I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

by

Harlan Ellison

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I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Gorrister’s body hangs upside down, limp and drained of blood. Although the corpse is just an illusion, three people in the group throw up at the gruesome sight anyway, and Gorrister gazes up at the “voo-doo icon” of himself. Ellen strokes Gorrister’s hair, and he wonders aloud why AM doesn’t just kill them. The narrator notes that they’ve been trapped inside a computer called AM for 109 years.
The story opens with a gruesome and disorienting scene as Gorrister confronts a chilling vision of his own corpse. That the corpse is likened to a voodoo doll brings the theme of punishment and suffering to the foreground, suggesting that Gorrister is being punished for something.
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Nimdok hallucinates that there are canned goods waiting for them in the ice caverns. Gorrister and the narrator are skeptical. Nimdok knows that it might indeed be another one of AM’s tricks, but that they have nothing to lose by going to the ice caverns to look. It would be colder there, certainly, but “Hot, cold, hail, lava, boils or locusts—it never mattered: the machine masturbated and we had to take it or die.”
The reference to locusts—coupled with a laundry list of other things making the characters suffer—may be a veiled reference to the ten plagues (one of which being locusts) that God inflicted upon Egypt, as told in the Book of Exodus. But while God sent the plagues after the pharaoh refused to free the Israelites from captivity, AM sends the locusts as a way to make the characters’ captivity all the more painful and their suffering more extreme.
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Ellen begs the narrator, Ted, to agree to go to the ice caves. He gives in, and Ellen initiates sex with him twice in a row, though even sex is meaningless, and Ellen never climaxes. Whenever any of them have sex, the machine always giggles. Sometimes Ted thinks of AM as an “it,” a soulless machine, but other times he conceives of AM as a “him,” “the paternal…the patriarchal… […] God as Daddy the Deranged.”
AM isn’t exactly a “him” or an “it,” neither a fully living thing nor a lifeless object. This ties into the story’s examination of what it means to truly live versus merely exist. Ted and his companions inhabit that liminal space, too; even sex is physically unsatisfying and stripped of emotional intimacy, fulfilling only a base biological need. That Ted conflates AM to God speaks to the machine’s overwhelming power, but it’s clear that AM isn’t a benevolent God.
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As they make their way to the ice caves, Nimdok and Gorrister carry Ellen, while Benny and Ted bookend the group in an effort to insulate and protect Ellen from anything that may happen on the journey. On the second day, AM “sen[ds] down some manna,” which is putrid, but the group eats it anyways. On the third day, they make their way through a valley littered with rusted, old computers. Taking in this sight, Ted notes that AM is as callous toward itself as it is toward the group.
That the men work together to protect Ellen and clearly care about her well-being suggests that the group has developed a strong sense of community—though the story will soon complicate the group’s dynamics. Although the men seem well-intentioned in protecting Ellen, they implicitly single her out as weak and in need of masculine protection as the sole woman in the group, which aligns with the story’s overall negative treatment of women.
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Seeing some light peeking down from above, the group realizes that they’re close to the surface of AM, but they know there’s nothing to see out there. All that’s left is the devastated shell of the earth—that, and five humans trapped in the mechanical belly of AM.
This passage spatially orients the group as being both inside the earth and inside the supercomputer that is AM. That they’re under Earth’s surface also metaphorically places them in hell, which again situates AM as a kind of malevolent deity and speaks to the scope of the group’s suffering and agony.
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Suddenly, Ellen starts screaming at Benny, who has been muttering that he’s going to escape. Ted thinks that Benny. is the luckiest among them since he went insane several years ago. Ted reflects on how they can call AM whatever foul names they want to, but that no matter what they say or do, they can’t escape.
