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[673] The Jungle – Upton Sinclair

1jungle

” He would get glimpses of the Beef Trust from all sorts of aspects, and he would find it everywhere the same;it was the incarnation of blind and insensate Greed. It was a monster devouring with a thousand mouths, trampling with a thousand hoofs; it was the great Butcher—it was the spirit of Capitalism made flesh. ” (Ch.29, p.326)

The Jungle, first published in 1906, as a result of Sinclair’s eight-week tour of meatpacking yard in Chicago, is a journalistic fiction that was responsible for the federal Food and Drug Act. The book is, arguably, the muckraking novel of its era that is still read for more than the historical interest. The Jungle exposes the abominable working conditions of the meatpacking industry and how they affect the hygiene of their products. Sinclair’s concern is not the garbage in food, but the people who were exploited. The relation between the two is absolutely integral to the power, analytical strategy, and impact of the novel.

He saw the world of civilization then more plainly than ever he had seen it before; a world in which nothing counted but brutal might, an order devised by those who possessed it for the subjugation of those who did not. He was one of the latter . . . He had lost in the fierce battle of greed, and so was doomed to be exterminated. (Ch.24, p.240)

The novel centers around Jurgis Rudkus and his family, immigrants from Lithuania to find a better life. Like most laborers arriving Packingtown in a condition of health and strength, they become increasingly reduced in stamina and spirit; once they have been depleted by the horrible condition in which they work and live, they are discarded, battling with hunger and misery. Instead of the prospect of high wages and happy life, Jungis and his family fall prey to the injustice and capitalism, which hides its bloodied foundations, and disguises the sources of modern wealth derived from the degradation of the laboring class. The unfolding of the novel is a slow annihilation of his family at the hands of a cruel and prejudiced economic and social system charged with corruption. Their idealistic faith in the American Dream of hard work leading to material success is drained and shattered. This failure is made worse by shame and dehumanization.

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 . . . as it was under the system of chattel slavery. (Ch.10, p.113)

There are some very vivid passages about meat preparation—but not gruesome enough for me to give up meat, maybe just sausage and prime rib. Sinclair not only does justice to suffering of meatpackers but also renders it in a way to dignify their hardships with a seriousness that had generally been reserved for suffering of the great and mighty. Sinclair doesn’t sentimentalize his characters, but seeks to show that the suffering is unjust not because they are virtuous but because the suffering serves a system that exploits the many for the profit of few. In a way, virtue is a luxury the poor cannot afford. The novel explores the ways in which poverty robs individuals of the life of the mind, of spiritual comfort and of the consolations of intimacy and emotional needs.

374 pp. Barnes & Noble Classics. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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