Conformity and Individualism
In ‘‘‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,’’ Ellison clearly sets his hero, the Harlequin, in opposition to both the totalitarian regime of the Ticktockman and the master schedule and to the masses of people who choose to conform to the strictures of the society. His opening quotation from Thoreau makes this clear. Thoreau argues that most people serve the state without thinking and without moral reflection. Consequently, for Thoreau, these people have no more worth than ‘‘horses and dogs.’’ Real heroes, then, are those who ‘‘serve the state with their consciences.’’ Ellison draws on Thoreau’s image of ‘‘wooden men’’ who ‘‘can perhaps be manufactured’’ in his description of shift workers heading for their jobs: ‘‘With practiced motion and an absolute conservation of movement, they sidestepped up onto the slow-strip and (in a chorus line reminiscent of a Busby Berkeley film of the antediluvian 1930s) advanced across the strips ostrich-walking till they were lined up on the expresstrip.’’
The futuristic society of the story is one that values conformity and discourages individual differences. Indeed, the Harlequin’s idiosyncrasies are considered ‘‘a strain of disease long-defunct, now, suddenly, reborn in a system where immunity had been forgotten, had lapsed.’’ Personality itself had been ‘‘filtered out of the system many decades before.’’ In a culture that depends on workers arriving on time at factories to do line work, conformity ensures the utmost efficiency in the production of uniform manufactured products. Individualism, then, is dangerous to ‘‘The Ones Who Kept The Machine Functioning.’’
It is in his description of Pretty Alice and the Harlequin, however, where Ellison most clearly demonstrates the contrast between conformity and individualism. Pretty Alice criticizes the Harlequin for speaking with ‘‘a great deal of inflection.’’ In addition, she is irritated that he dresses differently from other people. But most of all, Pretty Alice is angry that the Harlequin is always late, in spite of his promises not to be. This anger eventually leads the conformist Alice to turn in the non-conformist Harlequin to the Ticktockman, who tells the Harlequin that Alice ‘‘wants to belong; she wants to conform.’’ Even love, then, does not seem to have the power to conquer the suffocating sameness of the culture. Ironically, Alice’s betrayal makes the Harlequin even more of an individualist; his loss of Pretty Alice means that he stands alone against the inquisition of the Ticktockman.
Science and Technology
Like many writers of speculative fiction, Ellison seems to have mixed feelings about the ways science and technology affect the lives of citizens of industrialized nations. On one hand, the society in ‘‘‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the...
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