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Literature / "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman

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"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!"
The Harlequin

A couple hundred years into the future, the whole known world lives under the yoke of the Ticktockman, who holds all to his unflaggingly strict Schedule Fanatic standards. All, save for the mysterious, elusive Harlequin, who is determined to take his time in his hijinx-laden mosey through life, and encourages the people of the world to do the same. Only time will tell if his spontaneous acts of tomfoolery leaves a lasting impact on the world...

"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman is a short story by Harlan Ellison published in 1965, and won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. The whole story can be read here.

Tropes featured in "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman include:

  • Answer Cut: When first the story asks, "Who is the Harlequin?", the very next scene is of him causing his wacky hijinx around the city.
  • Apologises a Lot: The Harlequin is prone to this, even profusely apologizing to all in attendance after his wonderful trick with the web-traps.
    Alice: You know, you speak with a great deal of inflection.
    Harlequin: I'm sorry.
    Alice: No need to be sorry. You're always saying 'I'm sorry.' You have such massive guilt, Everett, it's really very sad.
    Harlequin: I'm sorry.
  • Batman Gambit: The authorities of the Ticktockman try to hit the Harlequin with one of these, as when he announces that he'll be in attendance at a gathering of scientists at "8:00 p.m. precisely", they assume he'll be late, as he makes a huge point of being. However, he shows up twenty minutes early, foiling the authorities' expectations and surprising them so much that they were trapped in the very spiderwebs that were meant to ensnare him.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: When a minee brings a turn-off notice to the Delahanty residence, Georgette panics, wishing that it's not for her, hoping that it'd be for her husband Marshall instead. She's right, to her horror.
  • Berserk Button: It's implied that the Ticktockman despises being called the Ticktockman, preferring to go by "Master Timekeeper":
    "Even in the cubicles of the hierarchy, where fear was generated, seldom suffered, he was called the Ticktockman. But no one called him that to his mask.
    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."
  • Bring My Brown Pants: One pedestrian who the Harlequin surprises on his makeshift air-boat pees her pants out of shock.
  • Busby Berkeley Number: A brief comment likens an overhead view of workers marching away from their workplace to go home to one of these.
  • Clock King: The Ticktockman himself, par excellence, meticulously measures out all of the events in each day in his city. And he's holding everyone else in his domain to his same standards, like it or not.
  • Clocks of Control: Under the yoke of the Ticktockman, everybody in the city is bound to an unbendingly strict schedule, which they must follow lest time be subtracted from their life.
  • Deadly Euphemism: As per the Ticktockman's Dystopian Edict, a person who's late all the time would be "turned off", and ordered to get all of their affairs in order.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • Been tardy one too many times lately, have we? Here in the city of the Ticktockman, that's grounds for death, y'know.
    • Oh, and have you heard of that Harlequin japer? That dumb little jellybean stunt of his delayed the master schedule by seven minutes! Seven minutes! The Master Timekeeper's gone into a state! He's demanded that this fool answer for his crime!
  • Downer Ending: The Harlequin is arrested, unmasked, tortured far away, and brainwashed into accepting the Ticktockman's tightly regimented worldview, and goes on live television to renounce his former ways as the Harlequin. What's more, the only real effect of his serial japery was getting the Ticktockman himself to run late — by only three minutes.
  • Dystopian Edict: Mention is made of a decree late in the 24th century introducing the Ticktockman's programme for subtracting time from dilly-dalliers.
  • Epigraph: The story begins with a lengthy excerpt from Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience, noting how people can be treated as disposable components by the societies that they serve, reducing them to the jobs that they perform and nothing more.
  • Forever War: A throwaway line implies that the populace is told all the time that there's a war going on that necessitates the Ticktockman's stiflingly strict ways, but it's implied that that narrative is complete bunk.
    "It was, after all, patriotic. The schedules had to be met. After all, there was a war on!
    But wasn't there always?"
  • Given Name Reveal: The Harlequin's first name is revealed to be Everett when in his apartment with his girlfriend, Alice, while not in his Harlequin garb.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Played for Laughs the first time the authorities try to capture the Harlequin at a doctor's convention. He spooks the authorities with a bullhorn so hard, that the spiderweb-like nets that were meant to capture him, wind up ensnaring them instead. Both him and the doctors in attendance get a huge kick out of it.
  • In Medias Res: The story begins with the Ticktockman and his retainers on the hunt for the Harlequin, then chronicles some of the Harlequin's previous exploits before moving toward the conclusion. Admitted as such in the opening:
    "Now begin in the middle, and later learn the beginning; the end will take care of itself."
  • Ludicrous Precision: When the Harlequin is captured, the Ticktockman informs him of his total late-time, down to one one-millionth of a microsecond.
  • Oh, Crap!: Georgette Delahanty is sent into a whirling panic when she receives the turn-off notice for her husband, Marshall.
  • Order Versus Chaos: The Harlequin represents Chaos, a jester with a fondness for zany schemes and off-the-wall prankery, striking out against a world of rigid Order, where everything is done on a strict timetable and deviation from the schedule is punished harshly.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Precisely how the Harlequin procured his avalanche of jelly beans is explicitly left unanswered by the story:
    "Now wait a second-- second accounted for-- no one has manufactured jelly beans for over a hundred years. Where did he get jelly beans?
    That's another good question. More than likely it will never be answered to your complete satisfaction. But then, how many questions ever are?"
  • Savvy Guy, Energetic Girl: Gender-inverted and deconstructed with the Harlequin and his girlfriend, Alice. She's exasperated and fed up by his constant mayhem as the Harlequin, always out late on a quixotic quest bereft of objective or end. Later, when the Ticktockman has captured him, he tells him that Alice wanted to belong and fit in like everyone else, and that the Harlequin was being a thorn in her side in that regard.
  • Schedule Fanatic: Everyone must be one in this future, else they have their time late deducted from their lifespan, if not their very life itself.
  • Shout-Out: The Cold-Blooded Torture inflicted on the man who was once the Harlequin is stated to be reminiscent of Winston's fate from Nineteen Eighty-Four, and even states that nobody in-universe knows of the book.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: After he's apprehended, the Harlequin fearlessly mouths off to the Ticktockman about his strict ways, and is notably undeterred after being told that he'll be turned off:
    Harlequin: Scare someone else. I'd rather be dead than live in a dumb world with a bogey man like you. You're full of it. You're a tyrant. You have no right to order people around and kill them if they show up late.
  • Stylistic Suck: The story was said to be written as a deliberate affront to the "rules of good writing". Run-on sentences are not uncommon, and one paragraph indeed is nothing but a run-on sentence bookended by two words on each end, and a paragraph describing the methods of the Ticktockman's forces while on the hunt for the Harlequin is only made of "They used _____" sentences.
  • Take That!: The whole story is a swipe at the idea in American society that punctuality is as paramount as can be, at the expense of stopping to smell the roses whenever it tickles one's fancy.
  • Title Drop: The Ticktockman urges the Harlequin to repent of his ways while interrogating him after he's captured, and the Harlequin isn't having any of it.
  • [Verb] This!: The Harlequin gives a good one to the Ticktockman during their Grand Inquisitor Scene:
    Ticktockman: You can't adjust. You can't fit in.
    Harlequin: Unstrap me and I'll fit my fist into your mouth.