What are quotes in Machinal by Sophie Treadwell that suggest positivism?

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teachsuccess | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Sophie Treadwell's play is an expressionistic indictment of the horrors of World War One and the dehumanizing, subsequent industrialization of modern society. Expressionism, as a philosophy, concerns itself with the collective, anguished emotion of the masses in response to the mechanization which threatens to eclipse human relevance.

Expressionism has often been characterized as antithetical to positivism. Traditional positivism during Treadwell's time was strongly predicated on the belief that all rational experience can be explained through an objective (and therefore, scientific) explanation of the experience. At the time, positivist philosophy definitely relied on largely quantifiable analysis of any observed phenomenon. Anything that could not be measured, such as emotions, fell victim to a sort of scientific marginalization, which irritated proponents of Expressionist beliefs such as Treadwell.

In relation to Treadwell's play, while logical positivism largely agrees with the classical view of criminology, in that all criminal actions derive from a cause, there are areas where the two part ways. Unlike the classical view, positivist criminology states that the criminal has no free will; instead he/she is influenced by factors beyond his/her control, whether the factors be psychological, sociological, cultural, or environmental. As such, positivist criminology suggests that rehabilitation should be the main instrument for crime prevention, rather than the capital punishment illustrated in Treadwell's play.

In the story, this positivist view largely supports Treadwell's existential expressionism: Helen's execution in the last scene is portrayed in all its frightening intensity. The play centers on the emotions and the largely internal, mental anguish of the protagonist, rather than on specific events. Indeed, Treadwell leaves Helen's wedding and eventual murder of her husband off-stage. Instead, Helen's every obsessive compulsion to escape the meaninglessness of her marital situation is clearly delineated for us in her emotional out-bursts and internal conflict.

Since existential positivism suggests that criminal actions are precipitated by factors beyond one's control, Treadwell's play aims to expose this phenomenon. For quotes on existential positivism, you might consider including exchanges between Helen and her mother, and between Helen and her lover. Let me explain.

When Helen discusses marrying her boss, her mother is initially skeptical. However, when she discovers that her daughter's employer is wealthy, she nags her daughter into getting married as soon as possible.

"Love!—What does that amount to! Will it clothe you? Will it feed you? Will it pay the bills?"

Helen finds herself constrained by the values of her time. Love is important for her, but how does she acquire this in light of her impoverished situation? If you look at it from an existential positivist view, the circumstances of Helen's life constrain her, both to marry against her inclinations and to murder her husband in order to attain autonomy over her life. Helen even murders her husband in the similar manner her lover kills two men in Mexico; you could say that her lover is a definite influence on her, albeit a bad one.

This existentialist positivism is defined as a lack of free will to pursue viable alternatives. Whether one agrees with this or not, the fact remains that Treadwell's play inspires us to ask relevant questions about societal pressure, the dehumanizing elements of industrialization, and the debate between rationalism and subjectivism.

To further understand this fascinating topic, you may consider reading about:

Positivism and Post-Positivism.

Existential and Metaphysical Positivism.

The Classical and Positivist Views In Karen Hess' Juvenile Justice.

Individual and Sociological Positivism in Criminology.

Sources:

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