Thoughts about “Harrison Bergeron,” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and “Speech Sounds,” by Octavia Butler

Since teaching with the Heinemann Units of Study, I’ve grown weary of “Harrison Bergeron,” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors. I could read Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan, and Slaughterhouse Five a million times and never feel the groan of “This, again?” But “Harrison Bergeron” just doesn’t do it for me anymore. There are no characters in the story. Sure, there’s George, Hazel, Harrison, the ballerinas, and Diana Moon Glampers, but none of them have any complex attributes that can be studied (that, and I just hate the way “Glampers” feels and sounds in my mouth). They’re Socrates’s shadows at best, and cartoons at worst. They’re almost functional, and that’s what’s so frustrating about the story. I am conflicted because I know that’s the entire point of the story–these people have been so stripped of everything meaningful in life that they have no character. After years of reading it though, it’s become dull. Vonnegut is such a skilled writer, and to make dull what could be a fascinating story pains me.

As I racked my brain trying to think of some other material I could use, NPR played a special on Octavia Butler in honor of Black History Month and the anniversary of her death. I love Butler’s work. I’ve read the Xenogenesis series several times over. I read and re-read the Earthseed couplet. And the Patternmaster quartet? Forget it. Her works continue to blow my mind even on repeated reads. This is the difference between Butler’s body of work and Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.” I could read them over and over and always find something new.

The NPR special reminded me of her short story collection, Bloodchild, and I thought, “There must be something in there that I can use. I particularly recalled a story about a “community-body” that resembled a shrub, and they would surround people and take them in. I saw, however, that the short story, “Amnesty,” was 40 pages. I needed a story that I could read in a 45 minute class-period. I thought about cutting it down, but it would be a fruitless effort. Every word matters.

That’s when I found “Speech Sounds,” another not-so-short short story at 24 pages. That might work; I’d previously read “New Kittens,” by Woody Guthrie to my classes, and that was quite long (and brutal). I thought, the pages are small, the font nicely sized and spaced. Maybe I could do it. I practiced a reading of it and was able to do it in about 40 minutes.

“Speech Sounds” takes place in a world ravaged by a virus that strips people of their intellectual ability to speak, understand spoken language, read, and write. Most people suffer from some form of paralysis, and then death (the narrator says it’s “stroke-like”). The virus doesn’t affect everyone the same way though. Some people can read and write. Some people can only speak and understand speech. This is the case with the protagonist, Vanessa Rye, and her love interest, Obsidian, a man who goes around as an unofficial police officer, trying to rescue people and break up fights. I thought, this speaks directly to the themes we’re working with in the Dystopian Unit.

Vanessa Rye is a tragic character. Her immediate family has been killed by the virus. To further her suffering, she was once an academic, a history teacher at UCLA. In effect, she has lost the identity around which she has built her life. When she discovers Obsidian’s ability to write, she wonders, “What did literacy mean to him–a grown man who played cops and robbers?” (98). How bitter she feels about him, and how conflicted. Here is a man to whom she is attracted, toward whom she has feelings of connectedness, but he has something that she wants more than anything else.

“Speech Sounds” and “Harrison Bergeron” are not unlike each other entirely. They both discuss suppression of speech. In discussing this with my students, I came to some surprising realizations. Often, the conversation would go, “Well, in ‘Harrison Bergeron’ the suppression is man-made, and in ‘Speech Sounds’ the suppression is biological.” I began to wonder how true this was though. In “Speech Sounds,” the narrator says:

The bearded man stood still, made no sound, refused to respond to clearly obscene gestures. The least impaired people tended to do this–stand back unless they were physically threatened and let those with less control scream and jump around. It was as though they felt it beneath them to be as touchy as the less comprehending. This was an attitude of superiority, and that was the way people like the bus driver perceived it. Such “superiority” was frequently punished by beatings, even by death.

