The sound of riveting comes through an open window of Helen’s hospital room, where she lies in recovery after having given birth. A nurse enters and asks how she’s feeling, but Helen doesn’t respond. “Aren’t you glad it’s a girl?” the nurse asks. Helen shakes her head. “You’re not! Oh, my! That’s no way to talk! Men want boys—women ought to want girls.” Moving toward the door, the nurse asks if Helen wants anything else. Helen points to the open window, but the nurse tells her the noise of construction outside “can’t be helped,” though she can close the window. Helen vigorously shakes her head, finally using her words and whispering, “I smell everything then.”
The nurse’s assertion that “women ought to want girls” because men want boys is in line with the idea that women of the early-20th century were expected to model themselves based on the behavior of their husbands. The nurse expects Helen to take cues from George. She also assumes that, as a woman, Helen is overjoyed to be a mother. When she discovers this isn’t the case, she’s offended, saying, “That’s no way to talk,” an interesting admonishment, considering that Helen hasn’t yet actually said anything at all. As such, the audience sees how Helen is censored by the people around her even before she opens her mouth.
George enters with flowers and starts giving Helen a pep-talk, saying, “I know all you’ve been through,” to which she shakes her head. “Oh, yes I do!” he says. “I know all about it! I was right outside all the time!” Again, Helen silently refutes this. “Oh yes!” George presses on. “But you’ve got to brace up now! Make an effort! Pull yourself together!” Going on, he compares her recovery to his own experiences. “Oh I’ve been down—but I haven’t stayed down,” he says. “I’ve been licked but I haven’t stayed licked! I’ve pulled myself up by my own bootstraps, and that’s what you’ve go to do! That’s what conquers! Look at me!”
Besides the fact that George shows an utter lack of compassion when he tells Helen to “brace up,” he also dares to revoke one of the only things she might safely assume is her own: her experience giving birth. Indeed, by saying that he understands “all [she’s] been through,” he intrudes upon her individual experience, ignoring the fact that he will never be able to understand what it’s like to give birth. He then mindlessly transitions into talking about his own trials and tribulations, as if everything can be equated to the American Dream of pulling oneself up by the “bootstraps.” Once again, he fails to show even a modicum of empathy, instead admiring his own capitalist triumphs.
In response to George’s encouragements, Helen starts choking and pointing to the door. “She’s got that gagging again—like she had the last time I was here,” George tells the nurse, who then tells him to leave. He lingers, promising to return the next day and every day after that. When he’s gone, the doctor arrives with another younger doctor. Over the sound of a riveting machine outside, he asks why Helen hasn’t been able to breast feed yet. “These modern neurotic women, eh, Doctor? What are we going to do with ’em?” he says to his apprentice, and they both laugh. Reading Helen’s chart, he says, “Gagging—you mean nausea.” The nurse responds, “Yes Doctor, but—” Cutting her off, he says, “No buts, nurse” before ordering that Helen’s diet change, whatever it is. “She says she can’t swallow solids,” the nurse informs him. “Give her solids,” he says.
In this scene, the doctor models stereotypically misogynistic behavior. Not only does he openly speak about Helen in an unpleasant manner—“These modern neurotic women, eh, Doctor?”—but he also completely disregards the nurse, who clearly has been attending Helen longer than he has and who knows more about her current state. In the same way that the nurse censored Helen by telling her not to admit she didn’t want a baby girl, the doctor censors (or revises, rather) the nurse when he says, “Gagging—you mean nausea.” In this way, the audience sees how a pattern of sexist revision makes its way down the ladder of power in a male-dominant society.
When the two doctors and the nurse leave, Helen finally speaks. Her words are dissociative and strange, including the following fragmented phrases: “Let me alone—let me alone—let me alone—I’ve submitted to enough—I won’t submit to any more”; “everybody loves God—they’ve got to—got to—got to love God—God is love—even if he’s bad they got to love him—even if he’s got fat hands”; “Let me rest—now I can rest—the weight is gone—inside the weight is gone—it’s only outside—outside—all around—weight—I’m under it”; “I’ll not submit any more—I’ll not submit—I’ll not submit—.” When the lights go out, the riveting sound swells in the darkness and blends with the notes of an electric piano.
Perhaps the most notable phrase in this monologue is about God, when Helen says, “even if [God is] bad they got to love him—even if he’s got fat hands.” This is an important moment because Helen frames God’s authority as unquestionable, a powerful male presence that demands love even if He’s evil. She then conflates God with George by saying, “even if he’s got fat hands.” Suddenly, then, she has framed George as a malignant but all-powerful God, and the audience begins to more fully understand the extent to which she feels his presence in her life as an oppressive force.