Sophie Treadwell

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The Electric Chair Symbol Analysis

The Electric Chair Symbol Icon

Throughout Machinal, Helen is pitted against the harsh mechanical world. In the first scene, for example, she must contend with the noise of typewriters and other office machines as she delivers her very first monologue, interrupted periodically by clicks and buzzers and bells. Even the subway—a simple mode of transportation—overwhelms her so much that she needs to escape from its turning gyres. While machinery is all around her, though, she finds small ways of escaping or avoiding mechanical problems that make her uncomfortable. When she sits down at her desk, she merely stares at her hands because her typewriter is broken and she doesn’t want to do anything to fix it—and when the stenographer tells her to get to work, she decides to sort the mail instead, effectively avoiding having to interface with the mechanical world.

With this aversion in mind, it becomes clear that the electric chair is the ultimate manifestation of Helen’s fears, as it is one machine she can’t escape. Indeed, unlike the subway or her broken typewriter, Helen can’t simply remove herself from the electric chair, which ends up claiming her life despite her crying lament that she won’t “submit.” As such, the electric chair demonstrates the ruthlessness of the mechanical world, which can be wielded against people like Helen by a patriarchal society. While her fear of the subway is perhaps irrational, her distrust of machinery is surprisingly prescient (considering that she dies in a mechanized chair), and Treadwell illustrates how a society obsessed with order, patriarchal norms, and forced submission can easily build an infrastructure that supports systemized and industrially-equipped oppression.

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The Electric Chair Symbol Timeline in Machinal

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Electric Chair appears in Machinal. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Episode 9: A Machine
Marriage and Gender Inequality Theme Icon
Communication Theme Icon
Fragmentation and Expressionism Theme Icon
...barbers enter the cell to shave off patches of Helen’s hair to ensure that the electric chair will have clean points of contact on her head. (full context)