"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman
"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman
Harlan Ellison's short story, "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," first appeared in Galaxy magazine in December 1965, and earned Ellison both a Hugo and a Nebula award in 1966. The story was first collected in Paingod and Other Delusions in 1965, and has been frequently anthologized over the years, appearing in Nebula Award Stories 1965 (1966) and The Essential Ellison: A 50-Year Retrospective (2001) among other anthologies. Indeed, the story has been anthologized more than 160 times since its first publication, and has been translated into many languages. In 1997, Ellison and Rick Berry collaborated on a lavishly illustrated, oversized edition of the story, published by Underwood Press, with a new introduction by Ellison.
The world of the Harlequin is one run by the Master Timekeeper, generally known as the Ticktockman. In this world, people are on time, or run the risk of having their lives shortened by the minutes of their tardiness. Into this depressingly gray world steps the gaudily dressed Harlequin, throwing jelly beans at workers changing shifts. A comic hero, the Harlequin threatens the existence of the state, and brings the wrath of the Ticktockman down on himself.
Compared by some critics to George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Aldous Huxley's equally famous novel, Brave New World (1932), "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" is both dark and humorous, a twentieth-century cautionary tale of mechanical tyranny.
From his early days, Harlan Ellison has been an individualist and social gadfly. Born in Cleveland on May 27, 1934, he published his first short story in 1947 in the Cleveland News. By the age of 17, he demonstrated his interest in science fiction by founding the Cleveland Science Fiction Society.
Ellison was not one to suffer the restrictions of academia. Although he attended Ohio State University for two years, he was asked to leave by University administrators. Subsequently, he went to New York where he continued his writing career. While in New York, he joined a gang in order to research his novel, Rumble. Ellison's next job was with the United States Army, serving from 1957 through 1959. In the years after his military service, Ellison started both a magazine, Rogue, and a publishing firm, Regency Books. Throughout this period, Ellison wrote many short stories and essays.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1962, Ellison began writing for television in addition to successfully publishing both novels and short stories. His list of credits for television include episodes of such popular shows as The Outer Limits, Burke's Law, and Route 66. His best-known television screenplay, however, was his script for Star Trek in 1967, "The City on the Edge of Forever." For this episode, he won a Hugo Award in 1967, and a Writer's Guild of America Award in 1968.
In 1965, Ellison wrote "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," perhaps his most famous and anthologized story. First appearing in Galaxy magazine in December 1965, the story received critical acclaim, winning both a Hugo and a Nebula Award. Subsequently, Ellison included the story in his 1965 collection, Paingod and Other Delusions. Although the volume takes as its subject agony in many different manifestations, stories such as "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" also suggest Ellison's sense of humor.
During these same years, Ellison wrote some of the stories for which he is most famous, collected in books such as I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (1967) and The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World (1969). In 1967, Ellison edited and annotated one of the most important science fiction anthologies ever published, Dangerous Visions. This volume, and the 1972 Again, Dangerous Visions, firmly connected Ellison with "New Wave" science fiction, although this is a label that Ellison rejects.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Ellison continued to produce short stories, novels, screenplays, and essays, focusing on critical cultural commentaries. In 1987, a comprehensive collection of Ellison's work, The Essential Ellison: a 35-Year Retrospective was edited by Terry Dowling, with Richard Delap and Gil Lamont who updated the collection in 2001 with The Essential Ellison: a 50-Year Retrospective.
Although Ellison has been actively writing for more than fifty years, he continues to be involved in a dizzying array of activities. Ellison's long 1992 short story "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore" appeared in the prestigious The Best American Short Stories (1993). In 2000 and 2001, he was a consultant and host for a radio series of 26 one-hour short story dramatizations. The series aired on National Public Radio and included an adaptation of "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman." In addition, Ellison continues to produce graphic novels, computer games, screenplays, and an assortment of other creative works. Always the voice of resistance, in 2002, Ellison took America Online to court for copyright infringement. Ellison shows no signs of slowing the pace of his work; indeed, new technologies have opened new avenues for his fertile imagination.
"'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" is the story of a future world, controlled by a tight schedule and the ticking of a clock. In charge of this world is the Ticktockman, a robot-like figure with the power to shorten or terminate anyone's life as a penalty for running late.
The story begins with a long quote from Henry David Thoreau's essay, "Civil Disobedience." In this passage, Thoreau asserts that most men "serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies." Further, a "very few" men serve the state with their consciences, a service that forces them into resistance of the state. These men, according to Thoreau, are heroes, and often, martyrs.
Ellison then shifts to the story, beginning somewhere in the middle. He sets the story in the future, at a moment when one individual is resisting the enforced schedule of this extremely regimented society. Worse still, this man, called the Harlequin, has become a hero to some of the lower classes. As such, he represents a threat to the state, and has consequently come to the attention of the Master Timekeeper, otherwise known as the Ticktockman.
The Harlequin, so named for his habit of dressing in the medieval fool's garb of motley, is a trickster figure. He disrupts workers as they try to change shifts, thus disrupting the master schedule. In one instance, he drops 150,000 dollars' worth of jelly beans on workers on automatic sidewalks, trying to change shifts, delaying the master schedule by seven minutes. For this crime, the Harlequin is ordered to appear before the Ticktockman.
Ellison then shifts to what he calls "the beginning." In this section, he offers examples of the increasing intrusion of time schedules into people's lives. He writes, "And so it goes. And so it goes. And so it goes goes goes goes goes tick tock tick tock tick tock and one day we no longer let time serve us, we serve time and we are slaves of the schedule…bound into a life predicated on restrictions because the system will not function if we don't keep the schedule tight." As a result of this, all citizens are required to wear "cardioplates" that measure their punctuality, and allow the Ticktockman to turn them off should they literally run out of time.
The story then shifts again into the ending. The Harlequin is at home with his wife or girlfriend, Pretty Alice, who is disgusted with his inability to be on time. Ultimately, she turns his name over to the Ticktockman, which allows his forces to capture the Harlequin.
As it turns out, the Harlequin is not someone very special, just a man named Everett C. Marm "who had no sense of time." Confronted with the demand to repent, Marm tells the Ticktockman to "Get stuffed!" As a result, he is sent to Coventry for brainwashing. To kill him outright would be to martyr him; by brainwashing, the authorities are able to put him on television and broadcast his recantation.
It might appear that the story ends with Marm's demise and failure; however, at the last moment readers discover that the Ticktockman himself is running three minutes late.
The Harlequin, whose real name is Everett C. Marm, is a "man who had no sense of time." Dressed in motley fashion, the Harlequin disrupts the daily activities of the society in which he lives through practical jokes (such as showering shift workers with jelly beans) and his general lack of attention to time. Physically, the Harlequin is a small man, "elfin and dimpled and bright-eyed." He becomes a sort of hero to the lower classes, the people who through their daily work allow the entire system to run. Because of this, he comes to the attention of the Ticktockman who sends out his minions to find out who the Harlequin really is.
As a man, Everett C. Marm is not "much to begin with," but as the Harlequin, he is a danger to a society that depends on punctuality and smooth running of its machinery. His general nonconformity and his anarchistic actions threaten the culture. Indeed, he incites crowds of people to "saunter a while," to "enjoy the sunshine." When he tells the crowd, "down with the Ticktockman," he is essentially committing treason. Consequently, the Harlequin is captured, apparently brainwashed, and made to appear on television to recant.
Because "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" is a kind of allegory, none of the characters are developed or rounded, nor are they intended to be. Although the Harlequin is the main character, he represents a type of character rather than a realistic individual. His reply to the Ticktockman, "Get stuffed!" is indicative of his status as the trickster/rebel, the character who refuses to cooperate with authority in spite of the danger to himself.
