Sophie Treadwell

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Machinal: Episode 6: Intimate Summary & Analysis

In Mr. Roe’s dark apartment, the sound of a hand organ in the streets drifts through an open window. Helen and Mr. Roe lounge together and speak intimately. Helen’s voice is calm as she talks without strain about her childhood. When she asks what song the hand organ is playing, Mr. Roe says it’s called Cielito Lindo, or “Little Heaven,” which is “what lovers call each other in Spain.” Pleased, Helen asks him to sing the song, eventually joining in and laughing. After a while, she asks him if he likes other women as much as he likes her, and he assures her that none of them are “any sweeter” than her. Shortly thereafter, though, he says, “I’ll have to be moving on, kid—some day, you know.” When she asks when, he replies in Spanish, saying, “Quien sabe?” He explains that below the Rio Grande, this phrase means “Who knows?”
Although Helen has exercised her freedom by sleeping with Mr. Roe, thereby slashing George’s control, it’s clear her liberation only goes so far. Indeed, Mr. Roe is blatantly noncommittal and even patronizes Helen, condescending to her by calling her “kid” and telling her that he’ll “have to be moving on” sometime soon. Worse, when she asks when he’ll leave, he shrugs off her question, as if he can’t be bothered to consider the fact that she might be emotionally impacted by his sudden absence. As such, he hardly seems any more empowering than George, though he does represent individuality and free will by the mere virtue of the fact that he enables Helen to finally act upon her marital discontent.
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“I’ll never get—below the Rio Grande—I’ll never get out of here,” Helen says. “Quien sabe,” Roe replies, and Helen’s mood lifts. Mr. Roe then tells her that it’s easy to feel free below the Rio Grande. When a streetlight flickers to life outside, Helen realizes how late it is and starts collecting her things. As she does so, she notices a flower on the windowsill and asks Mr. Roe who gave it to him. Roe tells her he bought it for himself because it reminded him of San Francisco, where he was born and where it’s also possible to feel free. Helen says she’d like to go there someday with him, and before she leaves, they embrace. On her way out, she asks if she can take the flower, and he gives it to her. “Goodbye,” she says. “And—thank you.” The lights go off and the hand organ grows louder.
It’s not hard to tell from the way Helen talks to Mr. Roe that her experience with him has liberated her, considering how much the couple talks about being “free.” Despite the fact that he embodies the same kind of sexism George does—an inability to gauge Helen’s emotions and an unwillingness to empathize—she apparently associates him with a newfound sense of independence. That he too is a misogynist only illustrates how pervasive sexism was in the 1900s, and Treadwell seems to suggest that American society has no shortage of selfish men.
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