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Sinclairs Purpose The Intent Of The Jungle English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2579 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Few books that were ever published carried with them the influence necessary to bring about drastic reform in national public policy. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, however, was one such book which did. The Jungle is widely regarded as the book whose eye-opening description nauseated the United States to a point where President Theodore Roosevelt implemented the first regulations on the American food industry. What most readers fail to take into account, however, is that this was far from Sinclair’s true intent. Sinclair, today regarded as a groundbreaking “muckraker”, was in reality an avid socialist. The Jungle was written as a story of a Lithuanian immigrant who is beaten down by the scum of American capitalism yet later finds salvation when he turns to Socialism. Sinclair wrote to influence political ideology, not American meatpacking regulations. Although Sinclair’s brief description of the Chicago meatpacking industry is what has been most remembered of The Jungle, the book failed in expressing socialist ideals to the masses of readers who studied the novel.

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Upton Sinclair researched the Chicago meatpacking industry and wrote The Jungle for the sole purpose of spreading socialist ideals. In an effort to create a shift toward socialism by the American public, Sinclair constructed every formal element in as simple, transparent a way as possible. (Valiunas) The narrative structure follows a long descent into the hellish reality of capitalism until Jurgis Rudkus, the protagonist of the novel, discovers socialism and is saved in a similar manner to the evangelical Christian idea of being “born again” (Valiunas). Sinclair describes this capitalist hell to the American public with a realistic style that relies heavily on stomach-churning descriptions (Cook 101). The realism element of Sinclair’s writing falters with his characters, however. Often in the novel, they seem less like portraits of real people and more like vague representations of various societal classes and forces (Taylor). While abstract forces such as capitalism and socialism do shape and often suppress individual identities, especially in literature, there is a tension between the flatness of Sinclair’s characters and the human qualities with which he tries to instill them (Cook 107). Jurgis, for example, is used by Sinclair to represent an entire class of society and be a loving father, devoted husband, pitiful victim, and hero all at the same time. He is asked to be both a glorified abstraction and a particular person, yet his role as a representation of the proletariat seems to rob him of the real humanity that would make his struggle worthwhile and make him more relatable to The Jungle’s audience. On the other hand, the socialist characters exhibit an extreme amount of conformity and go about their lives without antagonism, substance, or complexity (Cook 107-8). Their ideals seem at odds with the novel’s claim of being realistic, as indicated by the style, setting, and characters. Sinclair’s research in Chicago and the subsequent manner in which he constructed characters and their representations were specifically aimed to express his personal ideology with his readers.

One prime example of how Sinclair aimed to incorporate the ideals of socialism into The Jungle is the way he utilizes characterization. Throughout The Jungle, the characters are not made to well-rounded or believable but rather are made to be representations of the immigrant working class. Sinclair utilizes Jurgis to gain sympathy and emotional support from the reader. Jurgis does not possess any true character flaws throughout the entire book (Woodress 167). When he acted immorally or wrongfully, such as going out drinking or abandoning his family after his father’s death, the reader is always meant to realize that he does so out of the pain and misery that society forces upon him (Taylor). At the beginning of the novel, Jurgis is characterized with no unsympathetic traits; his character traits are designed to make him appeal to a broad audience in 1906 America (Woodress 167). He is a strong, optimistic, and energetic young man who is selflessly devoted to his family, and their lives in a new country. Jurgis believes heavily in the “American Dream”: the notion that hard work will bring about great reward. When his worried about the debt that their wedding feast would force upon them, Jurgis promised her, “I will work harder.” (Sinclair 178).

