The Jungle is remorseless. In studying the plight of a Lithuanian immigrant family working in the meat-packing industry in Chicago in the first decade of the 20th century, Sinclair exposes the abuse, corruption, and unhygienic practices of an industry in which the people were treated no better than the animals they slaughtered, expendable labour to be exhausted and thrown on the scrapheap given there were always others to take their place.
The novel starts brilliantly, taking us a little ahead in the narrative to the wedding feast of Jurgis Rudkus, the novel’s central protagonist, and Ona, his compatriot wife with whose family his own entered the country. A wedding feast is, of course, a joyous affair, and it is no different here, but the jollity seems somehow too edgy, too hysterical, too extreme. As the opening unfolds we discover why. The feast has cost the families far more than they can afford. Traditionally, costs are recouped courtesy of the wedding guests who chip in with gifts which cover not only the feast, but a little more besides to send the couple out into the world. However, it is not to be in this instance. The guests are desperate and impoverished. They can’t even pay their way, seeing the feast as a chance to eat and drink and be happy for a while, taking advantage of it rather than respecting it. This descent into the cynicism of desperation is one we are soon to see reflected in the development of the central characters; Sinclair is not sparing of the reality of impoverishment that leads its victims to abandon their ethics for the sake of survival. Moreover, with not so much as a half-day spared from work, Jurgis must return to the slaughterhouse hours after the feast closes for fear of losing his job. At this stage he is still convinced of his ability to keep the family afloat, so he will work harder; but he is soon to discover that working his hardest through all his waking hours – and many more when he needs to be asleep – can never be enough.
We return to the families newly-entered into America, their optimism high, and watch as even the elderly and the children are forced out to work to make ends meet. A house they assume they have bought simply drains their resources for a while, money to go to the pocket of a rich landowner, before – as was always the intention – they are no longer able to keep up payments and they are evicted leaving the house empty for the next tenants to go through the same routine as other tenants had gone through it previously. None of their money is returned. The children sometimes have to be bullied into work. Family members begin to die, one by one. Jurgis loses both Ona and their child. Before that, Ona has been forced into sex with a manager if she is to keep her job, and Jurgis beats him up thus hastening his own decline by getting himself blacklisted. Still later he is to see that as a mistake, that Ona was right, that if her giving herself to the manager was what was needed in order to survive then what choice was there?
With his own family gone, Jurgis abandons Ona’s in the end with no hope of finding work in the city. This is the one period of relief in the entire book, a pastoral intrusion in which Jurgis wanders the countryside where labour is in short supply finding piece work, but it is seasonal. He is compelled to return to the city when winter sets in. I found this section of the book a little strange. Certainly Sinclair did his research well, but I was left wondering why it was all Chicago didn’t up-sticks and head out to the countryside for seasonal work. Those with jobs could not do so for fear of losing them, of course, but many were without them. Indeed, in the same situation I suspect it would have been better for most to head off into the hills, find a cave somewhere, and live off the land. It would have been good to hear why that didn’t tend to happen, and how it could be that people continued to queue for work in the grimness of the city rather than pack their bags and head out into an environment far more pleasant in which work was readily available.
Jurgis gets some relief still later when he becomes involved with the corruption itself, working for the politicians. He is well-paid, at least by previous standards, becoming debauched in his behaviour, sacrificing any ethics he may still have had without a second thought. Sinclair is not sparing with such a realistic view of the human condition. If Jurgis entered America as a man eager to work with the world with dignity, reduced to the need for survival in a world which will not work with him he is compelled to fight for that survival with the loss of his humanity. Treat people like rats, they act like rats, however decently they may have started out. Povery corrupts. However, this too falls through with another encounter with Ona’s erstwhile manager and another attack, one that is to see him no longer able to work in politics given the influence the manager has.
At this point it may have been better for the novel had Sinclair permitted this to be Jurgis’s final decline, and certainly that is what the reader is anticipating. Instead, we get something of a fairytale ending. To be sure it’s not so divorced from reality as to be rags-to-riches, but instead Jurgis – and we – are offered hope of a solution. Jurgis stumbles, mainly for shelter, into a public meeting. He doesn’t know what it is, and doesn’t care. But after a while he pays attention to the speaker, and his eyes are opened. It is a socialist meeting. Jurgis is transformed. He makes himself known to the organisers, who help him. Then, in the biggest mistake in the book, he stumbles fortuitously upon work that is reasonable in a hotel, the hotelier just happening to be a socialist well-known to Jurgis’s new friends. (It would have been better had they referred Jurgis to the hotelier directly. Leaving it to chance like this, Sinclair makes it all-too convenient and unrealistic). At the end, Jurgis attends a small gathering of socialists which is nothing more than a vehicle permitting Sinclair to expound upon the underlying tenets of the socialist cause, and the book closes with socialists making steady gains in the then-running elections.
It’s this ending for which Sinclair loses a star for an otherwise five-star book. I do not agree with his socialist solution, but even were I to do so the star would be lost anyway. It is a cumbersome finale, and left me feeling that the entire work was a vehicle for the closure and the evangelism Sinclair adopts. It is forgiveable insofar as there were no other solutions being touted at the time, and it was right that Sinclair should expose people to its possibilities, but I felt it was poorly handled. Though nowhere near as tedious, and nowhere near as preposterous, it reminded me of Ayn Rand’s long diatribe in Atlas Shrugged. Write a novel with a political theme or write a political tract, don’t mix them.
It’s rare I research a novel before reviewing it, but The Jungle clearly needs some background for full appreciation of the content. Sinclair knew his subject well, working in the Chicago meat packing industry incognito for several weeks. The novel had political repercussions, though as Sinclair remarked, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” There was a public outcry, but not at the impoverishment so much as the quality of the food people now realised they were eating. Out of that came political initiatives that culminated with America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As for the fate of socialism, that we know all-too well. It disappeared as the establishment, fearing an uprising, made concessions to the people sufficient for it to retain power overall, something the socialists never believed they would do adequately and perhaps with some justification. ‘Socialist’ in America was then to become a word abused to mean, in essence, ‘Anyone somewhat to the left of where I happen to be standing’.
It is interesting to speculate on how Sinclair may have reacted to that development. (Perhaps I should research that, he lived until 1968 after all, but I won’t). Perhaps he felt the social democracy that began to arise in the wake of the first world war, which was consolidated in the wake of the second, went far enough. Certainly the Jurgis’s would have been few and far between in the wake of social reforms. Meanwhile, the socialist revolutions in China and Russia started out with the best of intentions but came to nought, merely shifting the reins of power from one elite to another which promptly showed itself to be all-too human in abusing that power. If nothing else that should have proved that the industrialists were not a race apart, merely exemplars of the human condition overall. Where power is concentrated, corruption follows.
However, that doesn’t mean The Jungle can be regarded as merely a historical document, an interesting text on a period past and no longer relevant. The reversal of social democratic principles since the 1980s may not have reactivated the Chicago The Jungle describes, but they are leading us back in that direction. The social reforms which were implemented are falling out of favour with those for whom capitalism unbridled offers the lure of greater wealth. The New Capitalists of the financial industries and banks have no need of a customer base and merely resent paying their taxes for social safety nets they themselves do not need. The world is drifting back towards that of The Jungle. As it does so, the work takes on an alarming relevance in revealing what happens when social provision is absent. Those arguing the case for social provision with those who fail to learn anything from history could do worse than recommend The Jungle. It may not hit such readers in the heart, but it may well hit them in the stomach.