In “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” the Harlequin is unacceptable to society because he is an individual in a world that has effectively outlawed individuality. Even more dangerously, however, he is able to assume a specifically anonymous identity, which both gives him enormous symbolic power and puts him on a level with the only other anonymous actor, the Ticktockman. Here Ellison highlights the subversive nature of an anonymous identity in a technologized, informational world where everything else can be known, calculated, and controlled.
Part of the threat that the Harlequin poses to the Ticktockman and to the orderliness of society itself is that he is anonymous and, therefore, easily becomes symbolic. The Harlequin’s assumed name, mask and costume, and larger-than-life acts of defiance elevate him above the status of an individual to that of a dangerous idea and burgeoning movement. Because of this assumed character, Harlequin is seen as a hero by the common people in a way that he otherwise might not be. They are able to identify him with the ultimate symbol of resistance. Similarly, the upper classes of society, who benefit tremendously from the order imposed by the Ticktockman, fear and hate the Harlequin because of the disorder, social unrest, and potential for change he represents.
The Ticktockman is agitated by the Harlequin’s existence particularly because of his anonymous nature and resolves to find out who Harlequin really is: “This time-card I'm holding in my left hand has a name on it, but it is the name of what he is, not who he is,” he says. “The cardioplate here in my right hand is also named, but not whom named, merely what named. Before I can exercise proper revocation, I have to know who this what is.” On a literal level, the Ticktockman needs this knowledge to access the technology to “turn off” (kill) the Harlequin; figuratively, though, this represents his awareness that there exists a man apart from the powerful anonymous symbol that is the Harlequin.
Yet as a masked figure with immense power himself, the Ticktockman’s identity also readily becomes symbolic. He is not only the bureaucratic arbiter of time, but also the representation of time and regimentation itself. Even to those deeply enmeshed within the bureaucracy of this society, the Ticktockman still inspires fear due to his anonymous nature. The narrator notes, “You don’t call a man a hated name, not when that man, behind his mask, is capable of revoking the minutes, the hours, the days and nights, the years of your life. He was called the Master Timekeeper to his mask. It was safer that way.”
Whether called the Ticktockman or Master Timekeeper, the character’s various names give nothing away about the person behind them. The Ticktockman is larger than life, and comes to embody the power of this society as a whole rather than the power of one person. This is illustrated particularly at the end of the story, when, although the Ticktockman is now several minutes late, he refuses to believe this is the case. Because the Ticktockman essentially is the schedule itself, he cannot fall behind. While the disruption caused by the Harlequin has in fact altered the timeliness of the Ticktockman, to acknowledge this disruption would be to diminish the Ticktockman’s enormous symbolic power.
The Harlequin loses some of his own symbolic strength, meanwhile, when he is demoted to merely Everett C. Marm. In a society where everything is known and calculated, anonymity provides the opportunity to cultivate a deviant and unique identity while at the same time escaping consequence. When this anonymity is stripped away, however, an individual is reduced to a known quantity without significant power.
That is why, once the Ticktockman has found and identified the Harlequin, the latter is no longer able to resist. The Ticktockman now has the power to kill Everett, but no longer needs to. Instead, he sends him to a reeducation camp. While the Harlequin’s defiance is symbolic and grandiose, Everett’s defiance is described as merely a flaw of character: “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 narrator further highlights that individuals can die in a way in which symbolic characters cannot: “So Everett C. 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, and in every revolution a few die who shouldn't, but they have to, because that's the way it happens, and if you make only a little change, then it seems to be worthwhile.”
In destroying the symbol of the Harlequin, the Ticktockman is able to successfully reassert his power over society and to reestablish the order and synchronization that allows it to function properly. The Harlequin is diminished to a mere man, meanwhile, and is no longer representative of the kind of chaos that poses a real threat to the Ticktockman’s world. However, the symbolic power of the assumed identity of the Harlequin has still had a real effect on that world—disrupting schedules, inspiring citizens, and even, ultimately, resulting in the tardiness of the Ticktockman himself. In exploring the anonymity of both Harlequin and the Ticktockman, Ellison emphasizes the way in which a larger-than-life identity can transform individuals into symbols and imbue them with power.
The Power of Anonymity ThemeTracker
The Power of Anonymity Quotes in “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman
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.
“This is what he is, said the Ticktockman with genuine softness, “but not who he is. This time-card I'm holding in my left hand has a name on it, but it is the name of what he is, not who he is. The cardioplate here in my right hand is also named, but not whom named, merely what named. Before I can exercise proper revocation, I have to know who this what is.”
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.
“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.