"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman

by Harlan Ellison
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

Ellison patterned the character of the Harlequin more on himself than any other character he has created. He is an outspoken social critic with a remarkable, almost savage wit. His outrage at the ludicrousness of sociopolitical fads and the stupidity of the people who support them are both at play...

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Ellison patterned the character of the Harlequin more on himself than any other character he has created. He is an outspoken social critic with a remarkable, almost savage wit. His outrage at the ludicrousness of sociopolitical fads and the stupidity of the people who support them are both at play in this story. While the Harlequin is wreaking havoc on business and government schedules by diving at shoppers, dumping jelly beans onto slidewalks, and shouting insults from the top of the Efficiency Shopping Center, a playful tone is maintained by the ridiculousness of his antics. The ludicrousness of time-and-motion proponents is further satirized by chronicling the events that transform tardiness into criminal behavior punishable by death. The story’s reader is likely to have a grin pasted on his or her face much like the one pasted on the face of Everett C. Marm. The same grin must be on the face of the Ticktockman at the end of the story when he denies being late and enters his office going “mrmee, mrmee, mrmee.”

Ellison has been a leading proponent in the move to expand science fiction beyond its early taboos regarding sex and violence, as well as to expand its literary parameters. This story is an example of his refusal to follow a straight narrative line and his willingness to break into the story with comments directed to the reader. Ellison was also aware that much of his audience was composed of young science fiction fans who were not schooled in other literary genres or their traditions, so he carefully guides his reader through the story’s episodes and rather blatantly explains its theme. Ellison did not want the reader to skip the extensive epigraph, or to miss the relationship between it and the story; therefore, he begins his tale by presenting Thoreau’s view on civil disobedience as though it is part of the story, and explains what it is about “for those who need to ask.”

Ellison next informs the reader that he will first tell the middle of the story, then the beginning, and let the end take care of itself. When he interjects the experience of Marshall Delahanty, he openly labels it a footnote, the point of which is to show what could happen to the Harlequin if his identity is discovered. Finally, at the end of the story, he refers the reader back to Thoreau and makes the point that sacrifice is worthwhile if even a tiny amount of progress is made. By openly drawing attention to the mechanics of the storytelling process, Ellison tells an engaging story in a nontraditional manner and instructs the novice reader in how to negotiate its form and meaning.

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