Time to Shelve This Criticism of Henry Bemis in “Time Enough at Last”

Today’s post concerns a Twilight Zone episode that is absolutely legendary: “Time Enough at Last”. That’s right, the one about Henry Bemis and his all-too-fragile eyeglasses.

But I’m not writing simply to get some cheap clicks, although I’ll gladly accept them. No, I’m writing to set the record straight about poor Henry.

You may be thinking: “Set what record straight?” If so, you’re probably like most fans, who realize that our mild-mannered protagonist merits our sympathy.

Well, this may surprise you, but some fans don’t feel that way. They think Henry deserves that awful ending.

No exaggeration. Amid the chorus of pity I usually hear when I post something about this episode, a dissenting voice or two arises: someone who doesn’t feel sorry for Henry at all.

Why? Because of his anti-social behavior, they say. Henry didn’t care about humanity, so when he got his heart’s delight, karma bit him in the hindquarters. Serves you right, bookworm!

Whoa, whoa, WHOA. And whoa again. I must protest.

I’m not saying that Henry has no faults. But anti-social? If the first part of the episode portrayed him as a solitary grouch, trying to shut himself away, unwilling to treat others pleasantly, I’d agree. But he doesn’t. Every time he gets a chance, he opens up.

He doesn’t sneer when the lady at the bank interrupts his book. No, he starts excitedly describing characters and scenes. He wants to bond with another person. But she doesn’t even feign interest for the sake of politeness. She just wants to finish her transaction and go.

No, she shouldn’t be expected to stop and debate the pros and cons of “David Copperfield” for the next 20 minutes. And no, Henry is not a model employee. But anti-social? Hardly.

This carries over to his next two conversations. When his boss, Mr. Carswell, chastises him for being distracted during his work hours (and rightly so), he doesn’t get angry or shut down. He speaks right up, explaining that his wife’s aversion to reading at home has made him desperate.

That doesn’t mean he should be careless in his duties, but again we see Henry being anything but anti-social. Mr. Carswell even has to suppress a smile as Henry talks on and on, trying to defend himself.

Then we see him with his wife, and we know what a sweetheart she is. Even if Henry is prone to overindulge in the printed word, do we get the sense that he can get any reading in? It seems she won’t even compromise on the subject.

And what happens when she fakes interest in Henry’s volume of poetry? Does her allegedly anti-social husband snatch the book from her hands and find a quiet place to read alone? No. He’s elated. He lights up and starts talking about all the things he can’t wait to read to her. How does she respond? By taking the book she’s already defaced and gleefully ripping the pages out in front of him.

If these encounters typify the kind of reception Henry gets on a daily basis, I’m hardly going to chide the poor man for being overjoyed at the prospect of some uninterrupted reading time.

Even before we get to that point, we see Henry upset that the bomb blast has deprived him of human company. He looks all over for people, even though he apparently had no one who treated him kindly. He looks stricken at the realization that Helen is gone. We even hear him calling for her: “Helen?! Where are you?!”

But yes, he loves books. Too much? Maybe. But I think most of us have something we enjoy – a hobby, an activity, or something that brightens up our lives. What’s wrong with that?

Sometimes those are the things that get us through life. Henry, let’s not forget, was on the verge of suicide when he caught sight of that wrecked library. The thought of being able to read again saved his life.

So no, I’ll never be convinced that Henry’s a bad guy. And I’ll never understand why some fans want to throw the book at him.

***

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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 06/27/2020, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. “Throw the book at him” LOL, good one. But I’m with you. I never thought of him as anti-social at all – I mean, he WAS gonna shoot himself before he found the library. It’s not fair!

    • Definitely not fair! Fortunately, there are very few who blame Henry, but there ARE some. I’ve been wanting to get this off my chest for a while. Now I have a link to share the next time I hear it!

  2. Howard Manheimer

    I always add in a happy ending that occurs just AFTER the episode is over. Henry crawls carefully, sooner or later finding a magnifying glass, or a usable pair of glasses. “Murdstone! What a great name for a villain! MURDstone!”

  3. Thanks for setting the record straight, Paul. In my “extended version” of this episode, Henry returns to the shop where he found the gun and locates a magnifying glass or rifle sight, with which he can read.

    • Ha, I have often imagined the same new ending myself, Dan. And judging from what other fans have said, it sounds like we have a lot of company on that score.

