As children, our curiosities and wonders of the world are at their peak. We have just been brought into the world and are restless to venture out and explore, to experience the world first-hand. I remember having a sponge-like mind and the desire to satisfy my endless curiosity while growing up in the Philippines before the web consumed the world and those around me. There were no gadgets or electronic games to help me pass the time, and there were no web technologies to substitute the first-hand investigation of the world; instead, I used to spend most of my time outside, searching for new experiences on my own or with other children.
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Our games often consisted of going into the forest surrounding us, post-typhoon, and seeing who could collect the most bananas off the ground or bike to the nearest snack shack the fastest. We also engaged in the more common games, such as tag, hide or seek, and roleplaying. The experiences brought by the direct exploration of the world brought me and my friends more enjoyment and excitement than staying at home ever could. My childhood was very different from the one children all around the world have today, where the Internet, gadgets, and electronic games have replaced the joy of real-life exploration and connection with others.
The idea of the importance of experiencing the world directly is intensely demonstrated in the short story “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster. The text focuses on the life of a hive-like society in which a machine is utilized to cater to the needs of people, thus living life for all of mankind. All those living in this underground society are isolated from one another and are confined to their rooms, “eating, or sleeping, or producing ideas” (Forster 7).
These people are physically distanced both from one another and from the true wonders and realities of the world. While most conform to the roles and worship the grand Machine that acts as their life support, there remains one individual, Kuno, who maintains a curious mind about the world outside of this hive society. Kuno eventually ventured out to appease his curiosity and finds that, although the world beyond their society is unpredictable and carries a certain level of danger with it, the experience it brought was still more fulfilling and enjoyable than his life underground. During his adventures in the outside world, Kuno also finds that the Machine’s maintenance of human life was at the near end.
Throughout the story, there is a continuous play on the symbol of darkness — alluding to the metaphorical death of human beings, the shadow from knowledge those residing in the society maintained, the unpredictability of life itself, and the persistent isolation — which the author uses to examine the true meaning of living and the purpose of life.
One of the first subjects that this story touches on is defining life and the idea of living. The hive society is set underground, with citizens carrying an appearance of the dead. Vashti, the main character and Kuno’s mother, is portrayed to have a “face as white as fungus” (Forster 1), an appearance probably caused by residing underground from birth. The image of a white, pale face resembles a corpse with a monotone lifeless complexion.
In addition to this, the setting where society resides underground in small, isolated chambers also alludes to death by resembling a graveyard. The image of death portrayed by Forster is contrasted with the apparent notion that the characters are, in fact, alive. After their conversation, Vashti’s room is described as having “buttons or switches everywhere — buttons to call for food for music, for clothing” (Forster 3). The idea that the Machine does every kind of work while also stripping mankind of all experiences beyond eating, sleeping, and generating ideas truly brings into question what it means to be truly alive. If all work is done by technology, and people have no experiences other than those required for sustaining themselves and society, are they even alive?
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In addition to creating a compelling allusion to death, Forster also uses darkness as a metaphor for ignorance. Along with literally being in the dark, people are also metaphorically in the dark since they know nothing of the outside world. Moreover, the author makes it clear that they do not want to know, preferring to live in the dark instead. In one of the first passages in the story, Vashti directly states, “Be quick Kuno; here I am in the dark wasting my time” (Forster 1).
Living under the leadership of the Machine, people do not know the outside world, because they have lost the wonder and curiosity that makes human beings so unique. The Machine goes beyond doing life-sustaining tasks for people; it also thinks for them. Although it might seem that the Machine forces people to stay in the dark by scaring them with myths of the outside world, Forster shows that people are content with staying in the dark both literally and figuratively. The fear of knowledge is enforced by society, and all knowledge obtained independently of the Machine is labeled as dangerous: “Beware of first-hand ideas!” (Forster 18).
First-hand ideas are purposely given a negative connotation, which causes the citizens of this hive society to be wary of ever formulating new ideas and thoughts about the world around them and to remain in the shadow cast by the Machine that controls everything they do and think. The only source of knowledge these people receive is through, “[…] second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand […] ” (Forster 18) ideas passed down from generations before. The role that knowledge plays in the text gives another meaning to the concept of darkness, one where people are afraid to shed light on the wonders of the outside world and prefer to stay in the dark for their entire lives.
The symbol of darkness is also used to represent the unpredictable nature of life. Through the darkness, the author seeks to show that people should not be scared of the unknown; instead, they should use their time to explore the world and expand their knowledge despite the risks that this might bring. After venturing out to the outside world, Kudo explains the turn of events to his mother: “Everything is light, artificial light; darkness is the exception.
