Machinal was written for the stage in the early 20th century, a time when patriarchal norms dictated the dynamics of romantic relationships. In this male-focused environment, women were expected to defer to their husbands, sacrificing their own individuality and agency in order to maintain respectable marriages. These sexist expectations often manifest themselves throughout Machinal in terms of financial stability, as Helen’s coworkers and even her mother urge her to wed her boss, George H. Jones, because he’s wealthy. In this way, financial concerns become an incentive to enter into a loveless marriage, and everybody ignores the fact that Helen has no desire to marry Mr. Jones—in fact, even Helen herself discredits her misgivings at first, deciding to say yes to George’s proposal despite the fact that she can hardly bear his touch. Unfortunately, the cost of submitting to patriarchal norms in this way turns out to be quite high for Helen, and it isn’t until Helen is about to be put to death that she finally explicitly declares her will to live freely. As such, Treadwell portrays the institution of marriage as something that all too often forces women into submission, denying them a sense of agency or a life in which their own desires are fulfilled.
The people surrounding Helen in Machinal all pressure her into marrying George, often citing practical reasons and framing the matter as though it should be an obvious decision. In the play’s opening scene, Helen’s coworkers discuss in front of her what will happen if she refuses his proposal. “Fired,” one says. “The sack!” says another. These cynical statements illustrate the extent to which George’s proposal is wrapped up in gendered power dynamics that clearly affect Helen’s ability to decide for herself whether or not she wants to marry him. As such, from the very beginning the two future spouses are unequal when it comes to power.
Similarly, contemplating what Helen’s life will be like if she says yes, her coworkers say, “She’ll come to work in a taxi!,” “breakfast in bed,” and “lunch in bed!” By outlining the benefits of accepting George’s proposal in this way, Helen’s coworkers demonstrate that there are clear incentives when it comes to marrying a powerful man. In turn, Treadwell illustrates how society urges women into marriage for reasons unrelated not only to love, but to their own desires more generally. This point emerges even more obviously when Helen tells her mother that she’s hesitant to marry George because she doesn’t love him. “Love!” her mother says. “What does that amount to! Will it clothe you? Will it feed you? Will it pay the bills?” According to this way of thinking, Helen’s emotional needs pale in comparison to the practical benefits of marrying a wealthy man. Of course, George himself actively wants to marry Helen, and so he’s able to leverage his riches to convince her to ignore her misgivings—after all, as her coworkers point out, saying no to his proposal would most likely mean losing her job. Consequently, Helen must submit not only to the constant pleading of a man she doesn’t love, but also to the economic system that gives him power over her—a system that everybody around her reinforces.
Aside from his personal riches, the power George wields over Helen comes from his position as a male in a patriarchal society that prioritizes men over women. Once they’re married, he often places emphasis on his position of power by reminding Helen that he is her husband, usually in order to get her to do something she doesn’t want to do. For example, when Helen wants to go into the bathroom to privately change her clothes on their honeymoon, he reminds her of the intimacy their relationship is supposed to have, saying, “I’m your husband, you know.” He then adds, “You aren’t afraid of your husband, are you?” Through these incessant reminders that they’re married, George effectively asserts his ownership over Helen. He also acts as if he expects a marriage ceremony to have changed the fact that she doesn’t particularly like him or feel comfortable in his presence. Even though they still don’t know one another very well, George believes he’s entitled to new intimacies, and when Helen challenges George’s entitlement, he reminds her that the institution of marriage denotes closeness. By saying, “You aren’t afraid of your husband, are you?” he implies that it would be ridiculous for her to fear him. Nonetheless, she is afraid of him—at least when it comes to being intimate—but he only invalidates this fear, and in turn invalidates Helen’s agency as a person.
In contrast to Helen’s fear of George, he himself feels so close to her that he fails to see that she doesn’t feel the same way about him. With this oblivious mentality, he confuses the simple fact of his proximity to her—and his station as her husband—with actual knowledge of her experiences. When she is depressed after giving birth, he ignorantly boasts that he understands what she had to go through in order to deliver the baby, a statement she rejects by shaking her head. “Oh, yes I do!” he says. “I know all about it! I was right outside all the time!” Again, Helen tries to refute this, but he presses on, saying, “Oh yes! But you’ve got to brace up now! Make an effort! Pull yourself together!” Of course, it’s absurd to think that a man—who will never in his life experience the pains of child labor—would be able to understand the pain his wife has gone through just by standing outside the room and hearing her screams. Although it’s painful and perhaps undesirable, Helen’s experience giving birth is one of the few things her husband can’t claim as his own, and yet he does do this by saying that he “know[s] all about it.” As such, even Helen’s unique perspective as a woman is taken from her and used against her, since George goes on to say that she has to “brace up.”
