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The essential theme of the novel is conveyed succinctly by its title -- The Jungle. The stockyards of Chicago are a jungle. The packers and politicians are the hunters and the workingmen and women are the hunted. The animals that are slaughtered symbolize the condition of the humans. Penned up, mindless, with no control over their lives, the animals are moving to their death. The workmen don't face the butchers' knives, but their life-blood is also sure to be sucked by the packers. The saying in the jungle of Packingtown is that every part of the pig except its squeal is utilized by the packers. The same is also true of the human beings who live there. Every ounce of energy and vitality is squeezed from their bodies until they are reduced to mere carcasses and discarded. Not only are the men treated like animals, in some cases, they suffer the exact same fate as the animals:
"Worst of any, however, were those who served in the cooking rooms...and the men who worked in tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting-sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham's Pure Leaf Lard."
While the men were overworked in brutal conditions for miserable pay, the women workers faced not only this exploitation, but also a double oppression of sexual abuse by their superiors and masters. Ona's death, as Jurgis says, is directly linked to this forced sexual "slavery." Her case, unfortunately is only one among thousands in Packingtown:
"But there was no place a girl could go in Packingtown, if she was particular about things of this sort; there was no place in it where a prostitute could not get along better than a decent girl. Here was a population, low-class and mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation, and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old- time slave drivers; under such circumstances, immorality was exactly as inevitable and as prevalent, as it was under the system of chattel slavery. Things that were quite unspeakable went on there in the packing houses all the time, and were taken for granted by everybody; only they did not show, as in the old slavery times, because there was no difference in color between master and slave."
An essential part of the jungle of Packingtown are the substandard and often downright dangerous food products being churned out by the packers. Products have a wide national and international market and bring handsome profits for the packers. In fact, it is this part of the theme rather than the human misery, that caught public attention when Sinclair's book was published. Here are two passages that deal with this aspect of the theme; the first speaks of the ham making process and the second the sausage manufacturing operation.
"They were regular alchemists at Durham's, they advertised a mushroom catsup, and the men who made it did not know what a mushroom looked like. They advertised "potted chicken" - and it was like the boarding house soup of the comic papers, through which a chicken had passed with rubbers on. Perhaps they had a secret process for making chickens chemically-who knows?... the things that went into the mixture were tripe, and the fat of pork, and beef suet, and hearts of beef and finally the waste ends of veal, when they had any. They put these up in several grades, and sold them at several prices; but the contents of the cans all came out of the same hopper. And then there was "potted game" and "potted grouse," "potted ham" and "deviled ham"... made out of the waste ends of smoked beef that were too small to be sliced by the machines; and also tripe, dyed with chemicals so that it would not show white, and trimmings of hams and corned beef, and potatoes, skins and all, and finally the hard cartilaginous gullets of beef after the tongues had been cut out."
"It was only when the whole ham was spoilt that it came into the department of Elzbieta. Cut up by the two-thousand-revolutions-a- minute flyers, and mixed with half a ton of other meat, no odor that was ever in a ham could make any difference. There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage. There would be old sausage coming all the way back from Europe that had been rejected, and it was moldy and white. It would be dosed with borax and glycerin, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption. There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them, they would die, and then rats, bread and meat would go into the hoppers together."
The minor theme in the novel is the political one. It is an attempt to contrast the evils of the existing capitalist system with the principles of socialist ideology. Numerous examples of political corruption, such as the packers stealing of billions of gallons from the city's water mains with impunity, their engineering the dismissal of honest government inspectors and their wholesale buying of the workers' votes on election day; appear early on in the book.
However, the major political content emerges in the second half of the book, where Sinclair uses the hero Jurgis to explain in further depth the principles of both capitalism and socialism. As part of his plunge into underworld activities, Jurgis becomes a political stooge for Mike Scully and later turns into a "scab," or strikebreaker, at his behest. Sinclair uses Jurgis' activities to expose the corrupt functioning of the capitalist system as a whole. Later, completely down and out, Jurgis chances upon a Socialist meeting in search of protection from the bitter cold. He is enthralled by a powerful speaker at the meeting and later tries to meet the man.
Thus begins Jurgis' induction into the Socialist party. Sinclair uses various discussions and meetings in which Jurgis interacts with socialist workers and thinkers to outline his ideology. For instance, this conversation with the Polish pants finisher Ostrinski, who first takes Jurgis under his wing:
"The workers were dependent upon a job to exist from day to day, and so they bid against each other, and no man could get more than the lowest man would consent to work for. And thus the mass of the people were always in a life-and-death struggle with poverty. That was "competition," so far as it concerned the wage-earner, the man who had only his labor to sell to those on top, the exploiters, it appeared very differently, of course-there were few of them, and they could combine and dominate, and their power would be unbreakable. And so all over the world two classes were forming, with an unbridged chasm between them - the capitalist class, with its enormous fortunes and the proletariat, bound into slavery with unseen chains."
The novel ends on a political note, with the 1904 election, in which the Socialists improve their performance, especially in Chicago.