Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 623
The story opens with a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849), which concludes, “A very few . . . serve the state with their consciences also . . . and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.” The story then jumps to the future, when a man has come to the attention of the Ones Who Keep The Machine Functioning Smoothly, because he has become a personality. Known as the Harlequin, because of the clownish costume that he wears and the pranks that he plays, he is dismissed by the masses, but is loved by the people who need heroes and villains, and is considered a dangerous rebel by the powerful elite. His file, timecard, and cardioplate are turned over to the Master Timekeeper, who is known behind his back as the Ticktockman. The Ticktockman informs his staff that they know what the Harlequin is, but they must find out who he is.
The Harlequin is sitting aboard his air-boat overlooking the Time-Motion Study Building. He grins and dives, swooping over the ladies of fashion riding on the slidewalk. Having created a diversion, he swoops over the factory workers, releasing $150,000 worth of jelly beans, which work their way into the mechanism of the slidewalk, causing a disruptive seven-minute delay. The Harlequin is electronically summoned to appear before the Ticktockman, but he causes an even greater disturbance by appearing three-and-one-half hours late, only to sing a silly song and vanish.
The Situation Analysts, called in to count the jelly beans and tabulate their findings, are thrown a full day behind in their schedules. They are left asking how they got “into this position, where a laughing, irresponsible japer of jabberwocky and jive could disrupt our entire economic and cultural life with a hundred and fifty thousand dollars worth of jelly beans.” In this futuristic society, time has become so important, it is not merely a minor inconvenience to be late, it has become a sin, and, ultimately, a crime. The Ticktockman has the authority to subtract late time from a person’s life and, when time runs out, to turn off that life. Schedules must be met because it is patriotic.
The Harlequin is revealed as Everett C. Marm, who is arguing with his wife, Alice, about his time-disrupting activities. She complains that his running around annoying people is ridiculous. He promises to be home at ten-thirty, then runs off to be late again. He has notified the officials that he will attend the International Medical Association Invocation at 8:00 p.m. They are preparing a trap to catch him, but are snared in it themselves when he laughingly appears early. In a parenthetic explanation of what could happen to the Harlequin when he is caught, an anecdote is inserted describing how Marshall Delahanty’s cardioplate is blanked and his life terminated when his time runs out.
The Harlequin’s final escapades throw the shopping schedule off by hours when he taunts construction workers and shoppers at the Efficiency Shopping Center, “Don’t be slaves of time . . . down with the Ticktockman!” He has now gone too far. Every known technique is applied, and they catch the Harlequin, the man with no sense of time. When the Ticktockman commands the Harlequin to repent, he sneers in reply. The authorities do not want to create a martyr by terminating Everett C. Marm; they want to make of him an example. The Harlequin is sent to Coventry where he is brainwashed, and he emerges confessing to the public that he was wrong. The Harlequin has succeeded in bringing about change, however: When the Ticktockman is accused of throwing off the schedule by coming to work three minutes late, he vehemently denies the charge, but then goes gleefully into his office.
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