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The wedding feast of Jurgis Rudkus and Ona Lukoszaite, immigrants from Lithuania, begins exuberantly and ends in disappointment in the back room of a Chicago saloon. Most of the guests are drunk and exhausted. The thought of having to return to work in the stockyards in a few short hours further depresses them.
For the newlyweds' relatives- especially Marija Berczynskas, Ona's cousin and the organizer of the festivities- there is further reason for despair. In the old country, the guests chipped in to pay for the wedding party and to leave the newlyweds a little extra money with which to start their married life. Yet here in Packingtown, the stockyard district of Chicago, the old communal traditions are dying out among the immigrant workers. So many freeloaders have come to the party that Jurgis and Ona must begin their married life in debt.
Still, Jurgis faces the future bravely. "Leave it to me," he tells Ona. "I will earn more money- I will work harder."
Jurgis first saw Ona a year and a half earlier, at a fair in Lithuania, where he had gone to sell two of his father's horses. She was fourteen, and he was about twenty five. It was love at first sight for Jurgis, but Ona's father, "a rich man," would not let Jurgis have her. The next time he saw her, her father had died, the farm had been sold, and the family was adrift. Still, Ona's attachment to her stepmother, Elzbieta, kept her from marrying Jurgis.
Jonas, Elzbieta's brother, suggested that they might have a better future in America, where a friend had become rich in a city named Chicago. They set out- six adults (including Jurgis's father, Dede Antanas) and Elzbieta's six children- in early summer.
Once in Chicago, the first order of business was to find shelter and work. Jonas's friend, Kokubas Szedvilas, a poor delicatessen owner, acted as their guide. He sent them to a filthy lodging house, where they determined to stay only until they got work.
Jurgis found work as a sweeper on the killing beds at Brown's, a meat-packing company. Marija found work as a can painter, and Jonas got a job pushing a truck at Durham's, Brown's rival. Though at first Dede Antanas couldn't find work, they decided they could afford to buy a "new" house, using some of their savings as a down payment. Finally, Dede Antanas got a job in the damp "pickle room" at Durham's by promising to kick back a third of his salary to the man who hired him.
That experience and others began to shake Jurgis's faith in America. Both Jonas and Marija had gotten their jobs through the misfortunes of others. In his job Antanas had to shovel the residue of chemically treated meat onto a truck headed for the cannery. Jurgis saw pregnant cows butchered and their unborn calves illegally mixed with other carcasses. He even helped butcher cattle that had died before reaching the slaughterhouse.
His faith was further shaken when he heard their house was not in fact new. The previous four families had lost the house when they couldn't keep up monthly payments. Jurgis also finds out there were hidden charges to be paid each month- for interest, taxes, and so on.
Ona got a job sewing covers on hams, and 14-year-old Stanislovas convinced a priest to certify he was sixteen- old enough to hold a job. Stanislovas then joined the army of child workers by getting a job at Durham's placing empty cans under jets of lard, 10 hours a day, six days a week, for five cents an hour. Working this way, the family was able to save enough money for the November wedding of Ona and Jurgis.
All are back at work the morning after the wedding- mostly dead on their feet from exhaustion. Jurgis and Ona's married life is cheerless. The pressures of work, poverty, and illness stifle their spirits. Jurgis's father, Antanas, sickens and dies, and Jurgis, learning fast, negotiates a funeral that won't bankrupt the family.
Winter comes, an agony for Packingtown. Homeless men who had spent the warmer months in the country, working on farms, clamor at the gates of the packing houses, looking for work. Inside the plants, there is no heat, except in the cooking rooms. At lunch break, the men race to "Whiskey Row," where, for the price of a drink or two, they can keep warm and get a "free" lunch. Jurgis takes only one drink, for he has Ona to think about. The house is cold, and many nights they sleep with their clothes on.
Marija and Tamoszius Kuszleika fall in love, but the canning factory where Marija works shuts down, and they must postpone their wedding. A general business slowdown means that Jurgis gets only about a half day's paid work, though he must spend all day on the killing floor.
