Form and Content

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In December of 1934, the French writer Simone Weil, teacher, scholar, political activist, and advocate for the underprivileged, was engaged as an unskilled laborer in the Alsthom factory, a plant near Paris that manufactured equipment for subways and streetcars. For the next several months, she worked at Alsthom, Carnaud, and Renault. This frail young woman’s activities and impressions were recorded in an unedited diary which became the source for several more polished but less graphic writings on factory life. The factory experience had a profound effect on Weil both as a political and social thinker and as one who sought a higher, more spiritual meaning for life. The undertaking made her tougher intellectually but more compassionate. Whether she set out merely to work as a participant-observer to gain insight into the culture of the proletariat, Weil found the working conditions dangerous, brutal, and absorbing. The resulting diary was not a political-sociological statement but a cry of empathetic identification. Weil found herself humiliated and enslaved: “Slavery has made me entirely lose the feeling of having any rights.” As a child, Weil had expressed sympathy for the poor; now, at the age of twenty-six, she saw herself as one with them.

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The journal consists of about seventy pages of dated entries. Her brief comments are factual, almost painful, descriptions of her encounters with workers and machines. Weil details her attempts to make premium, to complete her pieces in the allotted time. Her efforts are unsuccessful and futile, and yet her rendition goes beyond pathos and takes on a tragic quality.

The journal contains her observations of the dehumanizing aspects of factory life and her suggested solutions to some of the greater problems. Because of her exhaustion and weakness, the diary entries are sparse, uneven, and focused on the practical and immediate. As a result of the simple harshness of the log, the author’s philosophical musings stand out. Rather than appearing as an observer or student of the worker and suffering poor, she constructs the journal in such a way that she becomes part of them. This transformation is accomplished by a purification of language explaining precisely what is taking place and how it affects her, the novice employee.

Though brief, the journal conveys an elemental message, as if the author found herself in a strange setting where only the most basic human qualities mattered. In such a place, she notes the uplifting effect of a smile or a considerate word. She will never forget, she writes, the foreman who took the time to be kind to her. Her entries show a deep interest and concern for the workers around her, and her jottings speak volumes about their lives.

“Factory Journal” records seemingly endless workdays which marked the author for life. Later, in the essay “Factory Work,” Weil wrote that she had perceived “the root of evil,” seeing that “things play the role of men, men the role of things.”

Form and Content

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In 1934-1935, Simone Weil, who was then teaching philosophy at a girls’ lycée in Roanne, France, took a year’s leave and started work as an unskilled laborer in factories in and around Paris. From December, 1934, to August, 1935, she worked as a power press operator at the Alsthom Electrical Works in Paris, as a packer with Carnaud in Boulogne-Billancourt, and as a milling machine operator at the Renault works. Her notebook “Factory Journal” is a record of the actual, day-to-day details of this life; it is filled with computations of pieces made, calculations of wages and hours, notes on her coworkers, and reflections on the effects of oppression on the human mind.

Strictly speaking, Weil was not a feminist in her philosophical outlook; a moralist with a strong Marxist inclination, her loyalty was to all humanity, and she refused to divide human beings on the basis of gender or race (although she used “man” and “mankind” in all her writings). Yet “Factory Journal,” though a very personal record, demonstrates in a subtle manner Weil’s awareness of the particular afflictions that affected the lowest class in the French factory system: the unskilled women workers.

What characterized a factory worker was her total submission to time; although there are reports in “Factory Journal” of moments of rest and gossip among the workers, they are generally all too brief and fearfully appropriated by them from the “set-up” men and other men whom she terms “big shots.” The single obsession for all workers became the ability “to make the rate,” that is, to match the time given with the amount of perfect pieces made. Weil’s notes are full of self-blame and despair at the number of “botched” pieces; in a small section entitled “The Mystery of the Machine,” she observes that the machine is a mystery for the unskilled worker, who has not studied mathematics and who does not understand the play of forces. In the absence of understanding, the worker’s attitude becomes one of superstitious respect for the machine and for concepts such as “knack” that do not demand critical thought.

The sense of inferiority among workers brought about by their lack of expertise is compounded by the harsh treatment by their set-up men. The women workers are treated like beasts of burden; Weil observes that the hiring personnel looks over them like horses. The undisguised contempt of these men toward the workers and the silent submission with which the workers accepted their ill-treatment made such a deep impression on Weil that she called herself and other workers “slaves.”

“Factory Journal” is an extraordinary worker’s log with meticulously documented computations of hours worked and wages earned, drawings of machine parts, and outbursts of anger, despair, and comradeship. It is a documentary of a class of people who can easily be missed or dismissed, but for Weil they embodied the mirror-image of what she herself, or any other so-called free individual, could become under the irresistible sway of oppressive force. She divides her entries into days and weeks and makes detailing of the quotidian existence into an art form. Although the central consciousness in the journal is that of Weil, she does jot down, almost like an aid to memory, the names or features of her coworkers and snatches of their conversation that caught her attention. Thus “Factory Journal” represents a particular group as well as one highly engaged, pragmatic personality.

Context

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“Factory Journal” is a unique documentary of a neglected class: the unskilled women workers in the French factory system. Unlike an outsider’s camera, however, Weil became part of the group that she was studying, and the result is a document that is at once personal and political. To represent the problem of oppression and its effects on the human psyche, Weil could not have chosen a better medium; her individual anecdotes about the women working with her are exemplary. Weil shows the terrible injustices of poverty, sickness, harassment, and humiliation that the women undergo in these factories. Weil herself never married or had children, but her coworkers are wives and mothers struggling to provide for their families under the most adverse circumstances. Weil does not glamorize herself or the other workers, and she does call herself and others “slaves”; however, she also captures certain sublime moments from their lives, as that of the young girl who says that when she feels like dancing, she dances over the washing.

During her time at the factories, Weil lived on her skimpy earnings, often going hungry when money ran low, as in a month-long period of unemployment. Ailing from chronic migraines and general ill-health, Weil was not suited for such radical extremes, but her passionate and uncompromising spirit, as well as the responsibility that she felt toward her particular moment in history, made personal setbacks such as health relatively minor issues to her. She used “Factory Journal” to write the more formal essay “Factory Work,” in which she expresses her views on the conditions of factory life and recommends ways to improve them.

Bibliography

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Coles, Robert. Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1987. An accessible biography that also deals with Weil’s hunger strike and her attitudes toward Christianity, Judaism, and Marxism.

Pétrement, Simone. Simone Weil: A Life. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976. An excellent biography for the leisurely reader, this book contains interviews and reminiscences of people who knew Simone Weil; a well-guided introduction to the writer’s work and thought.

Weil, Simone. Formative Writings, 1929-1941. Edited and translated by Dorothy Tuck McFarland and Wilhelmina Van Ness. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. A compilation of five early essays by Weil, newly translated from French into English, including “Factory Journal,” this edition presents Weil’s political and social activism in the context of her philosophical outlook.

Weil, Simone. The Simone Weil Reader. Edited by George A. Panichas. New York: McKay, 1977. An excellent anthology of important writings by Weil on a variety of topics; contains the later companion piece to “Factory Journal” called “Factory Work.”

White, George Abbott, ed. Simone Weil: Interpretations of a Life. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981. A collection of ten critical essays on Weil’s works and life, including an essay on her work experience in factories and on farms.

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