The Machine Stops Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 27-page guide for the short story “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster includes detailed a summary and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 15 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Human Advancement and Religion and Rules.
Considered one of the best early examples of science fiction, E. M. Forster’s short story, “The Machine Stops,” first published in 1909, is notable for predicting several modern technologies decades before they became practical, including the Internet and instant messaging.
“Part One: The Airship” begins in “a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee” (1). A small, pale woman named Vashti is listening to music and becomes annoyed when a bell rings—she knows thousands of people and is interrupted often. Her chair, which “like the music, was worked by machinery” (1), takes her to the other side of the room to answer the call. She is happy to hear from her son Kuno but is impatient because he is slow to respond and she has to give a lecture in five minutes about “Music during the Australian Period” (1). Kuno’s face appears; he wants to speak to his mother in person instead of through the Machine. Kuno urges her to take the airship—a two-day journey to see him on the other side of the world—but Vashti does not want to travel.
Vashti complains to her son that she hates the airship: “I dislike seeing the horrible brown earth, and the sea, and the stars when it is dark. I get no ideas in an airship” (2). Kuno is inspired in the airship, for that is where he notices the patterns of the stars and discovers the constellation Orion.. Vashti is confused, and Kuno admits that he wants to go to the earth’s surface and see the stars again. She reminds her son that although it is permitted to go to the surface, there is nothing to see but “dust and mud, no life remains on it, and you would need a respirator, or the cold of the outer air would kill you. One dies immediately in the outer air” (3). Vashti adds that “t is contrary to the spirit of the age” (3). Kuno abruptly ends the conversation.
Vashti is momentarily sad, but then looks around her room. Everything is operated by different buttons that call forth music, clothing, food, baths, and communications with her thousands of friends: “The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world” (4). Vashti turns off the isolation button and voices flood in. She talks to her friends for a moment and then switches the settings to give her 10-minute lecture. All lectures, which mostly concern minute eras in art and history, are given remotely through the Machine. The lecture goes well, and she listens to another lecture about the ocean from someone who went to the surface to see it. Alone in her room, she chats with friends, presses buttons to eat and bathe, and finally to call up her bed.
Vashti thinks about her day and her conversation with Kuno. She picks up a book on her bedside table, taking it “reverently in her hands” (4). The Book is the instruction manual for operating the Machine from her room. She kisses the spine three times, murmuring, “O Machine! O Machine!” (5). Vashti decides she does not have time to visit her son and goes to sleep. In the morning, she wakes up and contacts her son, but Kuno refuses to speak to her unless she visits. Anxiously, she presses the button that opens the door of her room to the tunnel outside. The travel system, which involves calling a car to fly her to the airship, is now rarely used—not since “those funny old days, when men went for a change of air instead of changing the air in their rooms!” (5).
In a panic, Vashti pushes the button to close the door and reiterates to her son that she cannot visit, adding that she is…