Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman

by Harlan Ellison
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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536

‘‘‘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.

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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.

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