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The Machine Doesn't Stop

"FIRST REPORTER. Suppose the machine shouldn't work!
SECOND REPORTER. It'll work! - It always works!"
--Machinal, page 82

I chose this exchange between the two reporters in the last moments of the play because it highlights the key motif of machines that's present throughout the play. Every significant moment of Helen's life is punctuated by machines. Her job is dominated by typewriters and adding machines. Her mother finds comforting in listening not to live music, but a radio. Her husband jokingly pulls out a watch and counts out seconds until she finishes getting dressed. Even when her child is born, the sound of riveting can be heard outside the hospital window. The most genuinely excited anyone in this machine-driven world seems to be is when Mother sees that the garbage man has come to collect the garbage. Her "dull voice brighten[s]" when she hears his voice. It's like it's the only sense of control she has over her life--that she can keep things neat and organized by getting rid of garbage. The only scene that's absolutely devoid of machines is Episode Six, in which Helen and the Man share intimate bonding time--the only scene in which Helen really seems to be making decisions for herself.
All this machinery is a really wonderful way to express how little control Helen has over her life. Because this play is pretty expressionistic, we focus on how Helen experiences the world, and her world is very much something that dictates and pounds her into submission. Women of this time certainly did not have the same variety of options as men did; they could work at secretarial jobs or find a husband and have children. Simple, mechanical slots that keep you moving from one stage of life to another, like an assembly line. That's why I think one of the original titles for this play, The Life Machine, is particularly appropriate--everything, from home life to having a baby to death, is mechanized, all of the parts neatly fitting together. Helen is a faulty cog in this machine because she wants something more than just a sturdy mechanical station in life; she actually wants to be happy. Her attempt to escape from her mechanized world causes the system to destroy her.

Comments (2)

Aja Hannah:

I didn't even realize the whole Machine thing throughout the whole novel. I suppose I should have noticed that in the title. Helen's life is driven by machines and the men who operate them. The machines never stop either. I find its interesting in the beginning that her machine is broken. She's broken, like you said a faulty cog.

It's also odd to note than when there is no machine noise Helen turns into a Woman instead of Yong Woman.

Alicia Campbell:

I agree with your interpretation. I also think the young woman, herself, was like a robot. Or, at least, that's how she felt. It was as if everyone (Society, Mother) had a say in what she should do with her life, but what she really wanted to do did not matter. She was like a robot performing the actions dictated by others. Helen even expresses this feeling when she says something to the tune of feeling "tight" on the inside. The fact that the machine that is to be used to take Helen's life will work further expresses the failure of her attempt to escape the bounds of the mechanical life she lead.

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