discussion questions from last class re: ON THE LINE

  1. A central part of the midcentury “American dream “ is the notion of having a “career” (which my dictionary defines as “an occupation undertaken for a significant portion of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress”).  What does Swados’s collection tell us about the “careers” of industrial workers? How do the characters imagine their own “career trajectories”?  What are some of the problems of narrating their lives this way? [I note in passing that “career” derives from the Latin word carrus, “wheeled vehicle”!]

  2. What is the relationship between alienation and solidarity in the text?  Does the experience of alienation lead to solidarity?  Why or why not?  What are some of the barriers that characters experience in imagining their fates as bound to those of their co-workers?  What are some of the means of building solidarity that are represented in the text?

  3. A crucial part of what Marx calls the “alienation of labor” is the difficulty of mapping out large-scale, complex production processes and locating one’s own role within them.  How does the text dramatize this problem?  What are some moments when we see characters struggle with their lack of adequate “maps” of their work?  Which characters do seem to have plausible “maps” of the way the factory works?

  4. What does it mean to “be a man” in this novel?  What are some of the positive attributes of masculinity depicted in the novel, and what aspects of normative midcentury masculinity appear in a more critical light?


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