As Jurgis’s enthusiasm and optimism are slowly destroyed by the oppressive conditions in the hell of “Packingtown”, pain causes Jurgis to become a much different character from when first introduced in the book (Woodress 168). His original values which he had always carried with him in his pursuit of happiness became increasingly irrelevant. He used his meek wages to drink heavily and abandoned his family; he turns to crime as a means of income, yet the reader is never meant to judge Jurgis poorly or assume that he is, in any way, an immoral person (Woodress 168). At the same time, however, the reader is must remember that he is the opposite of this sort of person. Jurgis painted a glorified portrait of the working class; his degradation was meant to illustrate how capitalism betrays the laborers of society (Taylor). The characterization of Jurgis Rudkus and the supporting characters in the novel are utilized to express the oppression Sinclair believes capitalism causes.

The symbolism used in the eye-opening description of Chicago’s meatpacking industry proves to be Sinclair’s most powerful and profound element to The Jungle. The stockyards Sinclair describes serve to symbolize the plight of the common worker, who is pushed “through the machinery of capitalism as a means to the end of corporate profit” (Dawson 4171). Just as the stockyards are packed with animals and livestock gathered to be slaughtered, so too are they packed with workers gathered to be slaughtered by capitalist forces beyond their power. The factory owners have no concern for neither animal nor human, seeing both as critical, essential components of the meatpacking business. In a sense, the work force little more than lifeless pieces of meat themselves. Each laborer loses their identity, as they enter a job site where they’re needed yet not in any way respected. Additionally, the overcrowded animal pens of the stockyards of Packingtown symbolize the filthy, overpopulated living condition of the workers. With almost no personal space and no privacy, Jurgis and the Rudkus family live in a dehumanized setting (Dawson 4170). Much like an animal, Jurgis lives only to carry out his function at the meat-packing plant, much in the manner Sinclair feels capitalism forces people to live (Blackwell). The symbolism Sinclair expresses in describing the working conditions in Chicago and how they affected the lives of workers and their families makes The Jungle an emotionally-driven novel which has withstood the test of over a century’s time.

Perhaps just as relevant to The Jungle’s sustained popularity is Sinclair’s keen use of imagery throughout the novel. The vile and repulsive descriptions of Packingtown are what made Upton Sinclair a famed author. Sinclair, who based his description off his time spent in Chicago, described the scene having “an odor so bad a man could hardly bear to be in the room. . .” (Sinclair 115). Sinclair’s appeals to all five senses are what truly makes the description so impactful. He also stated, “. . .the packers would put poisoned bread out for (the rats); they would die, and then the rats, bread, and meat would all go into the hoppers together.” (Sinclair 121). These descriptions opened the eyes of readers who found out that for years they had been consuming poison without even knowing it. The powerful imagery Upton Sinclair utilized in his description of Packingtown caught the nation off guard and led to the novel’s popularity.

The political and social effects which came about as a result of The Jungle being published were both profound and numerous. Upton Sinclair originally intended to expose the general exploitation of workers and laborers at the turn of the 20th Century; however, the public instead focused on food safety as the novel’s most pressing controversy (Blackwell). In fact, Sinclair once stated that he had gained fame “not because the public cared anything about the workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef” (Cook 108). Sinclair’s stories of laborers falling into tanks for storing meat and being grinded up, along with animal parts, into “Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard”, disgusted an entire nation. Corruption did not end with food safety; women and children were also grossly exploited, often even worse then the male laborers. After the publication of these gruesome accounts, foreign sales of American meat decreased by fifty percent (Dawson 4171). On a national level, the book led to the Neill-Reynolds Report, commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 which in the end, confirmed many of the novel’s assertions (Rideout 173). President Roosevelt sent Labor Commissioner Charles P. Neill and Social Worker James Bronson Reynolds, well respected men who worked closely with Roosevelt, to Chicago to make unplanned visits to meat packing factories and stockyards (Rideout 173). They found laborers working three shifts a day in the factories prior to the inspection. Neill and Reynolds were utterly disgusted by the factories and the lack of concern by the factory bosses and managers (Rideout 173). Even though the factories had adequate warning and time to clean up, the only one of Sinclair’s claims which the could not prove was that workers had fallen into vats were sold as lard. Roosevelt, who, unlike Sinclair, was not a socialist and not in favor of the heavy regulations on the private sector, did not release the reports for national publication. Instead, he used the report to influence legislation which had been proposed in Congress. In an attempt to calm public anger and demonstrate the quality of their products, the meat packers also lobbied to the government to approve legislation which would fund inspections and certifications of meat products in the United States. The combined pressure, along with the help of the public, led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. These acts of Congress established the Bureau of Chemistry that would eventually become the Food and Drug Administration in 1930 (Rideout 173-74). Sinclair was not in favor of the legislation; he viewed the moves as unjustified regulation of large meat packing companies because the US, and subsequently, the taxpayers, rather than the packers, would pay the costs of inspection which at that time was $30,000,000 per year (Rideout 174). Sinclair once famously stated of the novel’s effect, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” (Cook 108). Major legislation in the United States government and status as a revered American novel are two key examples of just how influential The Jungle was on early 20th century America.

