Essays and Criticism
Time in Ellison's Story
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...
(The entire section is 1893 words.)