For tonight’s look into literature I jumped into something a bit different. It is another compare and contrast but a couple stories that step away from the usual around here. Tonight we will be looking into the stories Harrison Bergeron from Kurt Vonnegut and the Enormous Radio from John Cheever.
When taken at face value the stories “Harrison Bergeron” and “The Enormous Radio” seem like they would be completely different stories. But in their own way, each story broaches the subject of how people see themselves and how they see others. Each story plays with the idea of the situations that can have an effect on self-image or the effects of allowing others to control a person’s self-image.
Within each story the reader is shown a defining couple that the rest of the story is based upon. In the story of “Harrison Bergeron” the reader discovers the world of the story through his (Bergeron’s) parent’s eyes. They are average because everyone within the parameters is average or in the story’s words “equal” (Vonnegut). Cheever’s story sets the same tone in its own opening line, “Jim and Irene Westcott were the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability” (Cheever 250). It is within these parameters that the reader explores the rest of the world the writers have lain bare.
Another similarity between each story is the use of technology and its importance to the overall experience of the story itself. At the time of writing television was not a predominant fixture in most people’s homes. This is why the focus of “The Enormous Radio” is the radio itself. The couple gains their world view by listening to the stories in the world around them. In Vonnegut’s story the technology has progressed to television. The couples in the story gain their view of the world through the shows they are able to watch. In each case this is an important feature because it dictates the information the reader will be given and how they will assimilate the clues of the story.
Before digging deeper into the information of each story it is important to understand a couple key terms. Human beings define themselves by two key features. The first is Self-Image. The Psychology dictionary defines self-image as “how we see ourselves and gives us a sense of our personality and our success in relationships and our wellbeing” (Psychology Dictionary). The Second is Self-Worth. Self-worth is how a person views themselves in comparison to others (Simply Psychology). These are the guiding principles that each of these stories can be examined through.
In “The Enormous Radio” the reader is given a glimpse of the world outside of the Westcott’s home through a new radio that is not working as it would be expected to work. Mr. Cheever points out that neither Jim nor Irene know how to work it so much of the time they are simply turning dials and hoping for the best. But this doesn’t change the idea that the reader can understand that even a malfunctioning radio shouldn’t pick up other people’s conversations. As Irene spends her days listening to the lives of others in her apartment building she grows attached and dependent on this alternative form of entertainment. In this the reader is shown how the Westcott’s develop their self-worth. They must not be too bad off in comparison to the people around them.
Vonnegut isn’t as subtle in the way he approaches the issue in his story. In Harrison Bergeron the reader is presented a world where the inhabitants are already handicapped. The traits that would allow them to have a high self-worth are taken away through mechanical measures. Because this world is shown to the reader through the television (plot device), the reader is shown the visual side of self-image as well. Bags cover the faces of ballerinas; characters are given weights to slow them down, and the noise to force smart people to lose their train of thought. On the surface each of these could be taken for exactly what they appear to be. But when a reader digs a little deeper the handicaps these characters are given taken on the symbolism of the negative effects that people have when they base their self-worth on the views of others.
In each story there is a defining moment that shows the power of how a person can be affected by the views of others, outside of the dimensions laid out already. In “The Enormous Radio” this moment happens after the radio has been fixed the last time and Irene and Jim begin their fight. Irene begs him to stop his accusations. Her fear resides around others finding out that their marriage and life is not what they pretend it to be. It is easy to be perfect behind closed doors where no one else can see what is going on. Her self-worth is based on being better than those around her.
In Harrison Bergeron the reader encounters a different tact. Harrison Bergeron is described as essentially the perfect person. He is given more handicaps to keep him down in order to compensate for how perfect he is. His defining moment happens when he declares himself emperor and rips off the shackles of handicaps he has been given. There is a powerful and subtle symbolism in how easy he removes the fetters that bind him. He shakes off the power of those around him and determines his own worth despite what the world throws at him. What’s more, through his bold act of defining himself he helps another step out of the fetters that bind her as well. Together they are able to embrace the world in their own perfect self-images.
But the world doesn’t work like that. As the reader finds in “The Enormous Radio” the climax reaches its crescendo when Jim goes through the list of all the wrongs Irene has done in her life. Cold and calculating he cuts straight to her psyche to show her she is really no better than anyone else, maybe even worse in some cases. For “Harrison Bergeron” the reader is shown a similar climax. As Harrison and his empress dance, dance to their highest leap, the Handicapper General steps in and blasts them with a shotgun. Granted this is a more visceral image but the symbolism is the same. It is when someone thinks they are at their highest point that they can be cut down by the words and actions of others.
In the final resolution of each story the reader is given a glimpse of the effect these views have on the characters as a whole. In the Cheever story, Irene is brought to bear. She has been knocked down by the words of her husband and she is left with the hope that upon learning who she really is, that the world around her will be kind to her. “Irene stood for a minute before the hideous cabinet, disgraced and sickened, but she held her hand on the switch before she extinguished the music and the voices, hoping that the instrument might speak to her kindly” (Cheever 258).
In Vonnegut’s story the reader is shown a glimpse that might be closer to the truth. Through the eyes of the initial characters (Bergeron’s Parents) the reader is shown how the world most likely feels about the success or failure of others. The world is too caught up in their own problems to remember what happened or even care after a short time. It drives the point home even more when Bergeron’s father steps back into the room after getting a beer and has no clue about what happened.
“You been crying” he said to Hazel.
Yup, she said.
What about? He said
I forget, she said. Something real sad on television.
Forget sad things, said George.” (Vonnegut)
Though both stories have a different approach in the study of human self-image, they both make good observations of how people are affected by their views of others and how others view them. Even if a person feels strongly about who and what they are, it is still possible for someone else to cut them down and destroy their world. Or as was seen in the case of the Westcotts, people need to be careful how they judge others, because their history can be just as awful or worse than those they are judging.
Cheever, John. “The Enormous Radio.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Seventh ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 250-258. Print
“HARRISON BERGERON.” Vonnegut, Kurt. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. <http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/harrison.html>.
“Self Concept | Simply Psychology.” Self Concept | Simply Psychology. Web. 20 Nov. 2014. <http://www.simplypsychology.org/self-concept.html>.
“Short Story Analysis: Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron”” Nanapvcc. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. <http://nanapvcc.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/short-story-analysis-kurt-vonneguts-harrison-bergeron/>.
“The Enormous Radio – John Cheever.” The Sitting Bee. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. <http://sittingbee.com/the-enormous-radio-john-cheever/>.
“What Is SELF-IMAGE? Definition of SELF-IMAGE (Psychology Dictionary).” Psychology Dictionary. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. <http://psychologydictionary.org/self-image/
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