In a futuristic world, time is highly regulated and tardiness results in a subtraction of minutes, days, or years from an individual’s life. Habitual tardiness can even result in death, implemented via a form of technology called a cardioplate that can remotely stop the beating of the heart.
The Harlequin is a man who struggles to fit into the mold of this society and is constantly late. Dressed in a jester’s costume, he rebels against the order that he finds so constricting by engaging in acts of non-violent domestic terrorism—making people late, fooling authorities, and interrupting the highly regimented flow of things. The lower classes view him as a hero, while the wealthy and powerful see him as a dangerous nuisance.
One day, the Harlequin drops thousands of jelly beans onto the automatic conveyor belts taking workers to and from their factory shifts. The colorful beans delight the workers but jam the belts, ultimately disrupting the day’s schedule by seven minutes. This “disaster” brings the Harlequin to the attention of the Ticktockman, a solemn figure in charge of ensuring that order is maintained and responsible for utilizing the technology that metes out time.
Because he does not know the Harlequin’s real name, the Ticktockman cannot remotely turn off his cardioplate. The Harlequin evades capture for a time, though the Ticktockman eventually hunts him down. While interrogating the Harlequin, whose real name is Everett C. Marm, the Ticktockman insists that most people appreciate an ordered society. The Harlequin replies that he’d rather die than live in this unnatural, tyrannical world.
The Ticktockman sends Marm to a reeducation camp, where he is brainwashed in a manner that the narrator indicates is similar to the methods used in 1984. When he returns, he is filmed repudiating his earlier actions and endorsing his support for the Ticktockman and for the order of society as a whole.
Nevertheless, his rebellious actions are suggested to have had an effect on society, possibly the first small rumblings of an avalanche of change, as the Ticktockman himself has become late, throwing the schedule off irreparably by a few minutes.