Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”

During my six hour layover in New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport on Sunday, I read Harlan Ellison’s Hugo and Nebula-winning short story, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” It was originally published in the December 1965 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, and it can be readily found today in The Essential Ellison.

It’s a story about a future ruled by efficiency and time keeping. Whenever you’re late, that time gets docked from your projected lifespan. If you’re late too much, as is the story’s joker-hero, Harlequin, you’re “turned off.” The Master Timekeeper, or as he’s called behind his back, the Ticktockman, is responsible for policing and enforcing the law of punctuality.

Ellison explicitly relies on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, particularly in the ending when Harlequin, aka Everett C. Marm is broken. However, he breaks with Orwell by making Harlequin a character that can actually disrupt the system instead of an individual who is a ball of yarn to the state-cat.

One element that I found lacking in the story is the way in which the lone speaking female character is portrayed. She is put off by Harlequin “annoying people,” and she’s ultimately the one that betrays him. This betrayal is voluntary, unlike Julia’s betrayal of Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It seems like Ellison is painting the woman in a traditional role as betrayer rather than a less stereotypical role.

That being said, I do like “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” a great deal. It’s a postmodern narrative that features great dialog exchanges that sound strange reading them, but perfectly normal if you say them out loud. Also, I like the way in which he employs jelly beans to create a cascading breakdown in system efficiency–most inventive!

We need more Harlequins today more than ever!

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.