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The Twilight Zone, Burgess Meredith, and the Paradox of Reading

Burgess Meredith is best known to audiences as Mickey, the hardscrabble gym owner/boxing trainer in Rocky, but I’ll always remember him first for two of his four appearances on the iconic original Twilight Zone series: “Time Enough at Last” (S1E8) and “The Obsolete Man” (S2E29). These two episodes are absolute classics of the original series, and, oddly, reading and books play major parts in both episodes. What spurred me to write about these episodes is the weird—borderline contradictory—approach to reading, especially in two episodes that coincidentally star the same lead actor at the heart of the stories. It’s obviously a credit to Meredith and series creator/writer Rod Serling that they were able to raise two very disparate characters and episodes to iconic status, but the portrayal of reading in The Twilight Zone is still something that puzzled me. In “Time Enough at Last,” the Burgess’ character seems to be punished for his devotion to reading, while in “Obsolete Man,” the protagonist is virtually sainted for the same reason.

In “Time Enough at Last,” Meredith plays Henry Bemis, a mousey, absentminded, “bookish” bank teller with coke bottle glasses. Henry’s head is always in a book, whether literally (i.e. he is actually reading) or figuratively (books are often the sole topic on his mind). Henry is not a very good bank teller: his absentmindedness often leads to errors handling money, and he slacks off from work by sneaking reads. Eventually, he gets reprimanded by his boss for being a “reader” instead of an efficient worker.

Henry’s home life isn’t much better. His wife refuses to let him read, and even defaces and tears up a book that he had hidden from her. Henry’s boss’ attitude is at least somewhat understandable—his interests are aligned with the bank and its customers—but Henry’s wife seems to be cruel towards him for its own sake.

While Henry’s obsession with reading might tend towards the unhealthy—it noticeably affects his work and home life—he certainly doesn’t deserve the abuse that he receives from his wife. This is what makes Henry’s eventual fate even more confusing. At work, Henry takes his lunch break in the bank vault to read, which protects him from a hydrogen bomb explosion outside. Henry emerges to find himself the lone survivor—certainly in the ruined city, and possibly in the entire world—of a nuclear holocaust.

After some time, Henry realizes that he finally has “time enough at last” to do whatever he wants. His needs are met because a large supply of canned food survived the explosion, there isn’t work, there aren’t expectations, and there isn’t anyone to stop him from following his passion. The calamitous twist of fate is, of course, one of the most iconic of the entire series: after collecting the surviving books from the wreckage of the library, he accidentally breaks his glasses, rendering him unable to read. Henry finally had the time and freedom to do what he wanted, but it was ripped away from him before he could enjoy it.

Still from The Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough at Last." Henry Bemis stands giddily on the steps of the ruined library surrounded by stacks of books.

This is what I find so puzzling about the episode: why was Henry “punished?” Unlike Fritz Weaver’s Chancellor in “The Obsolete Man,” Henry certainly wasn’t a bad person,  so why subject him to this fate? Yes, his devotion to reading tended towards the obsessive, but who among us haven’t longed to escape reality—whether from work, home life, or the monotony of the every day—in the pages of a book, an episode of a comfort television show, or a favorite movie? And who among us, especially the bookworms, haven’t found our minds wandering while at work to the book that we’ve been reading? No one watching “Time Enough At Last” is rooting against Henry. Despite his obsession, I think that he is a relatable character, and his fate is nothing short of tragic. 

I think that the biggest problem that I have with “Time Enough at Last” is that I don’t really believe that Henry deserved punishment, but seems to have been punished anyway. Of course, maybe what happened to Henry wasn’t meant to be a punishment, but simply a tragic irony that didn’t have any ulterior purpose behind it. I can certainly see that, but I think there is evidence of some sort of malicious Other pulling the strings. For one thing, as we will see in “The Obsolete Man,” there are typically karmic reasons for the twists in Twilight Zone episodes. Additionally, at the conclusion of the episode, Henry says to no one in particular “That’s not fair. That’s not fair at all.” Obviously, there is no one left alive to hear him speak, so who is there to speak to outside of some sort of cosmic Other? As he delivers the line, the camera moves away from him via a crane shot, looking down on Henry from above as if it is a cosmic eye watching him.

I only have a few guesses at why fate/karma/God may have decided to punish Henry Bemis. Maybe it was because of his glee with the situation he found himself in—a situation that resulted from untold death and destruction. Or, perhaps paradoxically, if he would have taken a more balanced approach to reading before the bomb fell, he would have had more opportunities to read without alienating those around him. This added measure of self-control could have helped him after the bomb fell (assuming he would have even made it that far without reading in the vault), since he broke his glasses while reaching down for another book despite all the books he had already gathered. Fate could have also felt that he didn’t appreciate the other good things in life before the bomb, so why should he get any good things after? There is more to life than reading, afterall. Maybe the episode is a metaphor for life in general: none of us will ever truly get “time enough,” and any thought to the contrary should be squashed. One final theory. Henry is reading a newspaper immediately before the explosion with a headline about the hydrogen bomb. Maybe after all of the abuse he had suffered, some part of him willed the explosion while reading that headline. 

