Machinal Summary and Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 31-page guide for “Machinal” by Sophie Treadwell includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 9 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Untenable Position and Role of Women in Society and The Mechanical and Reductive Nature of the Everyday.
Machinal, which means “mechanical” in French, is a play by Sophie Treadwell, and is based on the true story of a woman who murders her husband, after seven attempts; this woman, Ruth Snyder, is subsequently the very first female to be executed using the electric chair.The woman is convicted and executed for the murder.
Machinal was first performed in London, in 1931, at the Royal National Theatre. Treadwell was a journalist and learned of the murder in 1928 through her job. Treadwell’s expressionist drama suggests that this Snyder’s actions are the result of the stultifying and repressive role forced on women by society. Instead of focusing on the specificity of the woman who murdered her husband, she elevates the story to a broader view of the objectification of women in the early part of the 20th century. The play accomplishes this in several ways. Treadwell does not name nearly all of the characters but rather identifies them by their jobs (for example, telephone girl or file clerk); the dialog is staccato-paced and filled with clichés and repetitions; and the plot of the story is episodic, with each episode representing a mode of female repression. In this manner, the young woman, Helen, becomes an everywoman.
Each of the nine episodes that comprise the play represent typical elements or passages of a working-woman’s life in the early part of the 20th century:
- Episode 1: “To Business”
- Episode 2:“At Home”
- Episode 3:“Honeymoon”
- Episode 4:“Maternal”
- Episode 5:“Prohibited”
- Episode 6:“Intimate”
- Episode 7:“Domestic”
- Episode 8:“The Law”
- Episode 9:“The Machine”
Episode One introduces the reader to the machines of the business office, and theseobjects appear on stage. After the machines, we meet the human characters, named by their jobs: file clerk, telephone operator, stenographer, and so on. We hear a cacophony of office sounds from the machines: typewriters, mimeographs, adding machines. Each character identifies their job by speaking in a manner that aligns with it: the adding-machine man starts speaking numbers, the telephone operator speaks snippets of answering the phone, the filing clerk wants to know “What’s the matter with Q?” (226). All statements are rapid fire. The people then move into a conversation about the protagonist, Helen, hinting that they think she will marry the boss. The file clerk keeps repeating the phrase, “hot dog” (205).
Jones, the boss, is the only named character at the outset of the play; we learn in Episode 5 that the woman’s name is Helen. The office workers respond to Jones by saying, “Hew to the line,” (271) reminding them to stick to their jobs, and thengo about performing a set of commonplace office activities. Helen comes in late to the office, dreamy and unaware. She doesn’t want to go to Mr. Jones’s office to take a letter. Instead, she sits and dreams.
Each of the subsequent episodes pushes the young woman further into the mire of her life. Her mother nags her to get married and fit in. She doesn’t listen when Helen tells her she wants to be free. She just “ to the line,” (271) living the life that is expected of her.
After the woman marries Jones, the play jumps to their honeymoon, which is horrid for Helen. Jones can’t understand what’s wrong with her when she keeps pulling away. She keeps asking for fresh air. The sounds of steel and riveting open the following episode, “Maternal.” An offstage voice says, “she’s had a baby girl.” (717).The audience seesHelen in bed and is made aware she is not happy to have had a girl. Her husband reminds her that “aving a baby is perfectly natural” (722), to which the woman responds by gagging. When she is alone, she thinks that she’s done enough submitting, and thinks of drowning puppies.
Next, we see Helen in a bar. Each table in the bar is occupied. The woman says she wants to keep moving. The man at her table tells her he’s killed a man in Mexico, in order to get free. We then understand that the woman is having an affair. Further, she is from this point forward no longer referred to as the young woman, and instead “the woman” (Helen’s name is almost never used over the course of Machinal). Helen feels purified for having broken her marriage vows.
Once the reader understands Helen is having an affair, her conversation with her husband is even more rote. He is obsessed with property and making money and drones on and on until it is time for bed. The impending murder is only hinted at.
When Helen confesses to her crime, she tells the court she killed Jones “to be free” (1636). Even on the day of her execution, she is nagged. The priest won’t let her be and continues to pray, even though she doesn’t want him to. Helen’s mother arrives, and Helen refuses to see her. Just prior to being executed, Helen calls out, “Somebody” (1775).