In spite of the stark imagery and theme in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the author manages to sprinkle the novel with dashes of wit and humor.
The book opens with a well-detailed marriage scene, including a comic description of bulky Jurgis preparing to become husband of the diminutive Ona. “They were one of those incongruous and impossible married couples with which Mother Nature so often wills to confound all prophets, before and after,” Sinclair says in chapter one. “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, and obliged to moisten his lips with his tongue each time before he could answer the congratulations of his friends.”
Sinclair also provides a humorous perspective on some of the guests at the wedding of Jurgis and Ona. Two of the visitors are an old and portly Lithuanian couple. “Jokubas Szedvilas and his wife, Lucija, who together keep the delicatessen store, and consume nearly as much as they sell; they are too fat to dance,” Sinclair points out in chapter 2, “but they stand in the middle of the floor, holding each other fast in their arms, rocking slowly from side to side and grinning seraphically, a picture of toothless and perspiring ecstasy.”
Another character Sinclair describes with his tongue in cheek is a neighbor of Jurgis and Ona. “Mrs. Jukniene was a wizened-up little woman, with a wrinkled face,” Sinclair writes in chapter 4. “Her home was unthinkably filthy; you could not enter by the front door at all, owing to the mattresses, and when you tried to go up the backstairs you found that she had walled up most of the porch with old boards to make a place to keep her chickens. It was a standing jest of the boarders that Aniele cleaned house by letting the chickens loose in the rooms.”
He continues in chapter 8 to affectionately describe the character flaws of other people close to Jurgis, including his sister-in-law and her suitor. “Tamoszius was of an excitable temperament, and afflicted with a frantic jealousy, and any unmarried man who ventured to put his arm about the ample waist of Marija would be certain to throw the orchestra out of tune.”
Even the birth of Jurgis’ son is presented with a light dose of humor. “He was the living image of his father, everybody said – and Jurgis found this a fascinating circumstance,” Sinclair says in chapter 10. “It was sufficiently perplexing that this tiny mite of life should have come into the world at all in the manner that it had; that it should have come with a comical imitation of its father’s nose was simply uncanny.”
Sinclair’s sense of humor is evident, even when the novel starts to examine the hazards of the American meat business. When Jurgis is given a tour of the factory in chapter 5, his guide offers a joke to summarize the intent of the business.”‘They don’t waste anything here,’ said the guide, and then he laughed and added a witticism, which he was pleased that his unsophisticated friends should take to be his own: ‘They use everything about the hog except the squeal.'”
Sinclair’s humor is revealed through irony in chapter 3. When a relative of Jurgis gets a dangerous job where the peril outweighs the pay, Sinclair shows an appreciation of the dilemma. “It was a ‘pickle room,’ where there was never a dry spot to stand upon, and so he had to take nearly the whole of his first week’s earnings to buy him a pair of heavy-soled boots.”
Other departments prove equally perilous, but again Sinclair does conjure some wry observations about the hazards. In chapter 13 he says of Jurgis’ co-workers in the slaughtering house, “The men and women who worked in this department were precisely the color of the ‘fresh country sausage’ they made.”
The exploited workers somehow maintain a sense of humor, usually at the expense of their bosses. In chapter 8
Sinclair explains that “Old man Jones was great on missions and such things, and so whenever they were doing some particularly disreputable job, the men would wink at each other and say, ‘Now we’re working for the church!’ This was a savage witticism the men had, which Jurgis had to have explained to him.”
Though Jurgis remains a serious, somber character, Sinclair does point out that the unhappy character appreciates humor, even at his own expense. “The crowd had already given Jurgis a name – they called him “he stinker,” Sinclair writes in chapter 17. “This was cruel, but they meant no harm by it, and he took it with a goodnatured grin.”
The Jungle is undoubtedly a serious novel, written to expose the hazards for laborers in American society. Nevertheless, Upton Sinclair does insert some humor into his book, just as laborers use humor to lighten their toil.