So when I saw a black gap in the tiles, I knew that it was an exception, and rejoiced” (Forster 12). While light is usually associated with good feelings, the darkness intrigued Kuno in the sense that it was not artificial like the lights that surrounded him. The light that Kuno speaks of alludes to the artificial stimulation of experiences that the Machine provided to the citizens. In contrast, the darkness marks the unknown and the unpredictable nature of direct experience; it disrupts the artificial world around and excites Kuno with the promise of something new and real. For all other characters, the disruption is highly unwelcome.
The fear of experience is embedded in the hive society to the same extent as the fear of knowledge is (Seabury 66-67). At the beginning of the story, Vashti is described as “seized with the terrors of direct experience” (Forster 5). From this part of the text, it is evident that fear is one of people’s greatest motivations for staying in their cells and avoiding the world outside. People in Forster’s work fear not just danger, but the reality of experience itself, even if it could bring positive feelings. As explained by Caporaletti, people in the hive society “prefer the simulation of experience to experience itself” (33).
They become unhappy when the simulation created by the Machine is interrupted by reality. To the author, this contradicts human nature, which should welcome the unpredictability and excitement brought by real-life experiences. Kuno represents this aspect of human nature because he is the only character who sees value in reality. The contrast between reality and simulation, as well as between Kuno and Vashti, is used by the author to show that the real value of life lies in its unpredictability. Although life can be dangerous outside of our comfortable surroundings, overcoming fear and embracing new experiences is what gives life meaning.
Finally, the notion of darkness in the story is also deeply connected to the idea of isolation. People living in the hive society spend their days in solitude, only interacting with others through the network established by the Machine. From the beginning of the story, the contrasting notions of isolation and connectedness are presented among the core characteristics of the hive society. Writing about Vashti, Forster states, “she knew several thousand people, in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously” (1). However, it soon becomes evident that human interaction, much like the other aspects of life in this society, is artificial.
The communication between people is highly limited to pneumatic posts, with the rare exception of telephone and video calls. Vashti becomes irritated when she receives a call from Kuno, and questions as to why he could not message her through the pneumatic post instead of calling (Forster 2). In this way, the simulation of connectedness has replaced real-life communication between people, and people are content with it. According to March-Russell, electronic communication is preferred because it is more efficient than real-life relationships (61). However, the author also suggests that the deeper meaning of electronic interconnectedness is that it prompts isolation.
Although people in the hive society are connected through a network, they are extremely isolated from one another – both physically and emotionally – which is particularly evident in the encounters between Kuno and Vashti. At the beginning of the story, Kuno states, “I have called you before, mother, but you were always busy or isolated” (Forster 2). Here, isolation can be taken literally, since people in Forster’s work can isolate themselves from contact by turning a particular knob. However, it can also be taken figuratively as the description of Vashti’s emotional absence evident in the lack of a genuine, real-life connection between a mother and a son. Later, Kuno complains, “I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you” (Forster 2).
This hints at the idea that electronic interconnectedness cannot replace real connection in terms of the emotions and feelings evoked through human contact. The concept of darkness, which surrounds characters in the work, mirrors this notion. While being in the dark, in the confinement of their cells, people cannot see, hear, or touch others. With the Machine as the only source of human contact, the value that lies in this contact deteriorates. In a way, Forster’s work represents the struggles felt by people in the modern world. Although we have become increasingly connected through the Internet, electronic communication is no match for real, in-person interaction, causing many people to feel more isolated than ever before.
In conclusion, “The Machine Stops” truly gives the audience some ideas worth pondering. The exploration of the concepts of death, knowledge, experience, and human contact evokes many questions about the nature of life and its value in the reader. With the reliance on technology that is going on today, how are we to say we are living? Is living life first-hand equivalent to living it through a computer screen? Throughout the story, the author attempts to provide answers to these questions by exploring how the changes in society affected the lives and experiences of individuals in it. Kuno’s character is at the center of this exploration, and most of the answers are delivered through him. As noted by Seabury, Kuno’s goal in the short story is to “rediscover what truly matters” (70).
He represents the anomaly in a world controlled by the Machine, and it is through his experience that the author portrays human nature and the real value of life. Kuno’s story and his ideas about the world around him are what make the work particularly inspiring and thought-provocative. The relevance of Forster’s ideas to the reality of our modern life is extensive, and people from all over the world should read it to refocus on real life and the experiences that it brings.
Caporaletti, Silvana. “Science as Nightmare:’ The Machine Stops’ by EM Forster.” Utopian Studies, vol. 8, no. 2, 1997, pp. 32-47.
Forster, Edward Morgan. “The Machine Stops.” Oxford and Cambridge Review, 1909, pp. 1-25.
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March-Russell, Paul. “Imagine, If You Can: Love, Time and the Impossibility of Utopia in EM Forster’s’ The Machine Stops’.” Critical Survey, vol. 17, no. 1, 2005, pp. 56-71.
Seabury, Marcia Bundy. “Images of a Networked Society: EM Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 34, no. 1, 1997, pp. 61-71.