When the lights shine once more on the stage, Helen sits at a kitchen table with her mother while the sounds of apartment buzzers, radios, and the voices of people outside the window go on in the background. Interrupting a conversation in which her mother bugs her to eat more potatoes, Helen tries to ask something, but every time she begins, her mother talks at length about how Helen isn’t “grateful.” Finally, Helen gets a word in edgewise and tells her mother that George wants to marry her, explaining that he fell in love with her after seeing her beautiful hands. “You haven’t got in trouble, have you?” Helen’s mother asks. When Helen says that George is the vice-president of the company she works for, her mother drops all skepticism. “Vice-President!” she says. “His income must be—Does he know you’ve got a mother to support?”
The way Helen’s mother reacts to the news of George’s proposal is characteristic of how almost all the characters in Machinal view marriage. Indeed, she busies herself first and foremost with logistical concerns. By asking if Helen has “got in trouble” (another way of asking if she’s pregnant), she frames marriage not as something predicated on love, but as a way of covering up a mistake. Once this worry is out of the way, she still approaches the idea of marriage in pragmatic terms, suddenly framing it as something of a capitalist venture, a relationship from which she stands to benefit financially.
“How soon you going to marry him?” Helen’s mother asks, but Helen declares that she has no plans to accept George’s proposal. To the bewilderment of her mother, she explains that she can’t marry Mr. Jones because she doesn’t love him. “Love!” her mother spits, “—what does that amount to! Will it clothe you? Will it feed you? Will it pay the bills?” Helen admits that it won’t, but says that it’s “real just the same.” Her mother finds this ridiculous, saying she can’t even remember whether or not she loved Helen’s father. Offstage, a husband’s voice drifts into the air, saying, “What’s the matter—don’t you want me to kiss you?” The unseen wife says, “You look so silly—oh I don’t know what’s coming when you look like that—and kiss me like that—don’t—go away—”
Again Helen’s mother fails to see marriage as a union built on love. Instead, she doubles down on her belief that Helen must remain practical, a belief she makes clear by asking if love will “clothe” or “feed” her daughter. In this way, she prioritizes economic necessity and prosperity over the emotional world, and Helen’s desire to live according to her feelings and passions is once again completely ignored. On another note, the fragmented conversation between an unseen husband and wife gives a brief insight into what married life might look like for Helen (and perhaps also what it looked like for Helen’s mother), as the man disregards his wife’s wants in order to prioritize his lustful desires. It seems even in marriage, her agency will remain unnoticed.
Returning to their conversation, Helen’s mother says that George must be a “decent man” because he’s a vice-president. Helen argues that, though she wants to marry, she also wants to wait for the right man, a sentiment that strikes her mother as “crazy.” Helen soon reveals that her “blood turns cold” when George touches her with his “fat hands” that “press” on her. With increasing fervor, she complains that she hasn’t found somebody young and attractive, saying she “can’t go on like this” because she’s “all tight inside.” “You’re crazy,” says her mother. “Ma—if you tell me that again I’ll kill you!” Helen responds. “I’ll kill you!”
Helen’s mother falls back on another capitalistic cliché, declaring that George’s financial success must also mean he’s especially moral or worthy. Helen’s assertion that she’s “all tight inside” is the first indication that she’s acutely aware of her anxiety. Furthermore, since Helen says this after talking about how repulsive George is, it seems she must be cognizant of the fact that her emotional distress is the direct result of the unwanted attention she gets from men. Unfortunately, her mother proves herself incapable of sympathizing with this feeling by calling her daughter crazy, and Helen’s drastic response—“I’ll kill you!”—foreshadows the violent impulse to which she (Helen) later succumbs.
Relentless, Helen’s mother says, “You’re crazy!” again, and Helen admits this is perhaps true. She then verbally attacks her mother, accusing her of laziness and a general lack of sympathy; “And you haven’t got any pity,” she says, “—no pity—you just take it for granted that I go to work every day—and come home every night and bring my money every week.” This disturbs her mother, and suddenly Helen expresses remorse at having said these terrible things. Jumping up, she starts washing the dishes while wearing gloves, which her mother critiques, saying that she herself has been washing dishes for forty years without gloves. “It’s my hands got me a husband,” Helen remarks. When her mother asks if this means she’s going to accept George’s proposal, Helen says, “I suppose so.” The scene cuts to black just as her mother says, “If you ain’t the craziest—”
In this moment, Helen relents, acquiescing to the idea that beauty—the delicateness of her hands—yields a certain amount of capital that she’d be foolish to reject. In other words, she allows herself to believe that her mother is right and that she’d be “crazy” to reject George’s proposal. Ultimately, this means that she accepts (however momentarily) the narrative about marriage forced upon her by her mother and coworkers—namely, that it doesn’t have to be based on love, since there are so many other incentives (primarily economic) that make marrying worthwhile.