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July 2006 : Criticism:

Reevaluating Ellison's Infamous Fable

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines the fable as a form of literature in which "a moral—or lesson for behavior—is woven into the story and often explicitly formulated at the end." Other scholars have noted that a fable functions "as a medium of political analysis and communication, especially in the form of a communication from or on behalf of the politically powerless" and often possesses a "comical" tone expressed "through a limited set of primary characters." By these measures, "'Repent, Harlequin,' said the Ticktockman" by Harlan Ellison is a fable: its comical tone is expressed when the Harlequin drops thousands of multi-colored jellybeans upon an unsuspecting crowd; it has only a few primary characters; it has a political purpose (a message that can be interpreted as "fight the system"); and it offers an explicitly stated moral (presented in the words of Henry David Thoreau). As with most fables, Ellison's message seems pretty straightforward: individuality is good and restrictive societies that want to force you to conform are bad. However, Ellison places the Thoreau maxim not at the end of his tale, but at the very beginning (or the middle, in regards to the actual position of the plot). The question is begged: what purpose is served by tampering with the standard structure of the fable?

Consider for a moment the nature of Everett Marm's (the Harlequin) and Pretty Alice's relationship, which is depicted in two important scenes that seem discordant to the natural flow of the plot. As Carolyn Wendell notes in her "Study of Female Characters in the Nebula Award winners from 1965-1973" (which includes Ellison's story): "Although they [women] are necessary to the plot, they are not centrally so—often they are in the story only because of their personal relationship with the hero." These scenes between Pretty Alice and Everett Marm, as well as their implications, possess an undeniable friction that feels out-of-place within the boundaries of the didactic moral.

In the first scene, the reader sees Everett and Pretty Alice drinking coffee and arguing over his moonlighting as the Harlequin. Pretty Alice says to him, "Oh for God's sake, Everett, can't you stay home just one night! Must you always be out in the ghastly clown suit, running around annoying people?" (220). The phrase "can't you stay home" suggests that they must be either married or living together. If there are any further doubts, details such as Everett rinsing out his coffee-bulb and putting it into the dryer, as well as Pretty Alice grabbing a fax in this same room, create an intimacy that a reader cannot help but associate with a shared home. This quote also makes clear the clash in their personal ideologies. The scene continues with Everett trying to convince Pretty Alice of the dire necessity of fighting the totalitarian society controlling their lives, while she grows more and more agitated by the conversation. Their diametricly opposed views create a strain in the relationship that eventually leads to Everett's downfall. However, one cannot help noticing how often Everett apologizes in response to Pretty Alice's agitation.

Ellison paints a very endearing portrait of Everett, showing his male character's love as pure and unadulterated, while juxtaposing this against Pretty Alice's betrayal—her desperate need to change him to achieve happiness. Whenever the reader encounters Pretty Alice, she is aggressively confronting Everett (or, perhaps better to say, the Harlequin, his persona). "You're always saying 'I'm sorry.' You have such massive guilt, Everett, it's really very sad" (220).

The latter scene provides further extrapolation of this relationship. In this scene, Pretty Alice does not even make an appearance; she is only mentioned. Everett trusts his girlfriend so much that he cannot fathom Pretty Alice's betrayal when it happens and refuses to believe it. On page 225:

"A girl named pretty Alice told us who you were."

"That's a lie."

"It's true. You unnerve her. She wants to belong, she wants to conform."

Pretty Alice tries to force him to change, to conform, to become, in essence, the lover she thinks she wants. "The harlequin is caught in the end, turned in by a woman he knew, someone who didn't like her punctuality and be-told-what-to-do-when-to-do-it world disrupted by an upstart, even if the upstart was her boyfriend" (Santos). These clues reveal a story that is actually about interpersonal betrayal rather than simply one man's rebellious fight against a rigid society, as all the subsequent events rely on that betrayal. It would be a curious matter to contemplate whether the events would have transpired differently had Pretty Alice not betrayed him, but instead supported his efforts. The end demonstrates that all acts of rebellion are doomed to fail without the love and support of others. If this is the case, how can such a story be an affirmation of individuality?

Perhaps this criticism has not been fair to the character of Pretty Alice thus far. When one looks deeper into the world that embodies the text, it becomes clear that the issue may not be that Pretty Alice sacrifices her boyfriend for an idiotic love of simple, orderly society. Perhaps the reader should take Pretty Alice at her word when she says, "Can't you stay home for just one night!" (220). Maybe that is all she truly wants. Later in the scene, Everett says he'll be home at ten-thirty, in which she replies, "why do you tell me that? Why? You know you'll be late! You know it! You're always late, so why do you tell me these dumb things?" (221). Maybe Pretty Alice just misses her boyfriend and is sick of being ignored while he goes out and saves the world. Certainly, this conforms with Wendell's theory of the stereotypical portrayal of women in the story. However, Wendell seems to completely ignore the fact that this woman chooses to take action rather than just sitting around the house and waiting for her boyfriend (recasting her as a fighter rather than a woman in a subservient role). A closer look at the text reveals an entirely new reading of Pretty Alice's motives.