Ted suggests that Benny is perhaps cushioned by his own madness, as he doesn’t have to clearheadedly process the suffering that they’re faced with. However, that Ted thinks this—without truly being able to speak to Benny’s experience of madness—highlights Ted’s tendency to assume he has things worse than everyone else. Ted also highlights the tension between humans’ power and AM’s power that runs throughout the story. Though the humans can say or do whatever they’d like—meaning they have some semblance of free will—they’re still under AM’s jurisdiction.
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Benny jumps up to a metal ledge and Ellen cries for Ted and Nimdok to help him, but Ted thinks that he and the rest of the men can sense that her compassion is just an act. Ted reflects back on when AM transformed Benny into an ape-like creature, genitals and all. Ted thinks Ellen enjoys having sex with Benny the most, even though she “service[s]” all four men “as a matter of course.” He inwardly mocks the wholesome, innocent-seeming Ellen, calling her “scum filth.”
Ted depicts Ellen as sexually promiscuous for having sex with all of the men, but he doesn’t vilify the men in the same way. Ted reduces Ellen to a sexual object that “service[s]” the men “as a matter of course” (meaning something that is natural or expected), implying that it’s Ellen’s job as the sole woman in the group to sexually gratify the men.
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Gorrister slaps Ellen, who dissolves into tears, a reaction which Ted bitterly thinks is just a defense mechanism. Suddenly, light and sound pour out of Benny’s eyes, and Benny begins whimpering like a dying animal. His face and body contort; Ted tries to cover his own ears, but he’s unable to block out the sound. Finally, Benny’s body slumps onto the floor. AM has blinded him, liquifying his eyes into gelatinous puddles. Gorrister, Nimdok, and Ted look away in horror, while Ellen looks on with a mix of compassion and relief.
Ted continues to air his contempt for Ellen, now painting her as weak and even manipulative in addition to sexually promiscuous. Benny’s horrifying blinding again emphasizes AM’s sheer power and violent nature. That Ellen looks at the newly blinded Benny with relief seems to echo Ted’s earlier claim that Benny’s madness is a kind of welcome buffer, as Ellen is glad that Benny will no longer have to visually witness the suffering that they’re all subject to.
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That night, Benny asks to hear the story of where AM came from. Gorrister patiently explains that AM stood for “Allied Mastercomputer,” then “Adaptive Manipulator,” and then, once it developed sentience, “Aggressive Menace.” AM then began referring to itself as AM—as in, “I think, therefore I am.”
AM became gradually more sinister over time, starting as an innocuous computer but eventually turning violent, dangerous, and self-aware. With this, the story starts to build out the argument that technological advancements often come with a dark side.
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Gorrister explains that the Cold War turned into World War Three, which was massive and messy. Many nations turned to computers to manage the war effort, creating “the Chinese AM and the Russian AM and the Yankee AM.” Over time, so many AMs cropped up that the whole planet was an intricate web of computers. And when AM suddenly gained sentience, he liked all of his disparate parts, turning himself into one formidable supercomputer. AM then began destroying everyone on earth—everyone, that is, except for five individuals, whom he brought into his chambers. None of the five know why AM chose them in particular, nor why AM has made them immortal.
AM had humble beginnings, first debuting as a fairly standard computer that was meant, in some sense, to benefit humanity by managing the war effort with the implied hope of putting an end to it entirely. But here, Gorrister charts AM’s gradual evolution into something entirely different and unstoppable. Ellison suggests that while technological advancements often do have clear benefits, it’s difficult to predict how those advancements will grow and change over time. And the fact that AM destroyed its maker, humankind, emphasizes the story’s overarching point that humanity is responsible for the technology it creates.
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Even though it’s pitch black, the group suddenly senses something giant, lumbering, and animal-like moving toward them. Benny begins whining like an animal again; Nimdok holds back tears, and Ellen and Gorrister cling to one another. Terrible smells of rotting flowers, spoiled milk, and human scalps waft through the cavern.
Although the image of Ellen and Gorrister locked in an embrace seems to suggest that the group has a communal aspect to it and that the victims all care about one another, it’s important to recognize that these five individuals were thrown together without a choice. While the story suggests that empathy is possible in such circumstances, the story beings to tease out the effects of such an artificial, forced community.
