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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 207

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One prominent theme in The Adding Machine is the regulating and alienating effect of manual labor. Many of the characters, especially those who work on Ford's assembly line, spend much of their time like cogs in a machine. After over two decades training his mind to perfect his mindless process, Mr. Zero finds himself unable to socialize organically.

This brings us to a second, tangent theme: the machinization of human bodies at the whims of capitalism. The relationship between Mr. Zero and his corporation is inherently exploitative, turning him into a mindless machine that accomplishes small, discrete computational tasks. This allows his employers to dehumanize him, and ultimately replace him with an even lower-cost adding machine that metaphorically stands in for the subject.

A third theme is the mutability, or potential for change, of humanity's idea of the afterlife. When Mr. Zero dies after an unfulfilling life, he is ushered into a heaven that seems idyllic at first, but which he soon finds mindlessly bohemian and obnoxious. Like a corporation itself, Heaven throws him out because it recognizes him as a poor fit. This event parodies humans' narrow-minded metaphors for heaven, demonstrating that they are all entangled in the unfulfilled hopes and dreams of the living world.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553

The inspiration behind The Adding Machine appears to have come from a 1915 visit Elmer Rice made to the Ford Motor Company plant in Detroit. “As I watched the cars moving along the belt,” he recalls in his autobiography, “each worker performing the same operation over and over, the whole process struck me as inhuman and demoralizing.” The form that the work took, however, came to Rice as almost a mystical illumination. He related, “Suddenly, as though a switch had been turned or a curtain raised, a new play flashed into my mind. . . . I mean that quite literally, for in that sudden instant I saw the whole thing complete: characters, plot, incidents, even the title and some of the dialogue.”

Rice was, and would remain throughout his life, a strongly reform-oriented writer, dedicated to the improvement of humankind through the depiction and exposure of social and economic ills. He was converted to socialism as a teenager, largely through his reading. He was most influenced by utopian visionaries William Morris, Edward Bellamy, and H. G. Wells, along with such contemporary dramatists and novelists as George Bernard Shaw, Émile Zola, and Henrik Ibsen. The message that he drew from their works was that the existing order of things is deeply flawed, and he was therefore drawn to “the concept of a human community based upon the principles of truth and justice.”

The crux of Rice’s personal credo was his belief in the dignity and importance, even sanctity, of the individual. “In the course of a long and crowded career as playwright,” he explained to an interviewer,I have done practically nothing but say the same thing, over and over again . . . simply that there is nothing as important in life as freedom and that the dominant concern not only of every human being but of all of us as we function as members of society should be with the attainment of freedom of body and of mind through liberation from political autocracy, economic slavery, religious superstition, hereditary prejudice and herd psychology and the obtainment of freedom of the soul through liberation from fear, jealousy, hatred, possessiveness and self-delusion.

Those values shaped the major themes of The Adding Machine. One of the play’s themes is the constricting and stultifying effects of Americans’ conventional Puritan based morality, epitomized in Zero’s turning away from Daisy and Heaven itself in scene 7. Even more striking, and the central thread running through the play, is Rice’s indictment of the dehumanization resulting from the increasing domination of the machine.

Rice sets forth his message most explicitly in the final scene. When Zero first balks at returning to earth, Charles reminds him of his powerlessness. “You can’t change the rules—nobody can—they’ve got it all fixed. It’s a rotten system—but what are you going to do about it?” When Zero feels a temporary sense of self-importance after he is told that his job back on earth will be operating a new “super-hyper-adding machine,” Charles is quick to deflate him by calling him “a failure,” a “slave to a contraption of steel and iron,” and “the raw material of slums and wars—the ready prey of the first jingo or demagogue or political adventurer who takes the trouble to play upon your ignorance and credulity and provincialism.”