In class last week, we spoke about the notion of damaged bodies in Christ in Concrete. I think this idea carries over into On the Line, as well. In the first three chapters, each character somehow gets physically or emotionally damaged by working at the assembly line. In the minds of the supervisors, and sadly even in the minds of the laborers themselves, the bodies of the cars are deemed more valuable than the bodies of the workers.
In chapter one, the reason Leroy gets injured is because he falls in a way so as to not damage the vehicle he’s working on. “Trying not to drop the heavy cast-iron hook, which might have dented the finished body, he swung his left hand out for support, found none, and fell backwards from the platform at the end of the line which jutted out like a diving board” (18). Here, we see his gut instinct is to preserve the integrity of the car’s body at the risk of harming his own human body. The workers have been conditioned to believe that their own bodies are less valuable than the body of the product on which they work every day.
Similarly, in chapter two, Kevin elevates the products in his mind to a level that resembles worship. He paints that pastoral picture of the factory and the cars: “For me there is a beauty about it all that I’m finding it very hard to explain to anyone. Just look out there at those elegant shiny cars – a heap of metal parts when they come in here, and lovely limousines when they’re driven off the final line. Splendid glittering vehicles even more fine than the way they show up in magazines” (32). He idealizes the glamour of the cars, enough so that he becomes determined to buy one for himself. “Even the factory itself, to which he had been growing insensibly accustomed, became renewed in wonder as he recognized about him the parts that would be fashioned into his own automobile…” (35).
Later on, it’s subtly mentioned that Kevin “climbed into the car in his work clothes, arranging a moth-eaten Indian blanket under him so that he would not soil the plastic seat covers” (39). Again, the worker is devaluing his own body (it is seen as dirty and able to soil something) in order to preserve the newness and value of the body of his car.
Although in chapter three Walter, too, gets injured on the job, it explores more of the emotional damage that work on the assembly line is capable of. Joe says to Walter, “Did you ever figure the cost of the job in terms of what it does to the personality of a clever, intelligent fellow like him?” (58). The two are discussing the effects of the job, not just externally, but internally. Walter later comes to realize that “the worst thing about the assembly line is what it does to your self-respect” (65). In other words, perhaps what’s worse than Leroy’s neck injury or the pain Walter feels as he runs into a fork truck is the consequences of factory work on their self-worth.
All these men somehow realize that their bodies, their lives, are regarded to be worth less than the bodies of the cars on which they work. Joe sums it up when he claims that production doesn’t serve people; on the contrary “people are serving production” (66).