Measured Realities: The Self and the City in Flora Tristan’s Travel Diaries: 1840-44 by Sara Coffield

Measured Realities: The Self and the City in Flora Tristan’s Travel Diaries: 1840-44

In Flora Tristan’s Travel Diaries: 1840-44, readers are confronted with personal accounts of Tristan both witnessing and reflecting upon the effects of industrialization. The genre of writing itself serves as a testament to her identity as a woman and the gendered publishing constraints she was held to. However, the way in which Tristan utilizes the diary as a tool to engage with readers subverts any notion of tourism and instead offers a deeply critical analysis of the social world in the face of modernity. Her awareness concerning the proletariat is considered in the realm of gender and class, but also for its corporeal relationship in and to the built urban environment. As an early feminist critique, Tristan’s Travel Diaries: 1840-44 questions the desire for the metropolis, interrogates failed social infrastructures, and stresses the significance of individuality challenged by the division of labor. Many scholars have noted how her work anticipated that of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Similar to other significant figures in the early to mid-19th century, including Friedrich Schiller and Thomas Carlyle, Tristan was focused on the cultivation of the human spirit. However, her travel diaries are compelling for their pursuit of internal coherence, balancing the body with the mind and the individual with the city. There is an essence of measurement in her analyses. Time is calculated in money and distance is quantified by fatigue. Environments are read and conveyed viscerally. By negotiating sensorial reactions to industrial realities, her diaries become a site of reckoning between personal cultivation and a didactic call to the masses.

While Tristan is convinced that the conflicts of industrial societies are relevant globally, she pinpoints London as a metropolis of heightened concern. Terming it the “Monster City,” she gives London an anthropomorphic quality of terror with railroads as tentacles. 1Tristan is both in awe of and takes issue with the city’s size. She deems it out of proportion, which is representative of Britain’s colonial endeavors of oppression in the commercial realm. The scale of the city becomes symbolic of its problematic national reputation and is measured against average human proportions. Standing in the midst of London, one must bear the mental weight of historical actions. However, she retains the belief that universal laws in the cyclical nature of history will call upon the “slave to break his irons” and that “ignorance may also be shaken off.” 2 By reflecting in her diaries, she is also looking towards paths for the future to shift from expected circumstances. Tristan describes the sight of London’s built grandeur as overwhelming, resulting in the humiliation for one’s own insignificance and troubling of the soul. 3As the urban landscape develops outwards, the internal spirit becomes agitated. The obscuring of the human form speaks to the tendency to negate the individual in the midst of class, which is visually rendered in the city by neighborhoods. While the city’s luminosity and enchantment of urban planning has an intoxicating effect on the witness, the sober view reveals a variety of textured material existences ranging in desirability.

Rather than the development of social cohesion, the agglutination of cities within cities contributes to the isolation of the individual. Sociologists of later generations, like Georg Simmel, recognized the significance of social interaction as integral to the development of identity and society as an action rather than a state. Tristan predicted the paradox of connectivity our contemporary society faces: the lack of meaningful connections in arguably the most hyperconnected population. In her era, it was the paradox of urban growth. The shift from the agrarian individuality of settlements to the clustering of the metropolis resulted in the strain of interpersonal connections. Connectivity became measured numerically in distance and time with attention to the corresponding physical toll, namely fatigue. Emphasized by the need to commute, which Tristan considered a deterrent to the intellectual capacity of the individual, fatigue was integrated into the city’s visual texture being worn on the faces of city inhabitants. When the haze and glow of the industrial city’s mystique clears, a myopic view of the creases on the skin are emblematic of an unsustainable pace of time and distance. Tristan considers this fatigue a form of destiny, just like the destinies of labor within taxonomized neighborhoods. 4

The same way a commute hinders the intellect, Tristan posits that the division of labor is a monotonous routine that reduces the worker to a gear in a machine. This feeling of insignificance or replaceability mirrors the humiliation of the human ratio to the metropolis, with the scale of one’s contribution to the value of overall production being essentially meaningless. The “English Wage Slave” working at the mercy of the producer is obscured in the factory and his life is measured by potatoes. 5With banter and camaraderie prohibited in the factory setting, opting instead for labor in silence, Tristan suggests the existence of the factory wage laborer “requires superhuman courage or complete apathy.” 6 This expectation of vitality from an individual on either end of the spectrum is irrational, which reaffirms Tristan’s advocacy for an internal coherence between the physical and intellectual. And yet, Tristan also recognizes the potential in mechanical development. If brute force was eliminated and material things were finished efficiently, time would be available to cultivate the mind. But with this potential comes the caveat for success, namely a social revolution. Tristan’s subtle call is not to be missed as she grapples with the magic of machinery and subsequent destinies, setting a precedent for Marx and Engels to amplify.

In contrast to her detailed entry of visiting the gas factory, the form of labor that evades Tristan as quantifiable is prostitution. The factory is a seemingly theatrical event requiring an admission ticket as if it was entertainment, leading Tristan to turn to the humanities to convey her sensorial experiences. In her own intellectual faculty as a writer, she references Virgil’s Aeneid to convey lack of animation amongst the servants of the English furnaces. 8 Her own response to the industrial institution was biological, from the heat on her skin to the smell in her lungs. In addition to the monotony of the labor, a scene of momentary respite for the workers became monochromatic with a mattress becoming indistinguishable from the coal around it and the men’s skin synonymous with dust. For Tristan, nothing could surpass the monstrosity of such conditions apart from cannibalism and prostitution, the latter being beyond her understanding. 9 The body as the site of labor, which Tristan attributes to “the disastrous effects of prejudices, poverty, and slavery” and “the social state,” is incomprehensible by the human soul or her own intellectual faculty. 10Beyond measure or calculation, it is sublime, similar to the awe-inducing humiliation of the “Monster City” itself. Tristan can’t accept this as the destiny of labor for her own gender, making another call to the masses to “let [women] be absolved from it.”

The efficacy of how Tristan utilizes the genre of a travel diary for a pointed sociological critique can be seen in its subtle transitions between a witnessed observation and didactic warnings. What are seemingly personal experiences serve a larger purpose in addressing mass societal shifts in the age of industrialization. Accusatory conclusions, from the consequences of socio-economic conditions and the responsibility of an invisible state, are grounded in realities measured by the ephemeral human condition within concrete architectural realities. For Tristan, the pursuit of internal coherence always returns to the cultivation of the individual as a way to prevent death by monotony.


Tristan, Flora. “From Promenades in London (1840).” In Travel Diaries: 1840-44. Course provided PDF, pp. 53 – 69.

  1.  Flora Tristan, “From Promenades in London (1840)” in Travel Diaries: 1840-44, course provided PDF, 54
  2.  Ibid.
  3.   Ibid.
  4.  Ibid, 55-56.
  5.   Ibid, 61-62.
  6.   Ibid, 63.
  7. Ibid, 64.
  8.   Ibid, 65. This is compelling to consider in tandem to her concept of the “Woman Guide to Humanity” in the Lyons  portion of the diary (pp.137).
  9.   Ibid, 67.
  10.  Ibid, 68.

Author Bio

Sara Coffield is an undergraduate studying art history and sociology (GS’25). Before joining Columbia University, she had a decade-long career as a professional ballet dancer in Europe. Now, you will likely find her in the basement of Avery Library or roaming the Met Museum.