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Part of the reason why Upton Sinclair failed in creating a captivating socialist novel is that the strategies and methods he utilized in constructing the novel are not of a particularly high standard, especially when considering a novel which is sometimes regarded as an American classic. Critics often recognize The Jungle as a sort of “work in progress”, for Upton Sinclair, a future Pulitzer Prize winning novelist for his novel Oil! (Blackwell). Even more mild responses, however, praise Sinclair’s imagery and firm realism. Thematically- the idea that the business place (in this instance, Packingtown in Chicago) is a jungle and the “animals” of the jungle fight daily for survival an superiority- Sinclair’s book is just as relevant at now as it was in the early 1900’s. Contemporary critics who hold Sinclair and The Jungle to a high standard often argue that capitalism does inspire greed and harmful competition (Wade 169). Sinclair had no models or traditions to follow, so The Jungle became, as critic William A. Bloodworth, Jr. states, “a flawed but strenuous effort” to create a new type of novel (Wade 170). Sinclair supporters also claim that social indignation is a legitimate aspiration for any novelist. Despite The Jungle’s status as a revered American novel, the rhetorical strategizes Upton Sinclair utilized and implemented are rather ineffective and prove to be a main reason why the novel did not fulfill Sinclair’s expectations.

Despite the outrage caused by The Jungle’s description of the Chicago meatpacking industry, Sinclair’s novel is dominated by pages meant to spread propaganda, and only very few pages are devoted to the sanitation of meat. Sinclair argued that real political change could not be effected from within the system of capitalism because of its fundamental, unending need for money. At the time The Jungle was first published, child labor laws had not brought an end to child labor; laborers were forced to work their children, for they could not have survived without the additional revenue (Dawson 4171). The owners of the packing factory in which Jurgis worked made an attempt to provide more reasonable working conditions than most other factories, but the factory shut down periodically after the rush season just like the other factories, leaving thousands of laborers without the necessary income to survive. The factory’s enriching qualities thus did nothing to change the precarious existence of wage laborers: the essential relationship between the capitalist who needs big profit margins and the laborer whom the capitalist hires as a means of achieving such margins (Dawson 4171-72). Again, working from within capitalism fails to provide wage laborers with a secure, decent living. Similarly, the recommendation that Jurgis received from a young woman to find work at a steel mill, though it secures him a job, doesn’t fix the steel mill’s dangerous working conditions. Sinclair’s chief contention is that the working class cannot rise in a capitalist system because such a system works toward the preservation of the wealth and power of those in charge and exploits the working class to achieve their own greed.

Upton Sinclair may be remembered as a “muckraker”, and rightfully so, yet it is certainly not an honor he intended to receive. Sinclair strove to write the first great American socialist novel yet ended up writing the first great publication of the “muckraking” era. The brief description of the Chicago meatpacking industry in The Jungle proved so influential that it turned an aspiring Karl Marx into an aide of President Theodore Roosevelt. The Jungle will always be a popular, widely-studied publication, but it will be popular because of bad meat, not sound politics.


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