Everett C. Marm
See The Harlequin
Pretty Alice is Everett C. Marm's girlfriend or wife. She is someone who "wants to belong," someone who finds living in the conformity and regularity of the society both comfortable and desirable. She is disgusted with Marm's role as the Harlequin, and she is out of patience with Marm's habitual lateness. Ultimately, she betrays the Harlequin to the Ticktockman by revealing his real name.
The Ticktockman is the Master Timekeeper of the society. As such, his role is to make sure that everything runs smoothly and on time. He also has the capability of monitoring each citizen's punctuality and deducting the total number of late minutes from the life span of each individual. Thus if a person arrives five minutes late for work, the Ticktockman deducts those five minutes from the person's life. Ultimately, the Ticktockman turns off anyone whose tardiness becomes chronic or who accumulates too many late minutes.
The character of the Ticktockman represents the fusion of the totalitarian dictator with the all-powerful machine; he has both the will and the means to keep the System operating through the cardioplate technology that allows him access to an individual's every movement and biological processes. As such, this character is a villain.
Because the Ticktockman wears a mask, it is difficult for the reader to determine if he is a human or not. It is just as likely that he is a robot as a human being. Certainly, the noise he makes, "mrmee, mrmee, mrmee" at the end of the story, when he himself is running three minutes late, suggests that he is mechanical rather than human.
- "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" was adapted as a graphic novel in 1997 by Ellison and illustrator Rick Berry. The book was published by Underwood Books.
- A collection of Ellison short stories is available as an electronic book, released by Fictionwise.com in 2003, and available for download through Microsoft Reader. Volume 1 includes the story, "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman."
- A recording of Ellison's adaptation of "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" for the radio series 2000x, released in 2000, is provided by Hollywood Theatre for the Ear and is available through Audible.Com. Ellison narrates the story, and Robin Williams plays the Harlequin.
Conformity and Individualism
In "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," Ellison clearly sets his hero, the Harlequin, in opposition to both the totalitarian regime of the Ticktockman and the master schedule and to the masses of people who choose to conform to the strictures of the society. His opening quotation from Thoreau makes this clear. Thoreau argues that most people serve the state without thinking and without moral reflection. Consequently, for Thoreau, these people have no more worth than "horses and dogs." Real heroes, then, are those who "serve the state with their consciences." Ellison draws on Thoreau's image of "wooden men" who "can perhaps be manufactured" in his description of shift workers heading for their jobs: "With practiced motion and an absolute conservation of movement, they sidestepped up onto the slow-strip and (in a chorus line reminiscent of a Busby Berkeley film of the antediluvian 1930s) advanced across the strips ostrich-walking till they were lined up on the expresstrip."
The futuristic society of the story is one that values conformity and discourages individual differences. Indeed, the Harlequin's idiosyncrasies are considered "a strain of disease long-defunct, now, suddenly, reborn in a system where immunity had been forgotten, had lapsed." Personality itself had been "filtered out of the system many decades before." In a culture that depends on workers arriving on time at factories to do line work, conformity ensures the utmost efficiency in the production of uniform manufactured products. Individualism, then, is dangerous to "The Ones Who Kept The Machine Functioning."
It is in his description of Pretty Alice and the Harlequin, however, where Ellison most clearly demonstrates the contrast between conformity and individualism. Pretty Alice criticizes the Harlequin for speaking with "a great deal of inflection." In addition, she is irritated that he dresses differently from other people. But most of all, Pretty Alice is angry that the Harlequin is always late, in spite of his promises not to be. This anger eventually leads the conformist Alice to turn in the non-conformist Harlequin to the Ticktockman, who tells the Harlequin that Alice "wants to belong; she wants to conform." Even love, then, does not seem to have the power to conquer the suffocating sameness of the culture. Ironically, Alice's betrayal makes the Harlequin even more of an individualist; his loss of Pretty Alice means that he stands alone against the inquisition of the Ticktockman.
Topics for Further Study
- Read Thoreau's 1849 essay, "Civil Disobedience." What are the circumstances in which Thoreau wrote this essay? What are the main points that he makes? Why do you think that Ellison chose to use the quote that he did to start "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman?"
- Examine the adaptation of "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" by Ellison and Rick Berry as a graphic novel, looking particularly at the illustrations. How do the illustrations change or affect your reading of the story? What techniques does illustrator Berry bring to Ellison's short story? Pick some of the drawings that you would have done differently, redraw them according to how you think they should appear, and share with your class why you think your adjustments help convey the story better.
- Read Ellison's classic collections of essays on television, The Glass Teat (1970) and The Other Glass Teat (1975). What does Ellison have to say about the influence of television on American culture? Consider the ways television has changed since the 1970s. Write an essay about what you imagine Ellison might say about the television of the present day.
- John W. Campbell, writer and editor of Astounding Science Fiction and Analog, is considered the father of modern science fiction. Research Campbell's life and identify those writers on whom Campbell had the most influence. Write an essay that explores what you see as Campbell's legacy to the field.
Science and Technology
Like many writers of speculative fiction, Ellison seems to have mixed feelings about the ways science and technology affect the lives of citizens of industrialized nations. On one hand, the society in "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" appears to be prosperous; everyone seems to have a job, and even the Harlequin, who is late for everything, has access to an airboat and manages to secure the money to buy 150,000 dollars' worth of jelly beans. Technology and attention to the clock has made the culture and its people efficient to the maximum degree. Indeed, the entire culture of "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" serves technology. Like worker bees in a hive, the people report to work at exactly the same time each day, each to do his or her specific task designed to make the entire machine of the society run smoothly. This efficiency results in an orderly and safe climate for the citizens, "a society where the single driving force was order and unity and equality and promptness and clocklike precision."
It is science and technology, however, that also enable the government to monitor the individual lives of its citizens for promptness. Time cards and cardioplates are the means through which this happens. The cardioplate appears to be a device that each person wears that both monitors and regulates the flow of blood through the heart to the brain. When a cardioplate is turned off, the person dies. Ellison writes, "What they had done, was devise a method of curtailing the amount of life a person could have. If he was ten minutes late, he lost ten minutes of his life.… And so, by this simple scientific expedient (utilizing a scientific process held dearly secret by the Ticktockman's office) the System was maintained."
Literary allusions are references to familiar characters, real people, events, or concepts used to make an idea more easily understood. Moreover, allusions serve as a sort of intellectual shorthand; by inserting an allusion in a story, the writer succinctly inserts an additional text, or history, or philosophical system into his or her story, in just a word or two. For example, Ellison's opening passage from Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" not only provides the image of the hero into the story, it also embeds the whole notion of civil disobedience, Thoreau's metaphor of marching to the beat of a different drummer, and the incident of Thoreau's night in jail for his refusal to pay income tax, among other ideas and events. Likewise, by choosing to use Bolivar, Napoleon, Robin Hood, Dick Bong, Jesus, and Jomo Kenyatta as descriptors of how the lower classes thought of the Harlequin, Ellison is able in just a few words to insert the stories and historical events associated with each of these figures into his story.
One of the most important allusions in the story comes in the final page. "So they sent him to Coventry.… it was just like what they did to Winston Smith in NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, which was a book none of them knew about, but the techniques are really quite ancient, and so they did it to Everett C. Marm.…" 1984 is a book by George Orwell, written in 1949. The main character, Winston Smith, is a quiet bureaucrat who works in the ironically named Ministry of Truth. Smith secretly rebels against the government, and begins an illicit affair with Julia. Although they love each other, she betrays him during her torture and brainwashing. The novel, with its warning about the dangers of totalitarian society, hit a responsive chord in England and the United States; the world of 1984 seemed very close to the so-called "Iron Curtain" of the Soviet Bloc nations. Ellison's use of Orwell's title inserts the entire novel into the short story. Readers familiar with Orwell's work will recognize that the Harlequin is both brainwashed and destroyed as a result of his nonconformity. They will also recognize that Ellison has a larger purpose in this story, to warn his readers of the dangers inherent in contemporary industrial society.
