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Books of History Series: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

By Edited May 31, 2016 0 0

 The Jungle is an early 20th century Progressive Era novel written in a highly realistic American immigrant voice. Its author Upton Sinclair, a Baltimore native and Columbia graduate, uses the fictional lives of Lithuanian laborers and their surrounding community, Packingtown, Chicago, to expose then describe the tumultuous hardships of the newly industrial age lower class Americans. The laborers, especially Jergis Rukus, experience death, unrestrained labor, and corruption, all of which were present during the life of Sinclair. So, typical of a muckraker, Sinclair used witness and thorough research to devise his realistic story, in hopes of inspiring reform and simple recognition.

Through The Jungle, Sinclair intends to muckrake the deadly working and living conditions forced upon unsuspecting American immigrant workers in the early 20th century, while simultaneously promoting socialism as an acceptable alternative to capitalism. He does this by killing Jergis’ dearest family members as a result of prostitution and unlivable homes. In addition, he reveals the horrendously unsanitary conditions of the meat packing industry. Then, Sinclair displays Jergis’ acceptance of socialism at the end of the novel as a solution to these problems.

In order to emphasize the deadly living conditions of European immigrants during the Progressive Era, Sinclair allows the majority of Rukus’ loved ones to die as a result of prostitution and inhumane lifestyles that were widely utilized in American cities. Jurgis Rukus comes to America with a positive outlook on life and a commitment to the American dream; he believes hard work will contribute to a prosperous future. However, his first encounter with America leaves a sour taste in his mouth, and, after a while, he realizes that it will never go away. He comes to America, immediately marries, and throws a reception. According to Lithuanian customs, guests at a reception leave money to cover costs, but the migrants that attend do no such thing. Therefore, Jurgis and his wife Ona Lukoszaite are left in debt.

Jurgis looks for work and a way out of his situation, but is only faced with corruption and hopelessness. He remains in a city with dirty streets, bad trusts, and little opportunity. Sooner or later his family members who migrated to Packingtown with him are picked off one by one by the city. His wife dies giving birth in their tenant home, a home that is unfit to serve as any type of shelter. His son Anatas dies from drowning in the muddy streets of the city. His father, Dede Anatas, is forced to make a corrupt bargain due to his dire financial situation which ultimately leads to his death. Each of these characters migrates to America hoping for a better future, but each of them is slowly degraded by the harshness of Packingtown, until they are faced with their final defeat – death.

The ones that survive continue to fight the battle but are confined to drinking binges and prostitution. These deaths show the barely survivable conditions presented to the average migrant worker in the Progressive Era. They lived in tenant homes with no heat, decrepit bathrooms, and extremely limited space. To make a living, they had to labor in sweatshops with inadequate nutrition, and even children were required to work to support their families. Life was unadaptable for the immigrants.

In the book, the narrator states, “They were beaten; they had lost the game, they were swept aside. It was not less tragic because it was so sordid, because that it had to do with wages and grocery bills and rents. They had dreamed of freedom; of a chance to look about them and learn something; to be decent and clean, to see their child group up to be strong. And now it was all gone-it would never be!"

Sinclair is stressing the undignified conditions and developing hopelessness dealt with by the immigrants; “they were beaten” with their children left for dead and their lives unimportant to capitalism.

When describing Elzbieta the step mom of Jergus, the narrator says, “Elzbieta is one of the primitive creatures like the angleworm, which goes on living though cut in half; like a hen, which deprived of her chickens one by one, will mother the last that is left her.” The death and struggle of Packingtown slowly cut away at the motherly heart of Elzbieta. Many of the family members close to Jurgis were also loved by Elbieta, but still they die. Although she realizes her unsuccessfulness in protecting her children, she carries on because she has to.

She and Jurgis symbolize the immigrant workers as a whole. If they did not die, they continued on, but their hopes were mostly dashed because of, “garbage festering in the sun, and the greasy laundry of the workers hung out to dry, and dining rooms littered with food and black with flies, and toilet rooms that were open sewers,” By showing the seemingly inherent death caused by these conditions, Sinclair is successfully muckraking the plight of the immigrants.  

           Death was a part of life but also a part of work. In an attempt to expose the lethal working conditions experienced by immigrant workers of Progressive Era cities, Sinclair dedicates special attention to the extreme shortcomings of the Meat Packing Industry. The sole purpose of his book was not to condemn the meat packing industries; rather it was to reveal the unscrupulousness felt by the immigrants. He did his job as the true and graphic descriptions of the meat packing lead to reform by congress and an overwhelming reaction by the public. However, in some ways, the disgustingness of the meat packing industry overpowered the devastation experienced by Jurgis and his family.

