Although not human, the computer, which calls itself AM, is perhaps the main character in the story. Originally, AM was one of several national computers designed to fight wars for the nation that owned it. Eventually, the computers learned to link themselves to each other, forming one supercomputer. When this supercomputer awoke, or became sentient, it called itself AM. AM hates all human beings, according to Ted, because “We had created it to think, but there was nothing it could do with that creativity.” AM killed all the humans on the face of the Earth, save five. Then AM brought the humans inside itself and created a hellish world for them in which it could torture and torment the survivors, but not let them die. During the story, AM plays with each of the survivors in turn, seemingly enjoying their pain and suffering.
One of the survivors, Benny, was a brilliant theoretician and university professor in his previous life, before falling into the grips of AM. The computer has changed him into a chimpanzee-like creature with large genitals. In addition to being apelike, he is also insane. In an early scene in the story AM renders Benny blind. In the final scene, Benny begins to eat Gorrister’s face, thus motivating Ted into killing both Benny and Gorrister.
Ellen is the only woman among the survivors. She is a black woman who provides sex for the men. The men protect her and want to keep her safe. Ted seems to both love and hate Ellen; he calls her a slut, but also “pristine-pure.” In many ways, Ellen reflects the Eve-Mary split so common in the literary representation of women. That is, women are often identified as either Eve, the temptress who causes the fall of all humankind and the expulsion from Eden, or Mary, the pure, virginal mother of Christ. For Ted, Ellen seems to embody both.
Gorrister is another of the male survivors. In his previous life, he was a conscientious objector, someone who cared passionately about causes. Ted tells the reader, “He was a planner, a doer, a looker-ahead.” Now, inside AM, Gorrister is ineffectual and deadened, unable to look forward or backward.
Nimdok is the survivor about whom the least is known. Even his original name has been taken away from him by AM. Ted has little to say about Nimdok except that he often goes off by himself and returns in terrible shape. AM seems to be particularly hard on him, but the others know little about who he is or what AM does to him. Ted Ted is the narrator of “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” He is one of five survivors of a nuclear holocaust caused by a linkage of master computers from nations engaging in World War III. With his fellow humans, he lives in an underground world created by the computer, which has given itself the name AM. He believes he has been in the computer for 109 years. The narrator graphically describes the situation in which they find themselves. However, the narrator is not always reliable. Like some of Edgar Allan Poe’s most memorable narrators, Ellison’s narrator insists on his own sanity: “/ was the only one sane and whole. Really] AM had not tampered with my mind. Not at all.” However, even the narrator realizes that AM controls and manipulates him. At the end of the story, Ted realizes that the only hope for the five survivors is death. Seizing a moment when AM is occupied, Ted manages to kill two of the survivors, while Ellen, another survivor, kills one before Ted kills her. Ted is then turned into a jelly-like creature who has no mouth with which to scream.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Harlan Ellison, Published by Gale, 2002.