Angry, Jurgis joins the union and has the other working members of his family join as well. He begins to learn English. He also acquires a cynical opinion of democracy. A Democratic party member helps him become a citizen and vote for the candidates of the local Democratic boss, Mike Scully. In exchange for his vote, Jurgis gets two dollars and two hours off work, with pay.
He begins to see how the packers operate. They sell spoiled or adulterated meat without qualms. Their workers are exposed to awful occupational diseases, yet the packers take no steps to protect the employees. They steal water from the city and pollute the Chicago River- and the city government looks the other way.
Jurgis's family struggles through their second winter in America. Spring comes, with its flooding rains, and then summer, with its stifling heat. Marija's factory reopens, but she loses her job anyway and becomes a meat trimmer at half her first wage. Ona has a baby boy and harms her health by returning to work prematurely.
Their third winter, Jurgis injures himself on the job and is out of work for three months. When spring arrives, Jonas simply disappears, reducing the family's income by a third. Two of Elzbieta's boys leave school to sell newspapers. When Jurgis feels fit to work, he finds his old job gone. Finally, he takes a Job at Durham's fertilizer plant. Elzbieta goes to work, and the boys go to school again. Jurgis, a pariah because of the smell of fertilizer he carries with him, starts to drink. Ona is pregnant again and prey to fits of weeping. Jurgis discovers that she has been sleeping with Phil Connor, one of the bosses, who threatened to have everyone in her family fired if she didn't submit to him. Jurgis nearly kills Connor and is sent to jail. Stanislovas visits him and reports that Ona is sick, Marija injured, and the family almost starving. Their only income is from what the children can earn selling newspapers.
After his release from jail, Jurgis discovers that the family has been evicted from the house they had struggled so hard to keep. They are back in the lodging house where they first lived when they came to the city. Jurgis finds Ona in labor and persuades a midwife to help, to no avail. Ona and the baby die.
Because of his little son Antanas, Jurgis stays and gets a job with a maker of farm equipment. After nine days, his department closes, and Jurgis is laid off. He gets another job at a steel plant. When his son accidentally drowns, Jurgis turns his back on Chicago and becomes a hobo. In the fall he returns to the city and gets a job digging a tunnel. An on-the-job injury puts him in the hospital. After he gets out, he joins the army of unemployed men hunting for work during a recession in January 1904.
He starts begging and meets the drunken scion of a meat-packing family. Jurgis goes home with him and leaves with a full stomach and a hundred-dollar bill. When a bartender cheats him out of the money Jurgis attacks him, is arrested and jailed.
Released again, he returns to crime, tutored by a former cellmate named Jack Duane. Jurgis learns how Chicago's criminal underworld helps to corrupt the city's government. Through Buck Halloran, a district leader, he learns how graft works, and he learns about "pull."
Jurgis returns to the stockyards as an undercover operative of the Democratic boss. He promotes the boss's choice for alderman- the Republican candidate. Jurgis's man wins, and Jurgis stays on in the stockyards. In June, the butcher's union strikes. Jurgis gets a foreman's job, takes bribes from his men, and beats up strikers for the packers. A second attack on Phil Connor lands him in jail again. Jurgis posts bail and flees.
He goes back to begging. He meets an old friend who gives him Marija's address. When he tracks her down, he discovers she is a prostitute and a drug addict. Stanislovas is dead, she explains- eaten by rats. The others are alive, living mainly on Marija's earnings.
That night he walks into a political rally to keep warm. An emotional orator converts him to socialism, and his life takes a new turn. He is given a job as porter in a hotel owned by a socialist. He lives with Elzbieta and her children, but cannot convince Marija to change her life. Jurgis throws himself into socialism. The novel ends on election night in 1904. At a Socialist party gathering, Jurgis learns that his party has made a strong showing. A speaker exhorts the crowd to organize the workers so that "Chicago will be ours!"
