The Machine Stops
Technological advances in today’s world have come to such an extent that people have now begun relying on it for essential needs. The Machine Stops is a short story by E.M. Forster that warns us of a possibility of a world that is dominated by a machine. The story is set in the distant future when humans are forced out of the surface of the Earth and depend on a machine housed underneath the surface for their every need; food, communication, housing etc. In return, this dependence has allowed mankind to be controlled by the machine. Finally, the machine becomes the law or the religion for most people living in it. E.M. Forster uses characters, symbolism setting and irony to explain the importance of our over reliance on technology and what the consequences might be.
Vashti, one of the main characters in the story, is totally reliant on this machine, a controlling body that meets every need and wants to satisfy everyone living in it. It provides ‘everything’ from music to a bed to sleep in, all without leaving the comforts of their own armchair. The author shows this to us when he says that Vashti had a bath, talked again, and “summoned her bed”. The author uses Vashti as an example of what the rest of society is like and gives the viewer better insight showing how reliant most humans are under this machine. It is through this over reliance that she begins to worship the machine “O Machine! And raised the volume to her lips; thrice she kissed it”. Forster also uses capitalization to emphasize how the Machine is given an almost omnipotent status in society and is considered almost as a God. However, Kuno, Vashti’s son, is an exception and is not content with living on the machine. He wants to experience life for himself and see her ‘face-to-face’.” I want to see you not through the Machine”. However, it is when the Machine does stop that Vashti realizes she and the rest of humanity are doomed and that their blind reliance on a mere machine has caused their own destruction. Forster warns us to not let technology control us as it will only end up being own demise.
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Symbolism in the text can be seen at the opening when the viewers are introduced to Vashti in a “small, hexagonal room”. The author’s use of simile at the start “ a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee” sets up the futuristic setting, while at the same time, compares her room to the ‘honeycomb-shaped’ cells in a beehive. In the same way an individual bee is totally reliant on the Queen Bee to control the entire hive, so too is Vashti totally reliant on the Machine to control society “There were buttons and switches everywhere- buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing”. This shows why Vashti and the rest of her society is dependent on the machine, as needs and wants can be provided with a press of a button. This idea of reliance is further reinforced by the simile “with a face as white as fungus” which clearly shows that mankind’s reliance on technology will result in humans being reduced to “swaddled lumps of flesh” due to lack of exercise and lack of natural sunlight. But Vashti is content with this control the machine has over her society and calls this way of life “civilized”. These actions are also a true representation of today’s world. This new phenomenon of “online shopping” has engulfed society by storm as by the press of a button you can order your food to be home delivered. This is similar to how a press of a button in Vashti’s world would deliver food to her in an instant. Forster makes the audience realize that if we rely on technology for everything, we too will end up being “swaddled lumps of flesh”.
Similarly, irony contributes in showing the idea that humans are too consumed with wants and needs, that we lose sight of things far more important. We lose sight of people and the beauty of love and nature. Whilst the whole story relies heavily on irony, the quote “how we have advanced, thanks to the Machine” stands out as being profoundly ironic as Forster describes Vashti to be a “swaddled lump of flesh”, which stands out to show how she has rather devolved than evolving. Also when Vashti talks about advancing when they have been able to control night and day with a flick of a switch or how Man has been able to be so far removed from nature that even the majestic beauty of a “golden sea” sends “a spasm of horror”. Whilst many of us would love the idea of gaining ‘ideas’ from nature, the world in which Vashti lives, show that they find nature abhorrent and even the peninsula with “golden seas” evokes a response like “No ideas here”. Furthermore, Man in Vashti’s world has become so totally reliant on the Machine that even physical contact with other humans induces “physical repulsion”. It is when the machine can no longer meet their needs that things go wrong and Vashti no longer thinks that they have advanced but that humanity has indeed learnt its lesson. Forster is warning through Vashti and her society, how we would eventually end up being a society like the one in The Machine Stops, if we do not take control of our technology as it will one day be the foundation of our demise.
E.M. Forster’s use of complex characters, symbolism, setting and irony further develops the idea of how important it is that we are aware of our reliance on technology and its consequences and help readers understand how man, in his search for comfort and desires, will never be satisfied. That this greed will eventually lead to Man’s own destruction.