the demands of the ticktockman
Mixing the genres of science fiction and fantasy, Harlan Ellison created a world of order in need of social revolution. Standing alone, "Repent Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman", may seem an odd addition to any library, but when compared with the reality of our industry driven nation the story resonates the truth of the decline of individuality and personal accountability.
Who is the Ticktockman?
In the opening of the story, Ellison quotes Thoreau from his book "Civil Disobedience": "The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines…" (Ellison 363). Thoreau's statement illustrates the lack of compassion and thought needed to run a healthy government and society. This machine-like government needs a machine-like enforcer—the Ticktockman. While he is a man remaining masked, the Ticktockman carried the responsibility of cutting back the time people have to live. As Master Timekeeper, he was given the burden of finding the "Harlequin" and punishing him according to his crimes.
This idea of a Ticktockman immediately creates controversy to the readers. How can one man be given the ultimate power to end life? Who gives him that power, and what rules govern his use of it? To understand who he is, we must first understand what he fights.
Seen as a destructor of their utopian society, the Harlequin endeavors to disrupt the mindless obedience of the citizens and inspire them to live a free life of pleasure and chaos. In a paper written by Earl V. Bryant from the University of New Orleans, the Harlequin is described as a living representation of the great festival Mardi Gras (Bryant). This carnival involves celebrating life and indulging in the pleasures surrounding us. Bryant continues his connection of the Harlequin to Mardi Gras with the colors of the jellybeans and the colors of the parade: purple, green and yellow (Bryant).
Once again the reader must face another question: are the indulgences of the Harlequin liberating, or are they simply the outward demonstrations of an undisciplined life? Where does a society find the balance between living free and order? Truly, the Harlequin not only disturbs life in the cozy land of the story, but starts a debate among readers about the amount of power and control given to government and industry.
From an Ethical Perspective
Do we serve the government, or does the government serve us? In Ellison's work, we read about a people who are nothing more than the cogs of a machine running so efficiently that a simple delay of seven minutes can disrupt the economy. These drones may seem fictional, but in an honest comparison the similarities are shocking. We, as a people, shop in giant stores, drive on giant roads, vote in giant elections. The individual voices of our land drown in a sea of commonality. In turn, our blind following of "the rules" has placed us in a strange relationship with major companies to tell us what to buy and where to visit. The desire for individual expression and exploration has fallen into an abyss and covered by the ease of a pre-packaged life.
The Ticktockman has the power to shorten life. With simple controls, he can exact justice for tardiness and other careless behaviors. This too holds great significance when juxtaposed with the "Rat Race" and other financial pursuits. Every person has the right to earn a living and provide for their families, but what is the cost of excess? When does making money become more important than living? In the United States millions of vacations days are wasted every year by workers unable or unwilling to use them. Our purpose is not simply working so that we can live, but living so that we can work.
Ellison's warning shouts from the story with every turn of the page and culminates with "one day we no longer let time serve us, we serve time and we are slaves of the schedule" (Ellison 367). The reverse order of our lives leads to an enslavement of the soul; by surrendering to the demands of work and social order, an individual forfeits the beauty of life and assumes the role of machine.
Marxism and the Ticktockman
In a utopian society, the health of the individual spirit is equal to the health of a nation. If one of our fellow citizens suffers, we all suffer. By realizing the importance of the individual a nation can lift and sustain even its weakest members. There may be little to profit from this theory in a monetary sense, but there will be much to gain in the humanities as humans are celebrated as equals.
We are subjects to our own laws. We possess the power to change our land—we just need to get off the couch. In rising for the defense of our countryman, the powers that govern our land would have no choice but to comply. Going to war for the profit of industry would become a thing of the past. Indulging in the carnal lusts of men would be replaced by the enjoyment of a land filled with equality and hope for all residents. Certainly the lure of a land with order and efficiency has its appeal, but at what cost? It is possible that order and efficiency would be the product of a peaceful land. Rather than enforce law, let us enforce life, and enjoy the new land created from the harmony of souls in true unity.
The Ticktockman's purpose serves as warning to the destruction of living free. The giant sentinel dominates a world enforcing profit and order, but there is hope; laughing, loving and living prove the best antidote for a sterile life devoid of pleasure.
Bryant, Earle V. "Ellison's "REPENT HARLEQUIN!" SAID THE TICKTOCKMAN." Explicator 59.3 (Spring2001 2001): 163. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. [SLCC Library], [Taylorsville], [UT]. 8 Aug. 2009 <http://libweb.slcc.edu:2436/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=5011286&site=ehost-live>.
Ellison, Harlan. ""Repent, Harliquin!" Said the Ticktockman." Klotz, Richard Abcarian & Marvin. Literature The Human Experience. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin, 2007. 363-372.