Throughout “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” rigid adherence to an imposed order is characterized as necessary for the continued maintenance of society. This order, in turn, is inextricable from the class structures of the dystopian world that Ellison has created. In the society of the Harlequin and the Ticktockman, order—and timekeeping in particular—is used both to control individual citizens and to uphold an established social hierarchy, suppressing the lower classes and keeping those in power at the top. Ellison’s story, then, illustrates the way in which stringent order and authority are distinctly unnatural and often parasitic means to consolidate upper-class power while disenfranchising the masses.
It’s implied throughout the story that the common people are unhappy with the highly regimented nature of their world and would change it if they were able. The Harlequin is representative of this desire for change and freedom. The narrator describes the lower class of people as rooting for Harlequin and identifying him with a succession of influential, disruptive historical figures: “But down below, ah, down below, where the people always needed their saints and sinners, their bread and circuses, their heroes and villains, he was considered a Bolivar; a Napoleon; a Robin Hood; a Dick Bong (Ace of Aces); a Jesus; a Jomo Kenyatta.” For the lower classes, the Harlequin is an inspirational revolutionary figure, and one who is symbolic of the possibility of real change.
The Harlequin echoes the sentiments of the lower classes in his conversation with and defiance of the Ticktockman: “Scare someone else. I’d rather be dead than live in a dumb world with a bogeyman like you.” Here, even when facing death, the Harlequin still recognizes that the rigid adherence to order that is a fundamental part of the Ticktockman’s world will never benefit him or people like him. For the Harlequin, it is better to die trying to resist this order than to capitulate and live in a world that the Ticktockman controls absolutely.
The regimented nature of society enforces a hierarchy built on adherence to rules, lack of deviation, and brutal punishment for those who refuse to conform. Those who profit from the system, however, are unlikely to change it, and consequences at the bottom strata of society seem much higher than those at the top. The narrator describes the upper-class reaction to the Harlequin as one of fear and distaste because of the threat he represents to their established, comfortable position: “And at the top—where, like socially-attuned Shipwreck Kellys, every tremor and vibration threatens to dislodge the wealthy, powerful, and titled from their flagpoles—he was considered a menace; a heretic; a rebel; a disgrace; a peril.” The contrast in reaction between these different classes underscores the fact that this orderly world benefits those at the top while taking advantage of those at the bottom rungs of society.
Throughout the story, timekeeping is specifically shown as a mechanism those in positions of authority use to keep people in line and maintain hierarchies. The narrator poignantly describes the ways in which an industrialized sense of time slowly enslaves the populace, “until it becomes more than a minor inconvenience to be late. It becomes a sin. Then a crime.” It’s clear that the state has slowly gained the power to punish citizens for even minor infractions, and ultimately has assumed total control of their lives.
The narrator describes the devious method of social control through the allotment of time: “What they had done, was to devise a method of curtailing the amount of life a person could have. If he was ten minutes late, he lost ten minutes of his life. An hour was proportionately worth more revocation. If someone was consistently tardy, he might find himself, on a Sunday night, receiving a communique from the Master Timekeeper that his time had run out.” Not only does the state have complete control over and knowledge of the actions and infractions of individuals, but they also have the power to mete out life and death.
Yet when addressing the people, the Harlequin highlights the artificial and harmful nature of this imposed order, asking, “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!” By highlighting the relationship between order and authority throughout the story, Ellison emphasizes the ways in which those in power use rules and regulations in order to control those below them and maintain their own influence. Conversely, he also shows the ways in which a defiance of order is, by necessity, a defiance of authority.
Order, Class, and Authority ThemeTracker
Order, Class, and Authority Quotes in “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman
He had become a personality, something they had filtered out of the system many decades before. But there it was, and there he was, a very definitely imposing personality. In certain circles—middle-class circles—it was thought disgusting. Vulgar ostentation. Anarchistic. Shameful.
And at the top—where, like socially-attuned Shipwreck Kellys, every tremor and vibration threatens to dislodge the wealthy, powerful, and titled from their flagpoles—he was considered a menace; a heretic; a rebel; a disgrace; a peril.
But down below, ah, down below, where the people always needed their saints and sinners, their bread and circuses, their heroes and villains, he was considered a Bolivar; a Napoleon; a Robin Hood; a Dick Bong (Ace of Aces); a Jesus; a Jomo Kenyatta.
And so it goes. And so it goes. And so it goes. And so it goes goes goes goes goes tick tock tick tock tick tock and one day we no longer let time serve us, we serve time and we are slaves of the schedule, worshippers of the sun's passing; bound into a life predicated on restrictions because the system will not function if we don't keep the schedule tight.
Until it becomes more than a minor inconvenience to be late. It becomes a sin. Then a crime.
“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!”
“Uh, excuse me, sir, I, uh, don't know how to uh, to uh, tell you this, but you were three minutes late. The schedule is a little, uh, bit off.”
He grinned sheepishly.
“That's ridiculous!” murmured the Ticktockman behind his mask. “Check your watch.” And then he went into his office, going mrmee, mrmee, mrmee, mrmee.