Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
CHAPTERS 25 - 26
The process of election and the subsequent strike and strikebreaking process once again emphasize Sinclair's jungle theme. This time, however, Jurgis is not entirely one of those hunted, but is allowed to partake of the crumbs that the real hunters throw from their table. But Jurgis is too enraged to understand how he is being used. He is moving lower and lower down the ladder of morality. From tramp to criminal to politician to strikebreaker to party lackey and, finally, thug, there is a rapid deterioration in Jurgis' character. It is this deterioration that allows him to justify not seeking out Elzbieta and the family on the flimsy pretext that they are now downtown.
The strike by the meat workers that Sinclair describes is a historic event that actually occurred in 1904. The strike, called by the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, showed the strength of the packers was superior to that of the workers, who had to suffer a wage freeze from 1904 to 1916. The packers resorted to every means, both legal and illegal, to crush the workers. Having the press, the police and the politicians on their side also helped the packers immensely.
Jurgis' promotion from exploited workman in the beginning of the novel to a boss in the strike illustrates the man's transformation. Not only is Jurgis a boss, he is also a cruel and corrupt boss. His sufferings have taught Jurgis to imitate his tormentors; the exploiters have succeeded in shaping Jurgis in their own image. The description of the new labor brought into the stockyards once again reinforces the jungle motif. The comparison between the scabs and the animals is rather easy to draw.
An extremely unfortunate aspect of these chapters is the revelation of Sinclair's racial and ethnic prejudices. While sympathetic to Lithuanians, Germans, Irish, and Russians, he classifies as the "lowest foreigners" Greeks, Sicilians, Romanians, and Slovaks, and lumps them together with the "thugs and criminals of the city." His treatment of blacks is considerably worse. "The ancestors of these black people had been savages in Africa; and since then they had been chattel slaves, or had been held down by a community ruled by the traditions of slavery. Now for the first time they were free-free to gratify every passion, free to wreck themselves." He furthermore persists in using the racial stereotypes and epithet of his day. They are wild "woolly heads," unwilling to work, "stupid," and given to violence and vice.
While on the surface sympathetic to black workers, and considering them, to some degrees victims of the system, Sinclair gives little agency or autonomy to them. Unlike the white members of the working class, who can be saved by socialism, he does not appear to consider that black working men might also be capable of attaining "class consciousness" and joining in the struggle against their oppressors. It is true that Sinclair was a product of his day, but it remains unpleasant to read such sentiment from a man who otherwise proclaimed his belief in the universal brotherhood of the working class.