Utopias and Dystopias
A utopia is an ideal place that does not exist in reality. Utopian literature creates an ideal world. Generally, utopian novels are novels of ideas where people have developed systems or technologies that allow them to focus on what is truly important in life. The word "Utopian" comes from the name of book written by Thomas More in 1516 about a perfect, imaginary place called "Utopia." Other famous utopian books include Plato's The Republic and H. G. Wells's A Modern Utopia.
Although "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" takes place in a futuristic world filled with technological conveniences, it belongs to a uniquely twentieth and twenty-first century variation of the utopia called a "dystopia." Rather than a description of an ideal place, a dystopian novel describes an oppressive and horrific world of the future where some of the most troubling aspects of contemporary society have expanded and defined the world of the future. Examples of this genre include George Orwell's 1984, as well as Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003).
Dystopias generally serve as cautionary tales, warning readers of what will come if present conditions are not corrected. In "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," Ellison warns against the homogeneity of modern life, and of the way that time and schedules are kept at the expense of individual human creativity.
McCarthyism and the Cold War
In the two decades before the writing of "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," a series of events occurred in the United States that marked the culture for years to come. In 1945, the Second World War ended. The Potsdam Conference effectively divided up Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. Consequently, the Soviet Union gained control over large sections of the area and quickly closed down access and communication to and from those countries. Winston Churchill in a famous speech referred to this part of the globe as the "Iron Curtain," and this metaphor persisted until the breakup of the Soviet Union many years later.
Thus, the "hot" Second World War degenerated into a cold war, a time when Western nations vied with the Soviet Union for power and control. Because both sides were developing considerable nuclear arsenals, the cold war was in deadly earnest; during the 1950s and 1960s, Americans lived with the very real fear of nuclear annihilation.
The fear of the Soviet Union and the fear of communism led to what has been described as "The Red Scare" in the United States. In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy began widespread accusations and investigations of suspected communist activities in the United States. He and his followers managed to elicit great support. Not only were government workers required to take loyalty oaths to keep their jobs, ordinary citizens were called upon to testify against their neighbors, coworkers, and friends. Many businesses and firms refused to hire anyone who had been accused of being a communist, even if they had not been found guilty of any wrongdoing. This led to what has been called a "blacklist." Many writers, actors, artists, and directors found themselves on this list and out of work for many years.
At the height of McCarthyism, the hearings were televised and viewed by Americans all over the country. Many people cooperated with the investigations and accusations as a way of keeping themselves safe from suspicion. Those who chose not to testify and who spoke out against McCarthy's group were often punished through the loss of jobs and income. Like the conformists of "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," many American citizens strove not to be noticed, rather than to stand up for what was right. Ellison came of age during the McCarthy era; his steadfast support of the individual's duty to resist oppressors of any persuasion reveals the deep impression this period had on him.
The Vietnam War
In 1954, the French defeat at the battle Dien Bien Phu ultimately led to American involvement in Vietnam. In response to a vacuum of power quickly filled by communist nationalists led by Ho Chi Minh, American presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, fearful of the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, sent first advisors and later troops to prop up a faltering and corrupt government in South Vietnam in their fight against the communist nationalists. In 1965, American public opinion, while still largely in support of the Vietnam policies of the American government was beginning to turn. As more men were drafted for service in Vietnam, and as the casualty lists grew larger, Americans began to question American involvement.
In many ways, "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" reflects the growing unrest with the Vietnam War. Ellison's use of Thoreau initially recalls Thoreau's own stance against the Mexican War. His refusal to pay income taxes used to support what he considered an unjust war landed him in jail. Likewise, Ellison reminds his readers that unthinking conformity and support of repugnant government decisions leads to a society where the government controls all. The Harlequin in many ways resembles the anti-war protestors of the 1960s in his essentially peaceful yet naive confrontation with the raw power of the state. The fictional Harlequin's jelly bean drop foreshadows real flowers in the gun barrels of National Guard troops, as does the Harlequin's arrest and imprisonment foreshadow the violence of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
In the end, it is unlikely that Ellison would support either the government position on Vietnam, or the crowd mentality of many of the war protests. Rather, Ellison demonstrates through this story the importance of the individual of conscience resisting both.
While Ellison's audience has largely been a popular one, academic writers also find much to say about Ellison and his work. George Edgar Slusser, for example, in an early study of Ellison's work, Harlan Ellison: Unrepentant Harlequin, connects Ellison to the tradition established by Poe, Hawthorne, Melville and Twain, that of the "mythical allegory."
D. R. Eastwood, on the other hand, examines "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" through the lens of Aristotelian rhetoric, suggesting that the story is a form of "Deliberative Rhetoric," as is Orwell's 1984. That is, these stories "caution citizens that their governments are encroaching upon their freedom and thereby diminishing their lives." He specifically identifies "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" as a parable.
Thomas Dillingham, in an article for Dictionary of Literary Biography, identifies the Harlequin as one of Ellison's most famous creations, and connects him to other famous literary characters such as Winston Smith from 1984 (1949) and the hero of Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962). He concludes that with this story, "Ellison thus adds his entry to the special subgenre of twentieth-century works that explore violation of the mind as the ultimate form of slavery."
Compare & Contrast
- 1960s: The use of technology grows dramatically during the decade. Supercomputers are linked together to increase their power, and there is both widespread optimism about technology as well as unease with how technology will be used in the future.
Today: Computers are in nearly every home, and most computers are linked to the Internet. This linkage offers ready access to a great deal of information, but many computer uses have concern that the linkages can also divulge private information to a large audience.
- 1960s: The Soviet Union reaches superpower strength, and the United States engages in a cold war with that nation. Americans fear the Soviet way of life, seeing in communism a denial of individuality.
Today: The Soviet Union no longer exists, and communism is no longer a world force, except in China where the emphasis is still on the community rather than on the individual.
- 1960s: Clocks and watches have hands and faces, which are significantly human descriptions of their working parts. Most importantly, clocks and watches are analog; that is, the second hands, minute hands, and hour hands move at a continuous, continual, and consistent rate. Measuring time, for most people, is somewhat approximate.
Today: Clocks and watches increasingly have digital displays that render seconds, minutes, and hours in discrete units. As a consequence, timekeeping for most people has become more precise.
Other critics praise Ellison for his development as a writer, as evidenced by the story. Joseph Patrouch, for example, cites "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" as Ellison's "breakthrough" story, the story that shows "Ellison growing out of the formula."
Nonetheless, while most critics applaud "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" for its daring experimentation and message, one who finds what he considers a fatal flaw in the story is Michael D. White. His concern is that Ellison does not pay attention to historical processes in the story, and thus, although this is a story concerned with time, it is nonetheless a static story. He writes that Ellison's "weakness stems from his inability to place this mechanistic, efficiency-oriented, and profit-geared system in the proper light of its historical origins and development. The system's past is absorbed in its present-future."
Ellen Weil and Gary Wolfe, in their 2002 study Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever, however, refute White's interpretation, arguing that it is not Ellison who portrays time as static; rather, it is the society the Harlequin wishes to undermine that destroys history. They argue, "One of the subtler ironies of the story is that it reveals how a society that ostensibly worships time in fact destroys or negates it.…" For Weil and Wolfe, "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" is the "central story" in Paingod and Other Delusions.
Other critics variously see "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" as an apocalyptic story (Oscar de Los Santos); as a mock epic (Stephen Adams); or as a representation of Mardi Gras madness (Earle V. Bryant). The centrality of "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" to the canon of Ellison's work suggests that there will be continuing readings of the story in the coming years.