The unequal power dynamics between men and women in 20th-century society drive Helen’s actions throughout Machinal. Before she finally rebels against her husband’s oppressive rule by killing him, she responds to gender inequality in a psychologically repressed manner, often only allowing herself to express her discontent in private, rambling monologues. It isn’t until after she has killed George that she appears capable of speaking up for herself. Indeed, she shouts, “Oh my God am I never to be let alone! Always to have to submit—to submit! No more—not now—I’m going to die—I won’t submit! Not now!” Unfortunately, she speaks these words mere minutes before her own death in the electric chair, and the barber who is cutting her hair (to prepare her head for the electrical contacts) merely responds, “You’ll submit, my lady. Right to the end, you’ll submit!” His reply cuts to the heart of society’s oppression of women—not only does it frame male dominance as inescapable (“right to the end, you’ll submit!”), but it also reminds Helen, in a patronizing way, of her gender: when the barber calls her “my lady,” he condescends to her and even evokes his power over her by using the possessive “my,” as if he has ownership over her simply because she’s a “lady” and he’s a man. In turn, Treadwell casts misogyny as hopelessly ever-present in female experience, though this pessimism is perhaps countered somewhat by the thought that Helen could possibly have avoided such traumatic experiences if she had spoken up for herself earlier on. Indeed, if Helen had stood up for herself when George originally proposed to her—if she’d trusted her instincts and declined his offer—she wouldn’t have felt compelled to murder him, and her first true declaration of independence and agency (“I won’t submit! Not now!”) wouldn’t have been a futile exclamation uttered too late, on her way to the electric chair. Considering this, Treadwell’s play suggests that, though sexism and inequality run rampant throughout society, it’s worth resisting oppression before it’s too late.
Marriage and Gender Inequality ThemeTracker
Marriage and Gender Inequality Quotes in Machinal
Marry me—wants to marry me—George H. Jones—George H. Jones and Company—Mrs. George H. Jones—Mrs. George H. Jones. Dear Madame—marry—do you take this man to be your wedded husband—I do—to love honor and to love—kisses—no—I can’t—George H. Jones—How would you like to marry me—What do you say—Why Mr. Jones I—let me look at your little hands—you have such pretty little hands—let me hold your pretty little hands—George H. Jones—Fat hands—flabby hands—don’t touch me—please—fat hands are never weary—[…]—don’t touch me—please—no—can’t—must—somebody—something—no rest—must rest—no rest—must rest—no rest—late today—yesterday—before—late—subway—air—pressing—bodies pressing—bodies—trembling—air—stop—air—late—job—no job—fired—late—alarm clock—alarm clock—alarm clock—hurry—job—ma—nag—nag—nag—ma—hurry—job—no job—no money—installments due—no money—[…]—money—no work—no worry—free!—rest—sleep till nine—sleep till ten—sleep till noon—now you take a good rest this morning—don’t get up till you want to—thank you—oh thank you—oh don’t!—please don’t touch me—I want to rest—no rest—earn—got to earn—married—earn—no—yes—earn—all girls—most girls—ma—pa—ma—all women—most women—I can’t—must—maybe—must—somebody—something—ma—pa—ma—can I, ma? Tell me, ma—something—somebody.
YOUNG WOMAN. Tell me—(Words suddenly pouring out.) Your skin oughtn’t to curl—ought it—when he just comes near you—ought it? That’s wrong, ain’t it? You don’t get over that, do you—ever, do you or do you? How is it, Ma—do you?
MOTHER. Do you what?
YOUNG WOMAN. Do you get used to, it—so after a while it doesn’t matter? Or don’t you? Does it always matter? You ought to be in love, oughtn’t you, Ma? You must be in love, mustn’t you, Ma? That changes everything, doesn’t it—or does it? Maybe if you just like a person it’s all right—is it? When he puts a hand on me, my blood turns cold. But your blood oughtn’t to run cold, ought it? His hands are—his hands are fat, Ma—don’t you see—his hands are fat—and they sort of press—and they’re fat—don’t you see?—Don’t you see?
MOTHER (stares at her bewildered). See what?
