Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Factory Journal Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1041

“Factory Journal” is one of those rare publications which provides an intimate look into the workplace of the common person. Yet it could have been written only by an outsider. Simone Weil seems to have been one of the great outsiders of history, a member of a supportive family but despairing of her place in it, a Jew who tells of mystical experiences with Jesus, a lover of Catholicism who refused baptism, a talented writer who believed that her natural ability was mediocre, a political activist and anticapitalist who thought that the work of the Left benefited only the Soviet bureaucracy. Gradually, she came to believe that liberation of the poor must occur within the basic socioeconomic context of their lives and not in revolution or political action per se. “Factory Journal” is instrumental in her account of a quest for something beyond the social, something she would call love of neighbor or justice. At this time, she had not yet read the Sermon on the Mount, but, as she would explain later, the message contained in its teachings was becoming the first and necessary duty. It was in this spirit that she had rented a room near the factory and set out to live on her meager earnings. She was pushed close to the breaking point.

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Later, when her notebooks and other writings were published, many would find her struggle altruistic, insightful, and even saintly, although there would be some who questioned the depth of her motivation. Some people saw a comic quality in her factory involvement which Weil herself would be quite content to accept as a sign of holy simplicity. If she was a fool, she saw herself as God’s fool, one who, like all others, could penetrate to “the kingdom of truth reserved for genius.”

Weil believed that a serious, disciplined effort would produce rewards even if the immediate problem could not be solved. She used mathematical examples to explain this idea and unwittingly revealed her childhood frustration over her brother Andre’s prodigal success in this field. This Frenchwoman struggled to approach all tasks with deep concentration, for in the mastery of the will was found something far greater than the job itself. She would say in her spiritual letters that concentration opened the way for God. Accordingly, “Factory Journal” reflects a seriousness, producing a feeling in the reader that the specific task discussed, whether it be operating a punch press or a milling machine or the like, takes on a universal significance. Thus, a paradox is created. The worker is a machine whose every second is monitored, and yet the labor itself is salvific.

One of Weil’s persistent beliefs was in a process that she labeled “de-creation.” The key to the reception of God’s grace was through the erosion of the self; this helps to produce a state of expiation in which one realizes the arrogance of presuming self-creation and self-control. Purgation, suffering, is demanded for understanding and love; suffering itself becomes love. This is what she experienced in the factory and this is the central theme of “Factory Journal.” Rather than working-class solidarity in a prerevolutionary setting, she discovered a world of mindless, robotic degradation. She found herself humiliated to the roots of her being. Over and over she notes her sense of enslavement. Shortly after leaving her factory work, she would conclude that Christianity is the religion of slaves and that all slaves, herself included, could not resist its pull. “Factory Journal” is an account of submission or, as she states in her concluding entry, “acceptance.” The environment she portrays in the journal is totalitarian, a totalitarianism not merely of place but of mind and spirit; consequently, the diary has a prophetic, timeless quality making it relevant to later readers. Weil hammers home the fact that efficient oppression creates not revolution but submission and that submission can be the path not to liberation but to grace.

Exhausted physically and spiritually, Weil left Renault in August, 1935. After a brief vacation in Portugal, where her interest in Christianity and Catholicism deepened, she worked on a farm and then journeyed to Spain to offer her support to the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. Her health deteriorated and the omnipresent headaches worsened. She continued her writing, referring often to her factory experience. When the Germans invaded France, she abandoned her pacifism and with her parents moved to unoccupied France to escape. Eventually, she found herself dismissed from a teaching position in Marseilles because of anti-Semitic laws. Her writing became more religious in nature. In 1942, she accompanied her parents to New York, but she could not adjust to a secure life far from her troubled nation. After traveling to England by Swedish ship, she was placed in a detention camp because of her record as a pacifist and supporter of the Spanish Republicans. Through the influence of Maurice Schumann, she was released and went to London, where she worked in the Ministry of the Interior for the Commissariat of Action upon France. During that period, Weil refused to eat more than what she supposed were the rations of the poor in occupied France. In April of 1943, she was admitted to a hospital in Ashford, Kent. There, she refused treatment and nourishment. She accepted blessing from a Catholic priest but refused to be baptized. On August 24, she died of malnutrition and tuberculosis. Her death has been called martyrdom or suicide through self-imposed starvation.

As her story gradually became known, the demand to discover her, to read her works, grew. This was especially true of those who were inclined to contemplation. They sought the answer to the question, who and what was this woman? Was she an arrogant child, or was she, as T. S. Eliot said, a “great soul”? There is no doubt that the core experience of her nonmystical life can be found in the pages of “Factory Journal.” If she was a saint for the contemporary world, one with a meaningful path to follow in a time of absurdity and terror, if one should know her, the place to begin is “Factory Journal,” for here is found the raw material, unrefined and unedited, that shaped the personality, philosophy, and religion of the writer.

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