Diane Andrews Henningfeld
Henningfeld is a professor of English literature at Adrian College who writes widely on literary topics for academic and educational publications. In this essay, Henningfeld identifies the ways that Ellison exploits the archetype of the Trickster through the character of the Harlequin, through the narrator of the story, and through his own role as writer of the tale.
"'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" is a deceptively simple tale. It is clearly a parable, a short illustrative story intended to teach a moral lesson. Set in a surreal future world where workers ride to work on moving sidewalks and everyone dresses alike, the characters of the story are more types than personalities.
Ellison draws on an established tradition to create his main characters: the Italian commedia dell'arte, a theatrical form that flourished throughout Europe from the late Middle Ages through the 18th century. In the commedia dell'arte, actors wear masks to identify the stock characters they are playing, and the plots are highly stylized and conventional. A Harlequin is a principal stock character in the commedia dell'arte, and is often witty, capricious, and wily. Dressed in a tight costume covered with colored diamond shapes, the Harlequin also carries a slapstick with which he hits other characters. Anyone watching a production will recognize the mask of the Harlequin immediately; indeed, in the commedia dell'arte, the mask is more important than the player.
In creating his character of the Harlequin, Ellison not only utilizes the conventions of the commedia dell'arte to provide a quick understanding of the role of this character, he also reaches deep into an almost universal archetype, the trickster. Trickster figures function in oral tradition and literature across cultures; tricksters play important roles in North American Indian legends as well as in stories from such widely diverse areas as Japan, Africa, and South America. These figures are paradoxical; on the one hand, they are often represented as immature pranksters. On the other, they are also often cultural heroes. Tricksters both destroy and recreate systems, undermining power and authority structures.
Everett C. Marm, in his guise as the Harlequin, is clearly a trickster figure. Small, impish, with an "elfin" grin, he fits the physical description of the trickster archetype. Further, Tricksters tend to be young and rebellious, jokesters who undermine the established order through their own refusal to go along with the rest of the crowd. Ellen Weil and Gary K. Wolfe write that "'Repent, Harlequin!' equates anarchic, immature behavior with the creative force in an otherwise mechanized society."
Earle V. Bryant also identifies the Harlequin as a type of trickster. In his article suggesting that the Harlequin bears close resemblance to a Mardi Gras float rider, Bryant introduces yet another incarnation of the trickster figure, the Lord of Misrule, who, for a day, turns the world upside down. He calls the Harlequin a "rebel who uses merriment, not only as a curative to revitalize a populace that has forgotten how to laugh, but also as a weapon to topple a tyrannical regime.…"
The Harlequin, however, is not the only trickster in "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman." The narrator of this story serves a similar function but in a slightly different arena, that of literature. The narrative voice in this story is ironic and parodic, and breaks many of the conventions of storytelling. As Ellen Weil notes, "the relationship between author, storyteller, and narrator is … complex." In the first place, the narrator uses a series of allusions as he describes the Harlequin. "[H]e was considered a Bolivar; a Napoleon; a Robin Hood; a Dick Bong (Ace of Aces); a Jesus; a Jomo Kenyatta." These allusions, while descriptive, are also jarring. How do Jesus and Dick Bong end up on the same list? How does a rebel independence fighter like Bolivar or Jomo Kenyatta compare to men dedicated to world domination like Napoleon? The narrator uses these allusions to both inflate and deflate the description of the Harlequin.
What Do I Read Next?
- Beginning in the 1940s, Isaac Asimov wrote a series of short stories and novels concerning the interaction between robots and humans. Most famously, Asimov developed the Three Laws of Robotics in these works. Examples of this work are Asimov's I, Robot (1952); Robots and Empire (1985); and The Complete Robot (1983).
- George Orwell's novel 1984 (1949) is an important book for any student interested in speculative fiction, dystopian novels, or grim visions of a mechanized future. Written at the beginning of the cold war, and depicting the near future, 1984 is a classic novel and necessary background for students of Ellison's "'Repent Harlequin!"'
- Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) is another classic of dystopian literature.
- Science and Literature: Bridging the Two Cultures (2001), by David Wilson and Zack Bowen, while a sometimes difficult book, offers a compelling interdisciplinary examination of the ways science and the humanities interact with each other. The final chapter, which discusses Huxley's Brave New World, is particularly useful for students of the dystopian novel.
The narrator also chooses to wreak havoc with the chronology of the story. He refuses to tell his listeners the story in chronological order. Rather, as he tells the reader, "Now begin in the middle, and later learn the beginning; the end will take care of itself." By so ordering the story, the narrator undermines conventional audience expectations of how stories should be told. Instead, he chooses how to structure the story, thus both destroying and recreating the time sequence. Thus, both the Harlequin and the narrator serve as temporal anarchists: The Harlequin refuses to obey the laws of time in his society, and the narrator ignores the "laws" of sequential storytelling.
Finally, the narrator breaks the "third wall," that empty space that separates actors from audience. He chooses to speak directly to the reader in very informal prose, thus creating himself as a character in the story. He uses second person, addressing the reader as "you," bringing the reader directly into the story.
In these three ways, the narrator acts as a literary trickster, a character in his own story who refuses to use the structured and conventionalized formats of storytelling. Like the Harlequin, he mixes up reader response as readers attempt to reassemble the story into something they are familiar with. This narrator, clearly an individualist, deviously resists the "formula" science fiction story; he is a rebel against the fossilized genre in which he finds himself.
It is possible to move out from the story one more level, to find the master trickster behind "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman." This trickster is Harlan Ellison himself, the writer with the name so curiously close to his hero's pseudonym. The similarity extends beyond the name to physical characteristics. At five feet four inches, Ellison resembles the hero he creates. The similarities are so obvious that writer George Slusser titled his 1977 study of Ellison and his work Harlan Ellison: Unrepentant Harlequin.
Ellison clearly understands himself to be a trickster, an individual who, through his refusal to go along with the conventions of the science fiction genre as it was at the beginning of the 1960s, creates a new and sometimes grittier kind of writing. Even Ellison's reluctance to be identified as a "New Wave" science fiction writer speaks to his trickster qualities. The quintessential literary anarchist, Ellison refuses to be boxed into any genre or convention.
In the social arena, Ellison also plays the trickster, a kind of David to cultural Goliaths. In the 1970s, the behemoth he attacked was television; more recently, Ellison has taken on media giant AOL Time Warner. Again, the irony is evident. Ellison made his mark (or at least part of his mark) as a television scriptwriter, and has exploited the new computer/Internet technology with web sites, CD–ROM games, and digital recordings. In so doing, he once again displays his understanding of himself as trickster, the individual who both uses and undermines the cultural conventions and technologies of his day.
Identifying with the Harlequin is not a new strategy for Ellison, who writes himself into many of his stories. As Michael Moorcock argues, "Almost all the characters in these stories are, of course, Harlan Ellison. Harlequin the gadfly is an idealized Ellison, justifying his penchant for practical jokes, giving it a social function (one can almost see him as a 'good' version of Batman's adversary, the Joker.)"
"'"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman' is shot through with irony: where readers expect the elevated language of epic as in Milton, they get an informal, futuristic slang more reminiscent of Vonnegut; where they expect a hero like Christ or Jomo Kenyatta, they get Everett C. Marm; and where readers expect a grand gesture, they get jelly beans."
Stephen Adams demonstrates another way that Ellison plays the trickster with his own writing by using devices and conventions associated with the epic tradition. In addition to beginning in medias res, or in the middle, Ellison also uses "catalogs, elaborate similes, an arming scene, launching of a ship, a dangerous woman, battles, single combat.…" Yet Ellison does not use the conventions in a traditional way. According to Adams, he "introduces epic conventions in order to parody them, twist them, turn them upside down." What he creates is not epic at all, but rather mock-epic.