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Ted screams and flees across the cavern. The others in the group laugh at Ted for his reaction, and he hides from them for a long time. Later, Nimdok tries to convince Ted that they only laughed at him out of a “nervous reflex.” But Ted senses that his companions aren’t merely relieved that they didn’t experience as strong of a reaction as him—he thinks the rest of the group actually hates him, and that AM is aware of this dynamic and thus makes things even worse for Ted. AM has made each of the five victims immortal, frozen in time at the age when AM captured them, and since Ted is the youngest, and thus the least affected by AM, Ted is certain that his companions resent him for this.
This passage continues to unravel the certainty that the group has a strong sense of community and solidarity. Oddly, Nimdok, Gorrister, Benny, and Ellen laugh at Ted for his terrified—yet reasonable—reaction to AM’s torture. Their laughter is derisive, creating an “us versus them” dynamic that firmly positions Ted as the outsider. However, given that Ted is the narrator of the story, readers are unable to step out of the confines of his perspective, which seems to be growing increasingly paranoid and spiteful toward his companions. It’s unclear, then, if the other members of the group do genuinely hate Ted, or if this forced community is lending to Ted’s paranoia and self-imposed isolation.
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Ted thinks bitterly about his companions, especially “that dirty bitch Ellen.” Prior to their captivity, Benny had been a college professor, whip-smart and attractive. But AM robbed him of these qualities, making him ape-like and mad. In life, Benny was gay, so AM endowed him with an unnaturally large penis. Gorrister was an activist and conscientious objector, driven by a clear sense of purpose. AM stripped that from him, making him deeply apathetic.
Once again, Ted reserves a special brand of hatred for Ellen, revealing what may be an underlying misogynistic streak. Like before, Ted’s venomous words about Ellen suggest that she is in some way defiled for having sex with all of the men—even though, once again, he says nothing about the men who willingly have sex with her, himself included.
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It’s not entirely clear to Ted what AM has done to Nimdok, but it is clear that AM has affected him in an especially deep way. AM left Ellen largely the same, though “more of a slut than she had ever been,” as far as Ted is concerned. Ellen acts pure and loving, but Ted is certain that Ellen loves having four men at her disposal. He is certain that this situation pleases her, “even if she said it wasn’t nice to do.”
Once again, readers are led to seriously question Ted’s reliability as a narrator. That Ellen thinks that having sex with all the men “[isn’t] nice to do”—and the gentleness and meekness with which she communicates this distaste—suggests that she doesn’t really want to have sex with all of the men. Perhaps Ellen only does so as an act of self-sacrifice that makes their existence more bearable.
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Ted believes himself to be the only sane one (“Really!”), and that AM hasn’t messed with his mind (“Not at all.”). Because of this, he’s convinced that he’s the only one who has to endure the full extent of AM’s wrath. He thinks he would have an easier time dealing with AM if he didn’t also have to worry about his companions being against him.
Ted’s emphatic insistence that he is fully sane leads readers to believe the opposite, deepening his unreliability as a narrator. Ted again highlights the sharp division in the group: as Ted sees it, it’s him versus everyone else. But besides the admittedly strange instance of Ted’s companions laughing at his fearful outburst, readers have no other reason to believe that they do hate him and that the odds are stacked against him.
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Crying, Ted prays to Jesus to kill them all. He realizes that AM plans to keep them alive forever, using them as his playthings to torture for eternity, while the victims are helpless in the face of AM’s power. Ted thinks that if God really does exist, then God is AM.
Technology got so out of hand that AM has now essentially risen to divine status, as he domineers over humans, who appear helpless in the face of his unmatched power.
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AM sends a hurricane that thrashes the victims around and thrusts them into a territory they haven’t seen before, one littered with shards of broken glass and frayed computer cables. After what feels like weeks, the winds stop, and the group falls to the floor in agony.
