The story opens with a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience,” in which Thoreau decries those “good citizens” who mindlessly serve the state without genuine independent thought. Truly great men—often reformers or martyrs—follow their moral consciences even if that means resisting and becoming enemies of the state.
In opening with a quotation from “Civil Disobedience,” the story emphasizes the ideas of resistance to order and the importance of individuality up front. Like the great men featured in Thoreau’s essay, the Harlequin makes the dangerous but ultimately admirable choice to follow his own conscience, no matter the consequences.
The Harlequin has come to the notice of authorities as a potential deviant. A rebel who is symbolic of disruption and a defiance of order, the Harlequin has become a “personality”—“something they had filtered out of the system many decades ago.” While middle-class individuals find his antics vulgar, those “down below” consider him “a Robin Hood … a Jesus.” The wealthy and powerful at the top, meanwhile, think him a dangerous menace. Now that he has become something of a notorious celebrity, officials have turned the case over to the Ticktockman.
Ellison continues to build his dystopian future, highlighting the class hierarchy that has been preserved even as things like “personality” have been stifled. The Harlequin is shown to be dangerous on multiple fronts: first, he is individualistic in a way that is deviant and regressive, and second, he is an inspiration to the lower classes, who view him as a kind of folk hero. While the Harlequin is not overtly violent or dangerous, his symbolic power makes him a significant threat to the power of the Ticktockman.
A tall, silent presence behind a mask, the Ticktockman is called only “Master Timekeeper” to his face; no one wants to offend the man with the power to revoke the minutes, days, or even years of one’s life. Upon reviewing the Harlquin’s file and “cardioplate.” The Ticktockman decides that the rebel must be captured and subdued—but to do so, he must learn the Harlequin’s true identity.
The Ticktockman is introduced here as a threatening and sinister overlord. While he ostensibly stands for order and peace, even those who are also enmeshed in his bureaucracy live in fear of him. The Ticktockman is masked and therefore anonymous, making him less a person and more a symbol of power and control. Similarly, the Ticktockman is uniquely threatened by the Harlequin because he, too, is imbued with immense symbolic power.
Meanwhile, the Harlequin—an auburn-haired man dressed in fully “motley”—is flying his “air-boat” over the city, listening to “the metronomic left-right-left” of workers heading to and from their factory shifts via conveyor-like belts. With an “elfish grin,” he releases “one hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of jelly beans” from his plane. Millions of beans rain down with “a torrent of color and sweetness” that brings the automatic walkways to a screeching halt, causing workers to tumble off in fits off laugher. They pop the “little jelly bean eggs of childish color into their mouths,” feeling as though it’s “a holiday, and a jollity, an absolute insanity, a giggle.” Though lasting only seven minutes, this disruption is a “disaster” that jams up the entire finely-tuned system that the Ticktockman runs. Because of this, he is ordered to appear before the Ticktockman.
“Motley” refers to a jester’s costume. The Harlequin’s spontaneous disruption of the routine workday is both a powerful symbol of resistance and an absurd, delightful prank. While the consequences of the release of the jelly beans are materially significant in that they disrupt the order of the day, interfering with the smooth production cycles and the finely-tuned system of the Ticktockman, they have an even more important symbolic effect upon the workers whose days have been suddenly disrupted. In dropping the jelly beans on their unsuspecting heads, the Harlequin awakens them to the pure pleasure of the random, the absurd, and the non-scheduled, which is ultimately a much more significant threat to the power of the Ticktockman than any material calamity.
An adherence to timeliness at all costs has slowly warped the society in which the Harlequin lives, from examples of students who get good grades but are kicked out of school for tardiness, to the slow criminalization of all forms of lateness and disorder, the punishment of which is, eventually, death. This problem is shown to be pervasive and deeply entrenched, to the point where ordinary citizens can no longer imagine lives where this kind of social control is absent. Only a few—the lower classes, the misfits, the Harlequin himself—are fully aware of the constricting nature of the Ticktockman’s order.
In these examples, the steady encroachment of the control of the powerful against the powerless, those who make the orders and those who are subjected to them, is laid bare. Technology and capital play a significant part in this progression, as an adherence to productivity as the singular goal of a society goes hand in hand with the technological ability to police even minor instances of noncompliance. While in the world of the Harlequin this progression is taken to an extreme conclusion, it is implied that the seeds of such a society are already present in the America of today.