Finally, Ellison plays the trickster with many of his stories by ongoing revisions and changes in later editions so a reader may find differences from collection to collection. In addition, Ellison adds introductions and annotations to his stories that often alter audience reception. Nowhere is this more evident than in "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman." Ellison's story is a parable, an instructive story with a moral message. The introductory quotation from Thoreau makes his purpose evident, as does the commentary from his narrator. He also connects the story to George Orwell's 1984, suggesting that he has a strong message he wants to send readers about heroic individuality. And yet, when "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" appears in Moorcock's 1979 collection of Ellison's works, The Fantasies of Harlan Ellison, it is with an introduction by Ellison saying that he wrote the story to explain his own unremitting failure to arrive anywhere on time: "I am always late.… I've decided that unlike most other folk with highly developed senses of the fluidity of time, the permanence of humanity in the chronostream, et al, I got no ticktock going up there on top. So I had to explain it to the world, to cop out, as it were, in advance. I wrote the following story as my plea for understanding.…" These comments, appearing as a headnote before the story itself, utterly undermine the apparent high moral message of the story and render it nearly trivial. Thus, while critics such as Thomas Dillingham argue that Ellison's story is about a "gesture of defiance" and that that gesture, "no matter how self-defeating, may be the only self-authenticating effort an individual can make," Ellison says that the story is about his own lack of punctuality. Ever the trickster, Ellison subverts critical commentary—like his Harlequin—by metaphorically "inserting thumbs in large ears," "[sticking] out his tongue, [rolling] his eyes and [going] wugga-wugga-wugga."
This is surely a trickster's tale. "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" is shot through with irony: where readers expect the elevated language of epic as in Milton, they get an informal, futuristic slang more reminiscent of Vonnegut; where they expect a hero like Christ or Jomo Kenyatta, they get Everett C. Marm; and where readers expect a grand gesture, they get jelly beans. Nevertheless, in the gap between reader expectation and Ellison's story, there is still room for the moral lesson, a lesson that nearly disappears in the Harlequin's defeat and subsequent television appearance, a lesson that Ellison himself subverts with his later explanations. The moral of the story is that any individual, even someone with a name like Everett C. Marm, can and must stand up to the totalitarian hegemony of schedule and power. No matter how small the gesture, Ellison argues in this story, no matter how small the David and how huge the Goliath, it is the making of the gesture that is important. Thus, what appears as defeat for the Harlequin opens a tiny window in the "mrmee, mrmee, mrmee" of the Ticktockman.
Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Ullmann is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, Ullmann discusses how time is tenuous in Ellison's story and how the Harlequin is able to exploit that weakness to further his cause of civil disobedience.
Ellison's short story "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" features a futuristic dystopia—the opposite of a utopia—where humanity is so enslaved to time that even the very vitality of one's heart is controlled by "The Ones Who Kept The Machine Functioning Smoothly." People move from task to task with machine-like regularity; those who are late are punished by having proportional time shaved from the end of their lives, until the end catches up with the present and those people are turned off. Ellison here represents tardiness as a crime fit for the ultimate punishment: the death penalty:
… and one day we no longer let time serve us, we serve time and we are slaves of the schedule, worshippers of the sun's passing, bound into a life predicated on restrictions because the system will not function if we don't keep the schedule tight.
Until it becomes more than a minor inconvenience to be late. It becomes a sin. Then a crime. Then a crime punishable by …
The reader enters the story in the middle of its action where the conflict is created by one man's rebellion against the System and its strict order of time. The Harlequin acts out in ridiculous ways: ruffling shoppers with zany behavior; dropping jellybeans on workers as they change shifts; shouting blasphemous things from rooftops. The extremity of his conduct mirrors the severe actions the Master Timekeeper (known behind his back as the Ticktockman) "and his legal machinery" must take to maintain order and timeliness. The society that the Ticktockman serves is ruled by time. Through his public outbursts, the Harlequin shows the System and the Ticktockman that time is tenuous, thus undermining the Ticktockman's power and, eventually, the order of society. Ellison's story is meant to provoke thought, primarily on civil disobedience, but also on the meaning of time and its usefulness as a tool of control.
Modern Western sense of time is not fixed, but always slowly changing along with societal values. Currently most people keep a day planner or personal calendar to track activities, meetings, and important dates. Many people begin the day being awaked by an alarm clock. Clocks are found in most public areas. And while it is generally considered rude to be late, most people expect there to be some flexibility for unexpected contingencies. The order that time brings to modern life is perceived as a characteristic of civilized life. Thus it is good to pay heed to the time, to have meetings, to schedule events. The organizing strength of time—its consistency, its steady beat—is portrayed in Ellison's story by the machine-efficient flow of society: supply and demand, work and rest.
In contrast to the orderliness that time brings to people's lives, time is also perceived as a prison or a cage. People may now and then feel burdened by their packed schedules and never-ending parade of commitments. Yet they feel obligated to continue—or perhaps schedule a vacation. These days spontaneity is not always an option because it is too random, too uncontrolled. In "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," the Harlequin relishes spontaneity. He brings relief to his predictable society, dropping sweet, brightly-colored jelly beans into people's lives as they come and go from work, creating a holiday, a reprieve from the workday.
The Harlequin also brings chaos, as the supply and demand of the economy suffers from unexpected delays in the schedule. This is what is meant by time being tenuous. Timeliness has become so important in this society that it is, in fact, a weakness because it is too important. Time has become such a crucial feature to how this future society is organized that a small ripple causes big waves. The Harlequin exploits this weakness to make his point that this rigid world is awful and needs to change and have more flexibility.
In this story, time is represented by the human heart (known colloquially as a "ticker") which is controlled with a cardioplate. The heart is like a living clock, which this society oppresses in the name of order and civilization. Time is thus a tool of life and death that is wielded by totalitarian leaders. Although they control the passage of a person's life, it is not against the passage of time that the Harlequin rebels. He fights the control of time, seeks to return choice of how time passes to the individual.
The Harlequin gambles with his life but he is beyond caring for life in this world. "After all, his name was Everett C. Marm, and he wasn't much to begin with, except a man who had no sense of time." The Harlequin probably knows he will die sooner rather than later and the only way for that to not happen—and for this to be a tolerable world in which to live—is for society's values to change. And for that to change takes tremendous effort. He uses his limited time to work toward that change.
"The Harlequin's success at undermining the Ticktockman's sense of time foreshadows the eventual downfall of this society."
The Harlequin shows how time is tenuous with his pranks. Schedules are easily thrown off by minor, unexpected disturbances, sometimes by minutes, sometimes by hours. Eventually, as a wanted man, just his presence disrupts the schedule, throwing off a carefully maintained balance of supply and demand. The products listed are so silly-sounding (wegglers, popli, Smash-O, swizzleskid) as to make the reader question even how important the supply-demand cycle is when it's delivering only junk and not the necessities of shelter, food, and warmth. While the everyday citizen may see only a tremor, the effect the Harlequin has on society is, from the point of view of those at the top, that of an earthquake and just as potentially devastating.
… in a society where the single driving force was order and unity and equality and promptness and clocklike precision and attention to the clock, reverence of the gods of the passage of time, it was a disaster of major importance.
Though the Harlequin tries to reach everyone with his public outbursts—ladies of fashion, workers changing shifts, Thursday shoppers, physicians—he ultimately does not convince society as a whole that time is tenuous and living one's life is more meaningful than living a schedule. Some people are happy in the moment of his disruptions but none make a change or a choice like the Harlequin's. In fact, at the end of the story they all accept the brainwashed Harlequin's broadcast apology as proof that society's order is right: "and if that's the way the system is run, then let's do it that way, because it doesn't pay to fight city hall, or in this case, the Ticktockman."