Sinclair populates The Jungle with characters from nearly every walk of life and social class. He gives 60 of them names. Dozens of others go nameless, although their actions help shape the destinies of the major characters. Together, the men, women, and children in The Jungle suggest the vibrant and varied life of America during the early years of the 20th century.
The suggestion is intentional on Sinclair's part, since his goal is to expose an entire social system- the ruthlessly competitive capitalist democracy that is the chief villain of his story. He seeks to prove that all who come into contact with the system are brutalized and corrupted by it.
A brief analysis of some of the important characters follows. The characters are listed in the order of their appearance.
Most of the action in The Jungle takes place from November 1900 to November 1904 in Chicago, Illinois, then "the meat capital of the world." In flashbacks (chapters 2 through 6) Sinclair takes the reader back to the spring of 1899 and rural Lithuania, then part of Tsarist Russia. (Today Lithuania is one of the republics that make up the Soviet Union.) This device allows Sinclair to fill in background details about Jurgis, Ona, and their families. More important, it allows him to contrast peasant life in the Old World with the jarring brutality of life for industrial workers in America.
But Chicago is the main setting- and a brilliant choice it was. As the 20th century opened, Chicago produced more factory goods than any other city in the world except New York. Best of all, for Sinclair's purposes, it had the meat-packing industry, a ready-made metaphor for everything that Sinclair believed ugly and life-denying about a capitalist economy.
About 8.8 million immigrants entered the U.S. between 1901 and 1910. Most were lured to the big cities, where- if they were lucky- they got backbreaking jobs as unskilled laborers in factories and mills. To Sinclair, their fate was no different from that of the hogs and cattle brought to Chicago by train from all over the Midwest and West. The immigrants were being led to slaughter, too. Work in the meat- packing industry was notoriously hazardous.
In 1905 Sinclair had two goals in writing The Jungle. He wanted to expose the evils of capitalism- especially the way it exploited wage earners. And he wanted to convince his readers to consider socialism as an alternative to capitalism. Thus, the novel has two major themes:
Linked to these major themes are a number of minor themes:
Many readers have remarked on Sinclair's kinship with the Naturalist school of literature founded by the noted French author Emile Zola (1840-1902). Sinclair's characters, for example, are creatures of circumstance- of the accidents of their pasts (through heredity and culture) and their present environments. It is useful in a discussion of the novel's themes to examine the Naturalists' theories. As you read The Jungle, you can decide how close a kin Zola is to Sinclair.
Zola developed Naturalism as a way of justifying the realist approach in literature. Realists describe things as they are, without dressing up what they find important in everyday life.
Zola believed that, in literature, realism was the only honest approach. He also believed that in the hands of a careful realist the novel could be a kind of scientific experiment. So notebook in hand, Zola studied the world of his characters- usually Parisian slum dwellers. He recorded the details of that world in his novels to show how his characters' environments shaped their lives. Moreover, he was careful to trace each of his characters' ancestries in order to show that a person's fate was as much the result of heredity as of environment. Thus, Zola's novels were, in effect, laboratory tests on imaginary people.
Many readers of The Jungle argue that Sinclair adopted Zola's technique and used it to prove his case against capitalism. Other readers feel it is misleading to call Sinclair a Zolaist. For one thing, Zola believed that one's nature- whether good or evil, for instance- was completely determined by heredity. Sinclair didn't share this belief. In The Jungle he puts the blame for the wrongs people commit against one another on the environment. It's the economic system, he says, that forces people to be evil in order to survive.
As might be expected, Sinclair's cure for weaknesses in human nature also differed from Zola's. Zola believed that a combination of medicine and education could overcome the effects of heredity and lead to the perfection of human nature. Sinclair's cure for the ills of industrial America was a new environment- a socialist economy, where cooperation would replace competition.
There are other, differences between the two writers' approaches to their subjects. Zola's characters are trapped in a web of circumstance from which they cannot escape. His books end tragically, without hope. The Jungle, however, ends on a positive note- with a socialist victory in sight, if not in hand. And Jurgis is not trapped. On the contrary, his discovery of socialism and conversion to it liberates him.
