Within American literature, certain works stand as classics not only for the story contained within their pages, but also for the deeper social and political commentary that they make. Such is the case in Upton Sinclair’s pivotal expose of the American meatpacking industry of the early 1900’s, “The Jungle”.
Aside from telling a heart-rendering tale of immigrants trying desperately to patch together a semblance of the American Dream of which they heard so much before leaving their native lands, the work also, beneath the surface, tackles the weightier issues of why progressives and moderate socialists in the early twentieth century were concerned about the power and behavior of corporate America and how they proposed to deal with the problems they identified and why they chose the solutions they did. In this paper, an overview of “The Jungle” will be presented, as well as my opinions and perceptions of the book.
Overview of “The Jungle” The major underlying themes of Sinclair’s “The Jungle” can only be fully understood and fairly evaluated after first knowing the plot of the work itself. The book clearly depicts the socio-economic strife and political turpitude that ushered America into the 20th century. While telling the story of Lithuanian immigrants struggling to survive in Chicago, Sinclair illustrates how avarice and ruthless competition were driving forces in the predatory capitalist “jungle” of America at the turn of the 19th century.
This radical novel, described as muckraking by President Theodore Roosevelt, was a sounding board for pro-socialist politics. As “The Jungle” unfolds, drama begins in the back room of a Chicago saloon. The guests are drunk and drained. The prospect of returning to the rigorous labors of the stockyards right after the ceremony leaves them demoralized. Jurgis Rudkus, however, the main character, refuses to succumb to the suffering of the multitudes in Packingtown, a predominantly immigrant community in Chicago.
He promises to work harder; he wants to achieve the American dream. After pooling the family resources, Jurgis is able to leave a dilapidated lodge-house for a modest home (which had hidden costs) where his family would reside. When Jurgis’ father, loses his job and is forced to kickback a third of his paltry salary in order to get a new job working in a dark, damp, “pickle room”, Jurgis begins to lose faith in America, witnesses the dark side of American society, and the resultant flaws in the workforce.
Jurgis observes the butchery of pregnant cows and their unborn calves, which are illegally mixed with other carcasses, including those of sick animals dead on arrival to the stock yards, for consumption. As winter approaches, Jurgis’ marriage goes bad, the pressures of poverty and deprivation escalate, and his father dies. In order to advance himself, Jurgis joins a labor union where he begins to learn English. He develops a cynical attitude towards democracy.
Eventually Jurgis heads for disaster when he discovers that his wife was pressured into sleeping with her boss, and that the second child she is carrying is not his. Jurgis attacks her boss, and lands in jail. His wife dies, his baby dies. He gets released from jail and turns to a life of crime. One day he wanders into a political rally for socialists. A clever speaker at the rally turns him to socialism and his life takes a turn for the better. Jurgis gets a job as a hotel porter, in a hotel owned by a socialist. The novel ends on election night in 1904 where Chicago learns that the Socialists are on the ascent.