While time can bring a sense of control and orderliness, along with it comes a burden of responsibility to maintain that incessant pace. The Harlequin's power is in his abilities to move beyond the expected, embrace spontaneity, and have no fear as to the repercussions of his actions (as seen in the scene with Pretty Alice showing him the Wanted poster). His power is also his guilelessness: the Harlequin is what he is, without reservation or disguise. Despite his nickname, he hides behind no masks, literal or figurative. He stands in polar opposition to society's desire for order, and especially in opposition to the Ticktockman.
Even the physical characteristics of the two main characters are diametrically opposed. Where the Ticktockman is tall, the Harlequin is elfin, or small. One is soft-spoken and controlled; the other is loud and wild. The Ticktockman keeps the machine of society running smoothly while the Harlequin seeks to undermine its regularity. The Harlequin, in fact, equates timeliness itself with death: "'Don't be slaves of time, it's a helluva way to die, slowly, by degrees … down with the Ticktockman!"'
The Harlequin is unsuccessful at convincing the masses to behave differently, to have less regard for time. His pranks are no more than minor disruptions in individual lives; however, the Ticktockman appears to be intrigued by this troublemaker. The Ticktockman first threatens to turn off the Harlequin's cardioplate and then immediately says that he's not going to do that. Although he is known as a man of few words, the Ticktockman wants to speak with the Harlequin—he claims to want to know who he is, not just what he is. What is most telling of the Harlequin's success with the Ticktockman is that at the end of the story, the Ticktockman is three minutes late, doesn't care that he's late, and is muttering "mrmee, mrmee, mrmee, mrmee"—which is onomatopoeia for Marm, the Harlequin's real last name. The Ticktockman seems to have become insane, as if, perhaps, he were the one who went through reprogramming. Or even, as if, the Harlequin and the Ticktockman changed identities. The Ticktockman is masked, therefore, who would know? The author leaves these questions unanswered at the end.
The Harlequin's success at undermining the Ticktockman's sense of time foreshadows the eventual downfall of this society. As the Master Time-keeper, if the Ticktockman has lost his regard for the schedule then it is only a matter of time before society suffers many more of the same delays and disruptions that were originally caused by the Harlequin's pranks. Although punished with death, the Harlequin's cause thus will live on. And if the Ticktockman does not change things himself, another Harlequin, another trickster will rise. As acknowledged in the beginning of the story, the Harlequin spirit is inexplicable and irrepressible. Kill it, breed it out, vaccinate against it and this personality will always reappear—just as Everett C. Marm, a man with no sense of time, was born and lived in a world where time was sacred, above human life.
Ellison begins his story by quoting from Henry David Thoreau's seminal work of nonfiction Civil Disobedience. This long essay was inspired by a night Thoreau spent in jail after refusing to pay taxes, which was his opposition to the U.S.-Mexican War. Thoreau's other famous feat was the two years of solitude that he spent living in a cottage at Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Although the Harlequin is a poster-child for civil disobedience, he never chooses to remove himself from society. Unlike Marshall Delahanty, he does not run, he does not seek the solitude of nature, and he does not place himself outside the reach and influence of society. The Harlequin's mission, like any trickster, is to cause chaos and change and to do this he must be in the thick of things.
The ultimate proof of time's tenuousness is the brevity of individual human life as compared to the rest of history. The Harlequin, giving up this own life without repentance, seems to know this. Unfortunately, the brevity of individual human life means that it's that much easier for humanity to be doomed to repeat history's mistakes. "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" is a story that stands as a modern fable, exposing some faults and weaknesses of today's society in hopes that by exposing them, humanity never spirals down that path.
Carol Ullmann, Critical Essay on "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Earle V. Bryant
In the following essay, Bryant calls Marm "one of the most memorable characters in modern short fiction" and draws connections between his actions and that of a float rider in a Mardi Gras or Carnival parade.
At one point in Harlan Ellison's futuristic short story "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," Everette Marm, the tale's rebel protagonist, swoops down in his airboat on a group of factory workers about to begin the five p.m. shift and bombards them with a multitude of jelly beans. "One hundred and fifty thousand dollars worth of jelly beans cascaded down on the expresstrip. Jelly beans! Millions and billions of [them …] coming down in a steady rain, a solid wash, a torrent of color and sweetness out of the sky from above." Marm's reason for unleashing this "attack" on the plant workers is to disrupt the smooth flow of his time-conscious society, a flow that he sees as stultifying and ultimately fatal. As Ellison makes clear in the tale, Marm lives in a world—a "poisonously gray society," as Michael White so aptly describes it—in which punctuality and conformity are the law and tardiness and individualism are felonies punishable by death. Like George Orwell's Oceania in 1984 or Ray Bradbury's world of the future in Fahrenheit 451, it is a totalitarian society "where the single driving force [is] order and unity and promptness and clocklike precision and attention to the clock."
It is against this "terrible world" that Marm rebels. The weapons that he uses in his rebellion, however, are not bullets and bombs; they are pranks and high jinks, outrageous stunts designed to arouse his fellow citizens from the unthinking conformity and blind adherence to "sanity and metronomic order" in which they are enmeshed. Accordingly, when Marm swoops down in his airboat on the workers entering the roller-bearing plant and showers them with jellybeans, he is attempting to show them that life can and should be a joyous affair and not the government-mandated robotic existence they are leading. In this scene, as well as throughout the story, Ellison wants us to see Marm as a comic rebel-hero. There is, however, another image that Ellison wants to project in this scene: that of a doubloon-dispensing float rider in one of New Orleans' annual Carnival parades.
One indication that this is Ellison's intention is the jellybeans that Marm unleashes on the factory workers. Although Ellison explicitly states that there are "[m]illions and billions" of jellybeans and that they are of various colors, he is careful to specify only three of the colors: purple, yellow, and green, the traditional colors of New Orleans' Mardi Gras. Marm's dispensing of the jellybeans creates an unabashedly festive atmosphere among the factory workers—indeed as Ellison describes it, "a holiday." That holiday, Ellison is suggesting, is the granddaddy of all holidays, Mardi Gras. Ellison's hero, Mardi Gras Marm, tries to infuse his quasi-robotic society with the "quite-mad coocoo newness" of laughter and frivolity signified by his one-man Carnival parade.
But to recognize Ellison's connection more clearly, it is necessary to call to mind exactly what a typical float rider (to the extent that there is one) in a New Orleans Carnival parade looks like and does. Arrayed in colorful costumes and perched on floats that tower as high as eighteen feet in the air, Mardi Gras float riders toss doubloons, strings of colorful plastic beads, cups, small rubber toys, and various other trinkets (or "throws," as they are called) down to the thousands of people lining the parade route. Most of the time the throws land on the ground and parade-goers scramble after them. Much the same thing happens in Ellison's story. From his airboat/float, Marm hurls his Carnival throws—that is, his jellybeans—to the crowd below. Like a Mardi Gras float rider, Marm is wearing a costume—his signature "clown suit." Once Marm has showered the factory workers with his jellybeans, they make a mad dash for them: "The shift workers howled and laughed and were pelted, and broke ranks[…] and everyone [scrambled] thisawayandthataway in a jackstraw tumble, still laughing."
Once we recognize that Ellison is forging a link between Marm's unleashing his "torrent of color and sweetness […] from above" and the practice of Carnival float riders' unleashing their torrent of throws, it is not difficult to see why he connects the one with the other. Viewing Marm as a doubloon-tossing Mardi Gras float rider greatly reinforces the image of him as a rebel who uses merriment, not only as a curative to revitalize a populace that has forgotten how to laugh, but also as a weapon to topple a tyrannical regime that lords it over a world in which, as White remarks, "Homo sapiens [has] become Homo automatus." That is not to say that because Marm tosses jellybeans instead of Molotov cocktails he should not be taken seriously as a freedom fighter. In his unorthodox approach to revolution, Mardi Gras Marm emerges not only as one of Harlan Ellison's most original and successful creations, but also as one of the most memorable characters in modern short fiction.