Finally, there's nothing dispassionately scientific about Sinclair's approach to his subject. You know whose side he's on as soon as you read the book's dedication: "To the Workingmen of America." The Jungle is not a cool-headed clinical experiment of the sort Zola felt he was conducting. It's an unvarnished piece of propaganda for socialism and against the destructive form of capitalism that was practiced in Sinclair's day.
Sinclair's style is simple and direct. He was not a "literary" writer, interested in using language in new or startling ways to advance the form of the novel. "Few writers seemed to write less for the sake of literature," the critic Alfred Kazin has written of Sinclair's work as a whole. "First things came first; the follies of capitalism, the dangers of drinking, the iniquities of wealthy newspapers and universities came first."
Still, in The Jungle Sinclair uses language effectively, and in a variety of ways, to shape his characters and develop his themes. Direct statement is his strength, but he makes good use of symbols, too. A description of a hog slaughtering turns out to be an allegory about the immigrant's fate in industrial America. (See the discussion of chapter 3.) Belching smokestacks and the smell of rotting garbage suggests an impression of hell on earth. (See chapter 2.)
Sinclair uses strong sensory imagery that many of his more refined readers in 1906 found repugnant. Stockyards and dumps are smelly places- Sinclair makes sure we know just how smelly. He makes us hear the "broom, broom" of a cello and feel the slippery flesh that makes work so dangerous for beef boners. He makes us see what, in ordinary life, we might recoil from: garbage, the slaughtering process, a greasy midwife with blood "splashed upon her clothing and her face."
Sinclair relies heavily on figures of speech (metaphors and similes) to remind us that he's serious about comparing life in turn-of-the-century America with life in a jungle. Enraged, Jurgis breathes deeply "like a wounded bull" (simile). His foe, Connor, is "the great beast" (metaphor).
Like the symbolism, such figures of speech help give many passages in the book a poetic quality, forcing you to dig beneath the surface of the words for meaning.
But you never have to dig too deeply. There's nothing deceptive about Sinclair. He wants you to understand him easily and well.
Who's telling the story? Whose point of view does the narrator reflect?
The answer depends on which narrator you're talking about, for there are at least two narrators in The Jungle. One, the omniscient author, is rather god-like and all-knowing, setting scenes, summarizing events, and moving in and out of different characters' minds. The other is more of a commentator- an editorial writer who lashes out at one iniquity or another, telling us what to look at and how to think about what we see. This second narrator often knows more than his characters do, and he's not shy about sharing his insights with us.
The narrator's double identity can be confusing. At one point, the omniscient narrator describes some police officers and some strike-breaking goons, including Jurgis, taking off after strikers. In the fracas, Jurgis and a couple of cops break up and rob a saloon. The second narrator tells us what Jurgis cannot possibly know- that a few thousand biased newspapers will report the episode as a riot, a reason to condemn the strikers. Sinclair obviously thought he needed the switch in narrators to make his statement.
He makes similar switches elsewhere, especially in muckraking passages. Sinclair is an incurable explainer. When he thinks that the conventional narrator can't get his point across, he steps in himself. But not once do we view a scene through the eyes of one of his characters.
The Jungle consists of 31 chapters, all designed to move the reader- and its hero- along the path to socialism. On the way, our guide (Sinclair) makes us pause and examine the surrounding landscape- the jungle of predators, the prey and the traps for the weak or unwary. It's here- in the form of short or long passages- that the muckraking takes place, exposing the absurdities of the economic system or the perfidies of the packers and crooked public officials. As might be expected, the pacing of the plot is somewhat jerky. Sinclair rushes to tell his story, then stops in his tracks- for a paragraph or a whole section of a chapter- to explore a subject that outrages him.
Overall, the novel follows a conversion pattern- one in which its hero passes through stages of pride, doubt, and despair, to his awakening and salvation. Jurgis is, for the most part, in the grip of forces beyond his control, though eventually he finds his footing and takes control of his life.
[The Jungle Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]
© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.