The tragic design of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is calculated to illustrate the author’s belief that capitalism in 20th century America is inhumane. From the very outset of this book it is obvious the author intends for the reader to have an extremely sympathetic relation to the main character, Jurgis Rudkus. By utilizing narrative form to humanize Jurgis’ experiences, Sinclair succeeds at persuading the reader against the harsh realities of capitalistic practices in the 20th century. The author also attempts to convince the reader during the denouement of the story that socialism is a fitting response to the crisis of the American society subject to capitalism.
The work was initially published as a serial novel for a socialist newspaper. Sinclair’s purpose was to illustrate the failure of America’s major political parties, and promote socialism as a valid alternative. Unfortunately for the author, his metaphorical style was intensely descriptive and drew more attention to 20th century America’s quality of food handling than it did to the damaging politics of the era. The series was very popular since it was akin to the muckraking form of journalism typified by an investigative approach to the negative aspects of a subject.
Sinclair presents the story as a linear degeneration, beginning with a joyful setting at the wedding of Jurgis. The author uses the wedding as a representation of hope, which is then systematically diminished throughout the course of the book. Though it begins light-heartedly, the author alludes to the forthcoming misfortunes by referring to the underlying stress of financing the wedding party. The book does not proceed chronologically, as the reader discovers later in the text that Jurgis’ hope began deteriorating prior to the wedding.
Through the use of flashback, Sinclair provides the background for the main characters, and establishes the origin of the hope that inspired Jurgis to relocate his entire family to America. The author draws a stark contrast between Jurgis’ native Lithuania and 20th century Chicago. The city is a fierce alternative to Lithuania from the moment they arrive. The trip to their new world destination is typified by corruption, which they will continually encounter in Chicago.
The first chapters of the book are used to portray the collective hope of the family as naïve and blinding. The family initially makes some unrealistic choices, which will become contributing factors to their demise as the story progresses. Jurgis’ is depicted as noble for being driven by his determination to succeed in the capitalistic society which they are transplanted into. The responsibilities gradually become as communal as the family’s hopes, and increase the probability for catastrophe in what Sinclair views as an already calamitous society. The security of the family is foreshadowed to fail when the story exhibits corruption in the sales contract of a house, the very object that defines shelter and represents safety. The author’s technique of foreshadowing and metaphor is excellent throughout the book.
During the process of arranging the characters and storyline, Sinclair makes an interesting digression by delving into the procedure of meat packing in the 20th century. The description is methodically detailed for an entire chapter with the objective of repulsing the reader. His intention is to expose the industry as heinous is evident when he asserts that the pigs have rights as animals comparable to those of humankind. He also uses the term “philosophical” to validate his opinion that a universal wickedness has taken place against these animals in the packing houses. Sinclair draws a distinct parallel between the pigs and the laborers of industry. He suggests they are similar in the fact that they both are sacrificial to the larger principles of capitalism, declaring the fate of both is ultimately shrouded in horrible circumstance.
Once the setting has been established, the author begins to present money as the antagonistic force of the story. The events of the storyline convey the idea that capitalism is driven by the insatiable hunger for money, obtained by the manipulation of people in America, especially immigrants. This exploitation is depicted as a powerfully destructive force, and personified by the gradual decimation of Jurgis’ family. Though the author makes an attempt to champion the human spirit through Jurgis’ determination, he also builds exponential adversity to Jurgis’ cause. The mounting hardships are allotted some relief during singular moments of inspiration for Jurgis, but are deviations from the tragic course of the novel’s focus on capitalism.
In continuing with the unfortunate circumstances associated with capitalism, Sinclair severs Jurgis from all control of his life and everything he values: his wife, his home, and his newborn child. At this point the author proceeds to redirect the story away from the settings of tragedy and transform the overall theme to redemption. Jurgis has surrendered his faith in the American Dream, and will continue to be faced with adversity in this society. Jurgis makes many varied attempts in dealing with the adversity, even by resorting to participation in the corruption, but decides it all has the same result.
The author begins his tribute to socialism with Jurgis finally returning to the original setting, only to be converted to active socialism as if he has been purposefully renewed. This major shift in the tone of the story is slightly awkward, since it is inconsistent with the tragic form of the majority of the book. As it began with a basis of hope, so it ends with a refocused, impersonal hope that can potentially confuse and possibly disappoint the reader.
The Jungle is executed with a brilliant artistry that juxtaposes vivid characters against dramatic settings, with biased devices presented very persuasively. It is understandable how the public became much more fascinated with the realistic conditions demonstrated in the story rather than the lofty ideals offered as solutions by Sinclair. The book’s immediate relevance to its era has identified it as a historical piece, though the author anticipated a much more universal impact on the consciousness of humanity. The impact the book had on society can not be diminished by this however, and should be noted for instigating regulations on the processing of food in America.
With much advancement in industry and labor since the release of The Jungle, it may not be as socially significant today as it was then, but the literary aspect of it is a testament to the passion and talent of Sinclair. Regardless of the fact that the author meant it to be an exercise in political discovery, it is better suited as an exercise in historical discovery.