The Irony of the Jungle

1 January 2017

This surge in population was largely attributed to immigrants coming from European countries seeking a chance for employment and new freedoms associated with moving to the United States at the time. 1905, in particular, was a historic year when a surge of over 1 million immigrants came to the city.

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During this time, author Upton Sinclair was working undercover, investigating working conditions in the city’s meatpacking district. Sinclair’s research was integrated into his novel The Jungle, a tragic story about a group of immigrants from Lithuania led by Jurgis, the main character that is set on providing for his family while chasing the American dream. Sinclair narrates the struggles of Jurgis and his family’s encounters as they battle exploitation and the virtual wage slavery that occurs as a result of unregulated capitalist greed.

Despite Sinclair’s efforts to expose the flaws he saw in the capitalist system and bring about changes by way of Socialist measures, The Jungle revolted the public with its descriptions of poorly processed meat, concerning them more with their own health than the wellbeing of the workers themselves. Sinclair titled his book to showcase the struggles and dangers the working class faced, but his intentions were lost on the public who reacted to the less voluminous details about rancid meat.

However, by looking closely at the novel, we can see that The Jungle is in fact aptly titled because the public’s initial reaction to the very elements that Sinclair exposes ironically backup his claims. The novel begins appropriately with an elaborate chapter on the wedding of Jurgis and his bride Ona. Jurgis is known for his strength, a source of pride he carries with him to assure him of his goals when coming to America.

Sinclair uses metaphors to describe his characters as if they are in a jungle when describing Jurgis’ wedding nerves: “Jurgis could take up a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound quarter of beef and carry it into a car without a stagger, or even a thought; and now he stood in a far corner, frightened as a hunted animal…”(p. 44).

No sooner, the wedding feast grimly begins to foreshadow the new world Jurgis and his family will face by immigrating to this city. Saloonkeepers who are in the favor of politicians and lawmen erve the party low quality, half drunk alcohol but charge for top quality and fully consumed liquor. Fellow countrymen, unknown to the family, come to these large gatherings and drink the beer, some even stealing from the donations, leaving the debt with the family as they escape. Thus, Sinclair effectively paints this otherwise joyous day as a series of miserable details that give credibility to the title of his novel. In this regard, the title is fitting to Sinclair’s intent by showcasing the selfish traits that the surrounding people display.

Set back by unexpected expenses from his wedding, Jurgis know he must “work harder,” a vow he repeats to himself and his family throughout the book to makeup for the various debts they inescapably accumulate. Along with his wife, Jurgis has brought with him his father Antanas, Ona’s cousin Marija and Ona’s stepmother Elzbieta and vowed to provide for them all. Jurgis finds a job in the city’s meatpacking district, a hub of employment where immigrants wait day and night standing in line in poor weather, waiting for a chance to work in dangerous conditions.

Brushing off other’s warnings of the dangers that can befall a man inside the plants, Jurgis arrogantly dismisses them, saying ““That is well enough for men like you,” he would say, silpnas, puny fellows – but my back is broad”” (p. 61). Jurgis’ confidence is more telling about the environment than his own strength, showing his acknowledgement of the dangers to less strong men. These subtle descriptions in attitude give credibility to Sinclair’s choice of title. No sooner after twisting his ankle at work does the once-strong Jurgis realize the forces that he’s indebted himself to have no sympathy for his predicament.

Although the injury was caused by leaping out of the way from out-of-control cattle, the company declares Jurgis’ injury to be his own fault. Forced to rest at home with no means to earn money while other strong-bodied men replace him, the bank eventually forecloses on his home, only to resell to another eager family that shared Jurgis’ optimism. Realizing this truth, Jurgis’ father Anatanas is just as resolute to help provide for the family. He takes up a job in a pickling-basement with poor air quality and contact with poisonous chemicals, which ultimately leads to his death.

Lack of sympathy is a common theme which helps Sinclair paint the picture of an unforgiving environment, where people come and go, processed much like cattle. Sinclair’s title is appropriate given the ways people are treated when an accident happens. Similar tragic fates befall the rest of Jurgis’ extended family that enter work in the meatpacking district. Realizing their home will be increasingly difficult to afford when deciding to have a child with Jurgis, Ona must work in the meatpacking district.

If a strong man like Jurgis can be broken by the working and living conditions, it is no surprise that Ona is also broken by the system, being raped by her boss and unable to do anything about it because of his favor with politicians and lawmen. “Ona’s account of her rape tells of her realization of the way one is powerless: “He told me – he would have me turned off. He told he would – we would all of us lose our places. We could never get anything to do – here – again. He – he meant it – he would have ruined us” (181).

Ona’s conviction, giving excuse to her own rape to be able to keep working, gives further credibility to the environment that Sinclair chooses as the basis for his title. If Jurgis and his family are put in danger by the jobs and debts they take on to support themselves, it will surprise the reader that those institutions meant to protect the people are absent in their duty. In fact, the labor unions and politics are equally as wild in The Jungle. Jurgis learns that unions are not always in the best interest of the worker when they decide to strike against the employer and form picket lines he must cross to make money his life so depends on.

In a foreword written for The Jungle, author Christopher Phelps highlights this point writing “The union serves Jurgis and his family poorly, leaving the impression that unionization is futile and that the sole option for workers is to join the Socialist Party, distribute socialist literature, and vote Socialist candidates into political office” (p. 16). Although Phelps argues that Sinclair was too quick to dismiss the power of unions at the time, Sinclair’s tales of union encounters are appropriate because he highlights their close relationship with the businesses themselves.

Sinclair highlights this connection when writing about Marija’s frustration after joining a union: “But only ten days after she had joined, Marija’s canning factory closed down, and that blow quite staggered them. They could not understand why the union had not prevented it…” (p. 125).

Marija’s disappointment is significant because it highlights her ignorance by relying on an institution that can’t protect workers if business is slow. It is through Jurgis’ and Marija’s misunderstandings about these institutions that Sinclair uses as yet another lement to describe the harsh realities depicted by the title. Throughout his novel, Upton Sinclair tells numerous tragic tales of deceit, sickness, death and other losses that most of the characters never regain. When looking back at the reception the book received Sinclair lamented “I aimed for the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach. ” Although The Jungle was a success, the public was more revolted by horrid ways in which their food was being processed.

Sinclair’s novel, which called for social reforms to protect the working class from such threats as predatory lending, child exploitation and other downfalls of capitalist greed, was more successful in protecting the public from unsafe food when the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 were passed in its wake. Upon initial inspection of the novel, the reader may be left wondering how the tragedies of Jurgis and his family are left ignored but the very themes Sinclair explores explain the unexpected reception he achieved.

The instinct to fend for oneself explains the public’s ignorance when privileging their own consumption over the lives of the workers. The readers of Sinclair’s book demonstrated this same instinct by reacting to their own concerns. Thus, Sinclair’s title perfectly suits the premise of the book because whether the reader connects to Sinclair’s intended call for social change or fends for them by caring more about food safety, they have demonstrated their own similarity to the characters in the environment he warns about.

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