(Butler, 93)

Here, it is clear that the suppression of communication is not entirely biological. Humans have created a de facto hierarchy by which those who are “more comprehending” are targeted by those who are deemed “less comprehending.” Having read so many of Butler’s works, I should have known that the problem wasn’t biological–it was man-made after all.

I began to think about our pandemic, the Covid-19 pandemic. I will admit that I spend way too much time on Facebook community pages reading unhinged comments about how the virus is fake, or masks don’t work, or Trump-said-this-but-meant-that, or whatever else. Comments in all caps, comments with thirty exclamation points and a 1 at the end. Are these people for real? Are these people real at all? Surely, some of them must be. I peruse their profiles sometimes to see what they’ve made public. Sometimes they look real. Other times they’re profiles with an ambiguous, overly patriotic profile picture (American flag and a bald eagle) and a handful of friends. No posts other than conspiracy theorist memes. Fake. Gosh, if only Butler lived to see this.

When I talk to my like-minded friends about these comments, they wonder why I make a habit of responding to them. The response I give is, “They are just so loud. We need to be loud, too.” After reading “Speech Sounds,” though, I’m not quite sure volume is the answer. I don’t know what the answer is, but I don’t think being louder than “them” is the answer. The fact that in my mind I’ve created a “them” is the actual problem. This is what Butler is talking about in nearly all of her works–our tendency as humans to place people in the category of “other.” I struggle so much with this. How can I not? How can I be better so as not to put people with reprehensible views in “other” categories? How can I be better so I humanize them? I go in circles about this because on one hand, so many of these “people” are actually bots. On the other hand, many of them are real. And on my third metaphysical hand, you can’t even tell the difference. We are living in a rough draft of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, only Philip K. Dick decided, “No, that’s too much.”

Much like Butler’s other works, from Xenogenesis to Patternmaster and Earthseed, our problems do not stem from the circumstances that surround us. Our problems derive only from our humanity and sometimes, lack of humanity.

Teachable Moments and Connections to Other Texts

Here are some topics you can discuss with your students, or think about if you are a student who happens to be working with this story.

Surrogacy – Rye embarks on her journey from LA to Pasadena in order to see if her brother and his two young, male children are still alive. However, she decides in the middle of the story to go back home with Obsidian and be content with the fantasy that her brother and his children might still be alive. This reminded me of Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist when the crystal merchant tells Santiago of his dream to go to Mecca. The merchant ultimately decides that the dream is better than the real experience could be. Thus, he would never go to Mecca and would instead stay. This also reminds me of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, how none of the families are biological. This is a little different because the families are not patchwork as they are in “Speech Sounds,” but they are purposely constructed.

The concept of surrogacy is extended when Rye decides to keep the two children she discovers at the end of the story after their parents are killed. In Rye’s mind, these children are stand-ins for her own children who died from the virus.

Communication – I mentioned this earlier in this post, but the main source of conflict in this story isn’t the virus per se, it’s the inability for characters to communicate with each other. This inability leads to violence for most people. There is also the hierarchy of those who are more able being targeted by those who are less able. This hierarchy is complicated by competition for competent men, as men had suffered worse from the virus.

Power – Octavia Butler is always writing about power struggles. One great moment where you can analyze power dynamics is within the hierarchies describes above as well as the moment where Rye reflects on her neighbor across the street. Butler writes: “He rarely washed since his bout with the illness. And he had gotten into the habit of urinating wherever he happened to be. He had two women already–one tending each of his large gardens. They put up with him in exchange for his protection. He had made it clear that he wanted Rye to become his third woman” (96). Since men are rare, they have exceptional power over women, so much so that this character can urinate wherever he wants without consequence. He also has multiple wives and has no qualms with claiming a third. Butler makes clear here that protectors have power and those who are protected submit to power.

