There are two kinds of people in today’s world – Those who thrive, and those who suffer beneath those who thrive. This struggle has been a constant since the very first days of the modern world. Upton Sinclair faultlessly chronicles a time period that brutally demonstrates this very struggle without hesitation in his timeless novel, The Jungle. It follows the misadventures and misconceptions of a group of recent Lithuanian immigrants to America. As well as a physical journey, this is a journey into a new world for them. They came to the country under the impression of the numerous promises of wealth and freedom in America, the land where anyone can become whatever they desire. Upton Sinclair takes this common conception of 1900’s America and shatters all aspects of it. From page one, Sinclair engages in an all-out war against the evils of capitalism through unflinching descriptions of living conditions, working conditions, and a state of mind rightfully dubbed “Social Darwinism”. This novel constantly shows that in capitalism, it’s every man for himself.
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The story opens right off the bat by gaining sympathy and support from the reader for the Lithuanians. It is a traditional Lithuanian wedding party, or veselija, which concerns many socialistic tendencies. The scene includes images of the partygoers dancing together, pitching in money to help pay for the festivities, and inviting people in off of the street so that everyone may enjoy the party equally. It also includes images that an average American reader could relate to, such as getting drunk, dancing, and music. This also crosses over into Sinclair’s introduction of “the American Dream.” Jurgis, the main character, as well as a new immigrant to the States, claims in this chapter that he will “work harder” when questioned by his newlywed spouse Ona how they will afford the party. Jurgis constantly uses this same expression throughout much of the story. This represents American values. This form of ethic values will only turn out to be ignorance when Jurgis and his family discovers, and Sinclair explains, that the American Dream and modern capitalism cannot go hand in hand. In fact, in this very chapter, Sinclair juxtapositions Jurgis with the crooked, cheap bartender, who represents capitalism and the corruption that goes with it. This bartender would cheat customers out of their money with low-quality beverages and overestimation of consumption. This introduces one of many of the swindlers, employers and wage hoarders who will benefit off of the suffering of people like Jurgis.
One of the largest arguments that Upton Sinclair forms against capitalism is represented by the living conditions of Jurgis and his family. Immediately, they move into an overcrowded boarding house close to the factories where they work. Once they finally decide to get their own home, Sinclair begins a whole new attack on capitalism through the “Real-Estate Scam”. The agents claim create a sense of urgency in the Lithuanian family by acting like they are running out of houses to sell. The family, ignorant o f the housing market, buys the house with little forethought, only to find numerous hidden charges and an overall shoddy piece of real estate. Jurgis and company once again fall victim to their own ignorance, and the exploitation of a capitalist society. Later in the story, Jurgis finds that Ona has been raped by her employer, Phil Connor. He beats Connor as revenge and winds up in jail. So begins Sinclair’s representation of a court system corrupted by capitalism. Although Connor is clearly at fault in the situation, his high status in society ensures him favor with the judges and virtual immunity. On the other hand, the judge does not care for Jurgis’ story, or even for the fact that his family will suffer inescapably without him, and sends him to jail for a month. Another example of this corruption happens when Jurgis asks for change for $100, and the bartender gives him 99 cents. Jurgis is dragged out by police when he fights the bartender, and the judge laughs at his side of the story, sending him to jail for a week.
Along with daily life, working conditions are also targeted intensely within The Jungle. Within nearly every chapter, there is mention of the physical risks and perils of the meat-packing industry. Workers get cut and receive blood poisoning, break bones, and are still not given leave. Not even Ona, after giving birth to her son, is given more than 10 days off. One character even falls asleep on the job and gets killed by a swarm of rats. Jurgis loses his job at one point, and the family is supported only by the wages of the children. This shows that even child labor laws do nothing to interrupt the brutal nature of capitalism. And again, Sinclair shows the frailty of American values in a capitalistic society. Jurgis finds that he makes more money working political scandals and crime syndicates than working devotedly in meat processing. He slowly moves away from the ignorant ideals that he brought with him on his voyage to America, and replaces them with a basic will for survival.
This fight for survival brings about a theme that is prevalent in almost every facet of Sinclair’s novel: Social Darwinism. In fact, the animalistic nature of the people of Packingtown and the “every man for himself” attitude lends The Jungle its name. The factory owners will do anything to turn a profit. During the winter months, many workers lose their jobs to sickness or even die off, only to be replaced by new workers, representing the workers as property that can be bought and sold without thought. Their evils also extend to the public, which is sold low quality meat in high quality packaging. Jurgis states that fetuses and diseased animals are sold along with every other meat. The only factory that tries to stray from this mistreatment is a Harvesting Machine factory that ends up laying off most of its workers anyway. Eventually, Jurgis meets the wealthy son of a factory owner. To pay for a cab ride, this man hands Jurgis a $100 bill. This contrasts the two ends of the social spectrum; the employee, Jurgis, who is incredibly meticulous with the money that he’s earned, and Freddie Jones, who carelessly throws away money that he received through the hard work of others.
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Although Upton Sinclair’s intent with this novel seems clear, the public received it differently. Sinclair’s disappointment can best be described through his own words, when he “aimed for their hearts, and by accident hit their stomachs.” His turn of the century novel created an uproar over the meat industry. People paid attention only to his descriptions of diseased meat and carelessly processed products. However, the unintended effect of the novel certainly had an effect. Public outrage led to the formation of the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act, as well as what would become a standard of quality across many businesses down the road. Still, one can hardly read The Jungle without hearing a very critical argument against the various follies of the American Dream through life, work, and the struggle to survive. It is amazing to think of the power that such propaganda could have had if not for the weak stomachs of its readers.
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