"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman Themes

Themes and Meanings (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Harlan Ellison is not subtle in developing “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” as an example of the value of civil disobedience, even when only the slightest progress is made at great personal expense, including the destruction of the individual. He begins by informing the reader of his intent, and ends by explaining the moral to the reader. Ellison couched this overriding theme within a satiric attack on the time-and-motion studies prevalent during the mid-1960’s as a method to improve workers’ productivity. Ellison was morally outraged at the institutionalization of human stupidity, and the general public’s complacency in allowing themselves to be led into various modern forms of slavery.

“’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” shatters the theory that increasing attention to timetables and efficient human motion not only would improve productivity but also would improve the quality of life. Instead, the resulting society reduces people to mindless robots marking time to an oppressive government’s regimented schedules. These time-and-motion theories are lampooned by the violent responses to the trivial delays caused by the Harlequin. Society’s increasing regard of punctuality is carefully developed, while other usual trappings of fiction are kept to a minimum. Once the point of the Harlequin’s protests is made, he is captured by the Ticktockman, who demands that he repent. When he smugly refuses, he is brainwashed with no regard to plot or character development. The satire of time-and-motion studies is complete, and the broader theme of the value of individual sacrifice is shown, when the Ticktockman himself playfully throws off the schedule by three minutes. The world will be different because of the Harlequin.