Earle V. Bryant, "Ellison's "'Repent Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman,"' in Explicator, Vol. 59, No. 3, Spring 2001, pp. 163–65.
Oscar De Los Santos
In the following essay excerpt, De Los Santos examines the traits of Ellison's "underdog" or "trickster" characters, including Marm in "'Repent Harlequin."'
There is only one end to creation. What is created is destroyed, and thus full circle is achieved.
Ellison, "The Region Between"
… the search for your soul in a soulless world requires special maps.
Ellison, Deathbird Stories
As the decade draws to a close and we approach the end of the twentieth century, virtually every mode of artistic expression is projecting its own version of apocalypse via works that contemplate the end of humankind. For many authors, however, this is not a new investigation. Such is true of Harlan Ellison, who focused on apocalyptic themes in his first sold short story ("Glowworm," 1956) and who has frequently returned to this theme throughout his career. In much of his fiction, Ellison struggles to project warnings about humanity's demise even as he celebrates our past accomplishments and potential.
Whether writing one of his many essays, television or motion picture scripts, or short stories (a body of material comprised of over 1,200 separate works thus far), Ellison most frequently channels his energies into works of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. When he does turn to speculative fiction, one of his most frequent principal characters—a character who appears in many guises but who embodies the same qualities from story to story—is the trickster: the angry, feisty, marginalized under-dog; the little guy who won't go down without a fight, who wishes to clog up the works of (in)human conformity and make a race rise above mediocrity. This character will fight apathy and submissive attitudes in others even when he believes that he himself no longer wishes to live. Ellison has said that an author must cannibalize his existence in order to find the material about which to write. We can also take this to mean, as is fundamentally the case, that an author is all of his/her characters. Certainly this is very true of Ellison and his under-dogs. When we examine the great body of work that Ellison has produced in an effort to effect changes in the attitudes of readers, fellow writers, and humanity in general, we find that Ellison is himself a marginalized fighter—for just as his fictional constructs often fight to stave off global or cosmic apocalypse, Ellison himself engages in less fantastic but no less daunting battles: to kick humanity out of its apathetic complacency and to elevate his chosen profession—writing, especially that produced in the field of speculative fiction—to new levels of quality. Indeed, the goals of many of Ellison's principal characters and Ellison himself are very similar: to prevent different forms of apocalypse. In his fiction, Ellison's underdogs struggle to prevent the death of (in)human life; in his life, Ellison fights to prevent the death of good writing.
Anyone who reads a book or two of Ellison's—fiction or non-fiction—quickly realizes that he seldom shirks from brutal, scathing critical assessments of his subject matter. Maybe that is why he has been called "probably the most controversial writer ever to hit science fiction" by fellow science fiction writer and critic Lester Del Rey and why most science fiction fans have heard of Ellison, whether they read him or not. Most people have very strong positive or negative feelings about Ellison the writer, but even stronger feelings about Ellison's fiction: they either love his work or they hate it. Those who love it admire Ellison for shoving a textual mirror in society's face and exposing its hypocrisy, neuroses, and shortcomings with stark objectivity; those who hate it often do so for the same reason and for its abrasive tone and negativity. While it is true that a great deal of "doom and gloom" may be found in the Ellison canon, it is also true that Ellison frequently undercuts his often dystopic settings and his cynical characters with the actions taken by those characters. If it is true that actions speak louder than words, as the old cliche tells us, then it is valuable to analyze a few of Ellison's principal characters, assess their actions, and see if what they do contradicts what they say, or what they seem to think about themselves and their respective environments. Doing so yields a better understanding of the tension that is inherent in so many Ellison tales and that resides in the author himself. Ellison's characters may rant and rave; they may purport to be on the brink of giving up on themselves and/or their fellow humans—but they seldom do so. Time and again, we see characters and author fighting the good fight: helping out their species (human or alien) and committing themselves to take some form of positive, life-affirming action rather than simply giving up. For Ellison's characters, such actions are diversified, but many involve great struggle against virtually impossible odds; indeed, the stakes are often of apocalyptic proportions.
In an essay called "True Love: Groping for the Holy Grail," Ellison confesses, "I find that the only thing worth the time and energy is the company of others; people are my business and I cannot conceive of ever having discovered all there is to discover about the human heart in conflict with itself (as Faulkner put it). I would much rather sit and talk to someone than alienate myself by watching a ballgame" (363). However, time and again readers find Ellison at odds with humanity: "I swear to God," he has said, "just one day I'd like to get up and not be angry … at the world." If we use his fiction as a gauge, we find that Ellison's anger is largely derived from humanity's willingness to settle for mediocrity rather than strive to reach its fullest potential in all facets of its existence. In its desire to settle for the easy solution, humankind sets up traps for itself by relinquishing control of its destiny to debilitating constructs or power-abusing governing systems. And yet, even as he warns us that we are on the brink of destroying ourselves either by doing nothing or by doing the wrong things, Ellison points the way to right actions via his characters. A close examination of several of his marginalized creations provides further evidence of the internal struggle between optimism and pessimism that fuels so much of Ellison's fiction.
One of the best examples of the Ellison under-dog is the impish trickster at the heart of "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman." "'Repent, Harlequin!"' explores a future in which humanity has literally imperiled its own existence as a result of an ever-increasing obsession with punctuality and time. Ellison shows that in our efforts to manage our time with greater efficiency and to better our lives, we have become enslaved by time. Thus, the existential angst resulting from the knowledge that we are responsible for what we do or fail to do as the minutes go by, is replaced by a new worry in a perceptive few: that we have doomed ourselves to living aesthetically dead, stagnating lives by placing our destinies in the hands of powers that measure success and value solely on an individual's ability to keep strict schedules and meet deadlines.
"When we examine the great body of work that Ellison has produced in an effort to effect changes in the attitudes of readers, fellow writers, and humanity in general, we find that Ellison is himself a marginalized fighter.…"
The Harlequin (or Everett C. Marm, his real name) is the only character brave enough to stand up to the Ticktockman, the only one willing to tell this dictatorial megalomaniac to "Get stuffed." Everyone else seems to have forgotten that humanity created the Ticktockman—the precise schedule runner and Master Time Keeper. Everyone else now lives in fear of the power they have allowed the Master Time Keeper to possess: he can shut off any individual's internal biological timepiece permanently with the flick of a switch, a radical punishment induced for repeated tardiness and general ineptitude when it comes to punctuality. Everyone lives with this fear except the Harlequin, who realizes that a society that relinquishes control of its existence to one entity or one small governing body—mechanical or otherwise—is in grave danger of becoming extinct. This is especially true of a society that forgets how to stand up for itself and work to correct its mistakes, or is too frightened or too lazy to do so. Ellison reminds us of our "straw man" shortcomings when he quotes Thoreau's Civil Disobedience at the beginning of his tale: "The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies.… In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well" (Essential Ellison 877). The role reversal is striking as one reads more of the short story: in Ellison's world, a machinelike government now governs human beings, and most individuals accept the situation. Ellison describes the governing body, the culture and its leader mechanistically: "The Ones Who Kept The Machine Functioning Smoothly, the ones who poured the very best butter over the cams and mainsprings of the culture … the Ticktockman and his legal machinery" (878). The author's descriptions emphasize the automated nature of the future world. It may be alive, but it is a vacuous, artificial life. Except perhaps, for Everett C. Marm, the Harlequin, who goes out of his way to discombobulate the efficiency of his world in the most absurd fashion possible, swooping over individuals on a mechanical flying device and creating mayhem with one of the most innocuous of products: jelly beans, a hundred and fifty thousand dollars' worth, to be precise, dropped onto a crowd and throwing off all activities for seven minutes: "The System had been seven minutes' worth of disrupted. It was a tiny matter, one hardly worthy of note, but in a society where the single driving force was order and unity and equality and promptness and clocklike precision and attention to the clock, reverence of the gods of the passage of time, it was a disaster of major importance" (880).
