Some professor somewhere must have told his class to read Harlan Ellison’s classic short story, “Repent Harlequin, said the Ticktockman.” Because my blog has gotten quite a few hits lately from people in search of literary analyses of the story. It is true that a few months ago I did a post in which I borrowed the name of the story, which does just happen to be one of my favorite posts ever. Unfortunately, my post has no relation to the actual story, except insofar as the incident related therein was the closest I ever came to being the inimitable Harlequin myself. Still, in the interest of aiding the misled people who have arrived at my blog in search of some commentary on the story, I thought it incumbent on me to provide something of the sort.
Ellison’s story and I go way back. I first read it as a teenager, and I vividly remember near the beginning of the story (if you have read it, you know the exact run-on sentence of which I speak) having a sudden and overpowering craving for jelly beans. So much so, that I hopped on my bike right then, drove to the store, and bought myself a bag of jelly beans. After I got home, I finished the story and the jelly beans in lingering pleasure, together. The taste and texture of those jelly beans and the accompanying sugar rush may have something to do with how deeply “Repent Harlequin, said the Ticktockman” is engraved in my psyche.
I used to read a lot of science fiction back then, but few stories stick out in my head the way “Harlequin” does. I reread it on multiple occasions, thought of it often, and even found memorable phrases from it often popping into my conversations. So in college when I was thinking about being an English major, I was more than thrilled to open my literature anthology for “English 251: Fundamentals of Literary Interpretation” and find “Harlequin” there, grinning up at me and inviting me back into the world of the nonconformist. That’s when I realized that not only had “Harlequin” been universally acclaimed as a great sci-fi story (garnering both Hugo and Nebula awards), but it was even (more difficult accomplishment) considered “real literature” by the powers-that-be of the academic literary scene. Which is an amusing irony, considering the fact that the highly unconventional Ellison appears to have purposely chosen the “marginal” genre of science fiction as a vehicle for satirical social commentary. The only thing of which I’m not quite sure is whether the joke is on the literary establishment or on him.
For the uninitiated, “Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman” takes place in a tightly-controlled futuristic society where being late is a crime. Ticktockman rules the world with an iron fist, revoking minutes from people’s lives to punish tardiness. When all your minutes have been revoked, he kills you. Harlequin, the spunky, courageous, yet vulnerable hero, wreaks as much havoc as he can in the system by creating whimsical diversions–like dumping $150,000 worth of jelly beans all over the sidewalk. Although Harlequin’s one-man rebellion is ultimately fatally crushed by Ticktockman and his henchmen, even the most rabidly punctual reader cannot fail to sympathize with his cause. Spend a few pages with the Ticktockman, and you will be impelled to take a look at your own society and consider whether it too needs a Harlequin.
Every detail of Ellison’s story is heart-breakingly perfect. From the playful sarcasm and fantastic scenery (both reminiscent of Aristophanes) to the carefully flouted literary conventions (he starts in the middle, moves to the beginning, and then finishes with the end), everything is calculated to enhance the overall feeling of pathetic yet triumphant rebellion. The story is full of colloquialisms, silly-sounding names, theatrical phrases, and one gloriously ridiculous run-on sentence (the one about the jelly beans, of course). Yet it is prefaced by an utterly serious (and thoroughly relevant) quote from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, although Ellison characteristically pokes lighthearted fun at the practice of using an introductory quotation even as he is in the act of doing it.
Is it awful to confess that I had never read Thoreau before he was recommended to me by Ellison? When I think about it, that may be the real genius of “Harlequin.” Ellison has distilled Thoreau’s passionate appeal that we not allow the establishment to overrule our conscience into a few pages of seemingly lighthearted frolic, accessible to just about anyone. His story makes you see, feel, and even taste the art of civil disobedience in a way that makes it seem not only possible but imperative. And even though it seems like it’s all in fun, Ellison is deadly serious about both our responsibility to strike out against tyranny and injustice, and our real capacity to do it in our own individual way. And in his grittily poetic story, he gives us what is both a practical case study and an implied but impassioned call to action. After all, if Harlequin can turn his chronic tardiness into a powerful vehicle for social change, surely we too can do something to transform the world.
For those who have yet to read “Repent Harlequin, said the Ticktockman,” I can promise you a delightful ten minutes if you look it up in any one of dozens of literary anthologies, sci-fi and otherwise. For those who, like me, first read it long ago, I hope this has been a nice jaunt down memory lane. And for those of you who are in the middle of writing a paper, I hope I’ve helped the creative juices along a bit. If not, go buy yourself some jelly beans.
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