Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 488 words.)