He describes the monopoly- like techniques and unsanitary conditions along with corrupted bosses and lack of safety. The book reads, “The meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage.” This is an example of the sensational images used by Sinclair. He points out the unhealthy conditions experienced by the workers, but what sticks out most are the questionable items placed in the meat. He wants his reader to realize the conditions and their negative effect on the workers, but the readers, who just found out they were possibly eating rat, of course, react with pity for themselves.

In addition, Sinclair writes, “All day long the blazing midsummer sun beat down upon that square mile of abominations: upon tens of thousands of cattle crowded into pens whose wooden floors stank and steamed contagion…and huge blocks of dingy meat factories, whose labyrinthine passages defied a breath of fresh air to penetrate…”Again, Sinclair makes an effort to describe the selfishness of capitalism and its unhealthy effects on immigrant workers.

He also writes, “They use everything about the hog except the squeal.” This statement is meant to have a deeper meaning -  some capitalistic industries during the Progressive Era exploited every part of the immigrant workers to make a profit; all the workers had left was their squeal (strikes and unions) which was often ignored. As a result, Sinclair’s description of the meat packing industry reveals the deadly working conditions of the immigrant workers.

Upton Sinclair emphasizes the harshness presented to the lower class laboring immigrants, so that he can claim an undoubtable solution to these problems – socialism. Know to be a socialist himself, Sinclair did not just muckrake the hardships faced by American immigrant; he was also keeping in mind is socialist agenda. He fluently describes the death, unsanitary conditions, and corruption in order to develop the practicality and goodness of socialism.

After everything he has been through, Jurgis finds peace at the conclusion of the novel by realizing the principles of socialism and their great promises for immigrant laborers. He disrespects capitalism and dedicates himself to a perfect world presented through the foggy eyes of socialism. For instance, the narrator says, “…Ostrinski showed him [Jurgus] that they were the Beef Trust. They were a gigantic combination of capital, which had crushed all opposition, and overthrown the laws of the land, and was preying upon the people.” This shows the reason for Jurgis’ transformation to socialism.

At the conclusion of the book, he begins to believe that capitalists are greedy individuals looking to exploit the people. Ostrowski, a socialist leader, convinces him that public ownership of industry would prevent such a problem and eradicate all the problems of his immigrant nation.  At first, Jurgis believes in the American dream, but his experiences drain his passion to the point where socialism becomes awe-inspiring. The book is trying to convince its reader that such a transformation is rightful and imminent.

The book reads, “Jurgis could see all the truth now -- could see himself, through the whole long course of events, the victim of ravenous vultures that had torn into his vitals and devoured him; of fiends that had racked and tortured him, mocking him, meantime, jeering in his face. ...And they could do nothing, they were tied hand and foot -- the law was against them, the whole machinery of society was at their oppressors' command!” This is Sinclair’s condemnation of capitalism and justification for socialism, through Jurgis’ realization of the “truth.”

Sinclair claims capitalism to be an oppressive economic situation. It breeds an entire society full of greed, ruthlessness and inequality which contribute to a harsh life for laborers. As a result, Jurgus accepts the socialist principles that he is taught as Sinclair does as well. After all, Sinclair said himself, “I've comehere to write the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the Labor Movement!” He brings up the cruel conditions of the laborers in order to expand capitalism, just like Harriet Beacher Stowe promoted Abolitionism.

            Overall, The Jungle reveals the hard lives of the immigrant workers during the Progressive Era, in order to spread socialism. It muckrakes deadly working conditions through the Meat Packing Industry. The lack of sanitary, lack of safety, and lack of regulations compromised by capitalists in this industry contribute to such deadly conditions. Additionally, the death of Jurgis’ closest family (wife, son, father) display the deadly living conditions of the immigrants. They were all killed by the questionable living standards, such as tenement homes and dirty streets, widely maintained in immigrant dominated cities. In Sinclair’s thought process, these images were supposed to expand socialism in America. In the end, Sinclair succeeded in muckraking but fell short of inspiring socialism in America.     

Such literature can be compared to modern journalism and media institutions. These organizations attempt to bring up stories that they hope will cause an uproar in society or at least a questioning of modern societal beliefs. Often, the stories are exaggerated, fabricated and written from a political point of view to inspire change, but one things these articles do not achieve is a revelation of the real truth. An example is the recent media coverage of the Cop vs. Black American Citizen cases. The evidence was reported or concealed by the main stream  in such a way to prove a point - the deceased was completely innocent. However, when the evidence was presented the proper way in a court of law, a rightful decision was possible.  

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Credit: https://dailylit.com/book/80-the-jungle


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