In an early scene, the Harlequin interrupts a changing work-shift with a cascade of jellybeans. Ellison writes: "One Pedestrian skittered and tumbled...another wet herself, a third keeled slantwise and the walk was stopped automatically by the servitors till she could be resuscitated" (215). A careful glance at the passage shows that at least two of the three workers Ellison chooses to describe exiting the factory are female. So it is established that we have a society where women work alongside men. In another description where the narrator describes how society devolved into such a state: "I'm sorry, Miss Grant, but the time for interviews was set at 2:30, and it's almost five now...You'll have to wait till next year to submit an application for this college" (218), the paragraph focuses on women going to college and presumably gaining an education to work in the same jobs as men. In the paragraph that first mentions the Cardioplate of the Ticktockmen, the letter addressed to the victims reads, "Please straighten out your affairs, sir, madame, or bisex" (220) showing that men are not privileged in this society and even nontraditional genders are acknowledged. However, beyond all this conjecture, Ellison bluntly states that his world is "a society where the single driving force was order and unity and equality and promptness and clocklike precision and attention to the clock" (217). The key words, of course, here are equality and unity. Pretty Alice does not betray Everett simply because Ellison was being a chauvinistic male and using her as a convenient plot-device, nor does she simply betray the Harlequin from sheer anger that he is not paying attention to her. She betrays him because she actually has something to lose in this society that treats men and women as equals, thus negating much of Carolyn Wendell's criticisms against the story.

If a reader were to extrapolate further on some of these themes, they might notice that the text is also showing how rigid totalitarian societies manage to stay in power (as long as the ones you love are protected within that society who cares if you have freedom or not?). This certainly seems to be the source of Pretty Alice's attitude during the initial fight. The point here, however, is not discovering a hundred new ways to read Ellison's work, but rather to show that there are other legitimate ways to read the work which contrast with the simple maxim of the fable. This is the second way in which the text attacks the form's conventions. Although it bears many similarities to the fable in structure and style—and for this reason most critics and readers have read this story as a fable that attacks conformity and champions individuality—it also possesses a lot of discontinuities that subvert the form.

The text dismantles the fable in a third way. The fable is a story in which inhuman fantastical characters, especially animals, often interact with human characters to reveal a moral. In Ellison's story, animals will not do as the main focus, because supposedly this is a story of individuality and humans are the creature of individuality and rationality, wheras beasts run in packs and live on their base instincts. Ellison replaces animals with machines in order to make this a science fiction fable rather than a fantastical one. The Ticktockman is described frequently in the narrative as something between human and robot. This description is codified in the end when he breaks down into the infamous, "mrmee, mrmee, mrmee" (226). Other characters working for the Ticktockman are "ferrets, loggers, finks, commex, and mineez," a strange mixture of animals, humans, and nonsense nouns. Ellison takes a form typically associated with fantasy and applies it to science fiction, thus transforming and further subverting its natural tendencies

The reader is supposed to feel somewhat uncomfortable and perplexed by the inclusion of these incongruous details. Harlan Ellison has crafted a metafiction meant to "undermine the conventional audience's expectations of how a story should be told" (Henningfield). If the reader goes along with, and accepts the story as a simple fable, the reader conforms to the standards of the fable, and is, in effect, acting like the automatons that inhabit Ellison's story; they accept any simple answer Ellison is willing to feed them (fight conformity, praise individuality, and thus lose your own individuality in the process). It should be noted that Ellison is infamous for using unreliable narrators in his fiction; in this case, it is the author himself who is being unreliable.

The ultimate point of the story, and the reason he subverts his own fable, is not that we should fight conformity or fight individuality because society or some author tells us we should (or because some flimsily-drawn character tells us so), but rather we should protect and fight for what we love and believe is right in our own hearts; that individuality is complex and cannot be summarized in a simplistic us-versus-them mentality. That is why both Pretty Alice and the Harlequin are the heroes, not one or the other, and that, in fact, you cannot really read the story as promoting individualism unless you realize both are the heroes. The story demands that the reader pay attention to all the complexities of the world (including all the subtle contradictions), think about their implications, and use this method to develop his or her own opinions. Only then can we discover the true meaning of individuality.

Works Referenced

De Los Santos, Oscar. "Clogging Up the (In)Human Works: Harlan Ellison's Apocalyptic Postmodern Visions." Extrapolation 40 (1999): 5-20.

Ellison, Harlan. " 'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman." Troublemakers. New York: Edgeworks Abbey, 2001.

Henningfeld, Diane Andrews. Critical Essay on "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman." Short Stories for Students, vol. 21. Thomson Gale, 2005.

Wendell, Carolyn. "The Alien Species: A Study of women characters in the Nebula Award Winners, 1965-1973." Extrapolation 20, (1979): 343-540

Copyright © 2006, Eric Joel Bresin. All Rights Reserved.

About Eric Bresin

Eric Joel Bresin is working on a Masters in both Library Science and English at the University of Rhode Island. He graduated from Clarion, and reviews for Tangent. Once in awhile he even finds time to write a little fiction.


Jul 10, 23:08 by IROSF
A thread to discuss Harlan Ellison, or Eric Joel Bresin's discussion of Repent, Harlequin.

The article can be found here
Jul 29, 13:47 by Jamie Ford
I appreciate your deep analysis of that particular story. Still, it's one of my least favorite Ellison tales, probably because of baggage I brought in as a reader. I read Repent, Harlequin right after 1984, and while I didn't like Orwells's book, it diminished what I got out of Ellisons tale.
Jul 29, 19:46 by Eric Bresin
Interesting. Have you found yourself feeling that way about other Dystopias, such as Huxley's A Brave New World or Lowrey's The Giver?

However, I agree that Ellison has written much better stories. I could probably name a million of them that I like better than "Repent".

And thank you for appreciating my criticism; I wanted to give readers a different way of looking at an old classic. I hope I achieved my goal.

Jul 30, 12:54 by Eric Bresin
Lowry, not "Lowrey". Pardon me.

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