YOUNG WOMAN (rushing on). I’ve always thought I’d find somebody—somebody young—and—and attractive—with wavy hair—wavy hair—I always think of children with curls—little curls all over their head—somebody young—and attractive—that I’d like—that I’d love—But I haven’t found anybody like that yet—I haven’t found anybody—I’ve hardly known anybody—you’d never let me go with anybody and—
MOTHER. Are you throwing it up to me that—
YOUNG WOMAN. No—let me finish, Ma! No—let me finish! I just mean I’ve never found anybody—anybody—nobody’s ever asked me—till now—he’s the only man that’s ever asked me—And I suppose I got to marry somebody—all girls do—
YOUNG WOMAN. But, I can’t go on like this, Ma—I don’t know why—but I can’t—it’s like I’m all tight inside—sometimes I feel like I’m stifling!—You don’t know—stifling. (Walks up and down.) I can’t go on like this much longer—going to work—coming home—going to work—coming home—I can’t—Sometimes in the subway I think I’m going to die—sometimes even in the office if something don’t happen—I got to do something—I don’t know—it’s like I’m all tight inside.
HUSBAND. […] Say did I tell you the one about—
YOUNG WOMAN. Yes! Yes!
HUSBAND (with dignity). How do you know which one I meant?
YOUNG WOMAN. You told me them all!
HUSBAND (pulling her back to his knee). No, I didn’t! Not by a jugful! I got a lot of ’em up my sleeve yet—that’s part of what I owe my success to—my ability to spring a good story—You know—you got to learn to relax, little girl—haven’t you?
YOUNG WOMAN. Yes.
HUSBAND. That’s one of the biggest things to learn in life. That’s part of what I owe my success to. Now you go and get those heavy things off—and relax.
Let me alone—let me alone—let me alone—I’ve submitted to enough—I won’t submit to any more—crawl off—crawl off in the dark—Vixen crawled under the bed—way back in the corner under the bed—they were all drowned—puppies don’t go to heaven—heaven—golden stairs—long stairs—long—too long—long golden stairs—climb those golden stairs…—no matter—nothing matters—dead—stairs—long stairs—all the dead going up—going up—to be in heaven—heaven—golden stairs—all the children coming down—coming down to be born—dead going up—children coming down—[…]—St. Peter—St. Peter at the gate—you can’t come in—no matter—it doesn’t matter—I’ll rest—I’ll lie down—down—all written down—down in a big book—no matter—it doesn’t matter—I’ll lie down—[…]—a girl—aren’t you glad it’s a girl—a little girl—with no hair—none—little curls all over his head—a little bald girl—curls—curls all over his head—what kind of hair had God? No matter—it doesn’t matter—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—fat hands—no no—he wouldn’t be God—His hands make you well—He lays on his hands—well—and happy—no matter—doesn’t matter—far—too far—tired—too tired Vixen crawled off under bed—eight—there were eight—a woman crawled off under the bed—[…]—I’ll not submit any more—I’ll not submit—I’ll not submit.
She comes into the light. She wears a white chemise that might be the tunic of a dancer, and as she comes into the light she fastens about her waist a little skirt. She really wears almost exactly the clothes that women wear now, but the finesse of their cut, and the grace and ease with which she puts them on, must turn this episode of her dressing into a personification, an idealization of a woman clothing herself. All her gestures must be unconscious, innocent, relaxed, sure and full of natural grace. As she sits facing the window pulling on a stocking.
YOUNG WOMAN (reading). Sale of jewels and precious stones.
YOUNG WOMAN puts her hand to throat.
HUSBAND. What’s the matter?
YOUNG WOMAN. I feel as though I were drowning.
YOUNG WOMAN. With stones around my neck.
HUSBAND. You just imagine that.
YOUNG WOMAN. Stifling.
HUSBAND. You don’t breathe deep enough—breathe now—look at me. (He breathes.) Breath is life. Life is breath.
YOUNG WOMAN (suddenly). And what is death?
HUSBAND (smartly). Just—no breath!
YOUNG WOMAN (to herself). Just no breath.
The BARBERS take her by the arms.
YOUNG WOMAN. No! No! Don’t touch me—touch me!
They take her and put her down in the chair, cut a patch from her hair.
I will not be submitted—this indignity! No! I will not be submitted!—Leave me alone! Oh my God am I never to be let alone! Always to have to submit—to submit! No more—not now—I’m going to die—I won’t submit! Not now!
BARBER (finishing cutting a patch from her hair). You’ll submit, my lady. Right to the end, you’ll submit! There, and a neat job too.