Symbolism of Obsidian – The character is a protector and the stone is considered a protector in mystical settings. To extend, obsidian is a type of volcanic glass often used to make sharp knives. While sharper than steel knives, obsidian can also break very easily. Obsidian had been polished in ancient times to create mirrors. In the context of “Speech Sounds,” it is likely that Butler chose this for many reasons: (1) to remind us that the characters in her books and stories are Black, (2) to embody his “protector” identity, (3) a literal foil for Rye. Although Rye characterizes herself as a protector, she admits to only protecting herself, whereas Obsidian protects others at the expense of himself. (4) Obsidian rock is made from the violent, destructive force of volcanoes. Obsidian, the man, has also come from destruction. Obsidian’s protective nature is also illustrated when he reveals his box of condoms. This also shows, along with his gas can earlier in the story, how prepared he is for the dangers of the world.

Symbolism of Rye – The symbolism behind Rye is magnified when juxtaposed with Obsidian. The plant is soft, malleable, and fragile. Rye is a grain that’s used for flour, bread, beer, whiskey, oatmeal, and animal feed. It grows well in poor soil and can withstand cold weather better than other cereals. If anything, I might make the claim that the author’s choice to name the character Rye is to point out her hardiness and adaptability. She appears gentle and fragile, but she survives in the poorest of conditions. This is a direct contrast with obsidian rock, which is hard but breaks easily.

If you search for “Rye symbolism” in Google, you will likely find how rye is used as a symbol in JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which takes its main symbol from a misunderstanding of the Robert Burns poem, “Comin Thro’ the Rye.” In Salinger’s novel, the protagonist, Holden, wants to act as a protector to all the children who are playing in the rye. Here, the rye symbolizes childhood and the edge of the rye symbolizes adulthood. Some students may try to make a vague connection here, but I don’t think there is one, despite Holden’s desire to protect.

Connection to The Maze Runner, by James Dashner – When Thomas arrives and Theresa arrives soon after, the boys in the Glade conclude that they must be together and because they’re together, they cannot be trusted. This is similar to “Speech Sounds” during the fight scene in the beginning:

One of the men who had been fighting tapped another on the arm, then pointed from the bearded man to Rye, and finally held up the two first fingers of his right hand as though giving two-thirds of a Boy Scout salute. The gesture was very quick, its meaning obvious even at a distance. She had been grouped with the bearded man. Now what?

(Butler, 94)

Here, we see Butler drawing upon in-groups and out-groups as she does so well.

Connection to “Ponies,” by Kij Johnson – This is a short story that is often prescribed in the 8th grade dystopian unit. Johnson also explores what lengths people will go through in order to be accepted into the in-group and the pitfalls of societal rejected. I enjoy this story, but what makes “Speech Sounds” so frightening is that it’s so close to reality. It could happen. While “Ponies” is a great allegory, it is not in any sense seated in reality, and thus it’s not as frightening.

Integrating and Diversifying Curriculum

Although Heinemann’s Units of Study aims to be inclusive and based on social justice, its recommended materials are overwhelmingly White. We explore great works by Kurt Vonnnegut, Kij Johnson, Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, Edgar Allen Poe, and when we get pop culture recommendations we go to Taylor Swift. There is a glaring lack of authors of color that are recommended by the Units of Study.

If you scour the depths of the Internet, you might find people who are offended by inclusivity and diversity. They view this as replacing White authors with Black authors. They might be offended that I replaced Kurt Vonnegut with Octavia Butler. Here’s the thing though: Octavia Butler isn’t new. “Speech Sounds” won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1984. This is a remarkable text that deserves a space in the classroom. I didn’t replace Kurt Vonnegut. “Harrison Bergeron” is still there in my online classroom’s short story collection folder and is available for students to read independently as well as use for assignments.

When I give assignments, I rarely assign a single text. Instead, I allow students to choose a text. This could be their independent book or a story from the short stories folder. Sometimes I will make a recommendation (e.g. “Speech Sounds” is a great story if you’re looking for ironic moments”). This way, students own the work. They are exposed to a variety of works and authors. They learn to make better reading choices. More challenging texts (like “Speech Sounds”) are read aloud and discussed before giving any critical work with it.

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