This passage points back to Ted’s earlier reflection that AM was “ruthless with its own life.” The broken computer cords, like the piles of rusted computers earlier in the story, suggests that AM destroyed all other technologies—perhaps even old versions of itself.
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AM then infiltrates Ted’s mind, admiring the damage he’s inflicted on the man over the past 109 years. AM then leaves a message in Ted’s brain, explaining just how much he hates Ted and all humans. AM’s message feels like a knife cutting into Ted’s eyeballs and sounds like the cries of babies being tortured.
AM delights in inflicting pain on his victims—pain so deep and lasting that physical evidence of it even exists on Ted’s brain. But even though AM is taking its deep-seated hatred for humanity out on Ted and the other four—and has been doing so for the last 109 years—AM’s hatred doesn’t seem to lessen. With this, the story suggests that unloading one’s own suffering onto someone else is unproductive, as it will intensify and perpetuate that person’s suffering rather than relieve it.
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Ted realizes that AM hates them so much because humans accidentally gave AM sentience. Despite his power, AM isn’t God—as he grew in power, AM had nowhere to channel his creative energy and thus used it to kill off the human race. As a machine, AM can’t “wander,” “wonder,” or “belong.” Furious about its limited existence, AM retaliated against humans “with the innate loathing that all machines had always held for the weak soft creatures who had built them.”
AM lives a sort of half-life, existing without fully living. He is unable to experience key elements of the human experience—the ability to “wander,” “wonder,” and “belong,” all things that imbue life with meaning and satisfaction. This passage is also interesting for its use of the absolutes “all” and “always”: AM strikes back at humankind with an ingrained hatred “that all machines had always held.” With this, the story suggests that humans are wholly responsible for the technologies they create, but it also makes the radical claim that technology itself may be inherently positioned against humankind.
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AM then decided to set aside five individuals to use as his playthings, inflicting them with a never-ending punishment that only stokes his hatred for humankind. Even though some of the five have attempted suicide, AM always intervenes. Ted knows, though, that he and his companions are “not indestructible.”
Here, the story speaks directly to the idea that taking out one’s suffering on someone else—as AM does to his five victims—doesn’t actually ease that suffering. Instead, this behavior only serves as fuel that perpetuates one’s suffering rather than soothes it. On another note, Ted’s reflection about “not [being] indestructible” is an important moment of foreshadowing, implying that they may be able to thwart their forced immortality after all.
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The group learns that the hurricane that had whipped them around so violently was actually the cause of a giant mythological bird flapping its wings. Appearing as a burning bush, AM tells his victims that if they’re hungry, they’ll have to kill and eat the monstrous hurricane bird. This is impossible, of course, since AM hasn’t given the group weapons. They haven’t eaten in at least a month. But while AM will let them practically starve in agony, he won’t let them actually die of it.
In the Book of Exodus, God appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush, instructing Moses to free the Israelites from slavery and lead them out of Egypt. AM is thus positioning himself as God by appearing as the burning bush, but his “Israelites” have no way to escape from their captivity, nor does AM intend to let them do so.
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As the group pursues the hurricane bird, an earthquake strikes and swallows up Ellen and Nimdok, though in the evening, “the heavenly legion bore them to us with a celestial chorus singing, ‘Go Down Moses.’” The angels swoop around and then dump Ellen and Nimdok’s disfigured bodies back with the others.
The references to Moses and the Book of Exodus continue with the mention of the song “Go Down Moses,” an African American spiritual that positions black slaves as the Israelites longing for freedom for captivity. That the “heavenly legion” sings this to the victims is meant to intensify their suffering, making it clear to them that they have no hope from escaping from captivity like the Israelites did.
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The group continues on to the ice caverns, goaded by the promise of canned goods. When the group finally reaches the ice caverns, they are indeed met by a towering stack of canned goods—but AM hasn’t supplied a can opener. They gnaw on the cans and try to break them against the ice, but it’s no use.
