"Henry Bemis, a bookish little man with thick horn-rimmed glasses wants only one thing out of life; the time to read. Reading is his only passion in an otherwise mundane existence...yet, it's almost an impossibility due to a shrewish wife who deems reading silly...a boss at the bank who's interested in efficiency not education...and the unrelenting hands of the clock. Now all that is about to change. As he does everyday, Bemis sneaks down to the vault to read during his lunch hour, but today when he emerges from his private sanctuary , he will enter a new world. A world that might or might not fulfill his life-long dream."
Well, here it is. When Twilight Zone magazine polled their readers and asked them to name the series’ most memorable episode, Time Enough At Last won by a landslide. TV Guide’s writers were so impressed with the episode that they chose it as the 25th most memorable moment in television history. And if that’s not enough acclaim, Rod Serling himself declared Time Enough At Last as one of his two personal favorites out of the entire series. Not too shabby for a story which many consider to have one of the cruelest endings ever crafted.
And really, it’s that ending we most remember, isn’t it? How could your heart not go out to poor old bookworm Henry Bemis (masterfully portrayed by Burgess Meredith) as he sits on those library steps, broken glasses in hand, lamenting, “It’s not fair. It’s not fair.”? How could you not feel sympathy for this poor man against whom the entire world has apparently conspired to deny him the time to enjoy a good book? I’m willing to wager that’s a dilemma which resonates with quite a few of you out there just as much as it does with myself.
And yet, the Twilight Zone, if it is anything, is a moralistic show, so punishing the innocent doesn’t really fit in with the tone of the series. Perhaps then, Henry isn’t quite the innocent victim of fate that he appears to be at first.
While they’re hard to catch because Henry’s wife comes across as such a domineering monster, there are hints in Helen’s dialog that suggest she only became that way after years of neglect from her husband. And Henry’s boss, though not a sweetheart by any measure, does actually have a legitimate complaint about Henry’s obsession interfering with his work. The fact is, every chance he gets, Henry isolates himself from his fellow human beings and buries himself in his books. He avoids human interaction whenever possible, content to live in the imaginary world of the written page.
While this obviously isn’t on the same level as robbery or murder, the fact is such an obssesive avoidance of other people isn’t healthy for the soul. As the Catechism reminds us, “The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation.” Me-time is fine, but complete isolation is not. Heck, even Carthusian monks leave their cells for daily group prayer and a weekly walk together.
The sad thing is that Henry seems to realize the error of his ways at first, even going so far as to contemplate suicide when he finally comprehends just how truly alone he is in the post-apocalyptic world. But his remorse quickly evaporates once he stumbles upon the library and he quickly returns to his self-centered mindset. So, is Henry sympathetic? Absolutely. But is he an innocent victim of the Twilight Zone? Not by a long shot.
Twilight Tidbits: So iconic is the character of Henry Bemis that when Bif Bang Pow! decided to release a series of action figures based on the Twilight Zone, there amongst the wing-riding gremlins and man-serving aliens was none other than Mr. Bemis himself, books and all.