Here are the first three paragraphs of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic short story, “Harrison Bergeron”:
THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.
Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron’s fourteen- year-old son, Harrison, away.
It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.
Experienced readers of contemporary fiction—plus hopefully most other readers—will, within a few lines, be able to recognize cues that reveal the story to be a darkly comedic social satire. Some of the cues are contained in the details of the story itself, but others are communicated by Vonnegut’s language. The lapses into folksy diction, for example, while discussing the distortion and destruction of societal ideals within our democracy —people are described as being equal “every which way” and April is maligned because it “drove people crazy.” This serves to heighten the absurdity and the level of satire.
As soon as you recognize this, you begin to read the story differently. But would your students? If they didn’t pick up on the satire, the dark comedy, the deadpan absurdity, they would surely fail to understand the story completely. But more than that they’d miss an opportunity to learn how to read more astutely. The cues for satire—or any other tone or style—are not exactly universal but they are communicated, mostly, through the aggregation of tiny moments in a text. There isn’t so much a single moment that says “Hey, this is satire!” but a rather series of notes that the narration strikes and which a reader who has developed an “ear” for tone recognizes. This is a key skill in reading. And a very challenging one.
So how do we teach something so subtle?
One effective way, which we discuss in Reading Reconsidered, is Sensitivity Analysis. The idea is that by creating hypothetical changes to a text and asking student to study them side-by-side with the original, we can create opportunities where students start to see crucial word choice in stark relief and thus notice more clearly the influence of each decision. To us this is one of the most important purposes for Close Reading.
In order to show you what I mean by this I put together—with guidance from Maggie Johnson–some questions you might ask students in reading the first three paragraphs of “Harrison Bergeron” with the purpose of both helping students to recognize satire and more broadly develop their ear for subtleties in language. Here’s what I came up with:
Sensitivity Analysis Questions for “Harrison Bergeron”
- The third sentence reads, “They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way.” How would it be different if the sentence had instead read, “They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal in every possible manner”?
[Discussion: “Every possible manner” is much more formal language and more typical of how we’d ordinarily talk about, say, social movements that yielded constitutional amendments. I inserted it in place of “every which way” to highlight the folksy-ness of Vonnegut’s language. Hearing the two sentences side by side emphasizes the difference. But of course just hearing the difference once might not make the point.]
- “All this equality, was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution,” the narrator says.
Identify the two changes I have made in ‘revising’ the sentence below and suggest how the story would read differently if it read this way:
“The increased equality in society was due to the 31st, 32nd and 33rd Amendments to the Constitution”
[Discussion: Again, here, I’d want my students to hear how the phrase “all this equality” sounds like your aunt or uncle talking over Sunday dinner. Very casual. Very uncharacteristic of social criticism. I’d also want my students to catch the subtle critique of government in Vonnegut’s choice of amendment numbers…. In the 100 or so years between when he wrote the story and when he imagines it taking place, he imagines almost 200 amendments. Almost 8 times the number ratified to date in American History. This immediately implies the absurdity of the government in question.]
- The third paragraph begins:
“It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts.”
How would the passage be different if the paragraph began:
“It was tragic, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had an average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts.”
[Discussion: Here I eliminated the elements of folksy diction, “all right” and “perfectly” to again show how Vonnegut is writing dystopian satire of our nation’s founding principles in a chatty, nearly comedic tone. Interestingly, both of the two pieces of language I removed are completely extraneous to the meaning. They are superfluous and merely serve to characterize the narrative voice and emphasize its sing-song absurdity.
- Try to link your reflections on these three questions. How would you describe Vonnegut’s narrative voice? What might be the reason and/or results of using such a voice?
[Discussion: I’ve just recently realized that this sort of “wrap up” question is often necessary. It asks students explicitly to connect the dots between the three data points and therefore to describe how tone and voice coalesce out of a variety of tiny, almost invisible moments of usage. It’s the moment where they hopefully begin to see how meaning is constructed. This last question might not always be necessary but here, I think, it probably would be, because the goal is not just to develop an intuitive feel for the author’s narrative voice but to recognize how and why it is satirical because recognizing that it is satirical is necessary to reading the story.]