29 pages 58 minutes read

Harlan Ellison

"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1965

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”

“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” one of Harlan Ellison’s most famous short stories, was published in Galaxy in 1965 and went on to win both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards. Ellison (1934-2018) was an American speculative fiction and screenwriter whose works were influential in the development of New Wave science fiction. “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” uses nonlinear storytelling to depict a short-lived one-man rebellion against a dystopian future society. The story explores themes of authority, class, and the human struggle for and against order.

This study guide refers to the edition collected in Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the 20th Century, edited by Orson Scott Card and published by Ace Books in 2001.

The unnamed narrator quotes from Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849), about the majority of people who live and work for the state without judgment or conscience, whom Thoreau compares to “wooden men.” Those who do follow their consciences resist the state and are “treated as enemies by it” (146). The narrator suggests that this quote is central to understanding what life is about and then tells the reader that the story will start in the middle.

An anonymous revolutionary known as the Harlequin has come to the attention of the authorities as a hero or figurehead for the lower classes. However, the upper and middle classes find him laughable, disgusting, or threatening, so his information, including his “time-card and his cardioplate” (147), have been given to the Ticktockman to investigate.

The Ticktockman is the colloquial name of the Master Timekeeper, a tall, quiet, masked figure who ensures that society goes “timewise”—that everything and everyone runs on a tightly controlled schedule—and who can take time from the life of anyone who threatens that order. When he receives the information of the Harlequin, he asks his staff and underlings to help him find out the Harlequin’s real identity.

The narrative perspective shifts to reveal the Harlequin, a whimsical, dimpled figure wearing motley, sitting in an air-boat above the city, looking down at it as workers at a nearby factory change shifts. He drops his air-boat down above the people and makes faces at them as he glides overhead. Then he flies over to the shift workers and pours “one hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of jelly beans” (148) onto the moving sidewalk carrying them to the factory. The jelly beans bring joy into the rigidly controlled lives of the factory workers, who shout, laugh, and collect the jelly beans to eat.

However, their shift is delayed by seven minutes, which has cascading effects for the society. The authorities see it as a disaster and order the Harlequin to appear before them. However, he is over three hours late for the appointment, and, when he arrives, treats it as a joke by singing a song and then disappearing. The Ticktockman and all of the authorities are left wondering who the Harlequin really is while the narrator asks the readers to consider other questions, such as how such a society came to be and how the Harlequin would have gotten so many jelly beans, which have not been manufactured for a century. The narrator concludes the section by admitting that this final question will likely never be answered and reminding readers that many questions never are.

The next section is the beginning of the story. A series of short vignettes from different points of view, the section includes a detailed daily diary, a college rejection letter citing lateness as the reason for rejection, a complicated train schedule, and other notes, scraps of dialogue, and published announcements underscoring the importance of time in this society. The narrator concludes by saying that time no longer serves people; people serve time and are “slaves of the schedule” (150).

Time rules so inflexibly that it is a crime to be late, and an edict is passed making it the job of the Master Timekeeper to dole out punishments for lateness. Ten minutes of someone’s life is taken for minor tardiness; more egregious lateness is met with a harsher sentence. Consistent lateness can receive a death sentence if the Ticktockman decides to turn off the offender’s cardioplate. These punishments are justified because timeliness is patriotic and the country is at war. But, the narrator asks, isn’t the country always at war?

The next section moves forward in time to the moment the Harlequin knows he’s being hunted by the Ticktockman. He discusses his wanted poster with his lover, Pretty Alice, who calls him “Everett” and criticizes the way he speaks. The Harlequin says he must go out again, and Pretty Alice gets upset. She asks him why he can’t stay home and why he has to act as the Harlequin, but he doesn’t answer. A fax comes through with news about him, which irritates Pretty Alice further. The Harlequin tries and fails to argue with Pretty Alice, who only calls him ridiculous. When he tells her that he’ll be home at 10:30 that night, she berates him for always being late. Outside the door, he briefly wonders why he is always late, but goes off to perform as the Harlequin again.

The Harlequin announces via fireworks that he’s going to attend the 115th annual International Medical Association Invocation at 8 p.m. The authorities set up webs to trap him, assuming he’ll be late. However, he is early and sets their own traps on them, stringing them up in webs high above the crowd. Everyone laughs, and the authorities are humiliated by their failure.

In a parenthetical aside, the narrator tells readers the story of Marshall Delahanty, whose family receives his death warrant from the Ticktockman at the same time as the Harlequin’s antics at the International Medical Association. Mrs. Delahanty knows what the notification is immediately and prays that it’s for her husband or children, not for her. She cries with grief, however, when she opens the envelope and reads her husband’s name. The next day, Delahanty has made it 200 miles away into the Canadian forest when the Ticktockman turns off his cardioplate, killing Delahanty instantly. The narrator concludes by telling readers this is “what would happen to the Harlequin if ever the Ticktockman found out his real name” (153).

The Harlequin continues his rebellion on Thursday by appearing at the Efficiency Shopping Center and berating the shoppers with his bullhorn: “Why let them order you about? … Take your time! Saunter awhile! … Don’t be slaves of time …” (153). The shoppers mostly ignore him, but the Ticktockman orders construction workers to apprehend the Harlequin. He slips away, though, and no one is hurt. However, the shopping schedule is thrown off, leaving the shops with too many of some items and not enough of others, which affects every industry.

The Ticktockman orders his staff not to return until they have the Harlequin. His underlings use a dozen different methods, from familiar ones like dogs, torture, and guile, to methods specific to the world of the story, such as “teepers,” “stiktykes,” and “fallaron” (154). Ultimately, they catch him, and his full name is revealed to be Everett C. Marm.

When the Ticktockman demands that the Harlequin repent, the Harlequin tells him to “get stuffed.” Despite being threatened with being turned off, the Harlequin is stubborn and unafraid, calling the Ticktockman a tyrant and saying, “I’d rather be dead than live in a dumb world with a bogeyman like you” (154). The Ticktockman tells the Harlequin that Pretty Alice turned him in, which the Harlequin doesn’t believe. Ultimately, though, the Ticktockman doesn’t turn the Harlequin off. Instead, he is sent to Coventry, where he is brainwashed “like what they did to Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four” (155).

When Everett returns to society, he makes a public announcement that he was wrong and that belonging and being on time are good things. Everyone decides that the Harlequin was “a nut after all” (155) and that rebelling against society and the Ticktockman isn’t worth it. The narrator concludes by saying that “if you only make a little change, then it seems to be worthwhile” (155) and illustrates this point with one final vignette, in which the Ticktockman himself is running three minutes late.