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.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 572 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

“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.


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.