Still from the Twilight Zone episode "The Obsolete Man." Romney Wordsworth stands at the end of a long table while the Chancellor looms over him.

Meanwhile, “The Obsolete Man” takes a much more straightforward approach to both its main character and reading. Even the name of Meredith’s character reflects a belief in the inherent value of words and reading: he is a librarian named Romney Wordsworth. Wordsworth lives in a fascist totalitarian state. Libraries and books have been outlawed and God declared to be non-existent. Without his profession—and by extension, without anything that the state views to be a positive contribution to their society—Wordsworth has been declared to be “obsolete.” As the Chancellor says, the state views Wordsworth to be “an anachronism, like a ghost from another time.”

“The Obsolete Man” has always been one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes. It was my introduction to dystopian fiction and aesthetics; before I experienced 1984, Brazil, or The Hunger Games, there was “The Obsolete Man.” In recent years, it maybe feels a tad maudlin and on the nose to me now as I’ve drifted towards agnosticism, but I’ve always been attracted to its themes of individual worth and dignity, as well as the power of faith and ideas in the face of the cowardice of fascism.

As an “obsolete man,” Wordsworth is ordered to be executed, but is given the option to choose the method of his execution. With a mischievous smile, he asks to be assigned an assassin, and asks that only he and the assassin will know the exact method of his execution. He also asks for the execution to be televised. As the hour of his execution draws near, the Chancellor accepts an invitation to visit Wordsworth at his apartment. Naturally, the walls of Wordsworth’s apartment are lined with books. The two debate, but as he turns to leave, the Chancellor realizes that he has been locked in with Wordsworth, who has chosen a bomb as his method of execution. Wordsworth rightly wagered that the uncaring fascist State wouldn’t be too keen to have to swoop in to rescue a chancellor who has been outsmarted by an Obsolete Man. Wordsworth again displays the power of words by turning every taunt that the Chancellor has said throughout the story back at him, now imbued with the irony that the tables have turned.

Still from The Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough at Last." he Obsolete Man. Romney Wordsworth looks to heaven while holding his bible. The Chancellor looks on.

As the minutes tick by, Wordsworth reads aloud from the Bible he has hidden away for many years. The Chancellor, who had been so arrogant and domineering, has been growing increasingly uncomfortable. At the last moment, the Chancellor begs for his life “in the name of God.” For a final time, Wordsworth showcases the power of words, because these are the “magic words” that spare the Chancellor’s life (for now). Wordsworth decides to unlock the door and lets the Chancellor out; however, he chooses not to follow him out, even though he had the opportunity. Wordsworth dies in the explosion, but, of course, he gets the last laugh when the State, embarrassed by the Chancellor’s display of cowardice, turns on him and declares him Obsolete.

The State, of course, has done more than outlaw books and religion, it has effectively outlawed free thought. The background members of the tribunal move, speak, and dress in unison. Wordsworth stands out not only through his individuality, but through his decency and eloquence. This, however, ends up being the Chancellor’s downfall: the State, which only thinks about its own preservation, doesn’t have any patience for a Chancellor—or anyone else for that matter—that jeopardizes its survival. Wordsworth explicitly calls out the absurdity and weakness of the State and when the Chancellor says that he accepted the invitation to prove that the State isn’t afraid of him. A state that is afraid enough of an “obsolete librarian,” and all that he represents (books, knowledge, free thought, etc.) that it has to send one of its leaders to prove how unafraid it is is obviously and fundamentally weak. To paraphrase Hamlet, “The State doth protest too much, methinks.

The portrayal of reading in “The Obsolete Man” is clearly more positive than in “Time Enough at Last,” which makes the juxtaposition of the two episodes all the more jarring. Both episodes were written by Serling, although “Time Enough at Last” was based on a short story by Lynn Venable. Although “Time Enough at Last” is apparently one of Serling’s favorite episodes, it’s possible that he may have realized that readers got the short shrift in the episode and tried to correct that in the next season with a more positive portrayal. After all, I don’t think that someone that was as creative and imaginative as Serling would have actively sought to portray reading and imagination in a negative light. However, this is, of course, just speculation. Regardless, both episodes have rightfully entered the pantheon of iconic Twilight Zone episodes. As for the portrayal of reading and books, that’s a paradox that you can only find in The Twilight Zone.

Written by Nick Luciano

Nick Luciano received a Master’s in Music Theory from the University of North Carolina Greensboro. An avid film fan, Nick loves Tarkovsky, Tartakovsky, Tchaikovsky, and everything in between (stylistically that is, not alphabetically).

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