by Nick Smith, Ball State University
Often cited as the most beloved episode of the entire Twilight Zone series, “Time Enough at Last” can arguably be called the definitive Twilight Zone episode. This episode tells the tale of bookworm Henry Bemis, whose world as he knows it abruptly comes to an end thanks to a nuclear bomb. Having snuck into the bank vault at work to read, Bemis survives the blast. Initially depressed, Bemis is comforted to discover he finally has “time enough at last” to read all the books he desires. However, before he manages to begin this task, his glasses fall off his head and shatter on the ground. The episode then comes to a close with the distraught Bemis despondently saying, “That’s not fair” (00:23:32-00:22:36).
As Bemis is the main protagonist and a rather sympathetic figure in general, it is safe and logical for viewers to agree with his declaration of unfairness. Yet, I argue that viewers should also consider the question of Bemis’ guilt. In this world Rod Serling created, Bemis unquestionably had something to gain from the end of the world. He could read any and all the books he wanted. According to Peter Wolfe, author of In the Zone: the Twilight World of Rod Serling, “What is disturbingly true is that Serling, invoking a harsh puritan morality rarely in force in The Twilight Zone, makes [Bemis] imaginatively guilty of the bombing attack, since, for a moment or two, he profited from it” ( 52). While Bemis himself doesn’t start the war or order the nuclear strikes, as Wolfe points out, he still becomes imaginatively guilty of ending the world. As the last surviving man, Bemis is the only one who can be held responsible. He has become the scapegoat for the human race, albeit an unknowing one. An important question to ask then becomes why did Bemis not die with the rest of man? He must have been left alive to learn a lesson.
Bemis was a reading addict, continuously looking for the source of his next high. Nothing else brought him the happiness that reading did. Yet this love was shunned, and he was left “to pursue his reading as he would a vice, furtively. And even furtiveness doesn’t insure his happiness” (Wolfe 52). Bemis was not afraid to jeopardize his relationships in order to pursue his vice, his happiness. The first scene of the episode shows Bemis inadequately performing his job at the bank because he is distracted by his book. While this fact is telling of Bemis’ character itself, what is perhaps more intriguing is that the book that Bemis is reading is David Copperfield.
Similarities can be drawn between the story of Copperfield and the life of Henry Bemis. In her analysis, Annette Federico states,“David Copperfield is a retrospective narrative structured by frequent recollections of momentary happiness, or bygone dreams of happiness” (77). The key phrase is ‘momentary happiness.’ Happiness is always chased, but it can never truly be attained permanently in David Copperfield. Unfortunately for Henry Bemis, his fate is similar. He found brief moments to read throughout his days, but those moments always ended the same way – in ridicule. Individuals, such as his boss and wife, directed their ridicule at Bemis. They were the obstacles in the way of his happiness; however, these obstacles were not completely unjustified. Bemis’ boss had a right to discipline him as his reading was getting in the way of his work. Bemis’ wife was feeling neglected, like she was her husband’s second choice. It is almost understandable that she ridicules her husband’s love of reading and attempts to keep him from it. When his wife and his boss are out of the picture, Bemis initially mourns their loss. That is, until he realizes how much better his life can be without them. He had let them walk all over him, but now nothing would stand in his way of happiness.
This sycophantic attitude Bemis possesses parallels an important David Copperfield character. Wolfe writes, “An important character of [David Copperfield] is the hypocritically humble Uriah Heep. Though Serling never identifies Heep with Bemis, he does suggest a similarity” ( 52). These characters are indeed similar. Their will is easily imposed upon by others. They are eager to please and quick to say yes. Bemis specifically allows his wife and boss to limit his reading. He submits to them, putting their happiness before his own. He submits to capitalism and to marriage. Yet, there is a hidden desire inside of Bemis, a desire buried so deep there is a potential that even he doesn’t know it’s there. That’s a desire for both capitalism and marriage, for the world, to come to an end. On some level, Bemis realizes that only when these institutions are completely and utterly defunct will he finally have time to read all the books his heart desires. If this was what Henry Bemis wanted, was he not deserving of his fate? What else could explain the ending of his story?
With nothing standing in his way, why then does Bemis still fail to hold on to his happiness? Maybe he was always doomed to fail as a punishment. The breaking of his glasses seems too perfect — like a punishment De would write — for it to be an accident. Bemis, the bibliophile, is doomed to spend the rest of his life surrounded by books he cannot read. In neglecting those around them, preferring to live a life from page to page, Bemis had to learn a valuable lesson. True happiness was dangled before Bemis on a lure, but then the verdict was handed down. The line reeled in before he could capture the bait. Bemis got exactly what he desired most, time. The end of the world. But it came at a price. Those who see Bemis’ story are warned against sharing similar apocalyptic desires. Should they travel down the same path as Bemis they may face their own, tailored punishment.
Not enough apocalypse? Check out some of these Twilight Zone episodes below:
1.14 “Third from the Sun”
3.3 “The Shelter”
5.7 “The Old Man in the Cave”
5.9 “Probe 7, Over and Out”
Federico, Annette R. “David Copperfield and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Victorian Studies, vol.
46, no. 1, Sept. 2003, pp. 69-95.
“Time Enough at Last.” The Twilight Zone, CBS, Nov 20, 1959.
Wolfe, Peter. In the Zone: the Twilight World of Rod Serling. Bowling Green State University
Popular Press, 1997.