the thoughts of intelligent people like George.
Hazel and George are watching ballerinas dance on TV. Hazel has been crying, but she can’t remember why. She remarks on the prettiness of the dance. For a few moments, George reflects on the dancers, who are weighed down to counteract their gracefulness and masked to counteract their good looks. They have been handicapped so that TV viewers won’t feel bad about their own appearance. Because of their handicaps, the dancers aren’t very good. A noise interrupts George’s thoughts. Two of the dancers onscreen hear the noise, too; apparently, they are smart and must wear radios as well.
Hazel says she would enjoy hearing the noises that the handicappers dream up. George seems skeptical. If she were Handicapper General, Hazel says, she would create a chime noise to use on Sundays, which she thinks would produce a religious effect. The narrator explains that Hazel strongly resembles Diana Moon Glampers, Handicapper General. Hazel says she would be a good Handicapper General, because she knows what normalcy is. Before being interrupted by another noise, George thinks of his son, Harrison.
Hazel thinks George looks exhausted and urges him to lie down and rest his “handicap bag,” forty-seven pounds of weight placed in a bag and locked around George’s neck. He says he hardly notices the weight anymore. Hazel suggests taking a few of the weights out of the bag, but he says if everyone broke the law, society would return to its old competitive ways. Hazel says she would hate that. A noise interrupts the conversation, and George can’t remember what they were talking about.
On TV, an announcer with a speech impediment attempts to read a bulletin. He can’t overcome his impediment, so he hands the bulletin to a ballerina to read. Hazel commends him for working with his God-given abilities and says he should get a raise simply for trying so hard. The ballerina begins reading in her natural, beautiful voice, then apologizes and switches to a growly voice that won’t make anyone jealous. The bulletin says that Harrison has escaped from prison.
A photo of Harrison appears on the screen. He is wearing the handicaps meant to counteract his strength, intelligence, and good looks. The photo shows that he is seven feet tall and covered in 300 pounds of metal. He is wearing huge earphones, rather than a small radio, and big glasses meant to blind him and give him headaches. He is also wearing a red rubber nose and black caps over his teeth. His eyebrows are shaved off.
After a rumbling noise, the photo on the Bergerons’ TV screen is replaced with an image of Harrison himself, who has stormed the studio. He says that he is the emperor, the greatest ruler in history, and that everyone must obey him. Then he rips off all of his handicaps. He looks like a god. He says that the first woman brave enough to stand up will be his empress. A ballerina rises to her feet. Harrison removes her handicaps and mask, revealing a beautiful woman.
He orders the musicians to play, saying he will make them royalty if they do their best. Unhappy with their initial attempt, Harrison conducts, waving a couple of musicians in the air like batons, and sings. They try again and do better. After listening to the music, Harrison and his empress dance. Defying gravity, they move through the air, flying thirty feet upward to the ceiling, which they kiss. Then, still in the air, they kiss each other.
Diana Moon Glampers comes into the studio and kills Harrison and the empress with a shotgun. Training the gun on the musicians, she orders them to put their handicaps on. The Bergerons’ screen goes dark. George, who has left the room to get a beer, returns and asks Hazel why she has been crying. She says something sad happened on TV, but she can’t remember exactly what. He urges her not to remember sad things. A noise sounds in George’s head, and Hazel says it sounded like a doozy. He says she can say that again, and she repeats that it sounded like a doozy.
By the year 2081, the search for true equality of all U.S. citizens has led to the creation of scores of amendments to the Constitution. In every case, the effort has not been to raise the standards of those handicapped by their differences or inadequacies. Instead, those who are gifted with superior intellect, physical beauty, or strength are penalized.
Those who are beautiful must wear hideous masks, intelligent people must wear headsets that jangle their brains and nerves with a series of loud, annoying sounds, and those with physical agility or strength must carry sacks of birdshot to weigh them down. Thus, in the race of life, all Americans are handicapped so that no one must ever feel ugly, stupid, or “like something the cat dragged in.”
Diana Moon Glampers is the Handicapper General, whose job is to track down violators of the law and rid society of those who menace the average, the inadequate, the mediocre. If a man wants to rest from the drudgery of carting around fifty pounds of birdshot by removing some pellets, he can be killed. Those, such as Harrison Bergeron, who learn to overcome their handicaps are forced to shoulder ever larger burdens, or noisier apparatus, or face incarceration or execution.
Society has become so repressive that no one dares question the increasing numbers of new laws that call for more handicaps and punishments. All those who oppose the Handicapper General are arrested, thrown into mental institutions, or shot because they threaten the fabric of society. The effects of these governmental policies are appalling. Society is stagnant because those smart enough to develop new technology, medicine, and literature have been permanently handicapped, exiled, or killed.
Television announcers have speech impediments, dancers cannot dance, musicians are tone deaf, and families lose all purpose, continuity, compassion, and love. A good example of this is Harrison Bergeron’s story. Harrison escapes from an asylum that was meant to protect society from him. Fourteen years old and already seven feet tall, he is the handsomest young man possible, and possesses an intellect that would stagger even Albert Einstein. George and Hazel, his parents, are aware of his exploits from reports on television. Harrison threatens the regime, for he would remove all artificial handicaps and enable people to achieve beyond the limits set by their inadequacies.
Instead of attempting to rally support to overthrow the government and create a better society, Harrison merely breaks into a television studio, disrupting the musical show by removing everyone’s masks and handicaps. Choosing the most beautiful of the dancers, he dances higher and higher as the musicians play brilliantly. As the couple leap, they appear to fly in the air as they kiss the ceiling—this is freedom! The sound of two shotgun blasts signals that Harrison and the ballerina have been shot down by the Handicapper General.
Harrison’s parents witness the entire affair on their television, but when George goes to the kitchen for something and Hazel gets sidetracked, neither can remember why they are crying—something sad on television, no doubt.