Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

“Perhaps the most acceptable form of freedom,” says the narrator in one of his asides to the reader, “the most subjectively enjoyed, and the most useful to human society consists of being good at your job and therefore taking pleasure in doing it.”

This definition encapsulates the spirit of The Monkey’s Wrench, which, in effect, is a paean to skilled work done with flair and pride. One of its most remarkable aspects is Primo Levi’s ability, through the medium of Faussone, to describe a highly complex technological process with such clarity and panache that the most unscientific reader can understand and visualize it and even become emotionally involved in its progress. Underlying every story is an ongoing dialogue on the philosophy of work, a dialogue which becomes explicit in the key discussion between the two men about the relative merits of working with words or with tangible objects.

The narrator points out that writing is a lonely profession and that when things go wrong the writer alone is to blame. The failure, however, does not become apparent until the reader notices it, and then it is too late to correct it. Faussone is struck by this unique burden on the writer. “Just think,” he says, “if they’d never invented control instruments, and we had to do the job by’d be enough to drive you crazy.”

On the other hand, he reminds the narrator of the dangers of the rigger’s work, both the physical risks and the strain on the nervous system. “A man can’t get sick from writing,” he says; “at worst, if he writes with a ballpoint, he gets a callus.”

The rigger-writer dialogue becomes three-cornered when, in the “anchovy story,” the narrator talks about his profession as an industrial scientist. He draws an analogy between the microscopic building blocks of paint chemistry and the massive constituents of the rigger’s trade, and, to gain Faussone’s understanding and to refine the analogy, he refers to himself as “a rigger-chemist.”