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The Jungle 3 Essay, Research Paper

The Jungle Essay

The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, 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 exploitational predatory capitalist |jungleX of American |societyX at the turn of the century. This radical novel, described as muckraking by President Theodore Roosevelt, was a sounding board for pro-socialist politics.

Sinclair+s polemic 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+s resources, Jurgis is able to leave a dilapidated lodge-house for a |newX modest home (which had hidden costs) where his family would reside. When Dede Antanas, 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 roomX, Jurgis begins to lose faith in America. Jurgis witnesses the darkside of American society, and the resultant lassitude 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. He witnesses beatings, graft, and dirty deals.

As winter approaches, the marriage of Jurgis to Ona becomes cheerless. The pressures of work, poverty, and illness stifle their spirits. Jurgis+ father dies.

Vexed by the working conditions of Packingtown, Jurgis joins a labor union where he begins to learn English. He develops a cynical attitude towards democracy. Eventually, the deteriorating working conditions, sickness and despair make life too depressing for Jurgis. 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, only to get jailed again, injured. Released from jail a second time, Jurgis becomes a hobo, then he turns to a life of crime. One day he wanders into a political rally seeking warmth. An evocative orator converts him to socialism and his life takes a turn for the better. Jurgis gets a job as a hotel porter, in an auberge owned by a socialist. The novel ends on election night in 1904 where Chicago learns that the Socialists are on the ascent.

Thematically, Sinclair intended to focus on the issues of wage slavery, graft, corruption, Social Darwinism, class consciousness and the corporate domination which persisted despite the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. He criticized advertising, capitalism, and the meat-packing industry. He attacked corrupt politicians and business practices. He described America as a plutocracy – rule of the wealthy, and an oligarchy – rule of a privileged minority, subjugating the proletariat or working class. He blamed the ills of American society on its foundation in competition for profit. In the character of Nicholas Schliemann, he even promotes anarchy, in the belief that full social and political liberty requires release from government constraints. Shliemann touts socialism as an important step in the direction of anarchy.

Sinclair offered solutions to the ills. He aimed to replace competition with cooperation. He wanted public ownership of essential industries with true democratic control. In his opinion, democracy under capitalism is a sham because the business magnates control the government, so it is not a government of and by the people. The elections were rigged by industrialists and Mafia with the workers generally losing. Sinclair illustrated this, for example, when Jurgis sought citizenship. Jurgis was obliged to vote for a local boss, Mike Scully. He became a citizen in exchange for two dollars plus two hours off work with pay. He became an undercover operator for that boss, taking bribes from his underlings and beating up strikers.

Sinclair reported that unions were no match for the capitalist organizations and the workers were ignorant of their own best interests. The businesses took advantage by cannibalizing the strong workers and discarding the weak. The entire political machine is exposed as corrupt and impersonal, taking no responsibility for the workers. Just as Uncle Tom+s Cabin exposed evils of slavery, Sinclair poignantly demonstrates that workers were slaves to the whims of their capitalist masters and that immigrants, ignorant of the language, ways and means, were the most vulnerable to the capitalist trap.

The themes of The Jungle also have parallelism to themes of science at the time, in particular, the naturalist movement espoused by Emile Zola, and the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. Just as Zola focused on how environment shapes the lives of the individual, Sinclair evinces that the downfall of his characters, and particularly their criminal behaviors, are consequences of the society. Darwin described evolution as nature+s obedience to survival of the fittest. Sinclair argued that the competitive nature of survival of the fittest bears a heavy toll, paving the road to success on the bodies of the down-trodden. Sinclair tried to expose the entire system controlling America at the turn of the century. He introduced over 60 characters to show that people in all walks of life were traumatized and corrupted by the system.

The Jungle helps us understand the industrial revolution from the personal disadvantaged view of the proletariat. It is an expos of many ills, including specifically, vile practices of the meat-packing industry. Of his own work, Sinclair reported, |I wish to frighten the country by a picture of what its industrial masters were doing to their victims; entirely by chance I stumbled on another discovery – what they were doing to the meat supply of the civilized world. In other words, I aimed at the public+s heart, and by accident, I hit it in the stomach.X

This novel by Upton Sinclair is worth reading because it presents the history of turn-of-the-century America from a deeply personal view that goes well beyond events to penetrating comprehension. The study of history offers much more than the memorization of facts and Sinclair+s The Jungle exemplifies this, through historically-based, dramatized pathos. One is not obliged to believe in his socialist or anarchist views to appreciate the value of this pioneering work.

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