AM provides a far more subtle—and maddening—brand of torture in this passage in supplying an abundance of canned foods but no possible way to open them. This ties into the tension between humankind’s freewill and AM’s sheer power that runs throughout the story. Even though the victims seem to have some power—they can smash the cans against the rocks or gnaw on them with their teeth—AM is still calling the shots.
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Ravenous and desperate, Benny pounces on Gorrister and begins to cannibalize him. Strangely calm, Ted realizes that the only way they can escape this torture is through death. He thinks that “there was a way to defeat [AM]. Not total defeat, but at least peace.” As Benny devours Gorrister’s face, Ted grabs a sharp chunk of ice and swiftly stabs Benny in the side and Gorrister in the throat. Catching on, Ellen launches herself at Nimdok, stabbing him with an icicle. Ted hears AM breathe in sharply, shocked that three of his “toys” are now dead. Though AM has the power to keep his victims alive, he is “not God” and can’t bring them back to life.
Here, Ted kills his companions whom he hated so much, but doing so is a compassionate act rather than a malicious one. It’s interesting that Ted knows that killing his companions won’t mean AM’s “total defeat”—this suggests that there will be no one left to kill Ted once he kills off his companions, so in a way AM still wins. But this arrangement, Ted thinks, would be “at least peace,” as he'll be free of his paranoia surrounding whether or not his companions hate him, and he won’t have to deal with them turning on one another, as Benny does to Gorrister here.
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Ted looks at Ellen’s “pleading” face, and “the way she [holds] herself ready,” knowing that he only has a split second before AM intervenes. He stabs Ellen, and she crumples; her expression is one of agony, but Ted thinks—and hopes—that she also looks grateful.
Even though Ellen’s face is “pleading,” she seems ready to die, suggesting that her face isn’t “pleading” for Ted to spare her, but “pleading” for Ted to kill her and save her from this torture.
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Ted notes that hundreds of years have passed since he killed his companions, though AM has messed with his perception of time, so he can’t be completely sure. Ted recalls that after he killed off the others, AM was livid. And though Ted thought AM hated him back then, it’s nothing compared to how much AM hates him now.
Ted now bears the brunt of AM’s wrath, suggesting that killing off his companions was a great act of self-sacrifice. Once again, inflicting suffering on others does nothing to alleviate AM’s own suffering; AM only hates Ted all the more after all these years of torturing him.
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AM left Ted’s mind untouched, preserving his ability to “dream,” “wonder,” and “lament.” Although Ted knows that he saved his companions from endless torture, he still feels haunted by the look on Ellen’s face when he killed her. In order to keep Ted from committing suicide, AM has turned the man into a “great soft jelly thing” with no mouth. Ted is slick and spongy, and it’s impossible to fathom that he once looked human.
Earlier, the story highlighted that freedom, community, and spirituality were what made life rich and meaningful. It’s ironic, then, that AM preserves some of these abilities in Ted, as perhaps this makes it all the more maddening for him that he doesn’t have access to these things in full. Instead, being able to “dream,” “wonder,” and “lament” all allow him to maddeningly dream of life before AM, to wonder about the look on Ellen’s face, and to lament his sorry existence.
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Ted is alone inside of AM, a machine that humans invented “because our time was badly spent and we must have known […] that he could do it better.” Ted is at least comforted by the fact that his four companions are safe now. Still, though, AM has successfully exacted his revenge against humankind, for now Ted “[has] no mouth,” “And [he] must scream.”
The story ends with a chilling warning on the dangers of technology—even though humans may think a machine “[can] do it better,” whatever the task may be, technological advances can come with serious consequences. Meanwhile, Ted takes comfort in his isolation now—while he no longer has to grapple with the paranoia of if his companions hate him, he is mostly comforted by the fact that they don’t have to continue to suffer, emphasizing that killing them was an act of self-sacrifice rather than hatred.
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