Saturday, November 5, 2016
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
I read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair because it is a classic and I feel a certain obligation to read it. I didn’t think I would like it. All I knew is that it was of the “muckraker” genre from the early 20th Century and it lambasted the meat-packing industry. Ironically, I discovered that going after the meat-packing industry as a muckraker was not Sinclair’s intention. Apparently, he intended to highlight the plight of the poor and immigrants in this country, but that got lost in his revelations about the work the central character does. I think the reason he didn’t fulfill his goal, was that his story seems unrealistic, even at the time. The story is such a haunting story of helplessness and despair, I think we can be forgiven for believing it is just a story and not the lived experience of the poor.
That being said, Sinclair opens in media res with a joyous scene taking place just after the wedding of two Lithuanian immigrants in a town just outside of Chicago. He wants us to feel the excitement and hope as the young couple embarks on a new journey together. This high forms a peak from which the lows can be measured, The ostensible leader of this ragtag group, Marija, is a strong, single woman who single-handedly takes it upon herself to make sure the group is well-taken care of. She barks orders and bends the will of those around her to do all she can to create a successful and joyous affair. Small, quiet and humble Ona has just married the gregarious Jurgis. He now sees himself as the man of the family and will do all he can to relieve Marija of the responsibility for the group, allowing her to have the life and family she dreams of. He’s strong, a hard worker, and a man of unfailing integrity and optimism. But the first chapter ends with a note of dire warning. The gifts from the guests are not enough to cover the expenses of the wedding and Ona may lose her job for having to take a day off work to get married.
Soon, Jurgis gets a job in a slaughterhouse. He is excited for the opportunity to work and support his extended immigrant family as well as his new wife. Jurgis believes that as long as he is willing to work hard and sacrifice, bringing in an income will not be a problem. Sinclair lets us know right away that this will not be a dream job, but Jurgis is, for now, blind to the realities he will face. With their combined incomes, the family decides to move from an overpriced rented hovel, to a home they can purchase. Once again, Sinclair is heavy on the foreshadowing and the reader can easily infer this will not end well.
Slowly, the immigrants begin to understand the realities of their jobs. The workers are taken advantage of. Injuries are not compensated and the worker usually loses his job after being hurt. They begin to sense they are trapped with no free will of their own to make their own way. The realities of homeownership also hit them hard. They discover that no one told them about interest on the loan they took out to pay for the house. Ona must return to work and the oldest child, Stanislovas must work as well. While Sinclair lets the struggling family have a moment of hope, the reader is not afforded that opportunity. We know this ends badly.
If the conniving business owners and shady realtors aren’t enough, the weather conspires against our heroes. Jurgis’ father, Antony, dies a broken man, unable to find work, and unable to survive the cold. The run down home provides little shelter from the elements, and Jurgis begins to spend his hard earned money on alcohol to keep warm.
Seeing how they are mistreated, for example only full hours worked are paid for, not partial hours, Jurgis and his family decide to form a union. He becomes an evangelical missionary for the cause, making a name for himself. Slowly the family comes to discover hardship after hardship in Packingtown. Disease is rampant. The food manufactures are only too happy to sell dangerous products to unsuspecting people. The politicians and the political bosses are thoroughly corrupt. There is nowhere to turn. No one can help.
Eventually, Ona has a baby, but both she and the child are sickly. Marija loses her “good” job painting cans and is forced to take a job working in the meat industry. Again, more disgusting details are supplied of the way our food is produced. Jurgis falls at work and injures himself, costing his job as well. Another winter hits to further devastate the family. Jurgis falls into despair. He finally finds work in the worst possible place, the fertilizer factory. The stench seeps into his very being and forces him to become an outcast. The last one available to work, Elzbieta, goes to work in a sausage factory. Again, we don’t want to know how sausage is made.
Jurgis continues to drink. Ona is pregnant again, and full of despair. We learn she has been sexually assaulted at work. Once Jurgis finds out and tries to kill the man, he is arrested and blacklisted. For a month, he agonizes in jail over the fate of his struggling family, who suffer terribly without him. He returns to find them homeless, relying on the kindness of neighbors. Ona goes into premature labor. Jurgis begs a midwife to help. The $25 fee is devastating, but he promises to pay. She and the child both die, and he turns even more to drink.
Eventually Jurgis runs to Chicago to escape. A social worker lands him a job, but he learns that his first son, Antara, drowns in his absence. The children of Elzbieta are working in the streets and rarely return home. Feeling completely disconnected from what is left of the people he immigrated with, Jurgis takes off, living as a tramp, hitching rides on trains and doing odd jobs. He actually feels a bit of freedom and sees a different side of the country, but once again, winter looms. He returns to the city, finds work, but a broken arm has him out of the workforce again. He is desperate, out on the streets, begging.
A criminal syndicate happens upon Jurgis and puts him to work. He enters the corrupt world of politics trying to gain spoils from the system. He had started off in America as a Republican, now he works for Democrats but both are equally corrupt. Eventually this lands him another job in a packinghouse. But when a strike breaks out, he continues to work as a “scab.” His union-supporting days are long gone. He sees the man who harassed his wife and beats him again. After getting out of jail, he looks up Marija. He finds her working in a whore house. Both are arrested when the police choose that particular time to do a raid.
After being released, Jurgis finally finds his true calling. He stumbles into a meeting on Socialism. His eyes are opened. Finally the truth is revealed to him. A Socialist hotel owner offers him a job. Jurgis becomes an fired-up evangelist for Socialism. The story ends with big political gains for the Socialists in Chicago.
I think because the book ends on such a propagandist note, whatever Sinclair’s argument was fails. He is clearly trying to persuade the reader of the need for Socialism and the horrific plight of the poor. Yet the actual effect of the book was to convince readers to reform the meat-packing industry. Why the disconnect? I believe it was because although his story portends to be a typical story of the working poor, people cannot relate. It simply does not comport with our lived reality. Of the 7 or 8 people who immigrated, two are dead, the children are running loose on the streets, one works as a prostitute, and one has a disgusting job. Only the enlightened, Socialist Jurgis is a “success.” This heavy-handed morality tale simply doesn't ring true.
Sinclair paints all business owners and politicians with a very broad brush. All are corrupt. All are completely devoid of any morals. Only the Socialist care at all about their fellow man. He completely disregards reality. I kept wondering, “Why would a business sell food that kills its customers? Isn’t that bad for the bottom line?” “Why would a business owner so mistreat his employees? How long can he continue to find workers if he maims and kills them?” None of the actions taken by the evil corporations and politicians ring true.
While Sinclair certainly creates a family that earns our sympathy, we really can’t relate. Their tale is ultimately foreign to the experiences of millions of immigrants. America is not the kind of country Sinclair believes it to be. Immigrants have struggled here, but most tend to do very well over time. Most do not end up dead or involved in criminal activity. Further, his prescriptions are not what is best for America.