The Harlequin is caught in the end, turned in by a woman he knew, someone who didn't like her punctuality and be-told-what-to-do-and-when-to-doit world disrupted by an upstart, even if the upstart was her boyfriend. And though Marm never buckles under the Ticktockman's interrogation, he is eventually "worked … over" [brainwashed] and made to appear on the "communications web" and admit that he was wrong about trying to fight the system. But in the end, he may have made a difference after all, because the Master Time Keeper is three minutes late to work one day and throws the society's entire system slightly off schedule. Thus, Ellison's trickster succeeds in changing a seemingly unchangeable system, and even though the change is minor, as Ellison's narrator observes, "if you make only a little change, then it seems to be worthwhile" (886).
Oscar De Los Santos, "Clogging Up the (In)Human Works: Harlan Ellison's Apocalyptic Postmodern Visions," in Extrapolation, Vol. 40, No. 1, 1999, pp. 5–20.
The short essay "One Small Daring Footnote: Circa 2005" was especially written by Harlan Ellison to introduce this reprinting of his essay "A Time for Daring," in which he takes issue with the popular complacence of many science fiction writers toward science fiction writing through the latter 1960s, declaring that many of the underestimated, overlooked science fiction authors are those who actually elevate science fiction to "a level with all great art."
ONE SMALL DARING FOOTNOTE: CIRCA 2005
At the beginning of the seventh paragraph in the essay that follows, you will read as follows: "Ten years ago the first Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference was held…"
That would've been 1957.
I wrote those words in 1967.
As I write these words, today, just for you, it is still the first week in January, the new millennium, year 2005. The hereafter-following essay is nearly forty years old. I was a brash, pugnacious, 33-year-old in 1967. I was a smartass, just like you. The guy writing these words today, January 2005, is looking at age 71 come this May.
I'm still a smartass. The only difference is summed succinctly in this quotation from the great novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer: "When I was a little boy, they called me a liar, but now that I'm grown up, they call me a writer."
I started to update the piece when I was asked to allow it to be reprinted here. I gave up on page 2. Doctors are lucky: they get to bury their mistakes.
Which is not to say the thoughts and braggadocio and advice and hubris and epiphanies and contumely running amuck in these pages is anything I repudiate. I said them, I'll pay the price. (One of the hardest lessons for an artist to learn is that television talk show hosts and politicians need to be liked, need to be admired, need to be loved—as the social critic Quentin Crisp once observed, "Artists in any medium are nothing more than a bunch of hooligans who cannot live within their income of admiration"—but that mad need to be well-liked can be murder on a writer. Dostoyevski was a ratbastard, by all accounts, but I'd accept that rap, and consider it a fair cop, if I could write The Idiot or The Brothers Karamazov.) I said these things, and someone dug them up for presentation here, now almost forty years after they were current, and I have to stand by them because they were true and accurate from the mouth of a 33-year-old me; and though I'm a lot older, I'm no less a smartass, no less devoted to what I write, and if I'm not loveable (hell, my wife thinks I'm just fine, thank you), well, at least I'm consistent.
I run my own life. I have always run my own life. Good or bad, profitable or riding in boxcars, writing as well as I'm able or missing a spark plug or two, humble or puffed up like a banjo player who had a big breakfast, I have run my own life.
Pasteur said, "Chance favors the prepared mind."
That's the banner under which I stand. I'm responsible, as you must be, for what you become, and for how the world judges you. If you can be ethical and courageous and daring, well, you might have a shot at Posterity. Be a mensch.
(Look it up. It's Yiddish.)
So. I do not refute thee, o words of my smartass youth. All I ask is that you remember it was written nearly forty years ago, and this: I'm still here, still working, still learning.
Which is better than a poke in the eye with a flaming stick.* * *
A TIME FOR DARING
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"One half of the room despised it; it was awful.… and the other side of the room loved me.… That story, '"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman,' … was picked by Terry Carr and Don Wollheim for the World's Best Science Fiction: 1966.…"
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Harlan Ellison®, "A Time for Daring," in The Book of Ellison, edited by Andrew Porter, ALGOL Press, 1978, pp. 101–16; Copyright © 1967 by Harlan Ellison. Renewed, 1995 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation. "One Small Daring Footnote: Circa 2005" by Harlan Ellison. Copyright © 2005 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation. Reprinted by arrangement with the Author. All rights reserved. Harlan Ellison is a registered trademark of The Kilimanjaro Corporation.
Adams, Stephen, "The Heroic and the Mock-Heroic in Harlan Ellison's 'Harlequin,"' in Extrapolation, Vol. 26, No. 4, Winter 1985, pp. 285–89.
Bryant, Earle V., "Ellison's "'Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman,"' in the Explicator, Vol. 59, No. 3, Spring 2001, pp. 163–65.
De Los Santos, Oscar, "Clogging Up the (In)Human Works: Harlan Ellison's Apocalyptic Postmodern Visions," in Extrapolation, Vol. 40, No. 1, 1999, pp. 5–20.
Dillingham, Thomas F., "Harlan Ellison," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8, American Science Fiction Writers, edited by David Cowart and Thomas L. Wyner, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 161–69.
Eastwood, D. R., "Three by One: Harlan Ellison's 1966, 1968, 1969 Hugo-Winning Short Speculative Fiction," in Hypothesis: Neo-Aristotelian Analysis, Vol. 20, Winter 1977, pp. 16–21.
Ellison, Harlan, "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," in The Essential Ellison: A 35-year Retrospective, edited and introduced by Terry Dowling, with Richard Delap and Gil Lamont, Nemo Press, 1987, pp. 877–86.
Moorcock, Michael, "Foreword," in The Fantasies of Harlan Ellison, Gregg Press, 1979, pp. x–xi.
Patrouch, Joseph, Jr., "Harlan Ellison and the Formula Story," in The Book of Ellison, edited by Andrew Porter, ALGOL Press, 1978, pp. 45–64.
Slusser, George Edgar, Harlan Ellison: Unrepentant Harlequin, Borgo Press, 1977, pp. 3–4.
Weil, Ellen, "The Ellison Personae: Author, Storyteller, Narrator," in Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Vol. 1, No. 3, 1988, pp. 27–36.
Weil, Ellen, and Gary K. Wolfe, Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever, Ohio State University Press, 2002, pp. 137–41.
White, Michael D., "Ellison's Harlequin: Irrational Action in Static Time," in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 4, 1977, pp. 161–65.
Ellison, Harlan, "Ellison on Ellison," in Locus, Vol. 47, No. 1, July 2001, pp. 6–10.
In this article, Ellison reviews his long career, noting changes in his art and in his beliefs, providing an excellent background for the study of his fiction.
Erlich, Richard D., and Thomas P. Dunn, eds., Clockwork Worlds: Mechanized Environments in SF, Greenwood Press, 1983.
In addition to including a chapter on Harlan Ellison, this collection of essays considers the larger subject of mechanical environments and science fiction responses to technology.
James, Edward, and Farah Mendlesohn, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
This is an excellent collection of essays concerning such topics as gender, politics, and race in science fiction as well as illustrating a variety of critical approaches to the genre.
Porter, Andrew, ed. The Book of Ellison, ALGOL Press, 1978.
Porter has assembled an introduction by famed science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, six critical articles, ten essays by Ellison himself, and a nonfiction checklist in this useful book. Although written over two decades ago, it still has merit for the student who wants to know more about Ellison.
""Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman." Short Stories for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/repent-harlequin-said-ticktockman
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