After the stunt with the jelly beans, the Harlequin, whose real name is Everett C. Marm, discusses his wanted status with his girlfriend, Pretty Alice. Pretty Alice is frustrated with his habitual lateness and his mannerisms, and they get into a minor argument. While Pretty Alice is ostensibly in a relationship with the Harlequin and feels affection for him, she is deeply frustrated by his inability to be on time, his affected manner of speaking (he uses “inflection”), and his unpredictable character. It seems that Pretty Alice would prefer it if the Harlequin were slightly more normal, less disruptive and more in harmony with the status quo. She exclaims at him, “Oh for God's sake, Everett, can’t you stay home just one night! Must you always be out in that ghastly clown suit, running around annoying people?” After their argument, the Harlequin leaves to continue running afoul of the authorities.
This scene reveals the regular man behind the Harlequin’s mask. The Harlequin’s relationship with Pretty Alice explores the tension between accommodating individual, personal relationships with the need for power and anonymity that is necessary for the Harlequin’s acts of resistance to have their desired effect. While the Harlequin feels bad about disappointing Pretty Alice, there is ultimately no way that he can cede to her requests without changing who he is as a person and trying to conform to the society of the Ticktockman. The characterization of Pretty Alice also illustrates the ways in which, in a totalitarian society obsessed with conformity and regulation, even normal citizens carry out enforcement on behalf of the state.
The Harlequin executes another stunt to disrupt the order of things, broadcasting his intent to attend the International Medical Association Invocation. When police lie in wait for him, expecting him to be characteristically late, he instead shows up early, turns their own traps against them, and delights the attendees of the conference. His unique style of nonviolent protest is illustrated in the way in which he springs the police’s traps, giant spiderwebs: “blowing a large bullhorn, he frightened and unnerved them so, their own moisturized encirclement webs sucked closed, and they were hauled up, kicking and shrieking, high above the amphitheater's floor.” The gathered physicians laugh, and the Harlequin gives exaggerated bows as the policemen hang in the air.
Another way in which the Harlequin is threatening to the Ticktockman and his bureaucracy is because of his sheer unpredictability. He is difficult to capture because his movements cannot be predicted and he is not bound by any sort of pre-established order. Moreover, his altercation with the authorities at the conference emphasizes the ways in which the Harlequin’s protest is symbolic and structural rather than simply violent. The Harlequin’s clown-like persona, and the joy he takes in thumbing his nose at those in power, open up a way for actions of resistance that take place outside the strictures already set in place by the Ticktockman. Without resorting to violence, the Harlequin neatly shows how foolish those in power can be made to look, and how delightful an unexpected and absurd surprise can be.
Meanwhile, in another part of the city, a wife receives a death notice for her husband and is secretly glad that it isn’t for her. When she receives the letter, she thinks, “brutally, realistically,” to herself, “Let it be for Marsh … or one of the kids, but not for me, please dear God, not for me.” Upon opening it, she finds that it is indeed for her husband and she is “at one and the same time horrified and relieved.” While Marsh tries to escape the justice of the Ticktockman by fleeing deep into the Canadian forest, his heart is stopped by his cardioplate in the Ticktockman’s possession nevertheless and he is ultimately unable to escape his final punishment. This anecdote, the narrator notes, illustrates what would happen if the Ticktockman ever finds out the Harlequin’s real name. He instructs the reader not to laugh.
As in the Harlequin’s interactions with Pretty Alice, this anecdote about ordinary citizens in another part of the city serves to highlight the ways in which the influence of the state creeps into even the most intimate of relationships and values. Even the idea of resistance has been sapped from Marsh’s wife, so that she would rather betray her dearest family members rather than defy the Ticktockman in any way. Furthermore, although Marsh himself tries to escape his death sentence, the Ticktockman’s technology is able to reach him no matter how far or how fast he runs. In this world, power is brutal, swift, and absolute, and therefore incredibly difficult to resist in any significant fashion. The narrator’s address to the reader, meanwhile, underscores the patent absurdity of this world.
The Harlequin’s next act of defiance involves appearing at the top of a shopping complex, distracting shoppers and encouraging them to engage in activities that flout the order of the Ticktockman. He calls out to them, “Why let them order you about? Why let them tell you to hurry and scurry like ants or maggots? Take your time! Saunter a while! Enjoy the sunshine, enjoy the breeze, let life carry you at your own pace! Don't be slaves of time, it's a helluva way to die, slowly, by degrees . . . down with the Ticktockman!” Construction men are dispatched to capture the Harlequin but fail to do so. The Harlequin’s distractions end up causing further delays to the system, resulting in widespread malfunctions in the chain of supply and demand, which only further enrages the Ticktockman
As in the other examples of his acts of resistance, here the Harlequin is again seen to disrupt the order of things on two fronts: he messes up the finely tuned order of consumer capitalism, and he also encourages those around him to acknowledge their own subjugation to the Ticktockman and to consider other ways of life. The nonviolent nature of these protests in some ways makes them even more threatening, as they emphasize the ways in which the Ticktockman’s greatest weakness is not some sort of violent uprising but just any kind of dissent at all. The society can only function if all of its members agree to the terms—and the Harlequin shows just how disadvantageous those terms are to the average person.
