Harlan Ellison's "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" and Why Chaos is Like Jellybeans
Imagine a world that is governed by order in the strictest sense a city
where schedules and rules are so firmly enforced that it leaves no room
for individuality or self will. Now imagine what happens when one introduces
a chaotic element into that rational, ordered mix. This is what Harlan
Ellison, author of the short science fiction story "'Repent, Harlequin!'
Said the Ticktockman," shows his readers in his writing. Touching
on the idea that mankind constantly desires rational order and punctuality,
Ellison also reveals that chaos and disorder are inevitable, perhaps necessary,
even in a society so severely dictated.
"'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" is a perfect example
of this ideal due to the world it takes place in a futuristic city where
everyone has a schedule to keep. The economy rests on the continued efficiency
of the drone like workers, who absolutely cannot be late for their duties.
"Being on time" is a concept so deeply embedded into their lives
that being late is a punishable crime it is the Ticktockman, who has the
legal power to shorten or end lives, that can take off the hours of a
person's lifespan. In the story, a hero appears as the mischievous, rebellious
Harlequin, a man who uses his time to show people to enjoy life
again. His action brings about what the rigid, oppressed government sees
as a major destruction of their unity and punctuality, and so the Ticktockman
moves to find out who this mysterious, motley jester is. The more he attempts
to capture him, however, the more he wants to comprehend and reform him,
thus returning order to the newly chaotic lives of the people.
Ellison's futuristic society is governed by order and punctuality; the
oppressive government organizes all the schedules of the people and punishes
them for not keeping on track. He portrays a world born from our own current
beliefs that tardiness should be disapproved of, that being late should
be frowned upon and occasionally punished. Ellison magnifies this to the
extreme in "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," revealing
a city where being seven minutes off schedule can take off seven minutes
of someone's life. This process of "taking time away" is controlled
by the quiet and dangerous Ticktockman, who is the complete epitome of
order. He believes in the strict form of the law that efficiency and schedules
keep the economy and world going correctly, and that everyone should conform
to this routine behavior. "Most people enjoy order," he tells
the Harlequin at one point. People must mindlessly follow this order,
however, loosing their individual freedoms and expressive rights to the
city. They are trapped by the Ticktockman's control over their lifespan.
During one point in the story, a man, who serves as nothing more than
an example, receives a "notice" that he will be "turned
off' at a certain time for being late too much. He attempts to run. "And
early the next day, when turn off time came, he was deep in the Canadian
forest two hundred miles away, and the office of the Ticktockman blanked
his cardioplate, and Marshall Delahanty keeled over, running, and his
heart stopped, and the blood dried up on its way to his brain, and he
was dead that's all." This is the fate the government gives them
for being unpunctual in all aspects of their life.
This is where our hero, the utter personification of disorder and chaos,
the Harlequin, steps into the picture. Suddenly appearing out of nowhere
in a jester outfit, this elfin man embodies enjoyment and personality.
This is why Harlequin is such an alarming threat to them not only is he
never on time, but he has a character that the lower class people admire.
"He had become a personality, something they had filtered
out of the system many decades before," Ellison writes of the nimble
jester. He is the strong man that fights for his autonomy, struggles free
of the oppressive lifestyle he's supposed to live, and flaunts his tardy,
flawed, absolutely chaotic personality to the city by dumping jellybeans
on the streets, yelling through bullhorns, and harassing workers. Surprisingly,
this is met by most of the city people with laughter and delight. They
enjoy his rude interruptions, his tardiness, his blatant disregard for
authority, especially in the lower half of the city, "Where people
always needed their saints and sinners, their bread and circuses, their
heroes and villains, he was considered a Bolivar; a Napoleon; a Robin
Hood; a Dick Bong (Ace of Aces); a Jesus; a Jomo Kenyatta." Ticktockman,
his direct opposite, insists that people long to be normal and conform
with each other, but Harlequin refutes that by merely being around. (To
his persuasive comments that humans want to conform, and that Harlequin
should try fitting in, the man only replies in his unique voice, "Unstrap
me, and I'll fit my fist in your mouth.") He is individuality unleashed
upon this ordered society like a plague, a wonderful disease called chaos
that brightens the dreary people of the city and gives them hope for their
own dictated lives.
Ellison uses these two characters to show the forces of order and disorder
both Harlequin and Ticktockman are the embodiments of each. Although it
may seem at first glance that the Harlequin and his individuality are
the heroes of the tale, both sides have a point in what the people want.
The Ticktockman insists that people desire order and although he gives
them an unforgiving system of punctuality, this statement is somewhat
true. They adamantly stick to their schedules even if they don't like
them, even when the Ticktockman tells them not to a set of workers even
refuses to help capture the Harlequin when they're working. "The
work crew said no, they would lose time on their construction schedule,
but the Ticktockman managed to pull the proper threads of the governmental
webbing, and they were told to cease work and catch that nitwit up there
on the spire; up there with the bullhorn." When the Ticktockman finally
does capture the Harlequin, he even reveals that it was because he found
out his real name from the woman he loved. "You unnerve her. She
wants to belong; she wants to conform." In this manner, we actually
see that humans instinctively respond to a natural desire for order. At
the same time, however, it clashes with their love of expressive freedom
and disorder. When disturbing their work, the Harlequin makes several
scientists enjoy themselves. "The physicians, gathered in a solemn
conclave, roared with laughter, and accepted the Harlequin's apologies
with exaggerated bowing and posturing, and a merry time was had by all..."
We begin to see that although the Harlequin is a hero to the people who
hate the system, mankind also still desires the factor of order in their
Overall, "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" is a story
that shows us the value of having individuality. It warns us of the possibility
of a world where personal chaos is scorned and stamped out, but also gives
us hope that at least one person will still have enough gusto left to
stand up and become a hero. As Ellison writes in this tale, "...
in every revolution a few die who shouldn't, but they have to, because
that's the way it happens, and if you make only a little change, then
it seems to be worthwhile." Indeed, the chaotic changes the Harlequin
attempts to initiate in this ordered society bring about a lasting effect
in the end for the better of all.
This web site created and maintained by the Coe Writing Center. Copyright 2001.
E-mail Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.