Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 296
In a way, the "moral" of this story is fairly obvious. Ellison's characters illustrate once again that man's rapacity and violence will result in his destruction by the systems and technologies he creates. In fact, the story recalls the eternal torture of Prometheus, whose aspiration to achieve the power of...
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In a way, the "moral" of this story is fairly obvious. Ellison's characters illustrate once again that man's rapacity and violence will result in his destruction by the systems and technologies he creates. In fact, the story recalls the eternal torture of Prometheus, whose aspiration to achieve the power of God brought about his own destruction.
However, "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" is not a simple didactic fable. It is certainly clear that the machine was made in the image of its creators. It hates its enemies (humans) as much if not more than its creators did and deforms and tortures them to prove it. But the story's narrator, Ted, is far from being a sympathetic character. In fact, Ellison uses the technique of the unreliable narrator to present a deranged view of a horrible existence. Ted claims that he is "the only one still sane and whole" and that AM has not tampered with his mind, but one wonders how he has escaped the humiliating physiological changes suffered by the others. He also claims that the other four hate him, but, even by his own account, their actions do not corroborate this. In fact, from the beginning, the narrator seems to hate his fellow "survivors." Consequently, when he kills the others — with the help of the female Ellen — he assumes that they are eager to die to end their suffering, although the story offers no evidence that this is so. Then, when Ted finally kills Ellen, he himself is not sure that she really wants to die. Ted is, in fact, very much the descendent of the violent, megalomaniac race who created AM, and Ellison makes it clear that mankind's own violent and repressive instincts will inevitably be expressed in its creations.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 630
Although not human, the computer, which calls itself AM, is perhaps the main character in the story. Originally, AM was one of several national computers designed to fight wars for the nation that owned it. Eventually, the computers learned to link themselves to each other, forming one supercomputer. When this supercomputer awoke, or became sentient, it called itself AM. AM hates all human beings, according to Ted, because ‘‘We had created it to think, but there was nothing it could do with that creativity.’’ AM killed all the humans on the face of the Earth, save five. Then AM brought the humans inside itself and created a hellish world for them in which it could torture and torment the survivors, but not let them die. During the story, AM plays with each of the survivors in turn, seemingly enjoying their pain and suffering.
One of the survivors, Benny, was a brilliant theoretician and university professor in his previous life, before falling into the grips of AM. The computer has changed him into a chimpanzee-like creature with large genitals. In addition to being apelike, he is also insane. In an early scene in the story, AM renders Benny blind. In the final scene, Benny begins to eat Gorrister’s face, thus motivating Ted into killing both Benny and Gorrister.
Ellen is the only woman among the survivors. She is a black woman who provides sex for the men. The men protect her and want to keep her safe. Ted seems to both love and hate Ellen; he calls her a slut, but also ‘‘pristine-pure.’’ In many ways, Ellen re- flects the Eve-Mary split so common in the literary representation of women. That is, women are often identified as either Eve, the temptress who causes the fall of all humankind and the expulsion from Eden, or Mary, the pure, virginal mother of Christ. For Ted, Ellen seems to embody both.
Gorrister is another of the male survivors. In his previous life, he was a conscientious objector, someone who cared passionately about causes. Ted tells the reader, ‘‘He was a planner, a doer, a lookerahead.’’ Now, inside AM, Gorrister is ineffectual and deadened, unable to look forward or backward.
Nimdok is the survivor about whom the least is known. Even his original name has been taken away from him by AM. Ted has little to say about Nimdok except that he often goes off by himself and returns in terrible shape. AM seems to be particularly hard on him, but the others know little about who he is or what AM does to him.
Ted is the narrator of ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.’’ He is one of five survivors of a nuclear holocaust caused by a linkage of master computers from nations engaging in World War III. With his fellow humans, he lives in an underground world created by the computer, which has given itself the name AM. He believes he has been in the computer for 109 years. The narrator graphically describes the situation in which they find themselves. However, the narrator is not always reliable. Like some of Edgar Allan Poe’s most memorable narrators, Ellison’s narrator insists on his own sanity: ‘‘I was the only one sane and whole. Really! AM had not tampered with my mind. Not at all.’’ However, even the narrator realizes that AM controls and manipulates him. At the end of the story, Ted realizes that the only hope for the five survivors is death. Seizing a moment when AM is occupied, Ted manages to kill two of the survivors, while Ellen, another survivor, kills one before Ted kills her. Ted is then turned into a jelly-like creature who has no mouth with which to scream.