The Ticktockman grows angrier with each of the Harlequin’s continued acts of subversion and renews the intensity of the search for him. He uses every method at his disposal, a litany of innovative and banal methods of control, from “dogs,” to “torture,” to “treachery,” to “applied physics.” When they finally succeed in capturing the Harlequin, it seems inevitable, as one person would have to be exceptional to escape the Ticktockman’s pursuit. The Harlequin, however, is not exceptional, except for what he represents. He is simply a person, one who has trouble conforming to the status quo, but still just a man: “After all, his name was Everett C. Marm, and he wasn't much to begin with, except a man who had no sense of time.”
The powers at the Ticktockman’s disposal are ultimately shown to be absolute. While the Harlequin is able to resist capture for a little while, it’s a state of affairs that could never last long. The Ticktockman not only has the symbolic power of his mask behind him, but he also has the entire apparatus of a technocratic police state at his disposal. While the Harlequin’s unpredictability and anonymity make him more difficult than most to capture, Everett C. Marm is just a person, and ultimately no match for the Ticktockman.
The Harlequin and the Ticktockman finally confront each other face to face. The Ticktockman urges him to repent, and gives an exact accounting of all the time he has wasted: “You've been late a total of sixty-three years, five months, three weeks, two days, twelve hours, forty-one minutes, fifty-nine seconds, point oh three six one one one microseconds. You've used up everything you can, and more.” The Harlequin remains steadfast in his defiance, insisting that it is better to die resisting the Ticktockman than to live in such a totalitarian world: “Scare someone else. I'd rather be dead than live in a dumb world with a bogeyman like you.” The Ticktockman says that Pretty Alice gave up Marm’s whereabouts, because she—like most, the Ticktockman insists—“wants to belong, wants to conform.” He says, “Repent, Harlequin!” but the latter simply responds, “Get stuffed.”
Perhaps the idiosyncrasy that most distinguishes the Harlequin from his peers is, ultimately, his lack of fear of death itself. Because the Ticktockman possesses the ultimate power over life and death, most people are unable to resist him in any meaningful way because they are not willing to risk their lives. The Harlequin, however, more closely resembles Thoreau’s great man in that whatever consequences the Ticktockman might mete out cannot scare him. Continuing to live in such a corrupt world is a greater punishment than anything the Ticktockman could dream up. This scene also gives the story its title, while the Harlequin’s response to the Ticktockman’s lofty order to “repent” is comically brash, again underscoring the patent absurdity of this society.
The Harlequin is sent to a reeducation camp, one that is implied to use similar methods to those used against “Winston Smith in 1984,” as “the techniques are really quite ancient.” After this process, the Harlequin appears in a broadcast during which he renounces his old defiance and praises the society of the Ticktockman. Those who view the broadcast largely view the Harlequin’s repudiation of his former views as genuine, and use it as an excuse to justify their continued inaction and complacency. To them, further resistance seems foolish at best, and dangerous at worst. It’s much easier and safer to continue to maintain the status quo.
George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949, is set in a dystopian future marked by. extensive government surveillance; protagonist Winston Smith is ultimately tortured into betraying his beloved fellow conspirator and embracing the “Big Brother” state. In declining to kill the Harlequin, and instead opting to send him to a reeducation camp, the Ticktockman effectively destroys the very thing that makes the Harlequin so dangerous: his ability to think freely and to encourage others to do the same. Killing the Harlequin might have made him onto a martyr, but having him parrot back praise for the status quo effectively eliminates him as a meaningful symbol of resistance.
While the Harlequin has been vanquished, his effect is nevertheless felt in the ripples in time he has left behind. “Marm was destroyed, which was a loss, because of what Thoreau said earlier, but you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs,” the narrator notes, adding that “in every revolution, a few die who shouldn't, but … if you make only a little change, then it seems to be worthwhile.” Effectively illustrating the incremental power of this sort of change, a sputtering underling tells the Ticktockman that he is “three minutes late” and that the schedule is now off. The Ticktockman insists that is “ridiculous” before muttering to himself and entering his office.
The conclusion of the story illustrates the ways in which small changes made by individuals can have an impact, however minor, upon the world. Though the man Marm is gone, the possibilities symbolized by the Harlequin remain; one cannot kill a. symbol. And while the Ticktockman’s society is still bleakly authoritarian, the actions of the Harlequin prove that it is not, in fact, invulnerable. In this way, the lesson that Thoreau’s quote and the story itself seek to impart is that incremental, seemingly futile change can have a rippling set of consequences, and that even the most entrenched systems of power are not immune to change.