Harlan Ellison's "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" and Why Chaos is Like Jellybeans

Melissa Mickael

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 lives.

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.

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