  4. One book I have (can’t remember which) condemns Henry as completely lacking a sense of humanism, and that is something that Serling will always condemn. I don’t entirely agree with this, though. Henry takes every opportunity to share his love of books in a world where none will accept him. Mrs. Chester stalks away when he tries to reach out; Mr. Carsville refuses to even listen; and, of course, Helen mocks him to the point of destroying one of his favorite books.

    And yet, when the bomb drops, he cries out for someone … anyone. Surely someone must have survived. That’s not the act of someone who lacks all sense of humanism. If he totally lacked humanism, he would have headed for the library first thing and the heck with anyone else.

    I heard someone mock the ending once saying, well, why doesn’t the fool find someone with his prescription? A) How can he do that blind as a bat? And B) this IS the first second of total shock. Maybe he WILL find a way. That WE don’t see any bodies (Standards and Practices, no doubt) doesn’t mean there aren’t any. And, maybe, he can find some undamaged glasses that fit his prescription. Maybe.

  5. what are your thoughts on CBS’s new Twilight Zone? I think its crap compared to the great Rod Serling

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  6. This is a great defense of poor Henry. I agree. The sad thing is he was always so eager to discuss his books with people. Hardly anti-social. One-track mind maybe, but he still craved companionship. People just find misery and fault in everyone these days. They’re always so quick to “cancel” everyone because they think they have all the moral high ground. And our favorite characters are no exception.

    • It does feel like a symptom of cancel culture, yes. I’m sure some people who feel this way do so sincerely, of course! But I detect a bit of a trolling vibe with others.

      • Thank you. Yes, that’s one of the reasons I mentioned it. I’ve read some of those comments and even seen an article pop up here and there that put Henry in a bad light. Only within the last few years. Now’s the time for everyone to be contrarian.

  7. The beauty of myth, fantasy and all soulful exploration of the imaginal realm is the evocation of what lies within each individual. Our hermeneutical meanderings reveal the unique qualia and landscape of each soul. Each of us is a library of experiences and interpretations. The magic and genius of Serling is his ability to unearth many points of view. Our interpretations and insights reveal more about our psychic condition than about the author’s intention. Good post, per usual.

    • Thanks, Michael. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Serling’s work (like that of other authors, obviously) is indeed a prism by which we can learn a lot about ourselves, provided we’re willing to listen and learn.

  8. Agree 100%. This episode was meant to be a tragedy. Never have bought the “he deserved it” rationale.

    • Yes. Since Serling usually punished the guilty, I wonder if those who voice this theory are trying to make sense of the ending. It IS hard to take, I’ll admit.

      • Paul hi! Many moons since said hey. Very important question, and hope you and yall are well.
        Lost my grandson recently…
        Was Time enough at last shown more than once? 👁️⏳🚪
        It’s listed as airing on November 20 1959. My daughter and I can’t find out on Google.
        Important to know! Thanks

      • Sorry my reply was OT and scattered. What I was going to say. As a child watching this episode, my impression was feeling bad that no one wanted him to read. I thought that was terrible. At the end he was all alone and missed Helen and everyone. The only thing he had to look forward to was be able to read all the books he ever wanted.
        Then his glasses broke and I felt so sad for him, I had tears. And Prayed he would find something to help him be able to read. So he wouldn’t be alone with nothing.
        The reason I was concerned about if it was played a second time, was the fact I would have been almost 6 years old. My birthday is Christmas and was born 1954.
        I had been kidnapped in the time period somewhere between 1960 – 61 and had always thought that I never saw it ( That Twilight Zone episode) until after That happened and was home again.
        Thanks for your time and understanding.

  9. I’m not sure if I feel pity or contempt for Henry. Of course he is a pitiful character, being denied his one true escape and pleasure in life by all the people he must associate with. But I can’t help but feel some contempt toward him for allowing everyone to walk all over him. Well, his boss is right to tell him to concentrate on work and serving his clients. But that wife of his… What a hateful b she is. I want him to stand up to her, and tell her he will most certainly enjoy his book and if she doesn’t like it, there’s the door. On second thought, he’d be the one leaving to find a quiet place to read and will be home when he’s good and ready. I don’t like weak people who can’t stand up for themselves. So I guess my feelings for him are a mix of pity and contempt. But I don’t see his fate as any kind of karmic retribution for sins on his part. Just the universe piling on him like everyone else in his life.

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